A habitat for all: (Re)imagining our relationship with nature in cities

Exploring human-nature relationships within cities offers a new perspective for designing future living and working spaces, wherein we must reconcile conflicting perceptions of wildlife in urban spaces to live in harmony with nature.

June 16, 2022

Rediscovering nature through the Urban Biodiversity Challenge 

Every now and then there are accounts of emergency calls received by Malaysia’s Fire and Rescue Department to remove “huge” monitor lizards or snakes from homes, where the giant reptiles turn out to be only thumb-sized geckoes, or cicak. Amusing as this may seem, the relationship between people and urban wildlife is complex and no laughing matter. As more and more people inhabit urban centres, we posit that urban biodiversity is an increasingly important—and hotly contested—topic. Through the Di Sekitar Kita (‘Around Us’) Urban Biodiversity Challenge we (re)discovered nature in Malaysia’s urban centres, explored the relationship between people and urban wildlife, and considered the potential of nature-based solutions for ecosystem restoration.  

See this video for highlights from UNDP Malaysia’s Di Sekitar Kita: Urban Biodiversity Challenge 2021, which began with a crowdsourcing campaign from 30 April to 9 May 2021. 


Our explorations to understand the urban biodiversity landscape were multi-fold. Using surveys and big data (over 21,000 iNaturalist observations!), we looked at how participants observed and perceived urban biodiversity. We constructed profiles of different users and surveyed their thoughts about how citizen science can improve their understanding and appreciation of urban biodiversity. 

We also examined why and how nature matters in cities. Drawing upon four neighbourhoods in Kuala Lumpur, we illustrate in four photo essays a variety of ways in which our world may be constructed through different understandings of ‘nature’. For added insights, we spoke to government agencies, non-government organizations, and urbanites living in Malaysia to unpack norms and values such as, “Is there a ‘biodiversity lens’ in designing green cities?” and “How do people embrace biodiversity in planned or unplanned spaces?”  

From our investigations, we learned five lessons for biodiverse and resilient cities:  

  1. Green space matters, but how it is distributed matters more.  

  1. Better distribution of green space increases accessibility and brings nature closer to us, but this is a double-edged sword—more integrated green space may cause conflict between humans and wildlife.  

  1. Cities are a gateway to understanding and appreciating the complexity of biodiversity and ecosystems. 

  1. Citizen science is a great way to (re)discover and reconcile with nature. 

  1. Beyond protecting existing green space, we must create new ones—hand in hand with people and nature. 


What does a habitat for all look like?  

To spark (re)imagination of urban habitat possibilities, we dialogued with landscape architects, botanists, city planners, academics and community organizers in our ‘A Habitat for All’ webinar, organized in conjunction with World Habitat Day 2021.  

Moderated by Ms. Elba Fuster of UNDP’s Global Centre for Technology, Innovation and Sustainable Development, Singapore, Panel 1: Living Laboratories—Enabling biodiversity in cities, from policies to people featured Mdm. Azlina Mat Salim, Director of Majlis Bandaraya Subang Jaya’s Landscape Department; Prof. Dato’ Dr. Faisal Rafiq Mahamd Adikan, Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia; and Mr. Kennedy Michael, Founder of Alliance of River Three. 

Moderated by Ms. Gan Pek Chuan of UNDP Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam, Panel 2: Living Libraries—Imagining a truly Malaysian, biodiverse urban landscape featured LAr. Meor Abdullah Zaidi Meor Razali, Director of Majlis Bandaraya Ipoh’s Parks and Landscape Department; Dr. Lillian Chua Swee Lian, Director of the Forest Research Institute Malaysia’s Forest Biodiversity Division; and LAr. Fong Jeng Jong, a committee member of the Northern Chapter, Institute of Landscape Architects Malaysia.