Why is it worth “going wild” Wrocław?
On 2 August, the campaign "Wild Wrocław - Wild Pleasure" was launched in defence of naturally valuable areas in the capital of Lower Silesia. Behind it is the Wrocław Climate Protection Coalition, which brings together 22 organisations and movements working for nature and the climate. The activists have applied for immediate action to extend legal protection to 26 valuable green areas in Wrocław. The list of areas was compiled by the Wrocław Nature social initiative, of which Aleksandra Kolanek, a doctoral student from the Institute of Geography and Regional Development at the University of Wrocław, is a member. We asked her about this project.
You have identified more than twenty areas in the Wroclaw area to be specially protected. Why is this necessary?
Aleksandra Kolanek: Most of the people involved in the Wrocław Nature initiative have been active in nature conservation for more than a dozen years, during which time we have observed the gradual disappearance of many valuable habitats from the Wrocław space. We believe that our city cannot afford further impoverishment of its natural assets, especially as we are in the midst of an ongoing biodiversity and climate crisis. We are one of a huge number of species inhabiting the planet, moreover, we are dependent on them and bound to them by many ecological connections. As an intelligent, analytical and ethically and morally minded species with a strong capacity to transform our environment, we should at the same time act responsibly. As members of the social initiative Wrocławska Przyroda, we have decided to act locally for the benefit of our city’s nature. Nature is an extremely valuable resource and should therefore be protected effectively and efficiently.
But is there room for nature in the city? Shouldn’t people who want to be among the greenery go outside?
Natural areas, or natural green spaces, are critical infrastructure, providing numerous so-called ecosystem services to humans. They are areas of natural retention, they clean the air of dust pollution, they mitigate the effects of climate change, especially in summer (which is clearly shown, among other things, by our analysis of thermal conditions based on satellite data – you can find it on our Facebook fanpage). For many people (including many children), this is their only contact with nature, and such contact has a positive impact on our wellbeing and health. We can also look at the problem from another angle – currently around 50 per cent of people in the world live in cities, and it is estimated that the area occupied by urban centres may even triple in the next few decades – where will we find nature then? It is giving way to us all the time. Cities are expanding, so animals and plants are being pushed further and further away. And what is outside the city? The countryside is also changing, expanding and taking up more and more space. We are taking more and more space for buildings, services, warehouses, sawmills, farmland, etc. Soon there won’t be much space left for nature. Besides, there is no single nature. There are many diverse and unique natural habitats, each with its own values. The riparian forest in the river valley is different from the prairie meadow at Biskupin.
We already have Natura 2000 sites in Wrocław. Is that not enough? What is the difference between Natura 2000 protection and that advocated by you?
Each form of protection has its own specificity and purpose, and European and Polish law gives us different tools, depending on what we want to protect and on what scale. Natura 2000 areas are intended to protect specific natural habitats, selected by the European Union, which are valuable and endangered on a European scale. The protection we advocate is to protect local biodiversity, species and habitats unique to a region or city. In most cases, it is about protecting really small areas that are also true natural enclaves. It is about protecting our Wrocław pearls, which the city should boast about and take care of with all its might. At present, there is not a single reserve in Wrocław, and only two ecological sites are fully functioning – compared to other provincial cities, we come off very badly. The press office of Wrocław City Hall has published information that 41% of the city’s area is greenery – this is a major manipulation, as this area also includes artificial planting of species that do not occur naturally in the city or parks as a whole (and therefore also the area occupied by, for example, a playground within a park). If we want to think about real nature conservation we need to think ecosystemically, we need to think ecologically – but ‘ecologically’ in the scientific sense, i.e. about the relationships between organisms.
Why did you choose these areas in particular?
For the most part, these are places that are well known to Wrocław naturalists, that we have researched and that stand out for their special qualities – so we have the Irrigation Fields, which for years have been the subject of particular interest among activists, amateur naturalists and scientists-biologists from the University of Wrocław, and have been postulated for inclusion in reserve protection. We have, for example, a small reservoir behind the Korona Shopping Centre in Soltysowice, which is an extremely valuable breeding ground for many amphibian species and the habitat of many rare birds. We also have several areas in the river valleys that are worth protecting not only for their scenic value, but also for their function of ventilating the city. It is worth adding that this is not a finite list – the initiative’s fanpage encourages people to notify us of other such areas worth protecting.
What is the difference between the forms of protection you propose: nature reserve, ecological use, natural and landscape complex?
A reserve is the form of protection with the highest protection regime among those listed; it covers areas and natural elements of particular value. Importantly, zones of different types of protection – strict, active or landscape – can be delimited within a reserve, which allows for flexible and effective management of the subject of protection. A so-called conservation plan is drawn up for the reserve, i.e. a document that defines the objectives of protection, conservation tasks and rules for making the reserve accessible. This guarantees that nature is preserved in the best possible condition. An ecological usufruct covers small but naturally valuable areas. On the other hand, a nature-landscape complex is created to protect exceptionally valuable fragments of landscape, both natural and cultural.
Will the average Breslau resident or Breslau woman gain anything from this?
It depends on how we understand ‘profit’. In addition to the ecosystem services I mentioned above, there is another issue – without nature we cannot survive. Every single insect, amphibian or mammal is part of a huge network of trophic relationships. It’s a bit like a game of Jenga – we can take out a few blocks and nothing will happen, but the next time we remove a block it will all scatter across the table. Protecting nature is protecting the ecosystem of which we are a part. And our Wrocław’s natural assets are treasures that we should care for in the same way as we care for e.g. historical monuments. Nature conservation in the city will certainly benefit those most vulnerable to climate change – the elderly and those with cardiovascular diseases. For among these people, more frequent and stronger heat waves are causing excess deaths.
How can we convince the citizens of Wrocław to act to protect the environment? And to convince at all? Does our impact as individuals on the environment in times of climate change even make sense?
As a nature educator, I see the point in convincing people to take action to protect the environment. Together with other people from the NATRIX association, we run educational activities, mainly for children. We show why nature is not worth being afraid of and how interesting creatures live around us, although we often do not realise it. Even if we do not change the whole world, we can change the world for someone or something. Since 2010, I have been co-ordinating an action to relocate amphibians in Zalesie in Wrocław – these are thousands of animals saved, and thanks to these actions the population is still alive and well. These are real effects on a local scale. Millions of local actions translate into pressure that can make a difference. Look at the issue of ‘triplet’ eggs or the production of meat substitutes by large corporations – more and more people are concerned that the food on their plate involves less suffering. Initially, lobbying on this issue was taken frivolously, but now there are concrete marketing moves in response to consumer pressure. I sincerely hope that conservation is also moving in this direction – real action by global players in response to public pressure. And in this context, it makes perfect sense to convince people about nature conservation, or environmental protection more broadly.
And where to go for a walk at the weekend? Do you have your favourite green spot in Wrocław?
My favourite green spot is the remains of the old river bed on Opatowicka Island. If you come in spring, you can see e.g. blue (!) moor frogs, listen to the voices of fire-bellied toads, sounding as if someone was blowing into the neck of a bottle. If you wait patiently, you may see a grass snake gliding through the water, watch a raniard (a flying, fluffy little ball) or a kingfisher resting on a log. I also recommend getting on a bike and exploring Wrocław piece by piece from the perspective of the floodbanks – I find this form of leisure extremely relaxing.
Thank you very much.
Aleksandra Kolanek – doctoral student at the Department of Geoinformatics and Cartography, Faculty of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Wrocław. Graduate of two fields of study at UWr: geography and biology, urban activist, president of the NATRIX Herpetological Society. Moves toads, researches snakes and forest fires, educates people on how to reconcile human interests with nature and climate protection, is active in the social initiative Wrocławska Przyroda, which developed the list of Natural Priority Areas of Wrocław in 2021. Scientifically, as a geoinformatician, she deals with modelling the influence of natural and anthropogenic factors on natural phenomena and species distribution.
The University of Wrocław has been named the most environmentally friendly Polish university in the THE Impact ranking (more on naszej stronie). This accolade is no coincidence, as the university has for years been involved in projects related to the protection of nature, including that of Wrocław.
One example is the ‘Wild in the City’ project carried out jointly with the Wrocław Zoo and the city council. It turns out that urban areas not only contain valuable natural areas, as Aleksandra Kolanek describes, but wild animals can also be found here. The project, coordinated on behalf of UWr by the Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences, Dr Marcin Kadej, Professor UWr, is intended to promote practices that will support animals in cities and eliminate conflict situations with humans.
And there could potentially be a lot of these. In 2020 alone, the municipal office recorded 991 interventions involving wild animals. The Department of Environment and Agriculture operates a wildlife intervention hotline. The 24-hour hotline is operated by the Crisis Management Centre. The number 71 770 22 22 should be called for emergencies involving wild animals.
In quieter times, it is worth familiarising yourself with the website „Dzikie w mieście”. It provides a wealth of information about wildlife in the city and contains numerous tips and tricks, such as how an ordinary ‘burgher’ can help biodiversity or pollinators. The site also provides answers to questions such as what to do if a bat enters your home, how to build an amphibian pond, etc.
Another example of our ecological activities is the ‘Podgorzałka Project’ carried out jointly with the Wrocław Zoo. The ferruginous duck is a species of rare duck threatened with extinction. It is a migratory bird – it spends the winter mainly outside Europe. Black-throated ducks live in shallow reservoirs rich in vegetation and invertebrates, which they dive for. Although they are omnivorous, their diet is dominated by plant material such as seeds, roots and aquatic plants. They will not disdain molluscs (snails), or insects, amphibians and small fish.
In Poland, in 2018-2020, their population was estimated at a mere 100-130 pairs, several times less than a few decades ago. In the 1980s, around half a thousand pairs were counted in our country, and most of them could be found at Stawy Milickie, where the UWr Ornithological Station is located. In May of this year, 22 ducks entered the reserve. But this is just the beginning. The project will take five years to complete, and ultimately the Ponds are to be home to several hundred subguinea fowl. “Our” grebes have been given identification rings and are constantly monitored by Station staff. As Beata Orłowska from the Ornithological Station says, it is difficult to talk about the success of the project at this point, and any conclusions can only be made in a few years’ time. For the time being, however, it is clear that the subspecies are doing well in their new environment.
We are keeping our fingers crossed for the fate of the subaltern, and we wish ourselves and you the wildest Wroclaw possible – for the benefit of us all.