CAUL Hub Project 5 – The Shared Urban Habitat

Project Leader – Dr Caragh Threlfall, The University of Melbourne
Deputy Leader - Dr Kylie Soanes, The University of Melbourne

Project Summary

The construction and expansion of cities often leads to the loss of native species and ecological communities, to the detriment of biodiversity but also the detriment of the human urban experience. Of direct relevance to the Department of the Environment and Energy, state agencies and local government, this project is addressing the broad question of how humans can effectively share the urban habitat with other species. This includes the protection and/or restoration of important habitat elements within cities, and the conservation of threatened species, threatened ecological communities and other aspects of urban biodiversity. The project will also consider how to engage people with nature in the city more effectively, and measure the benefits that people derive from everyday encounters with urban biodiversity. Major lessons from research conducted to date are:

  • A review of existing on-ground actions for biodiversity in urban areas is needed to document the evidence base for or against prioritising particular species or actions in a variety of settings (public land, but also private land including backyards).
  • There is still a disconnection between urban land managers, urban research and Indigenous Australians, and we need to make space for Indigenous-led research on biodiversity in urban environments.

Project Description

When cities are constructed, they often displace other habitats and the species that live there. However, Australian cities remain notable for their biodiversity, supporting significant remnant vegetation, threatened ecological communities and populations of many threatened species. To conserve these species and communities into the future - and urban biodiversity more generally - we need to engage all levels of government as well as the urban-dwelling citizens of Australia in identifying and implementing practical solutions to this ongoing problem. We also need to measure and properly value the benefits that urban biodiversity provides to city-dwelling humans.

This project aims to better understand the ecology of species in cities, identify opportunities and pathways for conservation action, clarify the social, cultural, ecosystem and health benefits of biodiversity in cities, improve urban residents' connection to urban nature, and raise the profile of urban nature and its conservation.

Subproject 5.1: Baselining urban biodiversity

This work synthesised data on the distribution of all federally-listed threatened species within 99 Australian cities, and identified a subset of 376 threatened species that have some of their range within urban and peri-urban environments, including 26 species targeted for action in the National Threatened Species Strategy.

Subproject 5.2: Bringing nature back into cities

This subproject is investigating opportunities to bring species back into urban environments as a way to reverse the trend of species loss, restore ecological function and ecosystem services, and reconnect people with traditional Aboriginal knowledge.

Subproject 5.3 - Developing an integrated urban citizen science program

This subproject is developing an integrated program of urban citizen science projects in capital and regional cities around Australia. This includes 5.3.1 the CAUL Urban Wildlife mobile app with three modules (flying foxes, bell frogs and beneficial insects), and 5.3.2 a web-based environmental psychology survey to measure benefits people gain from experiencing nature in the city. We are focusing on 3 main programs in 2018:

  1. Urban possums: In collaboration with the Threatened Species Recovery Hub, we are exploring the addition of a fourth module on urban possums to the Urban Wildlife App, with particular reference to the Western Ringtail Possum (a species targeted by the Threatened Species Strategy).
  2. Environmental psychology: We are planning a controlled experiment with the environmental psychology app (5.3.2) to gain robust data on the psychological benefits people gain from interacting with nature in the city. In collaboration with the Threatened Species Recovery Hub, we are exploring the addition of a fourth module on urban possums to the Urban Wildlife App, with particular reference to the Western Ringtail Possum (a species targeted by the Threatened Species Strategy).
  3. Pollinator observatories: Untapping the benefits of insect biodiversity in cities is contingent on making insects, and the ecosystem services they deliver, tangible to people. Yet most insect species are small and fast, and therefore remain elusive to the majority of onlookers. In this case, plants can serve as an anchor to draw attention to plant-insect interactions. We propose 'Pollinator observatories' - a network of flowering plant species monitored for pollinator interactions by academic and citizen scientists - as a novel approach to reconnect people with nature and demonstrate ecosystem service delivery in cities.

Subproject 5.4 - Ecology and conservation of native wildlife in cities

This subproject is investigating the ecology of and conservation strategies for native wildlife in Australian cities across three taxonomic groups - frogs, flying foxes and beneficial insects (pollinators, predators and parasitoids).

Subproject 5.5 - Indigenous-led research on biodiversity in the city

All urban environmental practices, research and policy occurs on and in Aboriginal Country. No matter the focus, approach, personnel, timing or framing, all of these practices have an impact on the lives and futures of Aboriginal people. A key challenge, then, is for urban practitioners and researchers to respond meaningfully to the expectations, rights and aspirations of Indigenous communities in urban areas. The proposed project seeks to meet this challenge within the realm of Indigenous perspectives on biodiversity in the city.

This new subproject will be led by an Indigenous researcher, who will explore a range of research questions such as the significance of native biodiversity (including threatened species and ecological communities) for maintaining a connection to Country in the city; ways to improve the liveability and conservation value of urban landscapes by better incorporating Indigenous values and knowledge of biodiversity into urban design and management; and the utility of interdisciplinary collaborations between ecology, participatory art making and performance for engaging the broader community with biodiversity in the city and with Indigenous place, history and culture.

Subproject 5.6 - Practical actions for conservation in Australian cities

Urban areas are often overlooked and undervalued in conservation planning, representing a significant missed opportunity to protect, enhance and engage with biodiversity. As such, there is little guidance for managers on how to implement conservation actions targeted to urban environments, no coordinated evidence base, and general narrative that there is little worth doing. This project will identify opportunities to make conservation gains in urban areas, exploring opportunities to enhance urban biodiversity, preserve threatened species, and connect people with nature. We seek to build momentum/encourage local conservation action in urban environments, highlighting value to decision-makers. There is a clear need to develop and test novel, creative management actions for species that are tailor-made for cities and towns, and to understand better the degree to which urban environments can contribute to conservation in Australia. Thie subproject has three core activities:

  1. Identify opportunities and challenges for urban conservation actions (prioritization, review, engagement with councils and the production of a publicly available report);
  2. Build support/capacity for decision-makers and managers (e.g. local councils, developers or state agencies) to undertake urban conservation actions; and,
  3. Identify 'demonstration sites' for urban conservation, that allow us to evaluate the effectiveness of conservation actions and engage the public with the ethic and possibilities of urban conservation.
Actions could include, but are not limited to; adding rocks to urban parks to act as habitat for wildlife, artificial hollows, artificial cover structures and understorey plantings.


  • A decision-making framework for land managers regarding which species to bring back into cities, including explicit consideration of which species are most ecologically, socially and culturally suitable for targeted actions. This project will provide a critical framework allowing managers to work towards bringing species back into urban environments, enabling them to assess the risks and benefits involved (5.2)
  • An integrated, national urban citizen science program that engages city-dwellers with biodiversity in their neighbourhood (including citizen science projects on bell frogs, flying foxes, native insect pollinators and possibly possums (common and threatened species). This program will mobilise citizens to not just engage with urban nature, but to provide key information to improve understanding, and assist the management of these urban species, through easy-to-use apps targeted towards key ecological questions that currently limit management decisions (5.3)
  • Practical conservation strategies to mitigate processes that are threatening the persistence of native fauna (including bell frogs, native beneficial insects), including habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, habitat isolation, disease and a loss of habitat complexity (5.4)
  • Strengthened connections between university researchers and local Indigenous communities; increased awareness and application of Indigenous knowledge to the management of urban biodiversity; and a participatory arts-science event to foster greater understanding (amongst researchers and the general public) of Indigenous perspectives on biodiversity in the city. Other outcomes will be determined by the Indigenous researcher once the project is underway (5.5)
  • Identification of conservation opportunities for threatened species and other biodiversity in urban environments, including a synthesis of knowledge regarding which conservation actions may be most effective, and identification of potential sites for implementing practical actions. This project will improve the capacity of decision makers and land managers to act to conserve and promote biodiversity in urban areas, by increasing the awareness of urban biodiversity, the threats to their persistence, the success of existing conservation measures, and the potential for novel conservation actions. Through collaboration with the Threatened Species Recovery Hub, this project will also improve the capacity of Recovery Teams and Recovery Planning to protect and recover threatened species in urban areas (5.6).


This project will provide substantial value for the environment, including: stronger community engagement with urban biodiversity through well-coordinated citizen science programs and a pilot study for re-wilding the city; and improved conservation management of frogs, flying foxes and functionally important native insects in Australian cities.