The Cities Taking Up Calls to Defund the Police

On June 7, members of the Minneapolis city council announced something that just weeks ago might have seemed politically untenable: They would disband the Minneapolis Police Department entirely, and start over with a community-led public safety system. Though the mayor reaffirmed on Monday that he wouldn’t support the dissolution of the force, the council has secured a veto-proof majority.

“Our commitment is to do what’s necessary to keep every single member of our community safe and to tell the truth: that the Minneapolis Police are not doing that,” city councilmember Lisa Bender said at a rally. “Our commitment is to end our city’s toxic relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department, to end policing as we know it, and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.”

Although it’s unclear how the council plans to disband the police department, the move nonetheless marks a foundational shift in how many U.S. politicians talk about policing in the city — one that reflects the growing understanding that there’s something systemic wrong with the institution.

No other city has gone as far as Minneapolis, where the killing of George Floyd sparked global protests. The Minneapolis Parks Department, the University of Minnesota, some local museums and the public school system have already severed ties with the police department.

But lawmakers in at least 15 other U.S. cities have proposed or made pledges that would divest some resources from the police. Several more have proposed taking police out of schools. Many of the ideas are more incremental in their rhetoric than Minneapolis’s, calling instead for budget cuts or reductions in officer counts. Some are waiting to conduct firmer research or get more public input before making concrete plans. Even in Minneapolis, councilmembers haven’t yet laid out details about how their proposal would work, instead promising that they’d listen to locals before determining a path. But already, in the weeks since Floyd’s death, communities have been heard — in the streets and online — sparking an acute focus on funding as a reform vehicle.

“These ideas are not new, but what we are seeing today is the emergence of a groundswell of support for them from elected officials and — most importantly — from their communities and constituents across the country,” says Sarah Johnson, the director of Local Progress, an alliance of local policymakers that advocate for progressive reforms.

As the role and pervasive power of the police has been questioned, so, too, have bloated budgets: Even as crime has fallen across the country, police and public safety have consistently made up an average of 3.7% of state and local spending, a Bloomberg Businessweek analysis of Urban Institute data found. Since the 1970s, spending on police has nearly tripled, reaching $114.5 billion in 2017.

By reducing the number of police deployed, de-militarizing them, and rethinking their role in prosecuting smaller offenses, advocates say cities could cut departments down to scale. With the money saved, cities could reallocate resources toward other public services — like schools, social workers and mental health professionals — and away from enforcement and incarceration.

Reducing police budgets

After peaceful protest in front of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s house and on the streets of Los Angeles, the city became one of the first where true police defunding will take hold. The mayor and the city council president plan to cut $100 to $150 million from the LAPD’s budget, and reinvest that, plus $100 million more, in black communities. Activists were encouraged by the move, but it falls far short of what they’re seeking: a dramatic slashing of the $1.86 billion budget to represent just 6% of the city’s discretionary fund, rather than 53%.

In New York City, despite initial resistance, Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to propose a July budget that includes cuts to the $6 billion police budget, paired with more investment in youth and social services, though he shared few details. The city’s comptroller has urged him to reduce the budget by $1.1 billion, and councilmembers Carlos Menchaca and Brad Lander have made clear they won’t sign a budget that doesn’t “meaningfully” redirect funds from policing to coronavirus recovery and social services.

And in San Francisco, supervisor Shamann Walton has announced his own plans to redirect funding from the police to black communities like the one he represents. Details there are scarce, too, but Walton has won the support of Mayor London Breed — who, in the past, has worked to increase police presence in the city.

Rerouting funds to social services

Where defunding efforts are still nascent, understanding the gaps between spending on social services and policing will be key to determining how much funding to redirect, policymakers say.

In Chicago, for instance, the public dollars that go to supporting public health, family services, the department for people with disabilities, and libraries combined is about $1 billion, says Chicago alderman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, who’s joined with the city’s progressive caucus to lead calls to defund the police. In contrast, the 13,000-member-strong police department’s budget has grown every year for the past eight years, reaching $1.78 billion in 2020; $153 million of the city’s budget is earmarked for police misconduct settlements.

“As we have created this austerity situation where poverty has increased and the gaps between the rich and the poor have increased, we’ve also created this really huge police department that has lots of military equipment and a lot of surveillance,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence.” Though she says more research needs to be done before the council identifies a target number for divestment, she says the city could start by getting Chicago police officers out of public schools, and halt plans to build a new $100 million police academy. (Mayor Lori Lightfoot has resisted calls to cut police funding in the past.)

Rodriguez-Sanchez says public support is growing for non-financial reforms, too, including a push to create a Civilian Police Accountability Council, which would introduce more public oversight over the police department. The ordinance is currently held up in the city’s public safety committee.

“Imagine the kind of support services we can have if we divest resources from punishment to funding basic human needs,” she wrote on Twitter.

Smaller cities have similarly disparate spending priorities. While more than 33.5% of St. Louis, Missouri’s general fund and 20% of its total city budget went to policing in 2019, only 2.3% of the city budget went to mental health according to an analysis by Local Progress.

“We’ve continued to underfund social services and human services while putting upwards of 50% of our budget into policing and jails,” said Megan Ellyia Green, a St. Louis councilmember who worked with Durham Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson on an op-ed advocating for police divestment in January.

A sales tax passed in 2017 to hire more police officers and give raises to existing ones has raised $50 million a year; Green says she wants the city to divert those funds into “violence interruptors, social workers and substance abuse counselors,” and ”to start to go after the root causes of crime in our city.”

She’s also joining activists in calling on the city to close a medium-security jail nicknamed “the Workhouse,” where only about 100 primarily non-violent offenders are held, the vast majority of whom are awaiting trial but cannot afford bail. Recent reforms have already shrunk the jail’s budget from $16 million to closer to $8 million, but Green notes those funds could be saved if it was shuttered entirely. Incarcerated people could be transferred into St. Louis’ Justice Center, “but the goal should be to have the maximum amount of people not within our jails, and provide people with the supports they need to wait for their day in court at home,” she said.

Reducing officer counts

Where the cop-to-population ratio is especially high, lawmakers are emphasizing the need to shrink head counts. Washington, D.C., for example, employs about 3,800 officers. That means the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) has 55 officers per every 10,000 residents, a proportion that city councilmember David Grosso notes is double the national average. In a proposed amendment to councilmember Charles Allen’s police reform bill — which would “find savings in MPD’s budget” — Grosso offered a plan to limit the number of sworn officers to 3,500, and to put a hiring freeze on the department if it exceeds that number.

Two city councilmembers in Hartford, a city of 122,000 in Connecticut, have proposed what Local Progress believes to be “the largest percent reduction currently being proposed among cities with largest police-to-population ratio.” The policymakers, Wildaliz Bermudez and Josh Michtom, are calling for a 25% cut of the police budget. That would translate into an estimated $9 million in savings cut from “areas within the department least likely to reduce violent crime and most likely to contribute to the criminalization of Black and Brown people.”

While the national momentum is unprecedented, city leaders like St. Louis Councilmember Green and Durham Mayor Pro Tempure Johnson, have been nudging reforms for years. Last summer, Durham’s city council denied a $1.2 million proposal to fund 18 new police officers, instead raising wages for part-time government workers in a city where crime has consistently declined. To determine future policing priorities, Durham created a community safety task force, charged with things like looking at how the city deals with crisis response and investigating alternatives to school policing.

“The police chief and the sheriff have been strong advocates of broad reforms to the criminal legal system, but the questions around defunding or divesting obviously go further than reform,” she said. “We can make policing better, but policing is never going to be the right solution for certain problems.”

Johnson is planning on analyzing the city’s 911 calls to gain more clarity on which could be fielded by community health workers or people trained in crisis intervention instead of law enforcement.

“If we could divert 20% of the calls that are currently being responded to by police to other agencies, that’s a huge difference,” she said. Redirecting resources doesn’t have to stop with 911, she added: “You don’t need to be armed to direct traffic or lead a parade through a crowd. What kinds of jobs could we create in the city for unarmed safety officers to be able to do that kind of work?”

Obstacles to reform

Even where political will is growing, obstacles to passing legislation at the city level remain. Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s proposed budget, which the council will vote on this week, is set to allocate more than $500 million to the police — more than three times the spending on “housing and community development, employment development, homeless services, recreation and parks, art and culture, health, and civil rights” combined, the Baltimore Fishbowl notes. Although a few city councilmembers in Baltimore have expressed support for police budget cuts, the city’s strong-mayor leadership means that even if the council votes to defund, it can’t decide where the money is reinvested. Leadership change may accelerate things: In an upset Monday, councilmember Bill Henry — a longtime advocate for diverting police funds into things like supporting youth — won Baltimore’s comptroller seat, giving him the power to audit city agencies. And the primary election for Baltimore mayor will mean new leadership at the top, too.

Even in Minneapolis, it’s unclear what bold pledges to disband the police will or can mean in practice. Councilmembers haven’t yet taken a vote or elaborated on what a plan might look like and activists question whether eliminating the department is even a good idea without clear plans about what will replace it. Michelle Gross, president of the Minneapolis chapter of Communities United Against Police Brutality, told the Associated Press the promise was “just plain optics.”

Getting police out of schools

While policymakers work to reduce the number of police on the streets, public school systems like Minneapolis’s that have contracts with local departments or employ their own officers are taking similarly bold steps in their hallways.

“We have such a dearth of funding in education and a lack of prioritization in education. We can’t afford to waste money by paying police officers to come in and not just disrupt education, but really funnel kids away from the educational system and into the criminal system,” said Sylvia Torres-Guillén, the ACLU of California’s director of education equity. “Studies have shown that students are more likely not to graduate from high school if they are arrested. Every time law enforcement touches a student, they are more likely not to complete school.”

Public schools in Rochester, New York, cut five out of 12 “school resource officers” — agents from the Rochester police department — from its budget in May, and the city is pushing to cut the rest. Contracts between police and Denver public schools may be phased out, too, as reforms gain the support of the majority of the school board members and the superintendent.

And in Portland, the superintendent of public schools has decided to “discontinue” its use of school resource officers entirely, heeding the demands of the city council’s lone black member, Jo Ann Hardesty, has been making since she took office in 2019.

When the final city budget vote is cast on June 10, Hardesty wrote in an op-ed that she “will be re-introducing a series of amendments to not only disband the three aforementioned Portland police specialty units, but to move that money out of the Portland police budget and into policing alternatives such as Portland Street Response.”

“This is only the beginning,” she wrote.

The volume of messages from constituents supporting efforts to defund the police has never been higher, Green, Johnson, and Rodriguez-Sanchez told CityLab.

“I think we’re finally getting to the point where we’re recognizing that policing does not equate [with] public safety,” said Green. “And that if we’re perpetually underfunding all these support services that can actually prevent crime, that’s actually causing us to have higher crime rates.”

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Josh Mishtom’s name.

Powered by WPeMatico

Taking a Look into Our Adaptation Blind Spots

Do you ever wonder what you’re working to achieve with adaptation? Reviews of adaptation plans have revealed that most communities rarely state what their intended objectives are. They look at climate scenarios to protect against, but what level of protection, or what positive outcomes they hope to achieve often remains unsaid.

Think about it: where does the energy come from that powers your desk lamp? Where does the food come from that you are eating while you read this? Where do your staff commute in from? Where does the battery come from that makes your Prius hum? Where are the chips made that make your computer run?

Here are four things I’ve learned about the blind spots we all seem to have in this work of resilience-building and climate adaptation, and how to address them.

Powered by WPeMatico

Trump’s Plan to Criminalize Homelessness Is Taking Shape

The White House is taking steps toward decisive new action on homelessness, bucking policies favored by advocates in favor of an aggressive approach that centers the role of law enforcement. Some of these efforts hit roadblocks this week, but more measures are in the works—including a rumored executive order on homeless encampments.

Advocates say that they expect an executive order on homelessness to assign new resources to police departments to remove homeless encampments and even strip housing funds from cities that choose to tolerate these encampments. It’s one of several efforts being steered by the White House’s Domestic Policy Council in concert with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

On Monday, Housing Secretary Ben Carson met with local officials in Houston, part of a push for federal action on homelessness that could soon take shape in cities across the country. The secretary visited an emergency shelter and was slated to tour a former Harris County jail facility, according to advocates familiar with his agenda. Officials at HUD have been looking at real estate in several cities since the fall, when President Donald Trump ordered a .

In yet another front of the administration’s efforts, the White House also pushed hard to strip Housing First language from funding measures in the appropriations bill passed on Monday night, according to advocates. But the bill still retains language from 2018 that prioritizes funds for groups that adhere to Housing First goals.

There are still some legal impediments to banning encampments or stripping funds from groups that choose to put housing needs before behavioral modification. But those may not be enough to prevent the White House from implementing a strategy that local leaders describe as an about-face from what they’ve been pursuing for years.

“The Houston approach in general has not been to pour a lot of money into emergency-type facilities,” Thibeaudeau says. “We’ve chosen instead to use that money to increase our supply of permanent supportive housing.”

Powered by WPeMatico

CityLab Daily: Trump’s Plan to Criminalize Homelessness Is Taking Shape

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.


What We’re Following

Wake-up call: On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case about whether local and state governments can make it a crime for people to sleep outside. That leaves intact a lower court ruling that deems such laws unconstitutional.

But the White House is still gearing up for its own aggressive approach to homelessness with a prominent role for law enforcement. Advocates say that they expect an executive order on homelessness that would assign new funds for police departments to remove homeless encampments and even strip housing funds from cities that tolerate these encampments. The order would be part of a broader federal strategy on homelessness. CityLab has obtained a list by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that narrows the federal government’s focus to 24 cities and states, all of which have large numbers of unhoused people living outside. CityLab’s Kriston Capps has the story: Trump’s Push To Criminalize Homelessness Is Taking Shape

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

The Maps That Made You, Dear Readers

From CityLab’s mailbag: Here are the personal stories about how maps shaped your lives.

Laura Bliss, Jessica Lee Martin, and Gracie McKenzie

Has the Rise of Uber Led to More Heavy Drinking?

New research suggests that ride-hailing is associated with increases in drinking behaviors in U.S. cities and metro areas.

Richard Florida

A City Map Made for (And by) Kids

“Growing Up Boulder” is the nation’s first printed kid-friendly city map, designed to help parents and children find their way in the Colorado city.

Mimi Kirk

What Does This Street In Zürich Mean?

If you see how cars, streetcars, bikes, and pedestrians use this Swiss street, you can better understand what’s wrong with so many other urban thoroughfares.

Norman Garrick

Reindeer Games

(Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

This month, a new Banksy work appeared in Birmingham, England, featuring a bench getting pulled by two reindeer like a sleigh. The anonymous artist posted a video to their Instagram featuring a homeless person sleeping on the bench. Banksy wrote:

God bless Birmingham. In the 20 minutes we filmed Ryan on this bench, passers-by gave him a hot drink, two chocolate bars and a lighter – without him ever asking for anything.

The Guardian reports the original street art did not include the red noses, as shown above, which appeared the Monday after Banksy’s posting. The new mural is now being protected from further vandalism.

From the CityLab archives: Why Banksy Is (Probably) A Woman

What We’re Reading

Inside Pete Buttigieg’s years-long, and often clumsy, quest to understand the black experience (Washington Post)

Detroit, the blackest city in the U.S., is facing an environmental justice nightmare (OneZero)

After a public housing fire, a lack of federal funding comes to light (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

How bike sharing became this decade’s biggest transportation success story (Curbed)

New York City suburbs lure millennials with luxury digs, ax-throwing bars (Bloomberg)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to

Powered by WPeMatico

The Slave Revolt Reenactment Taking Over New Orleans

A recent report on attitudes toward racism in the South found that many white and even some Latino and African Americans in New Orleans said they were uninterested in dredging up the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial segregation. Nonetheless, that history will be confronting them this weekend, when hundreds of African Americans band together to reenact the German Coast Uprising of 1811, considered the largest slave revolt in U.S. history.

Under the direction of performance artist Dread Scott, the actors will walk the exact same route as the revolters of 1811, a 26-mile trek along the Mississippi River that will begin near LaPlace, Louisiana, in an area that was known as the “German Coast,” named for the German colonists who settled it in the 1700s. They will cross through parts of “Cancer Alley” and end in Congo Square in New Orleans. The actors will be costumed in 19th-century garb and armed with period-era machetes, muskets, and drums, like the enslaved revolters they’re emulating.

( Scott)

The optics will be “jarringly out of place,” reads the website, explaining their journey through the strip malls and oil refineries that stand in the places where sugar plantations and slave-labor camps existed in the 1800s.

The performance will disrupt current discussion of the South’s history of racism, which is usually detailed in terms of black oppression, Confederate monuments, and other symbols of white supremacy spread across the region. Instead, Scott’s slave rebellion reenactment commemorates African resistance and liberation, showing how the enslaved employed agency to bring down white supremacy on their own terms. The performance will take place on November 8 and 9.

CityLab spoke with Scott about what he hopes to stir up with the performance and how it might reshape the Southern landscape.

CityLab: Why did you choose to take this performance directly to  public spaces and roads, as opposed to a more dedicated theater or performance space?

Dread Scott: I think it’s important for people to have access to contemporary art. But the main reason is that this is a community-engaged performance. There’s this history that’s there and it’s important for people to see freedom fighters from the past, or people in outdated clothing, but embodying the spirit of freedom and emancipation in the spaces that have this particular history.

Is part of the mission for this performance to engage the new landscape of strip malls, oil refineries, and corporate spaces that once were labor camps for the enslaved?  

Visually, yes, and with audio, yes, but not directly. It’s not a demonstration. We’re not going to be saying, ‘Well, this is Shell Oil, and it plowed under graves of black people,’ or anything like that. It’s not going to be confronting it that way. But there will be a jarring disconnect seeing hundreds of black people with machetes and muskets dressed in 19th-century clothing with a backdrop of a grain elevator, or with a backdrop of Bayou Steel, or with a backdrop of modern homes. People could do just the minimal amount of research and find that in the early 1800s, that this was all sugar plantations. In all of these towns, they reflect the fact that they were all plantations that needed access to the river. So the history of enslavement is very prevalent even in the landscape. And we are walking across it.

Why is it just as important to celebrate historical moments of African resistance as it is bringing down Confederate statues?

It’s a very good thing that activists in this city have shined a light on. These racist monuments that litter the South, and in some cases even the North, and the fact that people fought for years to get these monuments taken down, and launched a whole movement around that is great. TakeEmDownNOLA changed and re-centered a debate that wasn’t happening broadly, and then made it front and center.

This project is looking at black resistance. In 1811, the most radical ideas of freedom and emancipation existed in the heads of enslaved people, and they launched this rebellion to try and seize Orleans territory to try and create an African Republic in the new world, where slavery would have been eliminated. It would’ve been a sanctuary for Africans and people of African descent. That is very radical and bold and should be not only known about, but celebrated.

These people are heroes, and this artwork is highlighting and bringing that past back to life. It is also a project about the present. This project has taken place at a time when 1.1 million black people are in prison, where police, even on a welfare call, walk up to a black woman’s house in Texas and murder her. This is not directly responding to any of that, but it’s actually highlighting the spirit of resistance that existed in 1811 that many people could learn from and apply today in various ways.

The city of New Orleans has one of the highest incarceration rates in a state that has had the highest incarceration rate in the world [Although by some counts, in 2018, Oklahoma unseated Louisiana as world incarceration capital]. Do you think there’s a direct connection between that and the 1811 revolt, the largest slave rebellion in the nation’s history?

You don’t get a modern-day America without slavery. And one of the legacies of slavery is how it both criminalized black people and also literally built a prison system to to warehouse us. A lot of the carceral controls were set up around the time of slavery and after slavery was legally abolished. Here, Angola in particular, is a place where 75 percent, I believe, of the people that are incarcerated there will die there. And it also had some really important resistance fighters, like the Angola Three: Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox, and Robert King were symbols of the resistance to the new Jim Crow.

And so this project does actually talk about people fighting to get free from enslavement. It’s not about mass incarceration, but mass incarceration is part of a society that for hundreds of years profited off extracting the labor of Africans and people of African descent.

A recent report found that many people throughout the South aren’t interested in dredging up these historical events concerning racism. What do you hope this performance conveys to them?

Well, I think how people see the past affects how they see themselves in the present and how they look into the future. I think it’s important for people to know the history of slavery, but this is actually not a project about slavery. This is a project about freedom and emancipation. People should look back at people like Harriet Tubman or Toussaint L’Overture who fought slavery in different ways. People should be like Charles Deslondes who was one of the key leaders of this rebellion. There’s a lot to learn from that as opposed to just learning from the horrors and brutality of slavery— how people actually had a vision of getting free from it.

In 1811, people had a vision for abolishing, not just escaping, but actually abolishing enslavement by setting up an African Republic. That’s something that should be celebrated. And then how people move in the present, you know, how do people look at ending mass incarceration? How do they look at ending murder by police? Or how do they look at changing the profound disparities in wealth and thinking about the reparations of extracted labor.

Those are important questions. How do people get to a world where people are not held down and degraded from the time they were born, or a situation where now one in three black men will spend some time of their life in prison? How can we get to a world where that’s not the defining nature of existence for millions and millions of people. And how people look at this past has a lot to do with how people think about that question.

Explain the connection between these rebellions and Second Line culture in New Orleans today.

Well, I mean, as far as Second Line culture, this is a very different, dynamic, exciting type of Second Line. It is like a parade and it will be kind of amazing for people to rethink what Second Lines and what parades are in that context, and how people follow along them. We are ending in Congo Square, and without Congo Square, and a couple of places like it, you don’t get modern American culture. You don’t get modern American music. You don’t get jazz, blues, rock and roll, hip hop, bounce, R&B, trap, trance disco, funk.

This is the reason why we’re ending there. In 1811, there was an advanced detachment of enslaved people who were trying to seize Fort St. Charles, which is where the U.S. Mint was, or I mean, where the U.S. Mint is. And so that’s why we’re sort of coming to the city, almost as if the rebellion was victorious. But then we’re ending up in Congo Square to both lift up the name of the rebels that participated, as well as to celebrate the culture that is preserved in places like Congo Square. And we hope that that connection to the history of both Africans and resistance is something that is brought out in this reenactment, so that people can flip the military campaign into a cultural celebration, and place this culture in the context of people who were trying to be free.

When the Lee Circle Confederate monument was being taken down, people—both black and white—lined up and armed up around it in defense, to uphold it. How do you think your performance will be received, especially given it will feature hundreds of armed black people?

Well, I think that we’re using the specter of violence to take on real violence. There is real violence being done to the black community. The weapons that we’re using are prop machetes and prop muskets, and it is not actual violence. But I do think that the vision of black people armed in a military sort of campaign, for some people that will be really inspiring and liberating, and for other people that would be challenging.

For those who are challenged by this, why is it that they don’t raise these questions when there are white Civil War re-enactors who do this all the time? Why is that not threatening? Why is it that the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers or the people who were in New Orleans walking around with their guns out, intimidating people trying to take down racist monuments—why aren’t people challenging that? This should be inspiring because it is about people who were fighting to abolish enslavement. Why shouldn’t that be something that people view as amazing?

Powered by WPeMatico

Yes, Parakeets Are Taking Over Europe. But Don’t Call It an Invasion.

Earlier this month, the city of Madrid announced that it would begin an “ethical” cull of up to 12,000 monk parakeets that had taken up residence in the Spanish capital. Native to South America, the chattersome, bright-green birds construct huge communal nests, often on utility poles, where they can cause fires and power outages. Their nests are so heavy that if they tumble to the ground, they risk injuring those below. The culling program—a combination of hunting with traps and egg sterilization—will cost €100,000.

A similar parakeet eradication campaign was waged in London earlier this decade; culls of rose-ringed parakeets, which are now common in much of Europe, are afoot in France. Meanwhile, in Berlin, it’s a North American transplant—the swamp crayfish—that is causing problems: Authorities announced this month that they had removed 22,000 of the crustaceans from the city’s many lakes this year, where they’d been seen as a threat to local fauna due to their extremely fast reproduction and lack of local predators.

Is Europe in the midst of an invasive species panic? Stories of cities targeting non-native fauna and flora certainly seem to be coming thick and fast. This summer, Britain’s government “declared war on ‘alien’ invaders,” including plants such as skin-inflaming giant hogweed and Himalayan balsam, a pink-flowered annual with a fondness for polluted, nitrogen-rich air that has supercharged its urban proliferation.

A stag in London’s Richmond Park stand among bracken, a native species that has become invasive. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

Such non-natives must be driven out, the argument goes, because the competitive advantage they possess over natives can lead to the latter being squeezed out. Sound familiar? At times, the rhetoric around invasive species carries eerie echoes of the language used to demonize human migrants. In Britain, the Himalayan balsam has been labelled a “10-foot thug” by the Daily Mail, a newspaper that not uncommonly uses very similar language to describe asylum seekers. (Events where volunteers slash back the plant from vulnerable riversides are referred to as “balsam bashing.”) This might not hurt the plant’s feelings, but othering something that’s been living in Britain since the 1830s as a menacing interloper still muddies the waters of public discussion.

What’s more, using emotive terms like “invasion” to describe  suddenly flourishing species can misrepresent the true process by which they have arrived in our midst, says Ian Rotherham, a specialist in invasion biology and environmental history at the U.K.’s Sheffield Hallam University. As climate change exerts its will—and once-exotic species relocate to new habitats—potential conflict between struggling natives and resourceful newcomers will intensify. But rather than being protagonists in environmental change, new species are often merely filling a vacuum created by human activity. It’s a situation perhaps too complex to be managed by short-term efforts like culling and clearing.

“In many cases, native species have been removed before invaders arrive to fill the vacant space” says Rotherham. And if those new species flourish as once-well-established ones falter, it can be because we have changed the environment to make it more like their native habitat.

“The landscape is full of nitrogen fertilizer and atmospheric pollution, so non-native species are not coming into a pristine environment, but one we’ve already skewed by climate change and other factors. With urban heat islands, that can create a double whammy.” Meaningfully committing to protecting local environments might thus be less about trying to exterminate a particular species than combating the environmental damage that made their expansion possible.

Rotherham also stressed than the terms invasive and non-native are not synonymous. The number of non-native species that become invasive—spreading at the speed and intensity of an epidemic—is minuscule: “In Britain, we estimate that only 1 percent of non-native species introduced naturalize”—that is, survive and spread without direct human assistance—“while only 1 percent of those naturalized species become invasive.”

After causing problems in the United States, the South American rodents called nutria have started to naturalize in parts of Europe, such as this albino nutria in a river near Frankfurt, Germany. (Michael Probst/AP)

So while the manifestation of tropical transplants like monk parakeets in cities like London and Chicago may attract a lot of notice (especially since they are annoyingly loud), their proliferation is in fact an extremely rare occurrence.

At the same time, native species can also turn invasive, even if they have lived in the area for long periods of time. Take the heathland fern bracken, for example, which grows across a huge area of the world. It’s indigenous to Britain, but has only recently become a problem in the country (and many others) because it is no longer harvested as animal bedding or, as was once common in the Scottish Highlands, to use as thatching. Bracken has thus abruptly graduated from being a supporting presence in British landscapes to an invasive one, even though it’s been around for centuries.

All the above doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with human-led efforts to clear or cull genuinely harmful plans and animals: A single invasive species can indeed be “capable of destroying economies,” Rotherham says, something that happened as recently as 2015 in Punjab, where a whitefly infestation destroyed two-thirds of the cotton crop. “People can even starve because invasions are not dealt with. It’s not a trivial phenomenon, and after climate change it’s probably one of the biggest issues we face.”

These disasters mainly afflict subsistence agriculture, so they’re not very useful templates for understanding the effects of invasive species in urban areas. Still, there may be plenty of other reasons for trying to control overly assertive species and create space for others. There are up to 3 million meme-inspiring feral hogs roaming Texas, a “Malthusian nightmare” tearing up Dallas parks and golf courses. In New Orleans and throughout the U.S. Gulf states, nutria—chunky water rodents released from fur farms—have damaged levees; now they’ve reached Europe. In the mountains of Wales, rhododendron bushes have crowded out native species and become a host for non-indigenous pests, even if they do look beautiful when in flower. Meanwhile on the island of Guam, the brown tree snake has come close to destroying local bird populations.

The problem is that it can be extremely difficult to eradicate any species that has managed to get a foothold in an ecosystem. “Once the cat’s out of the bag,” says Rotherham, “it’s not going to get back in.” Some species can be controlled effectively, but that process may prove both expensive and essentially never-ending. “If you have to control, you may need to be prepared as a society to pay for this forever.”

Berlin fisherman Matthias Engels poses with “Berlin Lobster”—invasive North American crayfish removed from the city’s lakes and rivers. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

That could mean that Madrid’s dream of a completely parakeet-free city will prove illusory, and these beautiful and charismatic birds will have to be killed en masse at regular intervals—and at some expense—from now on, unless Madrileños learn how to make peace with their chatty new guests.

For other, more edible species, commercial harvesting can be part of the invasive solution: The North American crayfish Berlin removes in its annual cull have become a seasonal local delicacy—“Berlin Lobster”—which at least means the species now has an indigenous predator in the form of humans.

In other cases, there is faith to be taken in the resilience of nature. A cleaner, less-polluted urban environment can sometimes make its own remedies when faced with large-scale species disruptions. “There is a common pattern in which an invasive species grows exponentially and quite catastrophically, but then its presence subsequently flattens, and the species is then absorbed into the new recombinant ecosystem,” says Rotherham. “That’s a pattern we see time and time again, and cities are where that happens.”

Rotherham’s hometown of Sheffield is already showing this process with a notorious invasive pest known as Japanese knotweed, whose arrival in North America has inspired much hand-wringing. Knotweed installed itself this century along the industrial city’s then-heavily polluted urban rivers. Now that those waterways are cleaner, a long-lost and much-beloved animal has returned: otters. “Otters love Japanese knotweed and [also intrusive] rhododendron. They’re not bothered whether they are native or not—they are just good fodder.”

So now both organisms are thriving, and the new plant is also triggering some other happy biological feedback, Rotherham says. “Under the knotweed, we’re now getting all sorts of ancient woodland species growing under what is a pseudo-woodland canopy.”

Like many an invader before it, knotweed was met with fear and hatred. But given some time and clean place to live, nature seems to be finding a way to put it in a proper, manageable place.

Powered by WPeMatico