Book Report: Nature Returns to America's Cities

John Roach
For National Geographic News
July 23, 2001

The concrete jungle isn't just for people anymore. Thirty years of good environmental stewardship combined with wildlife's innate ability to adapt has given rise to a resurgence of nature in America's urban centers.

In New York City, raccoons have walked through the front door and into the kitchen to raid the refrigerator. In southern California, mountain lions have been seen cooling off under garden sprinklers and breaking into homes near Disneyland. In Chicago, beavers gnaw and fell trees and snarl traffic.

In her book Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City, Anne Matthews describes such incidents as she explores the resurgence of wildlife in New York and other cities. "Thirty years of environmental protection and absence of hunting [in cities] have allowed animal populations to soar," she notes.

The implications of this development vary. People may marvel at the presence of a falcon nest on the 27th floor of New York Hospital. On the other hand, some people were literally sickened to death in the fall of 2000 by the West Nile virus, which had been carried to the city by migrating birds and transmitted to mosquitoes, who passed it on to humans.

Overcrowded cities and urban sprawl have put more people and wild animals in close proximity than at any other time in American history, says Matthews. Encounters between these two groups are beginning to exceed what scientists call the cultural carrying capacity, defined in Wild Nights as "the moment humans stop saying 'Aww' and start calling 911."

This change in the nature of the relationship between people and wildlife, says Matthews, is forcing people to reconsider their ethical and practical role as top predator.

Boost from Cleaner Air, Water

Nature's return to U.S. cities has resulted in part from passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972. These laws of environmental protection that helped make air safer to breathe and water safer to drink also made cities more hospitable to wildlife, according to Matthews.

After being cleaned up, New York Harbor is now home to booming populations of blue crabs and fiddler crabs, which in turn attract thousands of long-legged wading birds such as herons and egrets. With the air now cleaner, owls have flocked in growing numbers to the suburbs in search of easy prey: pets such as schnauzers, chihuahuas, and cats.

In parts of the South and Midwest, forests that were logged in the 19th century have grown back over the last 100 years, allowing animal populations to recover. Car collisions with moose are now common along Interstate 95, the main East Coast traffic corridor.

Crocodiles, who were all but erased by development pressure in Florida, are now breeding at four times their normal rate in the cooling canals of Florida's nuclear power plants.

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