Adaptations in nature to urban life

More research shows animals can and do adapt to urban environments:

Whitehead’s work on killifish is one of the signature triumphs of urban evolution, an emergent discipline devoted to figuring out why certain animals, plants, and microbes survive or even flourish no matter how much we transform their habitats. Humans rarely give much thought to the creatures that flit or crawl or skitter about our apartment blocks and strip malls, in part because we tend to dismiss them as either ordinary or less than fully wild. But we should instead marvel at how these organisms have managed to keep pace with our relentless drive to build and cluster in cities. Rather than wilt away as Homo sapiens have spread forth bearing concrete, bitumen, and steel, a select number of species have developed elegant adaptations to cope with the peculiarities of urban life: more rigid cellular membranes that may ward off heat, digestive systems that can absorb sugary garbage, altered limbs and torsos that enhance agility atop asphalt or in runoff-fattened streams.

Whitehead and his colleagues, many of whom are at the dawn of their careers, are now beginning to pinpoint the subtle genetic changes that underlie these novel traits. Their sleuthing promises to solve a conundrum that has vexed biologists for 160 years, and in the process reveal how we might be able to manipulate evolution to make the world’s cities—projected to be home to two-thirds of humanity by 2050—resilient enough to endure the catastrophes that are coming their way…

Like so many of their scientific peers, urban evolution researchers are grappling with the question of how their work can help us make this new environmental reality a bit less grim. On the surface, at least, their inquiries can seem largely aimed at addressing theoretical matters—notably the issue of whether the evolution of complex organisms is a replicable phenomenon, like any ordinary chemical reaction. Cities provide an accidental global network of ad hoc laboratories to test this question: Office towers the world over are fabricated from the same glass panels and steel beams, night skies are illuminated by the same artificial lights, auditory landscapes thrum with the noise of the same cars, food waste comes from the same KFCs and Subways.

This urban sameness is allowing researchers to determine whether isolated populations of the same species develop similar adaptations when placed in parallel environments. “What cities offer us is this amazingly large-scale, worldwide experiment in evolution, where you’ve got thousands of life-forms that are experiencing the same factors,” says Marc Johnson, who heads an evolutionary ecology lab at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

Perhaps sociologist Robert Park was more correct than he knew by suggesting the city was a laboratory. Furthermore, Park and other sociologists like Herbert Spencer borrowed concepts from biology and applied them to social processes and communities.

This research could also help address two other issues (in addition to climate change as discussed in the article):

  1. What really is “nature” in cities? Adding parks and trees is not really grappling with what nature is nor with how cities and their residents see nature around them. And what is the ideal end goal of people-nature interaction in big cities?
  2. Urbanization is not just about harm to the environment but it is also about long-term changes. Humans have been interacting with and affecting nature for a long time but the specific process of urbanization in roughly the last 150 years has been different.

Cities, animals, and intelligence

Research regarding the effect of cities and urban areas on wildlife can be fascinating. See the discussion about how cities could affect the intelligence of different animals:

One of the great mysteries of urban adaptation is what, if anything, living in cities does to animal minds. Research on urban wildlife has already shown that cities can have jaw-dropping effects on animals’ behavior. Gehrt’s coyotes have not only learned where it’s safest to cross roads, but have also learned to avoid traffic based on its speed and volume. Do behavioral shifts like this reflect deeper changes in how urban animals think? In what urban animals are?

These questions vex the small subset of wildlife ecologists that is wading into the murky waters of urban-animal intelligence. In several metropolitan areas, researchers have devised simple puzzles—usually difficult-to-open boxes of food—in order to compare the problem-solving abilities of city-dwelling creatures with those of their wild relatives. The results have been tantalizing: Urban animals as varied as Canadian raccoons and Barbadian bullfinches can outperform their rural counterparts. While it pays to be cunning in almost any setting, some scientists propose that foreign, volatile environments like cities demand an especially broad range of cognitive abilities. Eventually, the thinking goes, cities may bend evolution enough to make whole populations of animals within them smarter—if, of course, the animals can survive city life in the first place.

This is a controversial theory. Even researchers who back it are quick to warn that intelligence is complicated. No one is suggesting that new situations are the only driver of animal smarts: The ways animals interact, how they learn from one another, and the nature of their physical surroundings are all thought to influence how individual animals behave and how their brains take shape over generations, no matter where they live…

But studying animals in new environments may help scientists develop a definition of intelligence that applies across species. Along with others in her field, Benson-Amram has zeroed in on flexibility, long considered an essential criterion for intelligence. “When the environment is changing, you’re able to change your behavioral response, and you don’t perseverate on old responses that used to work but no longer do,” Benson-Amram says. This way of defining intelligence—which researchers also call “behavioral plasticity”—is notably distinct from what could be considered an animal’s specific intelligence. A scrub jay that hides away thousands of seeds and remembers the location of each one certainly has a particular kind of acuity, Benson-Amram notes. But an animal needs a diverse, general set of mental skills—perceptiveness, resourcefulness, foresight, and so on—to tackle the foreign obstacles of cities, she posits.

A simplistic popular approach to these questions might say this: cities and urban development is simply bad for animals and nature. Because such development takes up land and subjects it to particularly harmful uses (pollution, poor water run-off, etc.), humans should limit their development and its effects.

On the other hand, this research and others suggests human-wildlife interaction can be quite complicated. And could it even possible lead to positive change for some animals? I’m also thinking of the book Subirdia which suggests some bird species do well in urban environment even if others do not.

Humans may have the upper hand here and have done some pretty destructive things regarding the environment in recent years. Yet, in the long run, both humans and wildlife adapt to each other.

Fighting for dog space in cities

With ownership of dogs on the rise, it is trickier to find public space in cities for the canines and their owners:

It’s not surprising that relations between dog walkers and dog owners are fraught: They’re competing for finite real estate. Market research shows dog ownership has skyrocketed some 29 percent nationwide in the past decade, an increase propelled largely by higher-income millennials. As young adult professionals increasingly put off having families, dogs have become “starter children,” as Joshua Stephens wrote in The Atlantic in 2015. With demand growing, cities and developers are building more dog-friendly zones both in response to and in anticipation of more four-legged residents. Off-leash dog parks are growing faster than any other type of park in America’s largest cities, with 2,200 counted as of 2010.

And when square footage is at a premium, dog parks are the setting of some of the most contentious fights for public space….

Resistance to dog parks takes on a different tenor when animals seem to displace humans in housing-crunched cities. New dog owners are disproportionately younger and whiter than the residents of the cities they move into, and that has real estate implications: For one third of Americans aged 18 to 36 who’d purchased a first home, finding better space for a dog was the primary motivator, according to a SunTrust Mortgage poll. When young, white, affluent dog owners snap up properties in historically lower-income neighborhoods of color—and start advocating for amenities like dog parks, which can bump up property values further—the optics are complicated…

Consider that, on Chicago’s predominantly black South Side, there’s not a single designated dog park, despite the efforts of local dog-owners and city aldermen. To address the needs of lower-income communities like this—as well as gentrifying ones—planners should approach dog parks as they do any other, says Wolch: listen to, and account for, their needs in an ingenuous way. To mitigate the displacement effects of a property value pick-up, affordable housing solutions should come to the dog-park planning table, too.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. It would be nice to know more about the “average” dog park. What does it cost to build and maintain compared to the typical park? How many people does it serve and what population does it cater to? Is it a good public use of space compared to other options? (One thing that article above does not address is whether there is an overall shortage of public space.)
  2. I’m surprised there isn’t more creativity in developing solutions. If land is at a premium, could there be some dog parks inside structures? Imagine a high-rise where one of the amenities is half a floor of dog park space. (I assume this is feasible.) Where there is more available land, such as on Chicago’s South Side, why couldn’t community groups or private interests put together a dog park? Imagine a non-profit that buys vacant lots and improves them for this purpose or an organization that charges a membership fee to their dog parks.
  3. At this point, it sounds like dog parks are more of a luxury good usually located in wealthier or whiter neighborhoods. What would it take to incorporate dog parks into public planning processes and/or see dog parks as necessary parts of thriving neighborhoods? Dog owners could band together and demand dog parks.

Looking more at the human-pet relationship in sociological analysis

A new sociological study suggests more sociologists need to see pets as social actors:

In a new paper published earlier this month in the British journal Sociology, Charles argues that “the so-called species barrier” has long concealed the important kinship between humans and their pets. Her recent research suggests that it’s a bond that should have long ago figured into sociological analysis.

A recent survey in the U.S. revealed “that 91 per cent of pet ‘owners’ regard their pets as family members.” In Australia, Charles writes, 88 percent do. While some researchers may scoff at the notion that this type of relationship rises to any level of complexity, pet owners’ own recent qualitative descriptions also seem to offer compelling contradictory evidence.

This relationship, as Charles notes, isn’t new. It just hasn’t been probed in the way one would expect. Pet-keeping, as we conceive of it today, was first popularized in the 16th and 17th centuries, as urbanization shifted the human-animal relationship “from function to affect.”…

She believes that animals have consistently been treated, to some degree, “as social actors.” But the evidence for that kind of theory is mounting, she argues. “Thus, in a recent study of family formation and kinship networks, a significant number of people spontaneously included animals in their families; this was a particularly interesting finding as interviewees had not been explicitly asked about animals.”

On one hand, this sounds reasonable: lots of people have lots of interactions with their pets. On the other hand, what exactly are members of the American Sociological Association section on Animals and Society studying if they haven’t considered some of this…

Why New Yorkers and pigeons get along

A sociologist explains the social interaction New Yorkers have with pigeons:

For more than three years, Jerolmack observed the ways in which people interact with pigeons in cities. His forthcoming book, The Global Pigeon, which, as he put it, seeks to examine “our social experience of animals,” draws from that research. Yesterday evening he spoke about our own city’s rather vexed relationship to the birds.

In the 1960s, for instance, Thomas P.F. Hoving, the former city parks commissioner and longtime director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (not to mention the subject of a famed John McPhee New Yorker profile from 1967), called pigeons “rats with wings,” an epithet—often wrongly attributed to Woody Allen—that really stuck. Hoving cited the species, along with litterers and vandals, as a plague on Bryant Park. The park’s supervisor at the time, Andrew Petrochko, told the New York Times that “the homosexuals … make faces at people [and] once the winos are dried out at Bellevue, they make a beeline for Bryant Park.”…

Despite their bad reputation, though, Jerolmack noted that our urban encounters with pigeons “are profoundly social.”

“The impulse to feed pigeons is not so different from wanting to chat with strangers,” Jerolmack said, speaking about one of the subjects for his book, Anna, the elderly pigeon lady who regularly feeds the birds at Father Demo Square, the tiny enclave in the West Village where Jerolmack’s research began.

This sounds like it could be a testable hypothesis: do city dwellers have more positive, social relationships with wildlife (not including pets or animals connected to a household) than people who live in suburbs or rural areas? Cities aren’t typically known for their wildlife but perhaps this could be tied to Simmel’s arguments in his piece “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” He suggested there were too many people for individuals to interact with in big cities so they would have to develop blase attitudes to protect themselves. But what if they could interact safely with pigeons (and even ducks and squirrels)? Or perhaps this is tied to romanticized (or real?) notions residents have about needing to connect with nature in the middle of the “concrete jungle.”

Building chicken McMansions in the Atlanta area

McMansions may not just be for people: they can also be for chickens.

Leonard and the twenty residents of his Chicken McMansion will be a featured stop on a tour of Atlanta urban chicken coops that will take place in early October.

Anne-Marie Anderson is a tour organizer, a woman whose Decatur back yard chicken coop is a step down from Leonard’s — despite its plant-growing green roof, rain barrels and way more space than her chickens need.

“On a scale of one to ten, this one is about a seven,” Anderson says, gesturing toward the upscale coop in her sloping back yard. “You can tell when a chicken is happy. They strut and they look happy and they cluck.”…

Anderson says her coop cost about a thousand dollars to build. Leonard says his chicken coop probably cost twice that. Not that he’s competitive.

Here is what I don’t understand: the term McMansion is typically used as a negative term. That does not appear to be the purpose here. The term is used to imply a large and expensive home, similar to the common usage for McMansion, but this is seen as good things for chickens. Indeed, can’t the builder/owner of a McMansion chicken coop charge more for chicken eggs and meat having had more space? Therefore, in the world of chickens, it appears that a McMansion is a good kind of house.

Rise of “the doggie equivalents of McMansions”?

The New York Times recently had a story about luxurious dog houses. A short blurb about the story in the New Yorker called them “the doggie equivalents of McMansions.” Here is a little bit from the NYT description of the world of luxurious dog houses:

Take, for instance, the Palladian-style mini-mansion that Glenna and Ed Hall bought at a charity auction three years ago for about $300. With Jeffersonian columns that match the ones on their home in Roanoke, Va., the two-foot-tall doghouse makes a perfect accent for the garden. No one seems to mind that the garden is off-limits to Maggie May, their 28-pound whippet-borzoi mix — least of all Maggie May…

As Michelle Pollak, an interior designer who creates custom doghouses under the name La Petite Maison, observed: “Half our clients say, ‘Hey, we’d like a replica of our home for the dog,’ and half say, ‘This is the dream house we’ve always envisioned but couldn’t afford in real life’ — like a French palace for the French poodle.”…

DOGHOUSE design tends to be popular with architects and home builders, who sometimes refer to it as “barkitecture” and donate their creations to charity auctions that raise money for animal shelters. Designers say they love doghouses because they’re small and fun and allow lots of room for creativity…

THERE are many designer doghouses, but perhaps the only one with a cult following was, not surprisingly, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The doghouse was created in the 1950s at the request of Jim Berger, a 12-year-old who wrote to the architect to say that his black Labrador, Eddie, needed a home.

This raises a set of questions:

1. Should McMansion doghouses come in for the same sort of criticism McMansions receive?

2. Are people who live in McMansions themselves more likely to build their dog a McMansion doghouse?

3. Are there critics of “barkitecture” in the architecture community?