Suburban Wild: ‘Emerald necklace’ for Oak Bay?

Eco-corridors will suport wildlife of many varieties

Squirrel Appreciation Day recently celebrated the entertaining antics of squirrels.

Coming at that time of year when their food may be scarce and our spirits may be down in the winter dumps, the broader idea is to consider the pleasure we get from proximity to urban wildlife, and what its needs are.

Clearly the pressing need for wildlife is sufficient space for foraging, mating, nesting and migrating, even as urban growth and “pavement-creep” eat up the landscape. To protect habitat, conservationists promote eco-corridors containing continuous tree canopy above, green under-storey below, and space for animals to roam and plants to re-wild.

The key word is “continuous,” for islands of green space usually precede the disappearance of wildlife (although not the species that like dumpsters, crawlspaces and attics). Private gardens, parks, lanes and boulevards must be linked, for viable eco-corridors to form.

In The Dirt (http://dirt.asla.org/2010/05/20), Stephen Handel of Rutgers University explains that eco-corridors facilitate the generation and preservation of soils, cycling and movement of nutrients, partial stabilization of climate, mitigation of droughts and floods, and purification of air and water.

Eco-corridors help mitigate global warming. Kristina Hill of the University of Virginia reminds us that concrete turns cities into heat islands. Warmer than surrounding countryside, cities are “at the edge of climate change.”

Locally, the species that benefit from linkage of green space and tree canopy include squirrels, otters, mink, raccoons, deer, songbirds, bees and butterflies, but their survival depends on the less obvious need to preserve soil, and soil’s microbial diversity. According to famed entomologist E.O. Wilson, 6,000 species of bacteria might live in one handful of soil. As David Suzuki points out in The Sacred Balance, soil is the interface between life and air.

In the UK it’s the hedgehog that is most stressed by urban densification. Their numbers have dropped from about 30 million in the 1950s to under one million today. The British conservation group Hedgehog Street offers tips on how individual property owners can help.

We have no hedgehogs but we could follow their recommendations to protect our own suburban wildlife: leave part of your garden wild, include woodpiles for nesting and insects, leave openings in fences and hedges for small animals to get through, put out water, remove plastic from your beds, hang feeders for birds, make bee houses and plant flowers that attract pollinators.

Locally, the Habitat Acquisition Trust’s Good Neighbours program “work(s) with landowners to better understand how urban and suburban properties connect to nearby green spaces and provide a valuable network of habitat for species through private landowner stewardship.”

Wildlife-loving property owners can do these things, but what is the municipality’s position? What about extending and linking parks to private property through eco-corridors?

“There has been no discussion,” says Oak Bay Parks Manager Chris Hyde-Lay, “and it would be difficult to put together, considering how fragmented the landscape is now.” Any future proposal for such a policy, he explains, would go to Parks and then to the recreation commission, which consists of eight members selected by council. “Urban forest management is a multi-disciplinary matter,” he emphasizes, having “a biological piece, an engineering piece, a recreation, a planning, and a tourism piece …”

We know that eco-corridors benefit plants and animals and combat climate change, but what do they do for the humans? According to Eva Selhub in Your Brain On Nature, in addition to aesthetic benefits, “exposure to nature-based environments is associated with lower blood pressure and reduced levels of stress,” and “sustainability of the planet is ultimately about maintaining an intimate relationship with nature.” We know this instinctively, and few parents want their children to grow up with “nature deficit disorder.”

An “emerald necklace” of green spaces such as Frederick Law Olmstead laid out for Boston, would be welcome in Oak Bay. Olmstead’s nephew John Charles Olmstead designed the leafy Uplands estate, where native deer have returned and want only to safely disappear from view with the famous curve. Many people see an emerald necklace as a way of sustaining both urban wildlife and Oak Bay’s heritage alike.

Barbara Julian is an Oak Bay writer and nature enthusiast.