Walthamstow Wetlands by Stephen Ayers

Investigating the complexities of urban conservation

Cara Clancy

Cara is undertaking a three year research project at Walthamstow Wetlands

‘Life in the urban wilds’ is a three year research project that combines academic research with creative ‘multispecies’ field investigations. It is being led by Cara Clancy of Plymouth University and aims to better understand conservation in urban environments – how and why certain decisions are made and then experienced by people and wildlife.

Urban environments are complex, hybrid places and conservation can play an important role in shaping relations between humans and the non-human community (plants and animals). Here Cara explains her project and invites visitors to the Wetlands to get in touch with their own thoughts and stories. 

Walthamstow Wetlands is an example of a space where both cultural and ecological factors are at play. Not only are the reservoirs home to a diverse array of birds and other species, they play a critical role in supplying Londoners with clean, safe drinking water. They are also an important recreational site for anglers, who have been fishing here since before the Second World War.

The multifunctional nature of Walthamstow Wetlands makes it a fascinating place for undertaking conservation and balancing different needs. The research hopes to draw insights from the case of Walthamstow Wetlands (as well a second study site on the Tamar Estuary in Plymouth) to shed light on the complexities of urban conservation and how people and wildlife might relate to each other in new and different ways in urban contexts.

Urban environments represent some of the most altered landscapes on the planet (1) and yet the modern city is filled with wild animal inhabitants, many of whom now find better access to food and shelter here than in the rural countryside. In recent years, urban biodiversity has started to be accorded the kind of conservation significance once reserved for rural and sparsely populated regions. Brownfield sites for instance have been widely cited as having an important role for urban wildlife – in fact, two of the UK’s top sites for wildlife diversity are brownfield lands, supporting some of Britain’s most scarce and threatened species (2).

Peregrine falcon -by Stephen AyersFor some animals, artificial structures can become part of their ‘natural’ habitat (see for example Walthamstow Wetland’s peregrine falcons enjoying the heights of the electricity pylons). All this reflects the fluid geography of wildlife in urban areas.

Using creative multispecies techniques, this research hopes to elucidate what ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ might mean for the inhabitants of Walthamstow Wetlands, as well as the many people who have formed attachments to the place over the years. These attachments sit alongside a very real need to maintain the reservoirs for the many thousands of Londoners who depend on them for their drinking water (the reservoirs were initially created in response to the cholera outbreaks of the late 1800s that killed thousands). It is this interplay that makes urban conservation so interesting, albeit challenging.

In wandering around the wetlands, and volunteering with London Wildlife Trust, I have slowly become more familiar with the features and creatures that make this site what it is. But I am still learning. I invite anyone who wants to take part in the research to get in touch, whether you have a story to share, an experience to recount, or you’re simply curious! The research aims to expand understandings of urban wilds in ways that can helpfully inform conservation policy and practice going forward.

Do you have any views or stories you’d like to share? You can contact Cara by email at cara.clancy@plymouth.ac.uk. Cara is also looking for art practitioners and other collaborators to run some participatory listening exercises and sound-mapping workshops in spring and summer 2017. Please feel free to get in touch.

Twitter @caraclancy

Images of Walthamstow Wetlands and peregrine falcon by Stephen Ayers.


(1) Hobbs et al. (2013) ‘Novel Ecosystems: Intervening in the new ecological world order’; Pickett et al. (2016) ‘Evolution and future of urban ecological science: Ecology in, of and for the city’.

(2) Wildlife and Countryside Link, June 2015