‘Critical’ way Australian cities must change for wildlife survival

We need better planning to ensure we can all co-exist, wildlife advocates say.

If you've travelled through a major Australian city over the holiday period, you probably noticed they're getting bigger and hotter. While the changes mean they are becoming less comfortable for their human residents, have you considered how they are impacting the wild birds, animals and insects that call them home?

Extreme weather combined with our ongoing need to demolish and construct has resulted in resident wildlife struggling to find the water it needs, but one expert believes a coordinated planning effort could help ensure things get better, rather than worse.

A photograph of Melbourne from a bus.
Look across Melbourne as you travel into the city from the airport and its hard to see much green space or water sources for wildlife. Source: Michael Dahlstrom

RMIT’s Professor Sarah Bekessy has championed research into how planners can better incorporate natural design in urban spaces. She describes water as “super critical for everything that lives”, particularly in cities because they can often be hotter than rural areas.

“On those super hot days, everyone has probably seen birds sitting there with their beaks wide open and really struggling,” she said. “No one wants to see this, and providing water can really save lives”.

Call for wildlife to be considered as cities change

If you look at a map of Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Brisbane or Adelaide you'll see that each has a network of rivers, wetlands and lakes, but accessing them for drinking and bathing can be risky for animals whose homeland doesn’t directly border the water source. Doing so often involves crossing roads, entering the territories of other animals, and risking an encounter with a predator.

Surprisingly, our urban environments are home to a wide array of species that are threatened with extinction, as well as common creatures like kookaburras, currawongs, magpies and lorikeets.

An aerial shot of Sydney CBD.
While Sydney is home to several endangered species, accessing water can be a challenge for wildlife. Source: Getty (File)

Providing water for wildlife is often undertaken by residents who are encouraged to place bowls and dishes in their gardens. But the ability of individuals to shoulder this responsibility is diminishing as urban green spaces, including backyards, are paved over to make way for high-density housing.

While these changes may be necessary to house the nation’s growing human population, Australian Conservation Foundation nature campaigner Peta Bulling believes they shouldn’t come at the expense of wildlife.

She argues most cities aren't currently meeting the need animals have to access water and the issue must be considered by state and local governments at every stage of planning.

“Governments need to be creating corridors through our cities so wildlife can move through the greenery and have access to the water they need. We need good planning so to ensure we can all co-exist,” she said.

Why urban planner is optimistic about wildlife in cities

Changes to urban density are being compounded by extreme weather pressure caused by global warming, but there’s a key reason Professor Bekessy is hopeful that cities can still meet the water needs of wildlife, particularly if councils were to initiate a coordinated big-picture response to the problem.

“People often talk to me about climate change and say we should give up, or just plant desert species. But I’m probably quite optimistic,” she said.

“Cities are such highly modified environments that we can actually make them climate change refuges for wildlife.”

While Perth is intersected by a network of rivers, it can be risky for wildlife to access the water they provide. Source: Google Earth
While Perth is intersected by a network of rivers, it can be risky for wildlife to access the water they provide. Source: Google Earth

An example of this is the flying fox colony which now live in Melbourne, despite there once not being enough food, and the city being too cold and dry for them.

“Because we unintentionally made the city hotter through the Urban Heat Island effect, made it wetter through watering gardens and the like, and planted fruit trees all around the place, it suddenly became quality habitat for the bats,” Professor Bexley said.

How cities in Australia are watering wildlife

Yahoo reached out to City of Perth, City of Sydney, City of Adelaide, City of Melbourne and Brisbane City Council to ask how many new watering points they had delivered for wildlife over the last decade.

Brisbane City Council was unable to directly answer the question but said it has 4,000km of natural waterways including 608km of waterways in council parks.

Since 2014, the City of Melbourne said it has created 127 new water infrastructure sites, including drinking fountains, water features, and play areas that incorporate water. It has also planted 76 bio-retention shrub beds next to streets and in parks to try and hold water after rain.

The City of Sydney has 10 existing wetland areas including Sydney Park Wetland, Sydney Park Frog Pond, Woolwash Wetland and Alexandra Canal. After one of these critical water sources was the site of a mass wildlife die-off in April, council agree to review the water quality in other wetlands around the city.

It also has 46 operational water features, and some of the council’s 100 water fountains have pet bowls that wildlife can access when they’re not being used by humans or domestic pets.

The City of Adelaide recently created the Pakapakanthi wetlands in Victoria Park and the council told Yahoo it encourages its staff to put out water for wildlife.

Heading west, the City of Perth said it has “vast water sources” that link its green spaces, and that its park irrigation also indirectly benefits frogs, insects and birds.

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