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‘Planet Earth’ episode shows the dark side of urbanization

“Cities” illustrates how human habitats are increasingly incompatible with the species that lived there first

Macaques on rooftops in Jaipur, India plan raids on the food vendors below.
Photo by Fredi Devas/BBC

In the final episode of Planet Earth II, Sir David Attenborough’s measured narration takes a sudden, introspective turn.

“In the last 6,000 years, the surface of our planet has undergone a sudden change,” he says. “A new habitat has appeared, entirely designed and constructed by one species for its own purpose.”

Well, when he puts it that way, the rapid urbanization of the planet doesn’t sound so good, does it?

“Cities” is the sixth episode of Planet Earth II, the sequel to the popular documentary series, which debuted on BBC last year and is now streaming on Netflix. And it’s the first time that the humans producing the series turn the cameras on their own kind.

Opening with a stunning nighttime shot of the Supertree Grove in Singapore—which feels like a pretty sorry attempt at constructing an urban forest after watching the “Jungles” episode—Attenborough’s tone is upbeat, billing cities as a place of “surprising opportunity” for certain animals. Footage of people moving through Shanghai crosswalks and escalators, while cranes erect skyscrapers at a dizzying speed, make city life look every bit as dazzling as the Madagascar locust swarm in “Deserts.”

But our human habitats are unfair, unfriendly, and often deadly to any species but our own.

Some animals thrive living in close proximity to millions of humans, or rather, because of the food that is produced for and discarded by millions of humans. Leopards, hyenas, and raccoons are shown scavenging in our trash or feasting on our domesticated animals, which in turn allows them to give birth to healthier babies. Primates seem to fare particularly well in cities, perhaps because they’re so much like us. In the most lighthearted scenes, we see them performing elaborate parkour atop buildings and coordinating snack-snatching from street markets.

Cities also have a way of upending the balance struck in wilderness between predator and prey, but this sometimes works in an animal’s favor, too. Manhattan is home to the highest density of nesting peregrine falcon population on the planet, because there is so little competition for their plentiful prey. And, of course, there’s lots of desirable real estate outside those penthouse apartments.

But it quickly becomes clear that we’re shaping the habits of these animals we’re coexisting with, and not for the better.

Take the bowerbirds, Planet Earth regulars, which woo mates by building elaborate nests. For the birds who live near Australian cities, these nests also include collections of brightly colored trash. It’s cute to see a bird hop into frame, a shiny red Matchbox car in his mouth, until you start imagining, as I did, their bellies filled with rubber bands and plastic zip-ties.

One of the most damaging elements to animals in cities is our obsession with artificial light, tragically illustrated by the plight of the hawksbill turtle. When they hatch from eggs carefully laid on a Barbados beach, instinct tells them to follow the full moon to the sea. Confused by street lights, the hatchlings are drawn away from the water and towards the city, where they’re devoured by opportunistic crabs or crushed by cars. Where is the Vision Zero for turtles?

Urban highways create deadly barriers that handicap animal movement.
BBC

It’s more than just our vehicles, it’s the infrastructure that we build for them—freeways, mostly—which create impenetrable barriers that sever animals from their habitats. Drivers, in so many ways, are the most dangerous predators on this planet.

“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Attenborough chimes in, just when things are looking bleak. “Whether we choose to create a home for others, too, is up to us.” There’s a nod to the vertical forests meant to welcome back the species we’ve evicted, like the Bosco Verticale skyscraper in Milan that’s home to 800 trees (they look healthy, although some tree experts disagree, saying these structures are sentencing the trees and their animal residents to death).

The most impressive success story might be in Singapore, where an aggressive tree-planting campaign netted the city an additional two million trees over the last 50 years. Paired with stringent efforts to clean up its waterfront and address industrial air pollution, the biodiversity of species found in Singapore is now richer than in any other major city on Earth.

It made me wonder why more cities don’t make biodiversity targets a goal alongside their renewable energy metrics.

But the one thing Planet Earth II doesn’t address is the elephant on the savanna.

There are vague references to a “changing climate” or how “things have changed” in the series. But “Cities” doesn’t talk at all about what is by far the most damaging and widespread human creation—the catastrophic warming of the planet, which is now largely attributed to the greenhouse gas emissions generated by our transportation methods.

It was only when I started researching this story that I realized how much Sir David Attenborough had been protecting us from this information. Pretty much every animal that makes a cameo in Planet Earth has, in some way, been royally screwed by humans.

After enjoying a particularly charming segment about the tube-nosed saiga antelope during the “Grasslands” episode, I searched online for more information about their unique birthing patterns (they’re one of the few animals that always give birth to twins). It turns out that 200,000 of the animals perished on the Russian tundra—more than half of the entire species—during a mass die-off in 2015, and scientists have spent the past two years trying to figure out why. Of course, the only explanation is climate related.

Planet Earth isn’t the place to go for die-offs and doomsday messages—there are other documentaries for that—but it is the most-viewed environmental content in history. BBC estimates a half a billion people watched the original Planet Earth series and it’s likely even more people will see the sequel. But it took over a decade to produce Planet Earth II. By 2026, any effort to encourage city-dwellers to change their ways will be too late.

It made me wish that the producers would have spent the final chapter of Planet Earth II hitting viewers over the head with the fact that if we continue the behavior highlighted in episode six, it will effectively erase episodes one through five.