Not every city has foxes. When I lived, briefly, in Los Angeles, people were astounded to hear that I used to share my streets with the creatures, but not as surprised as I was when I first saw a coyote padding insouciantly down Sunset Boulevard in the pink and bleary dawn. Crows are the same: While other birds preen and warble and beg for crumbs from our hands, crows don’t seem to care for us at all; they’re in the city to wait for us to all die out, and then they’ll take over. A city with wild animals in it is always one just on the conceptual edge of being without humans.
This is the hidden message in the last episode of the BBC’s Planet Earth II, throatily narrated by David Attenborough and broadcasting in the United States this month. Most of the series is gorgeous and disappointing. In each episode we’re introduced to a different type of habitat—islands, jungles, deserts—and shown how the various living things have adapted themselves to it in tiny six-minute vignettes, as if biological life were made up of little stories. But the final episode, showing animals in the city, is spectacular. The natural world is no longer out there, in the eternal wilderness, divided from our own lives by an absolute ontological barrier, and interacting with humanity only insofar as we destroy it. Instead it’s rising up from underneath with a mocking challenge to the world we think we’ve built.
We learn, for instance, that the greatest concentration of wild leopards is not in some last besieged scrap of pristine jungle, but in Mumbai. The world’s highest density of wild peregrine falcons, meanwhile—which precious kids like myself will remember as the fastest animal in the world—is in New York City. Rural peregrines nest on cliff-crags and soar on the thermal currents rising from sheer, exposed rock; without meaning to, humans have recreated a perfect environment for them on Manhattan Island. In the wilderness they’re scarce and territorial, roaming vast areas to find food; one falcon will hunt alone across over twenty-five miles of territory. In the city, there’s so much prey and so many places to roost that it can support dozens of breeding pairs.
Animals do something to the city and its spaces; they remind us that we’re not really free. The space of a city doesn’t just consist of its physical structure, but the infinity of codes that determine how we use it: this is a street, your street, this is your garden, fortified with fences, this is the quickest route to work, as handed down by GPS satellites out in orbit around the planet, these are the parts of town you never visit and the alleys you know better than to walk down late at night.
It’s so hard, these days, for many young people to find somewhere affordable to live; the city is foreign to us, controlled by strange and impersonal forces. Sometimes there are moments of riot and revolt: We build barricades across the street and take freely whatever’s behind the shuttered-up sores, until the cops arrive and start enforcing socially produced space with clubs and water cannons. Urban space is political, arranged by a certain configuration of power, and while animals might sometimes find themselves on the receiving end of its discipline, shot or poisoned by quota, for the most part they’re given the freedom of a mutual indifference.