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Connect neighborhood gardens to save biodiversity, researchers urge

To encourage urban biodiversity, neighbors should coordinate their gardening efforts to create a network of interlinking habitats where birds, bees and mammals can flourish, scientists at the University of Leeds, UK, urged today. Their message was aimed at householders in the UK, but it can apply to all of us everywhere. After planting coneflowers and...

To encourage urban biodiversity, neighbors should coordinate their gardening efforts to create a network of interlinking habitats where birds, bees and mammals can flourish, scientists at the University of Leeds, UK, urged today.

Their message was aimed at householders in the UK, but it can apply to all of us everywhere.


After planting coneflowers and other local indigenous plants in my Northern Virginia garden a few years ago I soon noticed a large increase in the number and variety of bees, butterflies and birds visiting our yard. New research by UK scientists suggests that if neighbors coordinate such landscaping their neighborhood would become a meaningful sanctuary for wildlife moving through the urban area.

Photo by David Braun

“Gardens don’t exist in isolation, they link together to form interconnected habitat networks that should be planned and managed in conjunction with parks, nature reserves and the surrounding countryside,” said Mark Goddard, PhD student in the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds and lead author of a paper entitled: “Scaling up from gardens: biodiversity conservation in urban environments.”

The research is the cover story of the February edition of the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution. The paper is a collaboration between the University of Leeds’ Institute for Integrative and Comparative Biology and the Sustainability Research Institute, which is part of the School of Earth and Environment.

“One person may plant a tree or create a pond in their own back garden, but the survival of many of the mobile species that live in towns and cities, such as birds and mammals, is dependent on the provision of larger areas of habitat,” Goddard said.


Photo by David Braun

Urban green spaces such as gardens and parks are an increasingly important refuge for wildlife as towns and cities encroach further into the countryside, according to a University of Leeds statement about the research. “In Leeds alone, private gardens cover 30 percent of the total urban area making them a valuable resource for native species,” the university said.

Wildlife-friendly gardening

Wildlife-friendly gardening has become more popular in recent years and there are now an estimated 4.7 million nest boxes and 3.5 million ponds in the UK. But, according to the researchers, actions by individuals within the boundary of their own back garden are unlikely to make a meaningful contribution to the conservation of biodiversity alone.

“If neighbors in a street were all to coordinate the management of their gardens in a complementary way, for example by planting a continuous strip of trees throughout a swathe of gardens, the benefits to backyard biodiversity will far outweigh the contribution made by one or two households alone,” Goddard said.

Said Tim Benton, research dean in the Faculty of Biological Sciences and co-author of the research, “We are increasingly finding that the appropriate area needed to best manage biodiversity is greater than the area managed by individuals–the same is true of farms within the countryside–and so the biggest challenge is to find ways that help neighbors to co-operate.”

“Collective action makes a real difference at the city scale.”

“The key message is that collective action makes a real difference at the city scale,” said Andy Dougill, another co-author of the paper and head of the School of Earth and Environment. “Such cooperation between neighbors to create a wildlife-friendly habitat across groups of gardens can be encouraged by a range of mechanisms. These include top-down financial incentives such as tax cuts or government grants, or bottom-up, community-driven initiatives such as wildlife garden certification schemes.”

The research forms part of Goddard’s PhD, which looks at how the size, shape and connectivity of gardens affects the diversity of birds, bees and butterflies within them. He is currently working with 90 households across Leeds who are helping in the data collection and survey process. The research is funded by the University of Leeds Earth and Biosphere Institute Scholarship.

You may also be interested in The butterfly effect in our backyard 

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn