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Urban Rewilding: A Solution To The World’s Ecological And Mental Health Crises?

Urban Rewilding: A Solution To The World’s Ecological And Mental Health Crises?

The rewilding of urban centres could help to mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss, while improving the wellbeing of billions of city-dwellers and increasing society’s resilience to future virus outbreaks.


The coronavirus pandemic has encouraged people across the globe to reconnect with local nature. Lockdown measures have highlighted our need for regular contact with the natural world, while drawing attention to the ecological depletion of many urban areas. As a result, there is a growing interest in urban rewilding, fuelled by evidence that the blending of nature with city life could not only foster healthier and happier human communities, but also tackle global environmental problems by transforming cities into thriving carbon sinks.

Urban Rewilding and Human Health

Our transition towards an ecological civilisation is being accelerated by the pandemic, at both the collective and the individual level. Travel restrictions, for example, have rooted us firmly, if not forlornly, in our local soil, and in many cases deepened our appreciation for our often-overlooked natural surroundings. Some of us have sought refuge from narrow domestic life in public parks and private gardens, while others have found even the modest sights beyond our windows to be a vital source of wonder and perspective.

While such tame encounters with nature may bring us brief moments of respite, they are, however, not enough to maintain our mental and physical health. Mounting scientific evidence demonstrates the importance of frequent visits to wild spaces for human wellbeing, linking what author Richard Louv has called Nature-Deficit Disorder to a range of illnesses and diseases, including depression, obesity, diabetes and poor immunity – some of which increase our vulnerability to viruses like COVID-19. Thus, for people who have been locked-down in small inner-city apartments – who have been cut off not only from the comfort of human community, but from the sustenance of the natural world – the months of isolation have been made ever-more difficult by their confinement within a largely manmade environment.

If we are to protect the sanity and wellbeing of city-dwellers, and at the same time address the various ecological crises that confront us, then the rewilding of urban areas is an urgent imperative. Fortunately, a growing number of cities are beginning to respond to these crises, ushering in a future where all aspects of sustainable urban life are interwoven with the textures and rhythms of nature.

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Sustainable Cities

Many of the world’s major cities are becoming more sustainable, from Vienna to Vancouver, Copenhagen to Curitiba, and Munich to Madrid. One particularly notable example is Singapore, which has blossomed into a “biophilic” garden city since gaining independence in 1965, having lost much of its native vegetation to colonial industrialisation after 1819. The Singapore Green Plan, which was announced in the 1990s, has served to restore the city-state’s degraded ecosystems, while reducing pollution and carbon emissions. In the last decade, over 100 buildings have also been retrofitted with vegetation – green roofs and walls and vegetable rooftop gardens have all helped to improve air quality throughout the city and to conserve energy by keeping streets cool. Thus, Singapore is proof that even the most depleted urban environments can be transformed into liveable, sustainable cities for the benefit of both people and planet.

Another major city which is rewilding design into urban planning is Barcelona. In 2016, it introduced a new “superblock” grid system, where traffic is restricted to major roads surrounding neighbourhoods of nine blocks, and inner streets are reserved for pedestrians and cyclists. In the central district of Eixample, a new ten-year plan will see 80% of each road lined with trees and 20% left unpaved, while no resident will be more than 200 metres from a green space. The project, which has a budget of €38m, aims to reduce the city’s carbon footprint while improving the health of residents.

Not every city, however, will be able to emulate the success of these pioneers. Urban centres in poorer countries, for example, might be unable to afford the requisite green infrastructure, while those with ill-designed grid systems may struggle to replicate Barcelona’s green zones. Indeed, every city is faced with a unique set of challenges, including those posed by the particular geography, climate and architectural framework it inhabits. In order to meet these challenges, it will require a combination of ingenuity, innovation and imagination.


While Barcelona and Singapore have given us a glimpse of the future, they have by no means exhausted the potentialities for the wild city of tomorrow. Thus, to assist the conception of such a city, let us travel forward in time, and consider a wider and wilder range of possibilities…

The train wheezes to a halt, and the sliding doors open onto the cool platform. We stroll through the tranquil subway and climb the stairs leading up to the street, emerging at last into the open air. As our eyes adjust to the dazzling sunlight, we find ourselves immersed in a pulsing parade of green and gold – towering buildings line the road in both directions, tangled in wreaths of gleaming vegetation. Some way down the street, people are collecting apples from the boughs of bending trees, while a neighbouring band of deer casually browses in a clump of brambles, showered by a golden flurry of lilting butterflies. Between the two feasting parties, a fox darts furtively across the road, ignited for a moment by the orange afternoon light, before dipping into the gloom of a side-street.

Our ears are engulfed in a wave of luminous sounds, gradually attuning to the murmur of human voices and the singing of birds, to the whirring of bicycle wheels and the gentle clashing of branches. The very air itself is alive, electric with the scents of pine needles and wildflowers, vibrating with the hum of bees in their hives and the ringing of crickets in the verges.

Looking down the street, there isn’t a car in sight – the only sound missing is that familiar, incessant rumble of traffic. Where cars would be parked in contemporary cities, the spears of unmown grasses bend in the breeze, shaded by thick trees that plume from the pavement like puffs of green vapour. Behind them, spiralling into the azure sky, office and apartment blocks are cloaked in velvet mosses and veridian creepers. Sun-baked balconies burst with plants and vegetables, runner beans wind around the stems of street-lamps, and solar panels bloom in rooftop gardens. Overhead, a flock of honking wild geese flies towards the obscured horizon, gazing down on clouds of vegetation and clusters of concrete buildings, a rippling cityscape laced with ribbons of silver water.

Soon we’re approached by one of the locals, who is eager to inform us about life in this living, breathing city. She tells us that the entire human community here works to preserve the natural ecosystems on which it depends – indeed, this society has blended the blessings of Western science with indigenous knowledge, recognising that the health of each individual is entwined with the integrity of the encompassing biosphere. The city is nestled harmoniously within the wider earth community, and is therefore less vulnerable to virus outbreaks and diseases, to droughts, floods and even crime.

Daily life is nourished by clean water, green energy and locally-grown food. Streams and brooks flow with crystal water, brimming with fish; organic farms flourish on rooftops and spill down walls, while public transport is confined to silent routes along major roads and underground. At school, children are taught how to plant and harvest a garden, and nature is woven into the syllabus to nurture creativity and resilience. Education here is not restricted to the remembrance and reproduction of facts, but expanded and broadened into the study of the art of living.

As the evening shadows stretch out across the street, we thank our acquaintance and part ways. The voice of the wind is fading, and the sounds of the day are beginning to recede into the approaching darkness. The cool air soon falls silent, stirred intermittently by the blustering of owls and the rustling of rabbits in the thickets. Slowly, a pale moon climbs into view, glowing above the treetops. Warm lights ooze out of nearby windows like melted butter, and the moon’s rays drip down the walls like silver paint. Bats flit and swerve in circles overhead, dancing beneath a sea of stars that sweeps across the dome of the darkening sky, a stream of lights embedded in the swirling Milky Way like jewels in a resplendent rock. We look in wonder at the sparkling cosmic canopy, feeling we may have grasped the city’s secret. Humans cannot live in isolation from the living world: just as its plants, rivers and creatures feed our bodies, so do its shifting shapes, shades and songs feed our minds. By rewilding our urban centres, we can restore health to humanity and to the earth, and protect all life from further catastrophe. In doing so, we may also come to a deeper understanding of ourselves, and rediscover what it means to be human.

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