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The promise of ‘bird-friendly’ cities: Q&A with author Timothy Beatley

  • University of Virginia professor Timothy Beatley lays out a case for building cities that are better hosts to birds and the broader natural world in The Bird Friendly City: Creating Safe Urban Habitats.
  • His case rests on the benefits that birds provide, and he discusses the need for equal access to nature for all city-dwelling communities.
  • From small home improvements to skyscrapers covered in greenery, Beatley covers the adaptations necessary for more “natureful” cities around the world.

Tim Beatley will humbly tell you that he’s not a birder. But in his new book, there are enough appearances by obscure members of the class Aves to suggest that birds are more than a passing interest for him and may in fact be a strong motivation behind his life’s work.

In The Bird Friendly City: Creating Safe Urban Habitats, the University of Virginia professor of sustainable communities talks of waiting “expectantly each spring” at his home for returning ruby-throated hummingbirds. He frets over the perils that a warmer planet poses to one of his favorite songbirds, the eastern wood thrush, and its “flute-like song.” And as a teenage boy learning to fly gliders, he says that he imagined himself as one of the turkey vultures he shared the thermals with.

“To me, a soaring Vulture was always the epitome of beauty and grace in action,” Beatley writes. “They seemed to defy physics.”

The book, published Nov. 5, attests to the need both to have nature in the cities we call home and to make those cities more hospitable toward it, with birds often the most visible — and audible — sign of the overlap between the urban and natural worlds. Beatley highlights the need for bird-friendly buildings that incorporate new window designs and lighting schemes to minimize the roughly 1 billion bird deaths that result from window strikes each year. He also visits with local groups that build habitats for burrowing owls and construct “catios” where domestic cats can be outside without taking a toll on local wildlife. (Beatley is fond of word mashups — increasing the “birdicity” of cities, for example.)

The Bird Friendly City was released Nov. 5. Image courtesy of Island Press.

Beatley founded and directs Biophilic Cities, an organization that works with researchers, nonprofits and governments to create more “natureful” cities, and this book is just his latest tackling the importance of urban planning and design that are harmonious with nature. But in The Bird Friendly City, he also delves deeper into societal issues. As much as he knows that “enchanting” birdsong is an antidote to the stress of daily life, he acknowledges that access to nature in cities is not equal. In a conversation with Mongabay, he discusses the systemic racism that has often relegated minorities and communities of color to parts of cities that are devoid of contact with nature — an imbalance that he said he believes urban planners have a responsibility to rectify.

“There’s no issue that’s more important, and nothing more present on our collective agendas right now than that of diversity and inclusiveness,” Beatley said.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

The designer of Chicago’s Aqua Tower incorporated bird-safe design. Image courtesy of Tim Beatley.

Mongabay: Can you talk about where the idea came from for this book and how you got started?

Timothy Beatley: It fits into this larger vision about cities, and this idea that we are on an increasingly urbanized planet. We have to think about how we need nature all around us where we’re living and working. It’s about this conception of cities not as being opposed to nature or absent of nature, but rather, being abundant and biodiverse, environments in which we are immersed in nature, ideally. That’s our vision of what a biophilic city is, and we’ve been helping to push along this global network of cities.

The idea of a biophilic city in part is about sharing space with many other forms of life. We already do that, but there are so many ways that we could be designing and planning with other species in mind, understanding that cities are these places where we want to see other life-forms. Our lives are richer and more meaningful for having those connections.

Birds are pretty ubiquitous in most places that we live, and they add so much to our lives. That’s kind of my starting point. While I can’t claim to be a birder, I’ve been a lifelong bird lover. I think for a lot of us, that may be a meaningful category. Birds have brought a lot of joy and meaning to my life going back to when I was a kid. There are lots of things that we can be doing and now are doing in many cities, everything from bird-safe building design and bird-safe windows, things cities like San Francisco, Toronto and now New York are adopting.

Singapore’s Oasia Hotel has an exterior trellis that’s been planted with 21 species of flowering vines. Image courtesy of Tim Beatley.

How big are the problems that cities cause for birds? What can we do about them?

The numbers don’t look very good, and so especially my profession of city planning and design can really make a difference. The threats are many and there are certainly big ones like climate change. That’s one that cities can, in important ways, address. If you are thinking about protection of birds, you need to be thinking about ways that cities can be carbon-neutral and can pretty rapidly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. We don’t necessarily connect those things in our minds, but there’s a clear connection. Habitat alteration and destruction, both in the U.S. and other parts of the world, are huge problems as well. There again, cities have a role to play in looking at their metabolisms and the sourcing of materials, like wood, for example. Those are things that that may seem distant to a lot of bird lovers.

Of the more immediate things, the building strike issue is a big one. Statistics on the books estimate that maybe a billion birds a year are killed that way in North America. The idea that we are just throwing up buildings that have large expanses of clear glass — birds don’t recognize that as a barrier. What they see when they look at glass is often the reflection of a tree or vegetation or a cloud. And so they have not evolved to avoid that hazard.

A big threat, of course, is feral and domestic cats. The estimates are even more than from building strikes. Those are things that we can address as well in the cities. The big point is that there are so many confounding factors, and some of these things may be hard for us to get a handle on or address at a city scale. But there are ways we can work on every part of that list of threats. Clearly bird-friendly design, doing things in cities that will not only take hazards away, but will actively make cities safer habitats, has a role to play. That means doubling down on protecting trees and forested areas and as much nature as we can have in cities.

A community bird walk on the campus of the University of Virginia. Image courtesy of Tim Beatley.

The point seems to be that there are a lot of things we can do, starting with our own homes all the way up to building and city design.

That’s very true.

Early on in the book, you quote British sound expert Julian Treasure as saying, “Over hundreds of thousands of years we’ve found that when the birds are singing things are safe. It’s when they stop you need to be worried.” It’s almost as if we’re hardwired that when we don’t hear birdsong, we know something’s wrong.

Absolutely. The basic idea of biophilia of course is that we’ve coevolved with nature, and we have this innate affiliation with the natural world. To be happy and healthy, to lead meaningful lives, we have to have that nature around us, and that means cities. I just came back from a walk in my neighborhood. That’s one of the magical things about being outside walking — there are so many bird sounds. We have these white-throated sparrows right now that are doing this really interesting three-note song. It’s just enchanting. But lots of other birds as well. There is something very soothing and calming and kind of normal about listening to birds, which is why, by the way, I think so many of us were reassured during the pandemic — by watching birds and listening to birds.

Turkey vultures come up quite a bit in the book. Can you talk a little bit about that? There’s a connection there with your being a pilot, isn’t there?

From a very early age, I was fascinated by turkey vultures. It didn’t make sense how they could just simply be flying in such an effortless way, spiraling and thermaling, rarely flapping a wing. When was 13 or 14, I started learning to glide, before I could get a pilot’s license. We always saw the turkey vultures as friends and companions, and they were. So we would always head in their direction. As a teenager, I thought of myself as a turkey vulture in a way, doing what they were doing, which to me was just wonderful and fascinating. My dad was an airline pilot, and we did a lot of flying together. In a way, seeing the world from the perspective of a bird was something I did from a pretty early age. They’re so wondrous and beautiful, and they do all these wonderful things for us, like cleaning up carrion.

A golden-crowned kinglet that died after hitting a glass window. Image courtesy of Tim Beatley.

The book struck me as hopeful. Are you optimistic that we can solve these problems?

It’s hard to be optimistic, given the seriousness, the magnitude of the changes that are happening globally. Climate change is part of that. There is massive alteration of habitats and all the ways that we seem to be rapidly causing ecosystems to unravel. If you look at the numbers from the 2019 Cornell study in the journal Science that showed that we had 3 billion less birds, I think that was a remarkable wake-up call. I hope it certainly stirred a lot of people to think about talking about birds in a way that they hadn’t before. But globally, 40% or more bird species are in decline. It’s not a very optimistic picture, and it doesn’t seem like we’re able or willing to tackle these bigger problems.

That said, my personal tendency is to look at the glass as half full. What can we do — that’s actually one of the attractions for a lot of us in urban planning. In urban design, the idea that you can retrofit New York City’s Jacob Javits Convention Center with bird-friendly windows, and we show that it’s radically safer — a 90% reduction in bird fatalities. It is possible to do things that change the world in meaningful ways. I think that’s the message about cities. There are also things you can do as a homeowner. Just planting native species of plants can have a huge impact. I think to be pessimistic would imply that there isn’t anything meaningful that you can do. That’s really what the book is about, telling these stories of people and programs and policies. There are realistic avenues for change.

An urban wetland in Australia. Image courtesy of Tim Beatley.

You write about the need to increase diversity in birding and open these species up to different communities.

There’s so much more that could have been included about this topic of diversity and birding. I tell the story of driving to North Carolina to hear J. Drew Lanham, and he’s a Black birder and wildlife professor who is well-known in the birding world and one of the first people, I think, to raise the alarm about how difficult it is to bird while Black. He tells the stories of how he felt in vulnerable, dangerous situations. He’s just trying to count birds or listen to birds. And then I tell a story about driving to this North Carolina event and passing several of the largest Confederate flags I have ever seen on the highway to listen to this wonderful birder and wildlife professor talk about nature.

It’s a matter of equity and justice, like so many things about the natural world. Those of us who are white and fairly affluent get to enjoy these wonderful things. As you look at the maps of cities and realize, even today, how segregated they are by race and income. In cities like Richmond, Virginia, one of our partner cities in the biophilic cities network, you look at the redlining maps from the 1930s. They closely correspond to the distribution of forest canopy cover from trees, which corresponds to heat. Those neighborhoods of color have much lower levels of tree canopy and have much higher vulnerability to heat. I get to be in a really leafy neighborhood with lots of wonderful things to listen to and hear and experience like birds. We believe that nature is a birthright. We have to think about the equitable biophilia. Part of this biophilic cities agenda is doing everything we can to address the profound inequality that exists and the structural racism that exists in American cities and that connects to diversity and birding.

I think it’s part and parcel of the larger patterns of inequality and the lack of inclusiveness in so many aspects of our society and culture. Birds are such a window to experience and connect with that. Everyone needs that opportunity.

A “catio,” allowing domestic cats to be outside without harming wildlife populations, built by a homeowner in the U.S. state of Oregon. Image courtesy of Tim Beatley.

Do you see that differently, do you think, because you’re an urban planner?

I think from an urban planning point of view, there’s no issue that’s more important, and nothing more present on our collective agendas right now than that of diversity and inclusiveness and equity and what we need to be doing in a thousand and one ways to overcome structural racism in cities. When we talk about birds, it’s just one aspect of that larger problem.

What messages do you hope the book leaves with its readers?

One message should be that we need to elevate the importance of birds everywhere in every city. There are many things that cities could be doing to emphasize the importance of bird life.

Timothy Beatley is a professor of sustainable communities at the University of Virginia School of Architecture. Image courtesy of Tim Beatley.

Banner image of a catbird courtesy of Tim Beatley. 

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Citation:

Rosenberg, K. V., Dokter, A. M., Blancher, P. J., Sauer, J. R., Smith, A. C., Smith, P. A., … & Marra, P. P. (2019). Decline of the North American avifauna. Science, 366(6461), 120-124. doi:10.1126/science.aaw1313

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