Planet Earth II has an important final message for everyone, engineers included

14th December 2016
Singapore’s Garden Bay Nature Reserve. Image: BBC

This week saw the end of the latest Sir David Attenborough epic; Planet Earth II. The final episode took a look at the newest habitat on earth, cities. Human habitats have not been known to be the friendliest of places for the non-human species living on this planet, yet the programme managed to highlight a variety of examples where nature is making a come back and successfully integrating into city life.

Monkeys in Jodphur, India were shown to be more populous in the city than in the wild. The ubiquitous pigeon, familiar to most city dwellers, is the most successful city dwelling bird but also brings the other species which prey on them into the city such as the Peregrine Falcon in New York, USA. Hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia provide a useful service to the meat market as the only animals capable of crunching up and disposing of the leftover bones at the end of a day’s trading. Perhaps most surprisingly, was the success of the leopard in Mumbai, brilliant thermal imaging footage taken at night showed how these top predators are thriving in the city environment.

Hanaman Langurs in Jodphur


Through these stories, the programme highlighted the potential for a more mature human attitude towards the natural world, that instead of conquering nature, we can cohabit with it, and that in cohabiting we also thrive. There will be many people that would be convinced of this, purely based on our own romantic notions. But, for it to become a mainstream reality we need something more convincing and robust, particularly when humans come into conflict with, or are at danger from sharing their homes with other species. Whilst amazing to see leopards living in cities, the programme also highlighted that almost 200 people had been attacked in the last 25 years by leopards in Mumbai which is an obvious cause for concern.

We have come some way to understanding the broader benefits of working with, rather than against, nature. There are numerous scientific papers drawing attention to the ecosystem services we benefit from that nature provides. From creatures as small as bees which pollinate our food crops to the forests of mangroves protecting coastal human settlements from extreme weather events, these ecosystem services have been recognised to be worth economic values running into the billions. But to really understand the benefits of bringing nature into the city, not just up to its edge, as part of its hinterland or into designated zones, we not only need a shift in our attitude towards nature, but to our cities as well.

We have to recognise that cities are not just monuments to the infrastructure that we can build, nor are they just the seats of power or our centres of economic productivity. Cities are first, foremost and increasingly our home. They are the places key to our human health and wellbeing and they are themselves dynamic ecosystems.

maslow1This has implications for everyone, in particular for the engineers as the makers of these metropolises. Anyone familiar with hypotheses such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can tell you that to achieve a successful habitat for humans we have to consider more than just providing the infrastructure for the basics of water, food, shelter and waste disposal, which is often where, as engineers, we finish our thinking.

There is a developing field of research around ‘biophilia’ and ‘nature connectedness’, which at a basic level points out the health and happiness benefits people experience from being closer to nature and the stress and anxiety others experience by being disconnected from it. But perhaps this growing field hints at a deeper truth, that we need to stay close to nature not only to survive, but to truly thrive. 

The increase in the presence of green walls throughout our internal and external built environments is due to the rising recognition of the biophilia hypothesis: that human beings have an innate affinity to the natural world.

As more of us move into cities at the prospect of increased prosperity, perhaps we should be exploring this connection more intently as we consider the vision of our future home and how engineers will create it. Can we really bring nature back into the city? Does engineering always need to be at odds with the environment?

As Sir David Attenborough put it himself:

“We, after all, are the architects of the urban world…Looking down on this great metropolis, the ingenuity with which we continue to reshape the surface of the planet is striking. But it’s also sobering. It reminds me of just how easy for us to lose our connection with the natural world. Yet it’s on this connection that the future of both humanity and the natural world will depend. It’s surely our responsibility to do everything within our power to create the planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on earth.”

Now is the time. Together we can engineer change and create a future that works for all of us. Join our movement and help us create globally responsible engineers.

Written by Katie Cresswell-Maynard, Head of Education at Engineers Without Borders UK, December 2016.

Find out more about how we are encouraging engineers to consistently social and environmental considerations so that they can come up with innovative solutions that work for all, today and tomorrow.

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