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Wilderness in the cities

08 of March '24

The interview is from A&B issue 10|23

Why do we need wetlands? Does unmanaged, "wild" greenery have a raison d'être in an urbanized environment? How to create a new ecosystem within the city? Professor Mariusz Lamentowicz of the Faculty of Geographical and Geological Sciences at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, an expert in the ecology and paleoecology of peatlands and climate change, talks about urban (and suburban) ecosystems.

Błażej Ciarkowski:Let's start with a seemingly trivial question, because it concerns the current climate crisis, about the reality of which we both agree. However, there remains quite a large group of "skeptics" who claim that nothing much is happening, and that changes involving warming (or cooling) of the climate have occurred cyclically throughout history. As an expert in paleoecology, what could you, as an expert in paleoecology, answer them?

Prof. Mariusz Lamentowicz:Human influence on the climate and on global warming is a fact. I wish it were otherwise, but with each passing year, new reports from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) only confirm it. The work of several thousand scientists brings irrefutable proof that the current global warming can and should be called anthropogenic.

górczyńskie trzcinowiska i nowa zabudowa wielorodzinna; „zabetonowanie” naturalnych ekosystemów sprawia, że tracimy je na zawsze

Highland reedbeds and new multi-family housing; "concreting" natural ecosystems makes us lose them forever

photo: Bartosz Kolenda

Blazej:Sohowis it different from previous climate changes?

Prof. Mariusz Lamentowicz:There have been many global warmings over the past 800,000 years. However, they had a smaller scope than the current one and were the result of natural processes related, for example, to changes in the inclination of the Earth's orbit with respect to the Sun. A little over 150 years ago, man began to "enrich" the Earth's atmosphere with carbon that had accumulated under the planet's surface many millions of years ago. We this carbon began to extract and burn intensively. On top of that, there is oil and gas. So we should not be surprised that climate change is occurring.

One can, as you said, be a skeptic, but one cannot deny the facts. Man is responsible for the changes that are currently taking place, which are often catastrophic in their effects: for dramatic temperature spikes, floods and heat waves. For all that we are experiencing in various places on Earth, but especially in cities, because that is where most of the population lives.

staw przy Collegium Politicum na Kampusie Morasko w Poznaniu w Dolinie Różanego Potoku

A pond next to the Collegium Politicum at the Morasko Campus in Poznan in the Rose Creek Valley

Photo: MOs810 / CC BY-SA 4.0

Blazej:Before we move on to issues related to the urban environment, I would like to touch on a topic that seems particularly close to you - wetlands. There is a lot of talk about cutting down forests, while wetlands are disappearing three times faster. More species of flora and fauna associated with them are disappearing. Despite this, the problem of disappearing wetlands is not sufficiently publicized. Why? Are marshes and bogs not "media" enough?

Prof. Mariusz Lamentowicz:It seems to me that one of the reasons for this is the economic importance of forests. Conflicts involving scientists and activists, among others, are played out around timber production. Meanwhile, wetlands and peatlands have been disappearing silently for decades or even centuries. Forests and wetlands, are closely linked. Since the Middle Ages, deforestation has caused wetlands to disappear. Over the last two hundred years, we have seen an exceptionally intense lowering of groundwater levels in Europe. It is the result of deforestation, but also the draining of wetlands or the exploitation of peatlands.

Recently, we have begun to raise this topic more often in conversations with foresters, farmers, local government officials - people who often have no idea of the existence of wetlands even in their immediate vicinity, nor knowledge of their role for humans and the climate. One result of this ignorance is the lack of systemic protection of these areas from human interference.

natura i architektura; Dolina Cybiny w Poznaniu stanowi efektowne dopełnienie zarówno dla nowoczesnej kładki Bramy Poznania ICHOT, jak i sylwety zabytkowej katedry

Nature and architecture; the Cybina Valley in Poznań is a striking complement to both the modern footbridge of the ICHOT Poznań Gate and the silhouette of the historic cathedral

Photo: Koefbac / Wikimedia Commons © CC BY-SA 4

Blazej:Sohow doyou present the problem of wetland dieback? When defending a forest against logging, we can mention that one large tree absorbs a certain amount of carbon dioxide. And the wetlands?

Prof. Mariusz Lamentowicz:Yes, trees produce oxygen, accumulate carbon dioxide, but this is a short-term process. Within tens, at most two hundred and three hundred years, the same carbon goes into the atmosphere (whether as a result of the death of a tree, the burning of wood or the disposal of furniture made from it). The carbon cycle in a forest is therefore quite short, while in the case of peatlands it can remain in the soil for thousands or even millions of years.

Blazej:We are able to compensate for thedeforestationto some extent by new plantings. Is it possible to create new peatlands?

Prof. Mariusz Lamentowicz:Yes, it is possible. However, we should first take care of what we already have. There are a lot of wetlands in the agricultural, forestry and urban landscape in Poland that need our attention.

nawet ujęta w betonowy kanał rzeka tworzy nowy ekosystem na obszarze wielkomiejskim; kanał Raduni, Gdańsk

Even captured in a concrete channel, a river creates a new ecosystem in a metropolitan area; Radunia Canal, Gdańsk

Photo: Blazej Ciarkowski

Blazej:In theurban landscape?

Prof. Mariusz Lamentowicz:Yes. Both in large cities, such as Poznań, and in smaller cities, such as Stęszew or Murowana Goślina, there are very many places that we can re-water, and thanks to this they will store water, store carbon, and in the further future - create new ecosystems and positively influence the microclimate.

Blazej:When we think of a city like Poznań, we automatically have a highly urbanized environment before our eyes. Meanwhile, you are talking about the wetlands located in the capital of Greater Poland. Where should one look for them?

Prof. Mariusz Lamentowicz:There are many of them. For example, it is the Valley of the Różany Potok or the Valley of the Warta River, and the Cybina River that are filled with bogs and wetlands. Wetland habitats can also be found in the Bogdanka Valley or in Górczyn. Virtually every lake is associated with a wetland, a bog on its edge. A good example is Kierskie Lake with its surrounding wetlands. But there are also negative examples, concerning the degradation of wetlands. Among them is Zurawiniec, located in the north of Poznań, which is being successively drained.

historyczne fortyfikacje w Gdańsku są interesującym przykładem przejęcia dzieła rąk ludzkich przez naturę; Nowa Motława przy Kamiennej Śluzie, Gdańsk

The historic fortifications in Gdansk are an interesting example of nature taking over the work of human hands; New Motlawa at Kamienna Sluza, Gdansk

Photo: Blazej Ciarkowski

Blazej:Does the situation in other large cities in Poland look similar to that in Poznan?

Prof. Mariusz Lamentowicz:Places with similar characteristics can be found a great many, for example in Warsaw, Gdansk or Wroclaw itself. However, we should also consider medium and small cities. In large centers, there are most often people who deal with the issue of wetlands, there are activists, the awareness of residents is consistently growing. At the same time, we still have a lot to do.

There are many wetlands within the borders of Polish cities, but in the vast majority of cases they are not identified. This also applies to urban landscape planning. There is no category of "wetlands" - there are "wastelands."

widok z „dzikiego” brzegu Wisły w stronę brzegu „betonowego”, Warszawa

View from the "wild" bank of the Vistula River toward the "concrete" bank, Warsaw

Photo: Qkiel © Wikimedia Commons © CC BY-SA 4.0

Blazej:Scientistsmay work on definitions and conservation programs, but ultimately the issue of protecting urban ecosystems depends on the political will of local authorities....

Prof. Mariusz Lamentowicz:This is a very developing topic, also in the sense of building a new mentality. In Poznań, the mayor of the city has set up a Consultative Council for Environment and Climate Protection. So experts (including me) are in contact with local government officials and the mayor himself. I see in many people a desire for change.

At the same time, we have to face many financial problems. For example, we have land that has already been allocated for certain investments. It is difficult to withdraw from such plans, because then huge fines are imposed. However, I wouldn't overestimate the importance of money in such situations, because when we completely destroy an area and fill it with concrete, we lose it forever. Meanwhile, it is still possible to try to undo and possibly plan the investment in a different way. In such situations I see a willingness to cooperate, to talk. This conversation doesn't always work, because sometimes we lack mutual understanding. Scientists speak a different language than activists, and these in turn speak a different language than local government officials. People who make decisions also speak their own language. I have the impression that, for the most part, we would like things to be good, but we can't communicate properly.

problem ochrony naturalnych ekosystemów dotyczy nie tylko dużych miast, ale też mniejszych ośrodków; mokradła w Chodzieży są terenem, którego wartość została doceniona nie tylko przez ekspertów, ale także lokalną społeczność

The problem of protecting natural ecosystems concerns not only large cities, but also smaller centers; the wetlands in Chodzież are an area whose value has been appreciated not only by experts, but also by the local community

Photo: Mariusz Lamentowicz

Blazej:It seems crucial to look at it in the perspective of not a few, but at least a few decades....

Prof. Mariusz Lamentowicz:In the perspective of the next 20-30 years, a green area in a city (not only wetlands), means much more than a development that can be built in its place, which mostly can be realized in another location.

The key question in this situation seems to be - which areas within the city should remain wild, which ones can we "groom" again? Often, due to thoughtlessness, lack of reflection, instead of a sandy, beautiful riverbank overgrown with willows, where people were happy to come to relax, a paved bank appears. I am aware of the need to regulate rivers in the city, but there are opportunities to find a compromise solution - one that leaves green areas not so much intact, but rationally managed.

ekohydrologiczny system oczyszczania wód burzowych rzeki Sokołówki w Łodzi

Ecohydrological stormwater treatment system for the Sokolówka River in Lodz.

Photo: Monika Czechowicz /

Blazej:So,wildness instead of betonose?

Prof. Mariusz Lamentowicz:I know that at the very sound of the word concretosis, local government officials get goosebumps, but the problem is still present.

However, more and more attempts are being made to repair the existing hydrological network. Watercourses that have existed in cities "forever" are being discovered, but were concreted over many years ago.

Blazej:Doesit make sense to restore small rivers and streams that were hidden underground decades ago? Are such measures able to improve urban ecosystems?

Prof. Mariusz Lamentowicz:First of all, a hydrological assessment is necessary. Over the years, the groundwater level has decreased to the point that in some cases there is no longer water flowing in underground channels. However, there are also watercourses that are worth opening up and building a new ecosystem.

nasze miasta potrzebują dzikości; na zdjęciu: torfowisko w Murowanej Goślinie

Our cities need wildness; pictured: the peat bog in Murowana Goślina

Photo: Mariusz Lamentowicz

Blazej:Canwe point to examples of successful implementations of new ecosystems in Polish cities?

Prof. Mariusz Lamentowicz:At this point, new ecosystems are rather a certain idea, a concept. It is difficult to point out specific examples functioning in the Polish landscape. If they are, they are often wetlands that were created accidentally.

Blazej:Oneof the Poznań architects [Karol Fiedor - note BC] mentioned that in the capital of Greater Poland a strategy has been adopted assuming that the existing green areas should be taken care of first, and only then think about establishing new parks. Do you agree with this approach to the issue of urban ecosystems?

Prof. Mariusz Lamentowicz:Yes, by all means. Let's secure what we already have, but at the same time think about how to create new ecosystems. "Reconstructing" rivers is, after all, creating new ecosystems. New parks are also new ecosystems. Above all, however, we need to protect existing resources first. We need to think about how not to lose the remnants of wildness. Because this wildness exists in cities and we need it badly.

Blazej:Thank you for the interview.

interviewed by Błażej Ciarkowski

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