Why biodiversity matters in urban areas like Detro...

Why biodiversity matters in urban areas like Detroit

rainbow in dark sky over green field

A church garden in Detroit might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of biodiversity, but each individual plant, bird and insect that inhabits the space is doing its part.

“I think one of the perceptions has been that wildlife and biodiversity can only exist in these national parks, preserved wilderness, or in places that we probably need access through a ticket to explore and enjoy,” but that’s not the case, said Tiffany Carey, habitat and education coordinator with the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center. She leads the Sacred Grounds program in Detroit, which works with houses of worship in the city to create native plant habitat on their properties. 

Biodiversity refers to the variety of living organisms in an area—including all the species, from microscopic organisms to plants to insects to animals. People may think of biodiversity in more of a global sense than a local one, but biodiversity is important in and around Detroit, as well. 

Swamp/rose milkweed at one of the Detroit Biodiversity Network’s bioswale projects at Wayne State University  
Detroit Biodiversity Network Cofounder Adam Pruett

“Even container gardens and smaller gardens in urban areas really do make a difference in the grand scheme of things—of creating habitat and bringing dozens of insects and other forms of wildlife, as well as biodiversity, to these smaller native plant habitats,” Carey said.

People depend on biodiversity in several ways. One is food: To grow our fruits and vegetables, we need honeybees to pollinate the plants. So we need the appropriate plants around that support pollinators. One organization, Detroit Hives, works to strengthen the bee population by transforming abandoned lots in Detroit into urban bee farms.

Biodiversity is also essential for healthy air and water. The right types of plants and trees improve air and water quality, and they help reduce runoff and control flooding. The City of Detroit and several organizations across the metro area are installing green infrastructure and rain gardens that incorporate native plants, while also working to improve the city’s tree canopy.

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Metro Detroit’s wetlands house some significant biodiversity, said Yu Man Lee, a conservation scientist/zoologist with the Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI). Part of the Michigan State University Extension, MNFI conducts research and field surveys of plants and animals and provides scientific information to guide conservation of Michigan’s biodiversity.

In some of Metro Detroit’s coastal areas, historically diverse wetland habitats have become degraded and fragmented, Lee said. The Great Lakes marsh ecosystem type is threatened by invasive species as well as high water levels. But some lakeplain prairie areas in the region still contain diverse habitats, and the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge contains some important biodiversity, she noted. 

In these public lands, “you can find some of these really ecologically significant areas and rare species,” Lee said. 

Vernal pools—small wetlands that form seasonally, usually in forested areas—are another important type of wetland found across Metro Detroit. “They provide critical habitat for invertebrates and for amphibians,” and they also provide water storage and improve water quality,” Lee added. 

MNFI has been coordinating a citizen-science-based vernal pool mapping and monitoring program, taking teachers and students into the field and training them to collect data on biodiversity that will go into a statewide vernal pool database. The goal is to help conservationists better understand the status and distribution of vernal pools and their ecology in the state, and how we can better manage and protect them. 

Detroit urban nature
A vernal pool in Oakwoods Metropark. Photo by Phyllis Higman.

Several challenges impede efforts to protect biodiversity in and around Detroit, including habitat fragmentation and invasive species, Lee said. Changes to the hydrology in some areas have “resulted in the invasive species being able to come in and then take over,” she said.

Native plant species support native insects, birds, and animals in different habitats, but non-native invasive species, such as garlic mustard, prevent other plants from growing in that space. 

Birds are another important part of metro Detroit’s biodiversity: They help with pollination, controlling insects, and dispersing seeds. Many bird species are declining, and according to one researcher, cities capture about 20 percent of the world’s avian population. Detroit Audubon is a wealth of information on local birds, and it is among the organizations working to strengthen the area’s biodiversity.

“We are a migratory flyway, so birds coming from the south are coming up through this area, and they need places to rest,” said Michelle Serreyn, staff advisor of the Detroit Biodiversity Network and a program coordinator at Wayne State University. “We’re an important waystation.” 

The Detroit Biodiversity Network (DBN) has been creating native plant gardens on Wayne State’s campus, using low-maintenance native plants in some spots where other plants would be difficult to grow. Natalie Lyon and two other students started the group in 2017 “to get students at Wayne State more involved in a lot of the awesome sustainability-focused and food-focused work that was happening in the city more broadly,” she said.

One of the Detroit Biodiversity Network’s bioswale projects at Wayne State University Detroit Biodiversity Network. Photo by Cofounder Adam Pruett

“Michigan native species have these very old sorts of relationships with other species in the ecosystem, whether it be bees and butterflies, birds, or small wildlife that we see in the city,” Lyon said. “Those relationships are pretty ingrained, so when you start putting native species in, you’re really building back an ecosystem that we had here a long time ago.”

The DBN partnered with the Sierra Club and Friends of the Rouge for a bioswale project in a parking lot, which catches runoff. “Eventually the soil will be permeable enough, with all the plant roots, the water will go into there and then be filtered by the plants and the microorganisms in the soil before it reaches the water table,” Serreyn explained.

The group’s gardens contain milkweed, a native plant that is the only source of food for monarch caterpillars. The monarch butterfly population has declined, and planting milkweed is one way to support these butterflies that migrate seasonally between Michigan and Mexico. 

“One thing we’ve realized is that if you build it, they will come,” Lyon said. In spaces that were almost bare, the native plants the group added changed them into high-quality habitat fairly quickly. 

Spotted salamander, Photo by Yu Man Lee.

Serreyn is also working with a professor on another project planting different species of milkweed and nectar plants in four corners of a parking lot “to see which host plants the monarchs prefer for laying eggs, if it varies during the time of year, and what’s successful in an urban environment. So we’re going to try and get a lot of data out of that site,” she said. 

One challenge in encouraging people to plant native species is that Metro Detroit has only a handful of native plant nurseries, and the plants can be expensive. Serreyn added that people sometimes dislike the look of native plants, because some don’t look as neat and tidy as typical ornamental plants. “People think they look weedy because they’re not used to seeing them,” she said.

But they include a range of options. Serreyn recommends the books Bringing Nature Home, about native plants in general, and Landscaping With Native Plants of Michigan and Birdscaping in the Midwest for local information. The National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder offers a search by zip code. 

“Every little bit helps.” Serreyn said. “You can have a postage-stamp-sized yard, you can have an apartment balcony—whatever you can do, it’s going to help.”

A growing body of research shows that spending time in nature offers myriad physical and mental health benefits. “Even a container garden outside your window and having a monarch come by, if you’re planting milkweed,” both raises your awareness of the habitat and decreases stress levels, Carey said, “providing that wellness and healing that we know is so powerful that comes from nature.”

Lyon noted, “I think that people develop a sense of ownership in the environment by engaging in local biodiversity projects and are then more likely to support conservation more broadly.”

Many of the organizations working to protect biodiversity in metro Detroit also aim to get people engaged and interested in nature and their place in it. 

“Working on the land, with the land, for the land is healing and transformative and should be a right that everyone enjoys,” Carey said. 

Planet Detroit’s Detroiters Do Science citizen science campaign in partnership with Graham media Group invites Detroiters to join in a BioBlitz (an event that encourages people to observe any species they can in a  short amount of time), using iNaturalist to identify biodiversity in their own neighborhoods. FIND OUT MORE & GET INVOLVED!