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  • As urban populations increase, native species in urban areas are increasingly affected by human-led pollution, urbanisation and the impacts of climate change. In this story, we meet researcher Dr Yolanda van Heezik who is investigating how people and nature can coexist in today’s urban world.

    This is part of the series In Her Nature: New Zealand women changing the way we connect with the world around us, exploring New Zealand women working at the intersection of people and nature. These stories are a feature for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2020.

    Rights: Yolanda van Heezik

    Dr Yolanda van Heezik

    Dr Yolanda van Heezik was one of New Zealand’s first urban ecologists.

    Learning about the wildlife around us

    Dr Yolanda van Heezik is a Professor at Otago University’s Zoology Department and was one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s first urban ecologists. With a PhD in zoology and a young family, she began noticing the smaller creatures sharing her city.

    “No one was really thinking about urban areas as valid places where wildlife could exist, so that’s why I went into it, really … There was so little known, and that’s why some of my first studies were just to find out what’s here. For example, what sort of bird species we have across all these different kinds of urban habitats and what sort of factors are influencing their distributions and their abundances.”

    Urban ecology looks at the impacts on people and urbanisation on native wildlife and provides opportunities to research and mitigate conflict between humans and wildlife. Researchers study the biodiversity of the plants, animals and ecosystems in urban landscapes, searching for solutions that will enable native wildlife to survive (and hopefully thrive) in cities.

    “I believe it’s important to acknowledge that there are other species that inhabit the world and that we should be making space for them. Cities are designed by people, for people, with no real thought of any other species that might occupy the urban space. I think it’s important that people think beyond that and consider that we’re part of this bigger thing, and we should be making space for these other creatures and living things so that they can live here too.”

    The changing nature of cities

    Nature’s response to people and people’s response to nature has been at the core of Yolanda’s research and teaching. Her current research areas include looking at plant and invertebrate diversity in private gardens, the hunting behaviour of domestic cats and biodiversity values of urban spaces.

    Rights: Private collection

    Cat with a rat

    While some regard cats as pest predators, others think they do more good catching pest rodents such as mice and rats.

    She is also increasingly involved in research looking at the impact of nature on human health and wellbeing.

    “Another perspective on why we should care about urban nature is our relationship with nature. We really are a part of nature and we need nature. Nature needs us and we need nature. Without biodiversity, some of these ecosystem services break down and the environment becomes a place which is very unhealthy for humans.”

    Working alongside colleagues in environmental studies and urban geography, she has been investigating the nature connections of the youngest and oldest New Zealanders. They’ve found that New Zealanders spend less time in nature as they became older and more frail and that their own or nearby gardens become an important point of contact with nature. They’ve also discovered that young New Zealanders spend more time close to home than previous generations and that this means they get fewer opportunities to connect with nature outside of their own backyards.

    Rights: A Bootham

    Connecting with nature

    Many retirement homes have recognised the value for their residents of visits to green spaces such as the Wellington Botanic Garden.

    These findings could play a part in learning how to plan urban green space in a way that increases human nature connection, as well as providing health and wellbeing benefits to both people and native biodiversity. Time spent in nature has been proven to increase mental and social wellbeing and decrease stress, blood pressure and mental fatigue. At the same time, well-planned and well-managed urban green spaces can provide quality habitat and refuge for native species.

    Yolanda hopes that the research she does will have an impact on New Zealand’s future urban development.

    “The information is always being collected with the point of informing policy or informing action. So of course, I want the information that I’ve collected to change how we design our urban areas and how people in urban areas think about nature.”

    Related content

    Dr Danielle Shanahan once studied with Yolanda. Read about her work at ZEALANDIA’s Centre for People and Nature.

    Find out more about the issue of domestic cats in Cat fight and the Connected article Keep your cat inside.

    Read about the Predator Free 2050 initiative and see the comprehensive teaching resource (produced by ZEALANDIA, with support from WWF New Zealand) that supports New Zealand schools to explore the pest-free vision with students.

    Read about the goals of the Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities National Science Challenge.

    The article Working as a scientist provides a brief overview of some of the many scientists featured on the Hub. Use it to discover some of the reasons people choose a science-related career and some of the things you can do if you are curious to begin a career in science.

    Useful links

    Use these Pinterest boards for more profiles of people working in science.

    The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment 2023 report, Are we building harder, hotter cities? The vital importance of urban green spaces, presents data on how public and private green space in Auckland, Hamilton and Greater Wellington has evolved over the decades.

    Having green spaces like parks and community gardens in your neighbourhood could be associated with slower biological aging, research suggests:


    This article was written by Anastasia Turnbull.

      Published 7 February 2020 Referencing Hub articles
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