Poorer communities could be forced out of their areas by rewilding because of “green gentrification”, according to a report by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).
The report finds that rewilding could lead to house prices rising as areas become more desirable and their risk of being affected by natural disasters such as floods decreases. New tourist opportunities may also result from enhanced green spaces and wildlife.
Without careful implementation, the report authors note, “green gentrification” could take place, with local communities priced out of their areas. The report recommends that sociologists and other experts, as well as local communities, are consulted and worked with during any urban nature restoration project.
The report’s author, Nathalie Pettorelli, from the ZSL Institute of Zoology, told the Guardian: “[The rewilded area] could be created in areas of deprivation and you could cause green gentrification. It’s greener, and because it’s greener and nicer the house prices go up.
“This is not just an ecological problem, it is a socioecological problem; you have to factor people in all the time and find whether you are going to create inequalities.”
This is not just an issue with nature restoration, she said, but any improvements made to urban areas, with safeguards needed to ensure local communities get to stay and enjoy the new or improved green spaces, and have a say in what is created.
“A lot of people who work on rewilding are ecologists at heart – they sometimes forget the social aspect,” Pettorelli said. “It needs to be a common sociological cause – if you don’t factor in people, it won’t work in the long term.”
If these tensions are resolved, rewilding could be positive for underserved communities, which are usually at most risk of the negative effects of the climate crisis, including air pollution, heatwaves and flooding.
Pettorelli said: “This could actually be a great thing as, if people learn to coexist with nature, it can … actually reduces inequalities by having all these mental and physical benefits, reducing air pollution, which often impacts people more in deprived areas for example. , and giving people green space to enjoy.”
Rewilding has long been associated with reintroducing large carnivores across vast, untouched landscapes, but the study said the ecosystems of cities could be made wilder, too, which would mitigate damage caused by the climate crisis.
Though green space in urban areas may be comparatively small, when taken together – and connected up – these patchworks cover a lot of ground so could be vital to store carbon and reverse biodiversity loss, the report said. By creating wetlands around towns and cities, the effects of floods could be drastically reduced, and by adding greenery to buildings, as well as creating green spaces, urban areas could be made cooler during heatwaves.
The report noted other challenges presented by rewilding urban areas, including colonization in the UK of invasive alien species such as Japanese knotweed, which could take advantage of low intervention methods to take root and spread. The report also raised fears that the public could be encouraged to release species into unsuitable areas, so education around such projects is needed.
The report looked at good examples of urban rewilding around the world, including Singapore, which turned its Kallang River from a straight, concrete channel to a wiggly haven for nature with lush riverbanks. The river was reconnected to the floodplain and better public access was created. This reduces flooding risk, increases biodiversity and provides a beautiful place for residents to walk.
The report also highlighted Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord in Germany, situated on a former ironworks, which has become a popular place to hike since being left to nature to recolonise.
Ecosystem engineers: animals that could be restored to UK cities
Pettorelli gave the Guardian examples of animals that could be reintroduced to UK cities.
This wetland-creating rodent could thrive on the outskirts of cities. It is already being reintroduced – in enclosures – outside London.
“This is a very threatened species, which uses major rivers in the UK, and you could improve migration passes for that species,” said Pettorelli.
Already reintroduced in Kent, southern cities with good open marshland could enjoy a revival of this striking bird.
“Otters are doing really well in UK cities,” said Pettorelli. “They are spotted in Edinburgh, Manchester, Birmingham and Bath – there is potential for them elsewhere.”