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Looking for silver linings: Wildlife and blue skies in cities

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/30/20 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Clean air, Plants & animals

I’ve been looking for silver linings since we’ve all been forced into quarantine for more than a month. One has been the remarkably fast turnaround of air quality as car and airplane use has dipped to all-time lows.

<br />Blue skies rule over a park in Beachwood in April, 2020<br />A nesting peregrine falcon hunts for prey above Terminal Tower on Public Square<br />A coyote roams a park in Chicago

In this recent Freshwater article, I write about how we can reasonably expect to make air quality improvements permanent and how it will benefit us all. As a recent cleveland.com opinion piece put it, “we’ve destroyed the myth that telework cannot happen.”

For this reason, I’m interested in how the regional transportation agency (NOACA) and the city of Cleveland will rise to the occasion and adjust to the reality of thousands of commuters dialing in from home. Tactical Urbanism author @MikeLydon has been following the progress of cities responding to the new reality—cities are acting on OpenStreets (bike- and pedestrian-exclusive spaces) and are promising to paint or buffer new bike lanes on near-empty streets.

Cleveland is in need of a new bike plan. The city made considerable progress on its 2014 Bikeways Plan—it completed 80 miles of ‘bikeways’ by 2017. Cleveland and NOACA need to be more aggressive in staking out a goal to shift people to biking, a safe and healthy mode of transportation, now that there will be fewer cars on the road. That is, if air quality gains are to continue (also, the 2014 plan did not have to consider the wave of eBikes and scooters that have burst onto the scene).

The other silver lining—the sudden shift to telework has brought the noise and other ambient pollution (light) down. Reports that sheltering New Yorkers are taking solace in hearing birdsong echoing down the highrise canyons of Manhattan, sightings of coyotes prancing down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, wild turkeys strutting their stuff in downtown Cleveland (and following postal trucks on their slow route), even a pizza-loving groundhog have lifted our spirits.

"Because we mistakenly think of ourselves as separate from nature, we’re thrown by the sight of other creatures filling the voids we’re leaving," The Boston Globe put it.

Wildlife has been migrating toward cities for awhile. In many cases, they had no choice when forests, their natural habitat, were removed by us. Animals display amazing abilities to adapt to human-dominated landscapes. By one count, thousands of coyotes live in Chicago and find the city to their liking especially when we sleep. A nesting pair of peregrine falcons have continually taken up residence on the ledge of the 12th floor of the Terminal Tower, in part, because of the ample supply of pigeons in Public Square (another species that has adapted well to urban life). Suburban commuters report sightings of wild turkeys (it even earned Cleveland Heights the nickname Turkey Ridge).

As this New York Times article put it, the very visible presence of wildlife—like the sudden blue skies—are a huge Internet sensation for a reason. They are a sign that the imbalance in human landscapes is not as hard to undo as we may have thought. The silver lining, then—it’s not too late to fix what's missing from cities. The skeptical voice inside said, why get started on fixing the problem when it’s too far gone. But nature is resilient in ways we did not understand until #TheGreatPause.

The last month has showed what is possible — that we can bring balance back to our urban ecosystem. We can calm the noise, darken and clean the skies and see how quickly wildlife responds.

Not to be overshadowed by wildlife, people are also flocking to nature. Parks have had to make quick adjustments to allow for safe social distancing as trails become crowded. Thousands of Clevelanders are walking and biking. It all bodes well, if we respond in kind — making access points like Metroparks' parking lots safe could be aided by making streets bike safe. It's pretty obvious that long dormant plans to invest more in parks and green spaces in neighborhoods to keep everyone safe will now get a second look as well.

Again, it is possible to better balance nature and city and function as a society. We can learn from these extremes to make changes that invite more progress in the future.

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