News / Toronto

What is 'habitecture' and how could it benefit Toronto's animal population?

From raccoons on the subway to bats in the attic, interactions between humans and animals in Toronto are on the rise. Is the way the city designed to blame?

Raccoons are far from the only animal to be interacting with Toronto residents on a regular basis.

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Raccoons are far from the only animal to be interacting with Toronto residents on a regular basis.

Toronto is busy revamping the roadways and infrastructure used by its human population, but a growing number of experts say it’s time to do the same for our animal denizens.

“Toronto is one of the fastest growing cities in North America and it’s really at the centre of the complex relationship between urban and wild spaces,” said Susan Ruddick, a geography professor at the University of Toronto and the organizer of a recent conference on the topic of “habitecture.”

According to Ruddick, habitecture is “the conscious design of architecture and infrastructure with wildlife in mind.”

While the city has taken some steps to better accommodate local animals – including installing culverts along major highways and creating new habitat in areas like Leslie Spit – Ruddick and her colleagues believe more needs to be done.

“We’re really failing migratory birds,” said Nathalie Karvonen of the Toronto Wildlife Centre. “It’s an enormous challenge for birds – and bats – to navigate our city with all these glass structures everywhere.”

Thousands of songbirds fatally collide with glass towers and buildings in Toronto every year, Karvonen said. The city passed a bylaw requiring new buildings to be bird friendly, but it only applies to structures built after 2010.

Ducks and geese are also nesting atop of tall buildings in the city, which Karvonen said causes problems when their young become trapped on roofs.

“They can’t get down and there’s not enough food or water to support them,” she said.

Intern architect Sarah Gunawan says much of the existing habitecture in Toronto takes the form of deterrents – think about the pigeon spikes in your local subway station. She’d like to see the city be more welcoming for wildlife.

“An architecture that considers animals has the potential to think not only about the animals that we have direct confrontations with currently, but it can also invite other species to move into these zones,” she said.

Gunawan spoke at the recent habitecture conference and hopes it will act as a “turning point” for Toronto.

“Species are moving into the city whether we like it or not,” she said. “It’s happening and we, as a society, need to learn to deal with it.”

Raccoon gardeners?

As part of her master’s thesis, Sarah Gunawan designed a raccoon-powered composting machine that doubled as habitat for chimney swifts. The device utilized a crank that could be turned by a raccoon; it would release a “tiny morsel” of tasty food waste for the animal while helping turn the compost inside.

“The idea was to employ the raccoon,” she said. “They can already get into our compost bins, so why not teach them to contribute in some way.”

Gunawan admitted the idea was “tongue in cheek,” but said it’s an example of how we can think about better incorporating animals into urban spaces. 

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