Urban Wildlife Garden as a Pedagogical Tool for Environmental Studies

Dr. Charu Sharma, Pepperdine University & Hult International Business School, London, UK

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The Natural History Museum's Wildlife Garden showcasing its eight habitats is used as a primary source for baseline environmental data collection, analysis and discussion. Basic concepts of biodiversity, species richness, human impacts on these habitats, and urban environmental sustainability are explored.

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Undergraduate elective course in natural science.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Common regional habitats: to be introduced in class, or students could do online secondary research.
Basic concept of biodiversity of a habitat measured by species richness: to be introduced through a class lecture.
Concept of factors that impact habitats such as:
- Habitat degradation due to human impact, especially in the context of the ongoing biodiversity crisis, i.e. the extinction of species.
- Invasive species – not always bad.
- Urban environmental sustainability – how it can soften the blow, the wildlife 
garden serving as an example.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is done as a stand-alone exercise for an introductory natural science course. It is done after a theoretical class lecture.

It is also done as a part of a sequence of exercises, on another course with the theme of urban sustainability, using the city of London as an outdoor lab.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Biodiversity measurement of species richness, understanding the role of habitats, urban environmental sustainability.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Data analysis: Understanding the basic concept of biodiversity measurement such as species richness.
Hypothesis: manmade habitats can be just as potent as natural habitats for species conservation.
Synthesis of ideas: the impact on habitats by humans – then and now, how both native and invasive/introduced species make up the biodiversity of a habitat.

Other skills goals for this activity

This activity provides the following skills goals:
Conducting primary and secondary research;
Learning to write a science article styled essay or a report;
Option to present findings orally in class.

The primary data compiled from this activity can be plotted up as graphs, the results analysed, discussed and put into context with some secondary research by finding relevant sources online. A brief bibliography can be created through this activity, as well as an appendix comprising the primary data table of the species information, and sketches from the habitats.

Students may organise themselves in groups with each group allocated to investigate and gather data from specific habitats. This way, data may be gathered in detail for the whole study area. Students learn to share data with each other, and reference each other's borrowed data set, thus appreciating how intellectual property is to be referenced/acknowledged.

Description and Teaching Materials

The one acre plot of the wildlife garden at the Natural History Museum in London, UK has an unassuming look to it from the roadside view. Within it, eight different habitats commonly found in the southern part of the United Kingdom have been cultivated. Each habitat is represented by the most common vegetation types and, in some of them, typical animals have been introduced too. Information on commonly found plant and animal species in each habitat, soil characteristics, and impact of human activities on the habitat, is displayed on plaques installed by the habitats.
The advantages of this garden are manifold. Situated in the heart of London, it is within easy access for a variety of audiences. From a pedagogical view, it provides an excellent exposure to common terrestrial habitats and one aquatic habitat found in the UK, all within one acre, allowing for an easy stroll through the garden to view all of these habitats.

This urban garden can be used in various ways for pedagogical purposes. In the first instance, a walk around the garden gives an overview of these habitats:
Lowland Heath,
Reed bed, 
Chalk Downland, and 
Freshwater Pond.

The garden lends itself to teaching the topics of habitats and their ecology in an introductory way. The total number of common plant and animal species found in each habitat may be noted by combining data available from the information plaques with primary observations made by counting the various plant species growing in the habitat. Leaf sketches of the most common species may be made too. Using the species counts, a biodiversity index of species richness can be obtained for each habitat and discussed in these ways:

The total species counts of plants and animals found in each habitat may be plotted as a graph or a pie-chart. The data may be further separated into numbers of plant species and animal species and the richness of each calculated for each habitat. This data may be plotted too.

This baseline environmental data and analysis raises several topics for discussion. As an example, the primary data collection will show that the hedgerow habitat ranks as one of the highest in species richness. It rivals the species richness of the woodland habitat. This is mainly because hedgerows provide a protected habitat in exposed areas as well as serve as corridors or crossings, connecting species between habitats. Hedgerows, largely man-made, have been historically used for land management such as demarcation of boundaries. With changing techniques of land management and the encroaching urban development, this habitat is under threat.

When students document and plot the data to see a species richness trend from an ancient manmade habitat it allows for critical thinking of ideas for urban environmental sustainability. Linkages can be made with existing examples such as the artificial structures camouflaged as trees in Singapore with the aim of attracting birds into the city, or wildlife crossings.

From a habitat management and conservation point of view, students may consider these points:
- Prioritising one habitat over another based on species richness;
- The role of each habitat in human society - then and now. E.g. resources obtained from woodlands, or meadows 
serving as pastures, and the changing trends in land use. Are these habitats still being used by us for economic 
resources, or are they being maintained more from a conservation perspective.
- Should a Fen or a Reed habitat be conserved with its relatively low species richness or is there more value in 
giving it up for urban-economic development?

The topic of native versus introduced species can be discussed too. From the species list, students can conduct secondary research and find out which ones are native and which ones are introduced or invasive to the region or a particular habitat. One purpose of this research is to familiarise students with the common, domesticated and even profitable nature of invasive species which are often stigmatised as dangerous or deemed as pests. Sometimes, introduced species make up most of the species richness of a habitat.

Activity Instructions_Urban Wildlife Garden (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB Nov23 20) 
Species data for Urban Wildlife Garden (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 11kB Nov23 20)


To meet the goals of this assignment, students should address the following points:

Primary source data:
Representative sketches of at least one common leaf type from each habitat they have investigated.
Names and counts of common plant and animal species representative of each habitat.

Data analysis:
Graph plots of total species from each habitat. Ranking of habitats from highest to lowest biodiversity (using species richness value).

Present their findings in a write-up or an oral presentation in an interesting way. Critical ideas should be highlighted such as:
Natural versus man-made habitats and how both can be rich in biodiversity;
The specific role each habitat plays, or it's unique feature - such as a hedgerow offering a protective habitat and helping species hide/roost/move/migrate by providing a connective corridor across open spaces, how this habitat gets thick and woody with age providing a better habitat, increasing species richness;
Out of the species counted, are all native or are some invasive/introduced?
Innovative ways of increasing biodiversity in urban areas and improving urban sustainability, given the uncertainty of environmental conservation of natural habitats.

References and Resources