What bats can teach us about urban design

A smart monitor in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park records bat activity.Credit: Duncan Wilson

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Leeds, UK, I volunteered to help with a study on bat conservation. Someone put a small common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus), the smallest species of bat in the country, in my hand, and it was love at first sight.

I have always been fascinated by nature. Growing up, I imagined myself becoming a cross between David Attenborough and Indiana Jones: Dr. Jones, wildlife adventurer! But it was during my university module on bat ecology that I knew I had found my calling.

These days, my research focuses on the interface between ecological and human health, and I use bats as a springboard to investigate some of life’s big questions. For example: how can we design cities that are sustainable for humans and nature?

Bats are amazing. They’re also weird – they have a lot of unusual traits among mammals. Take their lifespan: there are bats that live about 40 years, while a mouse of the same size only lives an average of 18 months.

The fact that bats break the rules of evolution really helps illustrate how ignorant we are about ecology and the world we live in. Studying bats has helped us better understand areas such as sonar, echolocation, acoustics, biodiversity, infectious disease, longevity, metabolic stresses, flight, and more.

As one of the Academic Leads of University College London’s (UCL) new campus – UCL East, in the city’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – I helped design the facilities with the environment in mind. I also lead the new People and Nature Lab there, which will focus on these themes and use big data to explore new questions: how much nature do we need, for example?

We installed echo sensors on specially erected bat boxes around the Olympic Park. The idea is that if we can understand the health of bat populations in our cities, then we can understand a lot about the health of the environment more generally – a healthy bat population indicates good biodiversity . We also plan to install thousands of sensors on the two new buildings on the UCL East campus, to help determine, in real time, the impact of the buildings on the environment and vice versa.

Each bat monitor captures the soundscape around it – that is, the collective sound emitted by an environment, including human, bird and insect noises – via an ultrasonic microphone. The data is processed and transformed into a spectrogram, a visual representation of the frequencies of the various audio signals. With the help of artificial intelligence specialists, we can pick up the sounds of each species and interpret them, observing changes over time and even mapping population trends.

Bats were the starting point of my research on infectious diseases. Part of the reason they can live so long is that they have evolved efficient DNA repair mechanisms; they are also good at fighting off viruses as their immune system is always active. This means that the viruses that are in bats are adapted to their super immune systems – and when these viruses are transferred to other animals or humans, we are in big trouble.

My work aims to understand what drives the transfer of pathogens from animals to human populations using large models that examine socio-economic drivers, climate change and biodiversity. In 2008, I published an article with Peter Daszak, a zoologist at the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit organization in New York, about using spatial modeling to determine urban infectious disease hotspots and their relationship with the natural environment.1.

Kate Jones looks up while using equipment to record bat acoustics on a river in Thailand

Kate Jones listens to the cries of bats.1 credit

This research laid the groundwork for more detailed studies mapping urban biodiversity and predicting where outbreaks might occur. A study I worked on in 2020 highlighted the impact of human development and declining biodiversity on such epidemics2. We analyzed 3.2 million records from ecological sites on six continents and found that as the landscape changed from natural to urban, populations of bats and other mammals known to harbor pathogens transmissible to humans increased.

Take Lassa fever, transmitted by rats. We found that their habitat has been altered by human changes in land use and climate change3. This creates areas where people and rats come into contact more often – rat urine and droppings get into crops, for example, and cause disease outbreaks. I am now working with much more sophisticated models and thinking about how to predict Lassa fever spikes.

Protecting the natural environment while integrating it into urban spaces is crucial to maintaining human and planetary health. Our work at UCL East is based on the “one Earth, one health” principle: human health, sustainable development, climate change and biodiversity are interdependent. This means we need to take a much more holistic approach to managing ecological systems. At its heart is an attempt to think about what future universities should look like; If we are to tackle some of the greatest societal challenges, we need interdisciplinary research and creative thinking.

Environmentalists and architects need to talk to each other about the design of our cities – having mostly concrete spaces with separate green parks and conservation areas is not the way to go if we want to reduce the island effect of urban heat and the risk of flooding. We need to think about sustainable drainage solutions – build system resilience with designated floodplains and design urban areas to include more trees and vegetation. It can also provide natural shade to help cool buildings when we face higher temperatures.

We still have a lot to learn about the role of trees in reducing air pollution: historically, we have never designed cities with this in mind. Another important part of the People and Nature Lab is linking ecology to urban areas: not preaching from a green pulpit, but working with architects to effectively put ecology at the heart of urban regeneration.

For these same reasons, we wanted to build interdisciplinarity in UCL East – physically incorporating it into the buildings by having open and free-flowing spaces that can be used by the local community for events and encounters. This builds on the park’s legacy of sustainability, which was built for the 2012 London Olympics.

The ground floor of One Pool Street, our campus building due to open in late September, is deliberately open, removing standard departmental silos. In the People and Nature Lab, we have a rooftop field that will be open to everyone. I published an article last year on the positive effect of the forest on adolescents4, but the connection between community mental health and nature is only just beginning to be explored. The UK is passing legislation on biodiversity targets for businesses and urban spaces, but we won’t know if we’ve met these targets if we don’t monitor them. Better citizen involvement in understanding how to monitor the environment will be crucial.

East London is a very special place. It’s hugely diverse, with people from all socio-economic backgrounds, and that’s something to cherish. I want people who may not have a university background to be able to come into UCL East, see what’s going on and feel included. I am proud to work in a place that thinks about these things.

Through cross-disciplinary projects, we are actively nurturing a new generation of urban ecologists as well as architects and urban planners, who can come together to solve biodiversity’s biggest challenges.

About Justin Howze

Check Also

William Kentridge review – the sound and the fury | Art and design

Aastonishment and violence fill the Royal Academy’s investigative exhibition of Johannesburg-born artist William Kentridge. Glimpses …