Pink cockatoo

Exploring everyday nature in urban environments

12 September 2022
Exploring urban spaces
During National Biodiversity Month, it’s important to highlight the extraordinary array of species we share our cities with. In The Urban Field Naturalist Project’s new book, A Guide to the Creatures in Your Neighbourhood, we learn that there are lots of reasons to explore the natural world within our urban spaces. Choose whichever one works for you and get out there!

During National Biodiversity Month many of our rare, endangered, and charismatic animals and plants will take centre stage as we discuss the challenges facing life on earth. Many of these have retreated to living in remote and exotic places with limited evidence of human impact.

But there’s more to life than the fate of the more iconic examples of biodiversity on the planet. We share our cities with an extraordinary array of species who, like humans, have made these highly modified habitats their home. These plants and animals have adopted opportunistic and creative strategies to live in what many people see as a hostile and distinctly unnatural environment.

The Urban Field Naturalist Project’s new book, A Guide to the Creatures in Your Neighbourhood, tells some of the stories on urban nature, highlighting the extraordinary lifestyles of those that thrive in our cities, and why and how we should spend more time watching and learning about them.

We also want to convince you that there are a lot of good reasons to take the time to get out and be an urban field naturalist. You don’t have to like all these reasons, but there’s something for everyone here.

If you’re curious: We share our world with an amazing group of animals and plants. One of the things that always emerges from our observations are questions: What’s it doing? Why is it doing it? What is it? While we sometimes find that the answers to these questions have been uncovered by scientists, we also regularly find that we simply don’t know the answers. Yet. And increasingly, the opportunistic observations made by naturalists of all types are the key to revealing these answers.

Cockatoo illustration by Zoë Sadokierski

If you’re looking for something to do: There’s no endpoint to being a naturalist… the process doesn’t end and the story doesn’t get old. There’s always something new to look at and something old to look at again. In some cases it will shift your thinking, in others it will reinforce your thinking, and at other times you will put those observations on your brain’s backburner as something to come back to another time.

If you need some quiet time: For some of the things we want to observe, we need to get out and actively search for them. For other things, the best practice is to simply stay still, and wait and watch. It’s a great reason to get away and just watch the world go by. One great example of this that we discuss in the book is staring at flowers and observing the diverse comings and goings of their many pollinators.

If you’re in search of new things: You will start to see things that you’ve never seen before. In most cases these things won’t really be ‘new’, they’ve been happening right under our noses all the time. And once you start seeing them, you will start to see them everywhere.

Cicada illustration by Zoë Sadokierski

If you’re a social type: You don’t need to keep your observations to yourself. In fact, sharing your observations is an integral part of being an urban field naturalist. One of the best ways to empower others to see the joys of the natural world is to help them learn about the animals and plants we live with. So passing on some of the knowledge you’ve acquired or spending time with others watching the natural world is a terrific way to create new experiences.

Bats hanging illustration by  Zoë Sadokierski

If you like drama: Nature can be cruel, beautiful, wondrous, and frustrating. Often all at once. It can be a bit confronting watching how life’s twists and turns affect the fates of animals and plants, and sometimes quite challenging to reconcile how life plays out for some individuals. There will be lots of highs and lows as you watch life’s rich pageant unfold.

If you like special moments: When you stop to watch you’ll see so much more going on in the natural world than you could have imagined; sometimes these moments can leave you stunned. It can be hearing a new bird call for the first time, brief eye contact with a curious spider wandering around your home, spying on birds engaged in their complicated mating rituals oblivious to your presence, or seeing boldly coloured insects visiting your local flowers.

If you’re self-interested: If you needed any more incentives to spend some more time around everyday nature you could always realise that it’s in your self-interest to get out and enjoy it. There is an overwhelming body of work that shows that spending time in nature has enormous benefits to our health and wellbeing. You can do this in many ways, whether it’s by adopting the Japanese practice of ‘forest bathing’ (Shinrin-Yoku), running through your local parklands, or by doing your thing as an urban field naturalist.

In a rapidly urbanising world, the best opportunities for many of us to engage with the natural world are immediately around us, the places in our cities where a distinct and diverse community of animals and plants has made its home.

You don’t have to do it all. When you find your space, and the things living in it that capture your imagination, take the time to get to know them. You will find a community of people wanting to share their stories and hear yours. It’s a chance to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.

A guide to the creatures in your neighbourhood cover

This is an edited extract from A Guide to the Creatures in Your Neighbourhood, published by Murdoch Books. The Urban Field Naturalist Project is a collaboration between experts in environmental and digital humanities, the life sciences and design dedicated to helping people notice and appreciate wildlife in urban environments. It is led by Dieter Hochuli, Thom van Dooren, John Martin, Zoë Sadokierski and Andrew Burrell.

Illustrations: Zoë Sadokierski

Professor Dieter Hochuli leads the Integrative Ecology research group at the University of Sydney. His research focuses on how biodiversity responds to the unique pressures of urbanisation, with a particular interest in the ecology of iconic birds, mammals, insects and spiders of cities, and their interactions with the environment and the humans who share their world with them

Associate Professor Thom van Dooren‘s research is situated in the broad interdisciplinary field of the environmental humanities. He is based in the School of Humanities and is Deputy Director (Member Engagement) at the Sydney Environment Institute, and a Professor II in the Oslo School of Environmental Humanities at the University of Oslo, Norway.

Dr John Martin is an ecological research scientist, author, and science communicator. Through inspiring community appreciation of and connection with nature, John aims to enhance the prospects for co-existence between wildlife and humans.

Dr Zoë Sadokierski is a Senior Lecturer in Visual Communication at the University of Technology Sydney, investigating design-led approaches to science communication.

Dr Andrew Burrell is Senior Lecturer in Visual Communication at the University of Technology Sydney, specialising in the visualisation of otherwise unseen connections and entanglements in both physical and virtual environments.

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