Rewilding is a comprehensive, often large-scale conservation effort focussed on restoring sustainable biodiversity and ecosystem health by preserving core wild/wilderness areas, providing connectivity between such areas, and protecting or reintroducing apex predators and highly interactive keystone species (rewilding.org).
To me, it’s about letting the wilderness back in. Not only into our gardens and living spaces, but also into our hearts and minds.
Somewhere along the way, as humans evolved, we stripped ourselves from the natural rhythms of nature. We somehow begun to view ourselves as separate from nature — from biodiversity chains and links. My architectural master’s thesis titled Domestic Feral was the driving force behind what I strive to do now. It unpacks the giant chasm we as humans have created between us and the natural world — ‘us versus them’.
In essence, the spaces in which we live have been designed to keep nature at bay, to be observed maybe, but never integrated, keeping the boundaries of our human comfort zones. All designs, from what we eat out of to the spaces we live in, have been designed for the species that will use them — us. This makes absolute sense, but at the same time, with architecture and landscaping, we start to tread on delicate areas as the space we are using to design is, in fact, if you look closely, already inhabited.
We put up our concrete walls, dig in our trenches, erect our mass glazed exteriors to max out on all those beautiful natural views without a second thought to the long-term impact this will have on other living beings. Simply placing down a wall can have multiple effects on a myriad of species that may have used that area for habitation or traversing zones.
It starts with us
Rewilding stems equally from passion as it does from science. There is so much to be said for the wellness benefits of reconnecting with nature. At the same time, biodiversity is pivotal for our planetary health and survival of the human race. The decline in bees and other pollinators is already having a drastic impact on our ability to grow food. We are on the brink of the sixth mass extinction: in 2022 alone a number of plant, insect, and animal species went extinct. But unlike previous extinction events, this is driven by human activity, primarily (though not limited to) the unsustainable use of land, water, and energy, and climate change.
Small changes, big impact
The concept of rewilding is often used in great ventures with sweeping solutions such as land bridges and species re-integration. However, as with most ‘green’ initiatives, it often becomes an overwhelming and rather impossible goal as we tend to jump to the big picture ideas. But I firmly believe rewilding can start, or rather should start, from the smallest of spaces and most miniscule design initiatives.
Many people I talk to often say, ‘But I live in town and only have a balcony, so I cannot really give back to biodiversity.’ Yet this is exactly where you can, and should, start. Books the likes of Menno Schilthuizen’s Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution and Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World by Emma Marris show that in order to preserve our last remaining great wild spaces, we have to redefine how we view what is wild. This can look like allowing the new wild to be seen in the weeds popping through the tarmac and welcoming the bees. Balcony spaces are also vital to giving back to nature.
Designing for the unseen client
Biodiversity and the urban design sector have long had a contested relationship. As humans we design with purely our needs and comforts in mind, often forgetting what natural systems we may be disturbing as we lay our concrete foundations. Designs, whether in landscape or architecture, generally all start the same way: with a brief and site analysis. Both of which are generally human-orientated. What does the client want?
But what about the unseen client, the ones that are most likely already inhabiting the site or potentially could be?
This is where rewilding in its basic form can begin, by asking much-needed questions in the site analysis and looking a little bit deeper, beyond the human needs and wants. Consider the species that use the area to live, traverse, and find momentary sanctuary: the birds, insects, and other animals alike — plant species too. When we bring in these observations at the outset, our site findings will deepen and enrich our designs and outcomes.
- Glazing is a good example
As architects, we use it as a means to showcase nature, but ironically, it can do great harm. The material reflects birds’ natural habitat and is often placed in their flight paths. This isn’t to say one shouldn’t have windows, rather one should glaze with consideration, setting it back with a deep beautiful overhang to cast shadow over the glass, allowing birds to recognise it for what it is.
- Make the most of mullions
Another simple way is using and designing more mullions to separate the glazing, which in turn creates a grid for birds to see. This ensures the spacing of the mullions doesn’t exceed the wingspan of the bird species in question.
Something so simple in our design choices can have such a great impact on our fellow beings. Even a simple bug box can start a biodiversity regeneration chain on a micro scale, which can lead to a macro change in the future.
Just do the next right thing
Naturally, humans want to feel safe. We want our fences and daily comforts. So, by how much can you allow a space to be wild? Where is that perfect grey zone where all living creatures can be in one space, and does it even exist? Once again, these goals can seem big and overwhelming, so we start small.
- Replacing blue chlorine pools for eco pools is a move I cannot suggest enough!
- Be diverse in your planting palette – it attracts a diversity of other species.
- Bug boxes, bat boxes, owl boxes (species specific), along with nesting balls for birds during their breeding months, are also great ways to get clients and their families involved. In my experience people become very committed to their garden projects, and there is a wonderful sense of joy when the owl and bat boxes become inhabited. I often supply a handbook of fun biodiversity enriching ideas for families to use when handing over a completed garden.
Landscape design has come a long way, with wild natural gardens becoming more popular. At the same time, opportunities to rewild urban spaces are few and far between, with many people still opting for sprawling lawns, monoculture plants, and boxed-in hedges.
To increase biodiversity, we have to encourage clients to see wilderness not as feral but as necessary and valuable. Our job is to allow for design solutions where both can live as harmoniously as possible.
Of course, wild design can invite some unwanted visitors, like rodents (though some rodents, like the striped grass mouse Rhabdomys, aid in the pollination of fynbos). While we cannot force nature with design, we can provide aid and give potential solutions, such as owl boxes, which are great ways to bring in owls — a predator for rats. We need to bring back the often-missing links in our biodiversity chain that keep everything in check and balance.
Connectivity corridors are such a good example of an essential design tool for biodiversity, very much linked with urban design. Such corridors are crucial for the survival of several species – like the western leopard toad. A small design change like creating access holes in boundary walls or fences for frogs and other creatures to move through is a simple way to implement a larger biodiversity solution, allowing animals to move past our man-made restrictions. Planting trees on boundaries can create a canopy overlap with the neighbouring properties to enable creatures like chameleons to traverse.
Integrating biodiversity enriching conversation into the first phase of any design could lead to designs that truly work, not only in harmony with nature but also allowing these living spaces to be alive. Always think about what other species could benefit from a site and how this space, no matter its size or location, can regenerate biodiversity. This is where the contested relationship between the built sector and nature can potentially find new ground.
Architect and Landscape Designer