Written by Matthew Gorospe
Illustrated by Gio Paloma
The concept of biodiversity is often viewed in the context of wild ecosystems rarely touched by mankind—think of the exotic wildlife in tropical rainforests, or the coral reefs teeming with various colorful fishes. These examples only show a small portion of the ecosystems and rich biodiversity in the Philippines. The country houses around two-thirds of the world’s entire biodiversity, where high endemism of unique plant and animal species can only be found within the nation.1
To illustrate this biodiversity, one of the most famous ecosystems that can highlight the vast assortment of life in the country is the Verde Island Passage, an area of marine water located between Mindoro and Luzon through Batangas. This small area is widely considered to be the center of marine biodiversity, home to 60% of the world’s shorefish species, 300 species of corals, and many more sea slugs, sea urchins, tunicates, etc.2
The variety of organisms in the region is further demonstrated by a joint Filipino-American 2015 expedition where around 100 new marine life species were discovered as well.3 This perspective, while being partially correct, only accounts for a small fraction of what biodiversity truly is.
Biodiversity refers to the overall richness—the number of unique species, evenness—the distribution of species, and variation—the genetic diversity of populations, in a given area. With this in mind, one can measure the biodiversity of any area. Popularly, this concept is used in wild ecosystems with eye-catching flora and fauna. However, it can also be used in cities or urban environments, as there is still plenty of life to be found, and are just usually unnoticed. This is referred to as urban biodiversity.
“…In the city, you don’t normally associate cities with wildlife. Usually, you think of forests and coastal areas, but the city provides lots of habitats for biodiversity also […] it encompasses everything from the microscopic fungi and bacteria, the macroscopic plants and animals, and the overall ecosystem,” said Biology Professors Abby Favis and Trinket Constantino, founders of the Ateneo Wild.
Amid the hustle of daily life, urban biodiversity is hardly noticed. People would rather kill your common insects for petty fears as opposed to setting them free and they’ll litter on plants. Despite this, biodiversity remains resilient, an ever-present factor in urban life: the potted plants in the backyard, the trees on the sidewalk, or on the road, the cockroach in the restroom, and the sparrows on the telephone poles. Still, it serves more than ornamental decorations and pests – like in any ecosystem, it is responsible for supporting the sphere of life and the interactions that occur within its domain.
Life Gives Life
An importance of urban biodiversity that usually comes first to mind is its role in regulating temperature and microclimate. This applies more to the urban floral biodiversity, as urban vegetation reduces the amount of heat dispersed by providing direct shading and through evapotranspiration, overall decreasing the temperature by around 2°C.4
Urban vegetation is also considered to be important because of its innate ability to provide natural services, from the filtration of toxic substances from gasses such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) to the management of groundwater wastes, flood prevention, and improvement of water quality.
Lastly, and perhaps the most underappreciated aspect, is the effect urban biodiversity has on public health. In terms of individual well-being, green spaces, such as parks and thoroughfares have been known to induce positive impacts on promoting physical activity, thus, improving skeletal and muscular elements of the body, reducing vulnerability to cardiovascular diseases, blood pressure-related illnesses, and other conditions that can come with increased physical inactivity.5,6 It also improves mental health by reducing stress and restores cognitive faculties simply by being in close proximity to green spaces, resulting in a healthy, well-connected community.7
In specificity, for children, being exposed to nature not only reaps the aforementioned benefits of improved physical and mental health but also in their development of motor skills and cognitive function. That is to say that in a less stressful environment—one that calms the senses as opposed to heightening them—studies have repeatedly linked fewer incidences of depression and anxiety as well as less violence. Born from a world of nature, it only makes sense that when one returns to it, we see those come back to positively impact us.8
All of this is to say that urban biodiversity provides natural, long-term services that greatly increase overall public health. With that being said, does Metro Manila exhibit a great amount of urban biodiversity like its rural and wild counterparts?
More than just Smog
Unfortunately, plenty of fingers point to the opposite—Metro Manila is anything but biodiverse. Primarily, the planning and development pursuits of the city have unfortunately placed more emphasis on the expansion of infrastructures, rather than nurturing the urban ecosystem.9 To elucidate this fact, NASA actually referred to Metro Manila, a rapidly urbanizing environment, as a ‘gray cityscape’ from a satellite photo on the account of the evident prominence of concrete and asphalt in the generated image, lacking of the much-needed green spaces in the area.10,11
Figure 1. The gray cityscape of Metro Manila
The lack of green spaces is also something to note and should be cause for concern, as they not only deliver the aforementioned benefits to humans but also to local fauna as well. Aside from this, a study that aimed to measure the urban biodiversity of the City of Manila also revealed the alarming lack of tree species richness and evenness across all green spaces—out of 21 of the marked areas, only seven (7) had more than a hundred trees, with most of them having less than 50. These have had large implications on the unhealthy planning of areas and dampened lifestyles that people have in these areas.12
Out of all the green spaces, Luneta Park and Arroceros Park are the most significant in terms of biodiversity, the first having the most amount of trees which number around 3,500, while the latter has the highest canopy coverage of around 27% (Luneta Park also scored fourth, having around 21%).13
In terms of species diversity, the Narra tree is the most dominant, followed by Mahogany.14 However, it is important to note that there are only a few indigenous species, specifically seven (7) only out of 20—this is a growing concern as non-indigenous exotic species, such as the African tulip, are capable of out-competing and displacing indigenous species thanks to their foreign evolutionary strategies. Though generally, the idea of dominant plant and animal species is largely frowned upon as it does not promote biodiversity, it instead restricts it.15
Life Finds a Way
Despite this gloomy outlook for the city, there are groups and institutions that aim to enforce urban biodiversity. On the legislative side, the local government of Quezon City has implemented a Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP) from 2011 to 2025 which includes the Green Lung Network, wherein some areas are to be conserved and aimed to be ‘perpetually green’ under the goal of protecting its biodiversity.16
When it comes to leading by example, perhaps one of the most prominent is the Ateneo de Manila University, with its 83 hectares of land, 16 hectares of which are forested areas.17 Recently, Ateneo partnered with other universities around the world to become a Laudato Si’ university, referring to Pope Francis’ encyclical addressing the importance of integral ecology, and our connection with nature.18 Within the university itself, groups and organizations such as the Ateneo Wild aim to promote not only the biodiversity within the campus but the importance of urban biodiversity itself.
Though the government and socially active organizations cannot be the only ones to act. Promoting and protecting biodiversity, wherever it may be, is just as much a duty to the common layman as the scientist. Particularly, the youth’s curiosity and active freedom may impact the awareness and development of biodiversity. This exposure then becomes a tool for education—studying and learning the benefits of nature in urban environments, thus overall improving the youth’s awareness and skills in ecological literacy, development, and systems thinking to name a few.19
“There [are] alot of benefits to be derived from urban ecosystems, they are just not as appreciated…people are not aware na marami namang naco-contribute ang ecosystem services yung biodiversity sa Manila because they cannot connect that to their everyday lives…” said Favis and Constantino
Overall, urban biodiversity is more than just ornamental plants and decorations for urban planning—it provides many natural, ecosystem services not only in managing temperature, waste, and air and water quality but also in improving the overall public health of the community. Despite our great abilities as humans, we cannot forget that we are, ultimately, still a part of a larger ecosystem of interconnected abiotic and biotic factors.
As overseers and stewards of nature, it is our duty to nurture and protect the environment from harm, as our lives ultimately depend on its well-being.
Philippines – Main Details. Convention on Biological Diversity. [accessed 2023 Feb 10]. https://www.cbd.int/countries/profile/?country=ph#facts
Astell-Burt T, Feng X. 2019. Does sleep grow on trees? A longitudinal study to investigate potential prevention of insufficient sleep with different types of urban green space. SSM – Population Health 10:100497.
Comprehensive land use plan 2011-2025. 2020 Dec 29. Quezon City Government. [accessed 2023 Feb 12]. https://quezoncity.gov.ph/qc-profile/comprehensive-land-use-plan-2011-2025/
Favis A, Constantino T. 2019 Jul 23. The Ateneo Wild: Urban Biodiversity Conservation at the Ateneo de Manila University. Ateneo de Manila University. [accessed 2023 Feb 10]. https://www.ateneo.edu/features/2019/07/23/ateneo-wild-urban-biodiversity-conservation-ateneo-de-manila-university#:~:text=The%20Ateneo%20Wild%20Project%20aims,avenue%20for%20reporting%20wildlife%20sightings.
Fried B. 2022 Sep 20. Becoming a Laudato si’ university : Task Force on Environmental & Economic JusticeB. Ateneo de Manila University. [accessed 2023 Feb 14]. https://www.ateneo.edu/news/2022/09/20/becoming-laudato-si-university-task-force-environmental-economic-justice
Kurn DM, Bretz SE, Huang B, Akbari H. 1994. The potential for reducing urban air temperatures and energy consumption through vegetative cooling.
Manila, Philippines. NASA. [accessed 2023 Feb 10]. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/88643/manila-philippines
Marshall JD, Brauer M, Frank LD. 2009. Healthy neighborhoods: Walkability and air pollution. Environmental Health Perspectives 117:1752–1759.
The necessity of urban green space for children’s Optimal Development. 2021 Jul 26. UNICEF. [accessed 2023 Feb 14]. https://www.unicef.org/armenia/en/stories/necessity-urban-green-space-childrens-optimal-development
Pa-a S. 2018 Sep 24. Declaration of verde island passage as world heritage site sought. Philippine News Agency. [accessed 2023 Feb 10]. https://www.pna.gov.ph/articles/1048958
Sampang A. 2022 Nov 28. Why green spaces are crucial for our children’s development. Ateneo de Manila University. [accessed 2023 Feb 14]. https://www.ateneo.edu/features/2022/11/28/why-green-spaces-crucial-our-childrens-development
Suarez KD. 2015 Jun 9. Ph is marine hotspot: Verde Island passage yields 100 new species. RAPPLER. [accessed 2023 Feb 10]. https://www.rappler.com/science/95782-verde-island-passage-yields-new-marine-species/