Projected urban growth in Los Angeles overlain on biodiversity data. Dark green indicates remnant vegetation while lighter green indicates protected areas. Red areas are regions of expected urban-biodiversity conflicts in 2030. Image: Richard Weller / Hotspot Cities

The world is rapidly becoming more urban, but as cities grow in size, their impact on Earth’s biodiversity grows in step. As a new mapping effort led by landscape architects at the University of Pennsylvania shows, the conflict is far more dire than most of us appreciate.

Of the 423 cities growing in one of the world’s 36 recognized biodiversity “hotspots”, at least 90 percent are sprawling straight into habitat harboring endangered species. That’s the stark conclusion of Hotspot Cities, a sweeping new report on conflicts between urban growth and biodiversity. Penn urbanism professor Richard Weller, who led the analysis, told Earther he wanted to shed light on an issue that receives scant attention in the planning and design communities.

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“It’s widely recognized that we are in a historically unprecedented period of urban growth on a planetary scale,” Weller said. “The question is, can we have urban growth...while threading that system through and into the remaining remnants of what was formally a pristine ecosystem?”

The world’s 33 hotspots for conflicts between urban growth and biodiversity. Image: Richard Weller / Hotspot Cities

To find answers, Weller and his team layered each of the 423 cities’ growth projections for 2030 on vegetation data from the Global Land Cover Facility, and data on more than 3,000 mammal species from the IUCN. To better visualize the biggest urban-wildlife conflicts of the future, they zoomed in on 33 cities that are projected to see the largest growth and the most significant destruction of biodiversity habitat, extending the analysis to all non-marine animals.

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Those 33 conflict hotspots can be visualized on a new interactive map, which Weller and his colleagues appropriately dubbed the “Atlas for the End of the World.” Click on any one of the cities, and the website zooms in on a map showing its urban growth projections, along with areas where biodiversity conflicts are expected.

According to Weller, the cities his team identified are “almost overwhelmingly” unaware of their environmental situation.

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“They’re growing rapidly and they don’t have any planning that addresses....environmental issues,” he said.

Weller hopes the maps draw attention to an under-appreciated problem, and that they give urban planners, politicians, and NGOs a tool for redirecting urban growth toward areas where it’ll do less harm. His team is presenting its findings this month at the World Urban Forum, an international sustainable planning conference in Kuala Lumpur.

“Ultimately, it’s a design problem [and] a cultural problem,” Weller said. “We shape our cities. It’s possible for us to integrate biodiversity values with urban growth.”

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Let’s hope so. As these maps clearly indicate, there’s an awful lot at stake.

Projected urban growth in Baku, Azerbaijan, overlain on biodiversity data. Dark green indicates remnant vegetation while lighter green indicates protected areas. Red areas are regions of expected urban-biodiversity conflicts in 2030. Image: Richard Weller / Hotspot Cities
Projected urban growth in Colombo, Sri Lanka, overlain on biodiversity data. Dark green indicates remnant vegetation while lighter green indicates protected areas. Red areas are regions of expected urban-biodiversity conflicts in 2030. Image: Richard Weller / Hotspot Cities

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Projected urban growth in Honolulu, United States, overlain on biodiversity data. Dark green indicates remnant vegetation while lighter green indicates protected areas. Red areas are regions of expected urban-biodiversity conflicts in 2030. Image: Richard Weller / Hotspot Cities
Projected urban growth in Lagos, Nigeria, overlain on biodiversity data. Dark green indicates remnant vegetation while lighter green indicates protected areas. Red areas are regions of expected urban-biodiversity conflicts in 2030. Image: Richard Weller / Hotspot Cities