zoopolis | valuing animal geographies to create nature-based solutions in urban spaces?

Elephants crossing a tarmac road with bushland either side, one grou in front, big elephant in the lead and another group in the distance also. Blue sky. planetary health

zoopolis | valuing animal geographies to create nature-based solutions…

Animal Geography is an extension of geography and human-animal studies which looks at the complexities involved in the intertwining and reciprocal relations between humans and animals. The field has a focus on what happens where natural environments and human communities overlap. 

Beach overlooked by houses with penguins seemingly nesting on beach.  Viewing platform for people in distance.
Image Credit: Chance Brown, Unsplash

This blog introduces some concepts within animal geography with examples and considers how we might use this lens when thinking about healthy placemaking.  For example, when planning for green space and nature this can sometimes end up ‘fitting around’ human spatial demands.  What if the needs and indeed rights of animals and nature were integrated in a regenerative and reciprocal way from the outset?  The blog concludes with reflections on the apparent gaps in integration or acknowledgement of Indigenous thinking and Traditional Ecological Knowledge within animal geography discourses.


Animal geographies have emphasised the moral and ethical obligations towards the inclusion of animals within urban community spaces. Jennifer Wolch’s (1998) theory of zoopolis makes a case for a multi-species city (i.e. not just people): one that strives for the inclusion of animals in the political sphere and indeed their citizenship rights within the nation states they inhabit.

Zoopolis primary focus is the moral and ethical obligations humans have in relation to non-humans. Language matters and an obstacle to delivering on these ethical obligations includes negative language used to incite fear and hatred towards animals and wildlife that encounter human urban environments: words like ‘dangerous’, ‘threat’, and ‘nuisance’ cast ‘wild’ or ‘street’ animals in a negative light. Language itself becomes a tool that defines animals as an object of fear that don’t belong in human space.

Subaltern animism is a concept that stems from subaltern urbanism and seeks to envisage a future where animal geographies are included within the planning of the urban environment through inclusive multispecies geographies and planning (Wissenburg & Scholsberg, 2014; Narayanan, 2017).  Discourse surrounding animal rights and political, moral and ethical obligations towards animals has critiqued thinking that sets humans as removed and separate from the animal kingdom.  The critique has challenged the view of humans as a species residing over all others (see also Foucault on biopower / biopolitics).

What does this mean from animals’ perspectives?  Van Dooren and Rose highlight:

“Animals are choosing to move into city spaces and animals are finding their homes overtaken by cities” (2012, p1)

In the urban environment today animals find themselves often placed into three distinct categories by humans:

  • Domesticated: for the most part fully dependent upon their co-existence with humans such as a family dog or cat;
  • Liminal: (street) animals, choosing to occupy, remain within or move to urban spaces and co-habit to their own benefit, bears, racoons, and street dogs are examples of these. These ‘pests’ are often viewed as trespassers by people within ‘our’ spaces. 
  • Wild: those completely independent from human influence – a category we argue is not possible.
ALT text: Racoon underneath a car on a street, eating leftover rubbish, vegetables
Image credit: Quentin Bounias, Unsplash

As urbanisation continues globally people and animals interact more. For example wildlife migration routes are altered due to a new tower block or road network.  And with Covid-19 the potential for transmission of zoonoses / diseases is all to obvious as human development places increasing pressures on animals homes.

street dogs and domesticated dogs

ALT text: scruffy golden coloured small dog, sitting on a title ledge on a stone street in a doorway with a blue surrounding
Image credit: JR Harris, Unsplash

Social media has altered public opinion of street dogs in India which is related in the literature to examples of them being killed (Narayanan, 2017; Karlekar, 2008).  New regulations have meant they are increasingly recognised and accepted as part of the city landscape and a shift in language from ‘stray’ dogs (Srinivasan, 2013) that creates a sense of being out of place and illegitimate (Philo and Wilbert, 2000) toward the use of the term ‘street’.  This shift is seen as legitimising dogs’ existence giving them a place on the streets (Srinivasan, 2013:110) although we could still reflect on the negative connotations of the word street.

And by contrast we accept the domesticated version of dogs as a much-loved pet and member of the family into our home, but street or stray dogs find themselves chased out, demonised, and harmed – deemed unworthy of sharing human space (see Steele, et al., 2019).

ALT text: happy golden retriever in a home with a colour
Image credit: Ian Dooley, Unsplash

conservation or curtailment of rights?

These examples highlight what Narayanan reflects saying that:

“The urban Kingdom continues to be located within an animal kingdom despite relentless efforts to colonise the planet for the exclusive use of the human species” (2017, p489).

Urbanisation is not only experienced by people but by animals too.  Animals that are able to are also making the shift to urban environments.  Development of green space and animals’ homes worldwide is increasingly damaging the habitats of animals with varying impacts on their existence (Palmer, 2003).  Urban development of natural spaces forces animals to adapt to strange ‘concrete jungles’.

ALT: two small macaque monkeys, sitting on a wall in a urban dwelling setting
Image credit: Jan Gemerle, Unsplash

Growing interest in animal welfare, such as through biodiversity and the presence of urban nature, is making us increasingly aware that many animals co-habit urban landscapes with us (Van Dooren & Rose, 2012, p1).  

Humans have taken steps like ‘creating’ national parks and conservation sites. A lens of animal geographies critiques the confinement of animals to certain spaces and attempts to control where animals can live and inhabit – it doesn’t sit comfortably with an approach that seeks to support animal rights.  National parks confine wildlife to a narrow margin of their ancestorial homes.

A lens of animal geographies helps us to see that animals environments, communities, and needs are “inherently beyond the boundedness of formal planning” (Narayanan, 2017, p488).  Animals should be afforded a right to roam yet often human development approaches fix and assign animals to a designated space.

Indigenous peoples have known this forever

Existing literature on animal geographies argue that if we are to further extend rights to animals, notions of holding and having sovereignty and superiority over the natural world must change (Narayanan, 2017; Steele et al, 2019).  Animal geographies call for greater acceptance and acknowledgment of the existence and importance of human-animal relationships, especially if we are to combat the climate and biodiversity crises we are now facing.

In our limited and brief survey of this field there appears to be at best a gap in the lack of acknowledgement or recognition of Indigenous thinkers and of Traditional Ecological Knowledges.

The othering of nature seems to share some strikingly similarities to the othering of Indigenous Peoples wherein they were violently removed from ancestral lands.  It is important to understand the links between these actions and the underlying thinking that perpetuated, indeed created, a conceptual and ideological separation between nature and people: between human and planetary health.  And these ideologies have historically, and continue today, to be violently realised against Indigenous peoples.  This includes through approaches such as “fortress conservation” and “militarized conservation praxes” (Jacobs et al., 2022, p.277)

It seems to us that we don’t need to go further as argued in animal geography but rather to remove the blinkers from this discourse.  Thinking limited by Eurocentric frames founded on racist ideologies will not solve the climate, biodiversity, and nature emergencies. 

We can and must do better.  To do so it is necessary to recognise, respect, and listen to those who have longstanding knowledge of living in reciprocal and regenerative relationship with more than human relatives.  As Dr. Jessica Hernandez expresses within her book ‘Fresh Banana Leaves’, we must think of nature and the animals in which we share our spaces and co-habit with, as our relatives and kin.

As Robin Wall Kimmerer puts it:

“Restoration is imperative for healing the earth, but reciprocity is imperative for long-lasting, successful restoration. …ecological restoration can be viewed as an act of reciprocity in which humans exercise their caregiving responsibility for the ecosystems that sustain them.  We restore the land, and the  land restores us.”

(2013, p337)

animal geographies in practice

This blog has introduced the concept of animal geographies and its critique of how prioritising humans over nature and animals has created past harm and needs to change in future.  It has also reflected on how many of the questions that arise from this critique have in fact for millennia been ones that Indigenous peoples have addressed through their application of their knowledge(s).

We’d love to hear other people’s reflections on this and some practical steps we see flowing from a lens of animal geographies include that:

  • Indigenous thinkers + thinking: at the level of everyday practice (in addition to action at the governmental level and relationships between Nations) we see great need and mutual benefits to supporting, working with, amplifying, learn from, and allying with Indigenous thinkers and peoples.  This is about doing not just saying.
  • Planning animal geographies in from the start: The needs of animals and nature should be incorporated into plans and policies and constraints planning from the outset – not squashed into the space left over after human needs have been accounted for as this harms everyone.  Techniques include mapping animal migratory routes, nesting, feeding, and watering grounds to guide plans.  More widely how could we expand the space assigned to nature instead of creating narrow margins at the edges.  What would policies look like that aimed to reimagine the future extents of animal’s homes in some way addressing or mindful of the loss of ancestorial places?
  • Animals + humans: our thinking should move from animals versus humans to a reciprocal relationship between humans and nature.  This needn’t be assumed to be solely negative: it can be positively regenerative and reciprocal.  Language needs to change from ‘fear’, ‘other’, ‘wild’, ‘liminal’, and ‘street’ animals. A way this can be achieved for example is by government incentives given to compensate crop loss within the Congo creating a more harmonious co-existence between gorillas and human farmers.
  • Cross boundaries: animals don’t care about your municipal or site boundary, animal geographies provide a powerful lens in applying nature-based solutions to climate change.  For a start this could include taking a landscape scale view to planning.  An expression of this can be seen in the National Park Cities movement in the UK, such as in Cardiff.
  • Connect with nature: it is important that we become more immersed with nature, as in recent decades in cities we have often removed ourselves from it – although during Covid-19 many of us have found new connections with nature. Doing this will support a better appreciation and understanding of its importance.
Elephants crossing a tarmac road with bushland either side, one grou in front, big elephant in the lead and another group in the distance also. Blue sky.
Image credit: Bernd Dittrich, Unsplash


Hernandez, J. (2022) Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes through Indigenous Science Berkeley, California, North Atlantic Books,U.S.

Jacobs, L.A., Avery, C.B., Salonen, R. and Champagne, K.D. (2022) Unsettling marine conservation: Disrupting manifest destiny-based conservation practices through the operationalization of Indigenous value systems. Parks Stewardship Forum. [online].  38 (2). Available here.

Karlekar, H., (2008). Savage Humans and Stray Dogs: A Study in Aggression. New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Kimmerer, R. (2013) Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants Milkweed Editions.

Narayanan, Y., (2017). “Street dogs at the intersection of colonialism and informality: ‘Subaltern animism’ as a posthuman critique of Indian cities”. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 35

Palmer, C., (2003). Colonization, Urbanization, and animals. Philosophy and Geography, 6

Philo, C. and Wilbert, C., (2000). Animal spaces, beastly places: An introduction. Animal spaces, beastly places: New geographies of human-animal relations.

Srinivasan, K., (2013). The biopolitics of animal being and welfare: dog control and care in the UK and India. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 38.

Steele, W., Wiesel, I., & Maller, C., (2019). More-than-human cities: Where the wild things are. Geoforum, 106.

Van Dooren, T. and Rose, D.B., (2012). Storied-places in a multispecies city. Humanimalia, 3.

Wissenburg, M., & Scholsberg, D., (2014). Introducing animal politics and political animals. In: Wissenburg, M., & Schlosberg, D., (eds) Political Animals and Animal Politics, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wolch, J., (1998). Zoopolis, In: Wolch, J., Emel, J., (eds), Animal Geographies: Place, Politics and Identity in the Nature-Culture Borderlands. Verso, London, 1. Available here.

Morganna Davies