It is 7 a.m. and there is a flurry of activity. The road up to Bukit Kiara is long and steep, but it does not deter hikers, runners, and cyclists. They pour out of their houses and apartments, past 163 Retail Park, past the Plaza Mont Kiara offices, past the mak cik warong’s opening day under the highway. The Recreationists march uphill with so much vigour, it is as if they are desperate to escape their enclosed offices and apartments (or maybe they have a 9 a.m. office Zoom call to return to).
The entrance to the Kiara Hill trail is at the end of the road on the hilltop. Some hikers choose to drive up to the park. In the same parking lot where hikers park cars, you may also notice construction workers readying for work and hopping on motorbikes.
But most people do not notice. A quick search through online Kiara Hill groups using the terms “worker”; “foreign”; “squatter”; “construction” also yields no results. Both online and offline, these populations do not seem to interact despite sharing an ecosystem. At 8 a.m., as the Recreationists exit their cars and enter the forest for recreation, the Construction Workers hop on their motorcycles and enter the city for work. Some sort of temporal partitioning, it would seem.
Through the Di Sekitar Kita (“Around Us”) Urban Biodiversity Challenge (April through September 2021) we sought to (re)discover nature in Malaysian cities, especially habitats and biodiversity that may be “under the radar,” as well as explore the norms, values, attitudes and perceptions of Malaysians towards the plants and animals that live in our towns and cities.
Drawing from what we learned, we present five lessons for biodiverse and resilient cities:
- Green space matters, but how it is distributed matters more. [Community]
- Better distribution of green space increases accessibility and brings nature closer to us, but this is a double-edged sword—more integrated green space may cause conflict. [Conflict]
- Cities are a gateway to understanding and appreciating the complexity of biodiversity and ecosystems. [Complexity]
- Citizen science is a great way to (re)discover and reconcile with nature. [Curiosity]
- Beyond protecting existing green space, we must create new ones—hand in hand with people and nature. [Creation]
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1. Green space matters, but how it is distributed matters more.
Healthy ecosystems beget social-ecological well-being. In cities, green spaces counteract the urban heat island effect, buffer against environmental pollutants, absorbs carbon dioxide, and reduces flood risk by increasing the proportion of permeable surfaces. Habitat creation also functions to attract and preserve biodiversity, allowing society to have increased opportunities to interact with nature. Research shows that living in greater proximity to green spaces is associated with greater longevity, better mental health, and less frailty among the elderly. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need for community space, particularly green or open public space. Recognizing the centrality of parks and public recreation space in the pandemic, Malaysia’s National Landscape Department published a guide on new norms for the usage of public recreational parks and open space—Norma Baru Pengunaan Taman Rekreasi Awam dan Kawasan Lapang—in 2020.
However, while urban parks provide a space for individuals and families to exercise, unwind, and learn about nature around them, such areas offer limited accessibility if they are located at a considerable distance from residences. Many of the larger parks in the Klang Valley and other urban centres in Malaysia—as well as popular hiking trails—have poor public transport connections and users typically need to drive or ride-share to access these sites. While having single or limited entry points to these green spaces eases control and security by preventing trespassing and vandalism, on the other hand, this also makes parks more difficult for pedestrians to access.
Green is good, but where it is located and how it is distributed is equally important. Early this year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Urban Alliance advocated for Prof. Cecil Konijnendijk van den Bosch's 3-30-300 rule of:
- 3 trees (of a decent size) visible from every home
- 30 percent tree canopy cover in every neighbourhood
- A maximum distance of 300 metres to the nearest park or green space
In a tropical country like Malaysia, we may in fact benefit from a higher percentage of tree canopy cover to mitigate the urban heat island effect. Shorter distances to parks or green spaces can make walking or cycling more amenable in our hot and humid climate, discouraging the use of greenhouse gas-emitting motor vehicles.
2. Better distribution of green space increases accessibility and brings nature closer to us, but this is a double-edged sword—more integrated green space may cause conflict.
Green space invariably attracts wildlife, supporting plants and animals—urban biodiversity—that are well adapted to human impact. However, the question of “how much biodiversity is appropriate” is difficult to answer; biodiversity benefits notwithstanding, certain plants and animals are deemed undesirable within our living spaces.
Through interviews and focus groups with local authorities, landscape and conservation professionals, environmental NGOs, and active community members in five cities (Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, Johor Bahru, Pasir Gudang, and Kuching), we identified several common conflicts between people and nature in cities:
- House guests, house pests: attracting “good” wildlife often comes with unintended or less desirable species—the tree that houses birds can also house snakes.
- Not in my backyard: often, people don't mind wildlife—as long as they stay in forests and wild habitats, and do not encroach on residential areas. However, from nature’s point of view, the entire city is one habitat, one foraging and living space.
- Poor nature literacy: poor understanding of species traits and behaviour leads to phobia of trees and other wildlife.
- Succession’s barriers to success: natural habitats (including layered, biodiverse green space) and processes like succession—the gradual establishment of more stable ecosystems on degraded land—can be perceived as messy.
We cannot run away from these conflicts. By 2050, up to 70% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas. Malaysia is ahead of the curve: 77% of Malaysians live in towns and cities as of 2019, and this figure is set to rise.
Ignorance and fear of biodiversity can threaten successful coexistence between people and wildlife in cities, crippling the potential of applying urban biodiversity and ecosystems as a nature-based solution for sustainable and resilient cities. Although the scientific rationale for protecting urban biodiversity and ecosystems is clear, a large stumbling block is the values we have inherited from the past, including European ideals exported worldwide during the Age of Imperialism:
“In the eighteenth century ideas of the perfectibility of nature dominated western thinking. […] Orderly fields, cleared forests and neat villages turned a savage wilderness into pleasing and productive landscapes.”
As urbanization accelerates, we need new values for this emerging urban social-ecological landscape. The UN’s vision 2050 on biodiversity is aptly called “living in harmony with nature”—conjuring visions of inclusive urban landscapes for both humans and the non-human. In our gardens, backyards and neighborhoods, what values will govern the way we govern our cities? How can we create cities that are restorative and life-giving?
3. Cities are a gateway to understanding and appreciating the complexity of biodiversity and ecosystems.
Perhaps our prized asset is also our weakness. While Malaysia is proudly ranked twelfth of the world’s megadiverse countries (according to the National Biodiversity Index), it can be difficult for non-professionals to wrap their heads around our staggering biodiversity. Indeed, a baseline study published by the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) in support of the National Policy on Biological Diversity 2016-2025 found that there was poor public understanding of biodiversity.
Meanwhile, it is not uncommon to hear conservation professionals dismiss and deride cities as boring habitats with low biodiversity and plenty of non-native plants and animals. With so much biodiversity outside of cities at risk, it can seem superfluous at best, and distracting at worst, to place any kind of attention on urban biodiversity. And yet the IUCN says,
“The wildest and remotest places on Earth, the most imperiled species on Earth will be protected only if urban people care about nature where they live.”
In this light, the relatively low biodiversity of cities may well be an asset, not a weakness. Cities are ideal for discovering nature and learning the basics of biodiversity and ecosystems. Here, we can observe natural phenomena and processes up-close, including insect pollinators feeding, wetland birds hunting in lakes, and tree-dwelling mammals in the (relatively) low canopy of urban trees.
Urban habitats range from lush watersheds at the edge of cities, to parks and gardens, to drains, canals and in-between spaces below the radar.
Did you spot the heron in the last image?
However, we must go beyond merely “greening” cities. While tree planting is all the rage as we rally to address the global climate emergency, how much thought do we give to the types of trees we plant?
“Urban landscapes can be ‘green’ but with only one species no matter how many trees are planted. We should not move away from greening, but we can introduce more urban biodiversity in urban planning.”
Perhaps one way to introduce and socialize the rich diversity of Malaysia's plant species is to plant them all over cities, turning the urban landscape into arboreta or living libraries of biodiversity. Back in 1988, Universiti Putra Malaysia researchers H.F. Chin and I.C. Enoch remarked, “[Native species] have been sorely neglected [for landscaping] merely because they are looked upon as ‘wild plants.’ But many of them make well-shaped trees, tolerant of a range of growing conditions.” Today, native species remain under-utilized for urban planting. And yet, many of these have rich cultural histories and may also tolerate urban environments well, from forest floor plants like gingers and palms to forest giants like the kapur or Borneo camphor tree (Dryobalanops aromatica). What’s important is to identify and experiment with species that can tolerate the urban environment, including designing urban infrastructure that is “biophilic” or pro-nature.
There is a Malay saying—tak kenal maka tak cinta—which means “you cannot love what you do not know.” Here, we do not miss the trees for the forest—might what is normally deep in the forest be showcased on the sidewalk, making knowledge both attractive and accessible?
4. Citizen science is a great way to (re)discover and reconcile with nature.
There is much ado about internalizing biodiversity into our lives, but the effectiveness of education campaigns and resources is called into question by FRIM’s data on biodiversity literacy. What opportunities might urban biodiversity and ecosystems provide? Urban habitats go well beyond formal greenspace boundaries, and we can find nature and wildlife in unexpected places. Because of this, cities can serve as giant classrooms or living labs, where we can address this “last mile” of conservation through citizen science: learning-by-doing and getting our hands dirty with exploration.
Indeed, citizen science is both research and learning: public participation in scientific research, while increasing societal understanding of science. In many parts of the world, there remain gaps in our understanding of urban ecosystems: formal studies of nature in the city have been sporadic, and urban biodiversity remains largely data deficient. Citizen science has the potential for filling data gaps, creating awareness and ownership, dispelling fear, and influencing local decision making.
During the Di Sekitar Kita: Urban Biodiversity Challenge, participants documented over 20,000 observations of urban plants and animals all over Malaysia. While many of these were “common” species with little conservation interest, participants reported improving their biodiversity knowledge through real-time interactions with experts and enthusiasts all over the world on the iNaturalist platform. They also reported gaining greater awareness of their relationship with nature through hands-on exploration of their surroundings.
Check out some of the entries from across the country, representing a diverse range of wildlife and habitats within and around cities!
How can we encourage a conducive environment for citizen science?
- Increase participation of experts and professionals alongside amateurs to build the competency of citizen scientists, as is increasingly common in developed countries.
- Invest in the supporting ecosystem of museums, botanic gardens, and other conservation institutions—particularly their public engagement, education and outreach functions.
- Be mindful of privacy issues when uploading data to digital apps or public webpages; for example, geotagged images may reveal an individual's residence or current location.
- Don’t dismiss alternative, low-tech tools. A manual toolkit equipped with magnifying glass may be limited in its ability to collectively disseminate rapid observations, but the tactile engagement may allow for a more immersive and personal experience of nature.
Reframing the city as a learning space enables us to rethink the value of the everyday. Consider the tawny coster (Acraea terpsicore) feeding on the tridax daisy (Tridax procumbens). The tridax daisy is a weedy, non-native plant. But here, it is thriving on rocky, infertile ground and providing food to a local butterfly species. What's more, the floor viewed under the microscope is magnificent. We need to start building bridges for biodiversity and democratizing conservation. Teachers and parents can incorporate abundant resources like these into science lessons, among others.
5. Beyond protecting existing green space, we must create new ones—hand in hand with people and nature.
Where do we go with this newfound knowledge, this renewed experience, of biodiversity? As Emma Marris puts it, we need to create more, not less, nature. Towns and cities are vibrant places where all kinds of “life”—natives, non-natives, migrants, refugees, citizens—try to make a living.
We need to reimagine what is possible for urban habitats, that the city may be a habitat for all. How can those with influence—e.g., local authorities, landscape designers, and landowners and stewards alike—support a more generous and compassionate urban landscape?
Here are three ideas.
Address fears and prejudices through public engagement and advocacy.
The Singapore Botanic Gardens ran a campaign around mulch, helping visitors understand and appreciate the value of fallen leaves and plant matter, which are typically considered “messy”. Mulched areas in the gardens attracted junglefowl (wild chickens) and monitor lizards, which indirectly turned into visitor attractions.
Closer to home, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) recently set up “Godzilla crossing” signboards to raise awareness of wild animals’ right of way and reduce human-wildlife conflict on campus. When we confront our notions of what is and isn’t acceptable, we gain an empathetic understanding of nature, instead of fearing it. We also learn to accept and welcome the (re)establishment of natural processes and ecosystem functions in our cities.
Experiment with habitat diversity, including creating more space for wilderness.
There is significant potential in abandoned, vacant or reserved green spaces for protecting against flash floods and as a buffer against noise and pollution. However, these areas may also evoke “fear of the unknown” due to the variability of plants and animals that may inhabit them.
One way to overcome this is to embed designated wild space into more formal green spaces. For example, public parks can have highly maintained areas (including paved footpaths and picnic lawns) but also include pockets of wilder, more forest-like sections.
Remember: trees are not planted only by humans! By allocating space where nature can shape itself, we can save time, energy, and maintenance resources, while providing food and shelter for urban wildlife.
Encourage private participation in creating biodiverse landscapes.
During the various COVID-19 Movement Control Orders, many people turned their homes and neighbourhoods into mini gardens, culminating in the launch of a new Urban Community Garden Policy—Dasar Kebun Komuniti Bandar—by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in August 2021.
Home and community gardens can provide a habitat for local biodiversity, such as birds and insect pollinators. As private residential space is a significant component of the urban landscape, local authorities may consider ways to incentivize pro-nature behaviour (e.g., planting trees at home) and disincentivize anti-nature behaviour (e.g., cementing the garden and filling it with cars).
The path towards truly biodiverse cities lies in co-creating with people and with nature. To help us design multi-function, biodiverse urban landscapes, we are experimenting with new tools like our upcoming Habitat Kita toolkit—join us for the prototype launch on 7 October!
Pemeliharaan dan pemuliharaan alam bermula dengan alam di sekitar kita.
Nature conservation and restoration begins with the nature that is around us.
The value of a habitat is a measure of its inclusivity, both of humans and of the more-than-human. Who gets to use public space, green and otherwise? Who is excluded? Which kinds of wildlife are welcome? Which are not? It is ironic that people look at the lalang and say, that’s a snake risk; but nobody thinks of the house with four cars as a climate emergency. It all boils down to what we have, or have not, normalized.
It is tempting to designated places where biodiversity may be found, and places where it is scarce. But that's not how nature sees the landscape. Beneath the flyover is a jungle; beneath the canopy are houses. Nature is in the forest; it’s in the park and in the lake. But it's also along the sidewalk, in the parking lot, in the messy in-between habitats.
Biological diversity and urban development should not be mutually exclusive. But also, urban biodiversity is about much more than being “green”; it is also about housing a multiplicity of human-natures and human natures. Inclusive urban habitat-making must be grounded in the physical and social realities of a particular context or location.
Explore: Learn what’s around you, using both digital and analog tools.
Educate: Inspire others by sharing your discoveries with friends, family and neighbours.
Envision: Imagine how the landscapes around you could be improved for you, for your neighbours and community, and for plant and animal wildlife—a truly shared space.
Enlist: Find partners to make this “habitat for all” a reality.
Let these Four Es (for Environment!) take us from right outside our doorstep, into the world beyond.
Background and methodology
The Di Sekitar Kita: Urban Biodiversity Challenge (UBC) was conducted from April through September 2021, with two aims:
- To (re)discover nature in Malaysian cities, especially habitats and biodiversity that may be “under the radar”; and
- To explore the norms, values, attitudes and perceptions of various stakeholders towards the plants and animals that live in our towns and cities.
Conceptualized and executed by the UNDP Accelerator Lab Malaysia, the UBC was led by Benjamin Ong with support from David Tan, Gui Xian Ong, and Yin Wei Chong.
Implementation was coordinated by our UBC consultant, Affan Nasaruddin, with research and analysis contributions from Siti Norasiah Abd. Kadir (interviews, focus groups and thematic analysis), Teoh Jia Chern (ethnography and community mapping), Zeeda Fatimah Mohamad and Hashem Salarzadeh Jenatabadi (analysis of the citizen science experience), and Thary Gazi Goh (big data and quantitative analysis).
The UNDP Accelerator Lab Malaysia thanks all individuals, communities and organizations that supported the UBC throughout its various stages—from the UBC documentation campaign and Your Story interviews, to community mapping and Habitat Kita toolkit prototyping.
Image credits (where not stated in the article):
- Urban panorama. Photo: JonKam/Getty Images
- Leaf litter. Photo: Jon Tyson on Unsplash
- Pollinator habitat. Photo: Affan Nasaruddin
- All other photos by Benjamin Ong
A Malay (Bahasa Melayu) translation of this article by Affan Nasaruddin and Siti Norasiah Abd. Kadir is available here.