The Great Re-Wilding
The world’s wildland ecosystems are on the brink. Here’s how people are trying to reverse the damage.
The term “rewilding” is hardly a household word. Some may think it’s a fancy moniker for “back to nature,” and they would be partially right. The Rewilding Institute offers a more complete version: “Rewilding is comprehensive, often large-scale, conservation effort focused on restoring sustainable biodiversity and ecosystem health by protecting core wild/wilderness areas, providing connectivity between such areas, and protecting or reintroducing apex predators and highly interactive species.”
It’s a term that applies to the Earth’s environment more than ever. An apocalyptic report from the United Nations estimates that up to 75 percent of the planet’s terrestrial environment has been “severely altered” by human actions. More than 85 percent of wildlands present in the year 1700 had been lost by 2000. Up to 1 million of the world’s 8 million plant and animal species may be extinct by century’s end. And that’s some of the more-positive data.
The world’s ecosystems are in danger of collapsing due to human interaction, according to the United Nations. But there’s hope if people work toward undoing the damage through rewilding over the next few decades.
“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever,” notes Sir Robert Watson, chair of the report’s key producer, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
Rewilding is a way to reverse some of the damage, according to Northwestern University Associate Professor of Architecture Marie Law Adams. “Rewilding can’t return landscapes to pre-settlement times,” she notes, in a New York Times report. “Instead, the aim is to encourage natural processes that serve people and wildlife.”
Such an approach could mean removing dams, building tunnels to reconnect migration pathways severed by roads, or reintroducing predators such as wolves to help balance ecosystems, according to NYT.
“The idea might seem best suited to remote areas where nature is freer to heal without interference,” the report notes. “But rewilding also happens in some of the world’s biggest urban centers, as people find mutually beneficial ways to coexist with nature.”
A report from Zoological Society of London offers quite a few examples, including:
- In Singapore, a 1.7-mile stretch of the Kallang River has been converted from a concrete-lined channel into a twisting waterway lined with plants, rocks
and other natural materials and flanked by green parkland.
- The German cities of Hannover, Frankfurt and Dessau-Rosslau have designated vacant lots, parks, lawns and urban waterways as areas “where nature could take its course.”
- In 2021, London allocated $750,000 toward restoring 45 urban rewilding projects to improve habitats for insects, birds and rural water life.
- Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and the nonprofit Urban Rivers are installing 3,000 square feet of “floating wetlands”—a series of man-made platforms that float on the surface of the water and interlock to form larger islands—along the Chicago River to improve water quality and encourage the return of native species of fish, insects, birds and other wildlife.
Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and nonprofit Urban Rivers added new habitat to the South Branch of the Chicago River in the form of floating wetlands. They’re meant to mimic the island clusters found in less developed-rivers and will provide food and shelter to native wildlife. Credit: Brenna Hernandez/Shedd Aquarium
Rebuilding an Ecosystem
And then there’s the Great Cypress Swamp, a 10,600-acre wetland near Delaware’s Chesapeake Bay. It’s the statewide land trust Delaware Wild Land (DWL)’s largest land holding and the state’s largest contiguous block of forestland. But it’s a fraction of its original size—about 100,000 acres a few hundred years ago, according to botanist Dr. Stephen Brewer.
The swamp’s deterioration stems from the usual culprits: excessive timbering, agricultural conversion and low-density residential development, as well as two major fires, notes Brewer. He is a member of Wild Earth Allies, a nonprofit that for three years has been working with DWL on restoring the area.
It’s a very important project because of the impact the swamp has on the world’s environment, Brewer emphasizes. As a vital part of two major watersheds—the Delaware Inland Bays and the Chesapeake Bay—it provides essential ecosystem services to the rapidly developing Delmarva Peninsula, a 170-mile-long region about 100 miles to the east of Baltimore.
Large, forested areas like Great Cypress filter, store, and moderate the availability of rainwater. This protects the flow and quality of water in rivers and streams, critical for biodiversity and for clean drinking water, Brewer notes.
In addition, trees create a major climate benefit over the long term by taking up and storing carbon dioxide in the form of wood, leaves, and roots. They also provide shade, and absorb and release water into the atmosphere, cooling the Earth in the short term. Meanwhile, larger, older trees account for most of the total carbon stored in mature forests.
The swamp is also beneficial to migratory birds along the Atlantic flyway, as well as other species of plants and animals, Brewer adds.
Thus far, Wild Earth Allies and DWL have planted an estimated 13,000 seedlings of native plant species as they restore 200 acres of swampland. There’s also been 37,000 cedar trees planted on priority areas of the swamp.
Combined with restoration efforts by other groups over the past decade, the area has seen a 124 percent increase in plant diversity from 1998 to 2022. “Greater plant diversity makes an ecosystem more resilient and more resistant to catastrophic disturbances—either natural or unnatural,” Brewer says. “Forests with higher plant diversity clean and filter water more effectively. The roots of plants hold organic matter together, allowing a more-even waterflow into the system. A lack of plant diversity can lead to flooding and drought.”
In addition, the more types of plants the swamp has, the more wildlife of all kinds it supports, Brewer says.
Through DWL, surrounding communities and landowners have offered strong support for restoration efforts. The key is knowledge, according to Brewer. DWL knows the area’s natural history and the swamp’s varied ecosystems. And, DWL has been a part of the local community for decades, so people know what DWL—and Wild Earth Allies—hope to accomplish.
Despite the current dire circumstances, the world ecology resource Nature+Positive forecasts what can happen to Earth’s ecosystem if rewilding and other sustainability efforts kick in by 2030. Source: NaturePositive.org
Which brings us back to the IBPES report. The findings are grim, but they are also eye opening, according to Watson. “The report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global,” he notes. “Through ‘transformative change,’ nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably.”
But it’s time to shed bad habits, adds Audrey Azoulay, director general of UNESCO, which is a co-producer of the report. “This [reminds] each of us of the obvious truth: The present generations have the responsibility to bequeath to future generations a planet that is not irreversibly damaged by human activity,” Azoulay notes. “Our local, indigenous and scientific knowledge are proving that we have solutions and so, no more excuses. We must live on earth differently.”
Seeds of Knowledge
This flower-happy couple is bringing plant life back to San Francisco.
People call Shalaco and Phoenix McGee “Guerilla Gardeners.” They get a thrill from “flower bombing” San Francisco neighborhoods, “spreading the gospel of the seeds.”
Sometimes they do it while they’re walking through a random neighborhood, looking for neglected patches of land, where they can use parmesan cheese shakers to distribute native wildflower seeds. Sometimes the seeding is done while they’re on one-wheeled electric skateboards. Other times, they’re dressed as bumblebees.
For them, it’s simply a matter of “democratising nature.” They want people to identify, understand, and appreciate what’s around them.
San Francisco residents Shalaco and Phoenix McGee have spent a decade adding color to city landscapes while spreading knowledge of green gardening. Courtesy SFinBloom
It all started as a way to support pollinators, which are crucial to the production of about one-third of all crops eaten by humans, according to Phoenix. In recent years, pollinators such as bees have been in decline, partially due to climate change, and partly due to human ignorance. Wildflowers offset that situation by providing habitats for local wildlife; they also improve soil health. Native plants also require less water, which is a definite plus during times of drought.
Of course, it all really started during the couple’s first date. Shalaco, who owns a video production studio, and Phoenix, a sustainable landscape gardener, transplanted an abandoned aloe tree into a neighbor’s backyard. The two discovered they shared a love of plants. Ten years later, the fruits of their labors are all over the city.
“We do it year-round,” Phoenix says. “The seeds will grow when the time is right. And sooner or later, you will run into your plants.”
Shalaco refers to that moment as “being like a magic trick.” But they don’t take the credit—that belongs to Mother Nature. “It’s just a nice way to make a forgotten space full of flowers,” he says.
They truly love what they do, and it’s contagious. People in other cities have caught on. Videos made of the couple doing their thing appeared on TikTok a few years ago. They now have 250,000 followers, more than 5 million likes, and 40 million-plus views. Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook users have since joined the party.
“Viewers love our passion,” Shalaco says. “Some of them say that they’re not really into trees, but they love how passionate we are.”
The couple is flattered to be in such a big spotlight, and they welcome the fact that so many other people now want to take up parmesan shakers and colorize their neighborhoods. But they caution people to do research before they start. Go to a local garden shop, check city ordinances, read up on the proper types of plants to grow in an area—whatever seeds go out need to be for native, non-invasive vegetation.
“Anyone can do this,” Phoenix says. “It doesn’t matter your situation—if you rent, or living in a dark house, or only have concrete—there are always ways that you can grow plants where you live.”