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In defence of pigeons

Winged rats or war heroes? A life-changing trip to Atelier Gardens in Berlin forces James Greig to confront his own prejudices about the too-often-maligned bird – here, he encourages us to do the same

Cities are often seen as being less hospitable to nature than the countryside. We associate the metropolis with concrete; steel, light pollution, exhaust fumes, and the kind of oppressive urban hell depicted in films like Taxi Driver, Se7en, and Babe: Pig in the City. When we think about the countryside, though, we see soothing pastoral landscapes; fat little bumblebees buzzing lazily around hibiscus trees, Victorian children feeding apples to friendly horses; meadows, lanes, and Boomtown Festival. But these associations are becoming more and more outdated. In fact, it’s cities which are becoming a more welcoming habitat for insects, plants and animals – and there are moves we can make to help this process along. By 2050, the majority of the world’s population is expected to live in cities, which means that urban design will soon play an integral role in the fight against climate change. This is the story behind Atelier Gardens: a six-acre campus, designed by Fabrix, on the outskirts of Berlin at the site of Europe’s oldest film studio, where imposing brick structures stand alongside beehives, pigeon coops and wild flora. The site hosts a range of activists, many of whom are focused on the environment, and the ways we can let our cities run wild. 

In Atelier Gardens’ central square sits an old sailing boat which Ayham Majid Agha, a theatre-maker from Syria, has transformed into a home for pigeons. Having grown up in an area of the Syrian desert where the practice was common, he has now dedicated his life to breeding the birds and exploring new ways we can exist alongside them. Pigeons today are unloved and often reviled creatures, but this hasn’t always been the case. One of the first animals to be domesticated by humans, we have used them as messengers since 5 BC; the use of pigeon carriers during WW1 and WW2 saved hundreds of thousands of lives, and throughout the twentieth century individual pigeons have been awarded numerous medals for military bravery (shout out “Commando” and “Cher Ami”.) We have been besties with pigeons for millennia, but now that modern technology has rendered their traditional uses obsolete, we have proven to be a fair-weather friend. Most of us view them today as “rats with wings”, symbols of urban squalor and disease. 

“There are many reasons I find pigeons compelling,” Agha tells me, as he shows me around the coop. “It’s about going back to nature and gazing at the sky. We forget the sky a lot today, especially because of mobiles, technology and Google Maps. You walk around looking down, trying to find your way as fast as possible without allowing any time for yourself to think.” Agha has started experimenting with GPS and thinking about how pigeons could once again become a mode of communication between different countries. “Instead of Google Earth, I want to do pigeon earth,” he says. “Instead of Google maps, I’m doing GPS rings and mapping the city through pigeons. And slowly, I want to get bigger and bigger, until I can link the whole of Europe through pigeons.”

If feral pigeons are seen as annoying in cities, the real culprit is poor urban planning. “We are cutting down trees without offering animals any space afterwards”, says Agha. If we created habitats for pigeons, places where they could shit and get their own food, then they wouldn’t have to do these things in our streets and public squares. The problem is our failure to accommodate them. The next time one of them shits on you or steals your chips, remember this fact and respond with good grace.

“Instead of Google Earth, I want to do pigeon earth. Instead of Google maps, I’m doing GPS rings and mapping the city through pigeons” – Ayham Majid Agha 

After spending the day with Agha, I will never look at a pigeon the same way again. I found them utterly charming; cocky and unruffled, moving so jerkily they looked as though they’d been sped up or shot via Godard-style jump cuts. The babies were reptilian, like tiny dinosaurs, but adorable all the same. Later that day, I posted a picture of them to my Instagram and someone I’d considered a close friend replied “ewwww! They’re horrible!!” At one point, I’m ashamed to say that such a cruel remark might have had me nodding in agreement. But not anymore. Needless to say, I’ve cut that person out of my life for good.

Pigeons might be having a hard time in the urban environment, but this isn’t the case for the rest of the animal world. For bees and other insects, cities are becoming a more welcoming habitat than the countryside, where pesticides and monocultures (the cultivation of a single crop in a given area) make it harder for them to survive. Statdbienen (Urban Bees), a company founded in 2012, is dedicated to teaching people how to keep bees. It has developed a special hive which can be used in places where space is limited, such as balconies in big city apartments. 

The benefits of keeping honey bees cannot be overstated. They perform a vital function in our food chains, and are said to contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to the economy each year. Unfortunately, bees are vanishing at a terrifying rate, with enormous implications for the wider ecosystem and our ability to produce food. But cities can offer a welcoming home. “In places like Berlin, for example, we have a lot of trees and green areas, which means that bees can survive here quite well. But in many parts of the countryside, where they grow corn for example, there are no flowers, no nectar, no pollen,” Jonas Geßner, project manager at Stadbienen, tells me as we stand by a collection of hives in the corner of the site. 

“Our mission is to educate people that if you create sites like Atelier Gardens, where you have all these lovely plants around you, then it’s not only good for the insects, it’s also good for yourself,” he says. As with Ayham and his pigeons, for Geßner, beekeeping is an important way of connecting with nature at a deeper level. “It gives you a different mindset,” he said. “Before I started doing this, I was never bothered by the weather, for example. I just took it for granted. Now I’m far more conscious about it: was there enough rain? Was there too much rain? What is flowering at the moment? It helps to create an awareness of your environment.” 

Cleo Mieulet, who works for an environmental activist group called Transformation Haus and Feld, says that the scale of the climate crisis doesn’t have to lead to nihilistic resignation. She offers a number of practical solutions on how we can transform our cities in response to the climate crisis. “Getting rid of asphalt in the streets and replacing it with gardens and soil would be a very strong help for cities, because cities are heat machines in summer,” she says. “We need more green spaces both for biodiversity and for food. We have to [install vertical greenhouses], which can be done in a very cheap way.” While these measures would be highly doable, she notes that they would still meet with intense resistance. “It’s always the profit machine that takes precedence before all other solutions,” Mieulet adds. “And if you invent solutions that are not producing profit, it’s going to be really, really hard to implement them.” 

“We can’t have civil disobedience if people don’t actually know what we are fighting for. We know we’re fighting against, but in my opinion the storytelling aspect is missing” – Dani Mosimann

How can people overcome this resistance? “I think we should push the government still, but it’s also important to take action yourself, connect to your community, and create what change in your local area that you can,” says artist and activist Dani Mosimann, who adds that environmentalists need to start telling a more galvanising story. “We can’t have civil disobedience if people don’t actually know what we are fighting for. We know we’re fighting against, but in my opinion the storytelling aspect is missing... The neoliberal think tanks have their story, but what is ours?”

Greener cities would be better places to live: the mental health benefits of urban greenery, for example, are well-proven. The climate crisis is inevitably going to cause a huge amount of human suffering, and it would be crass to be too utopian about the possibilities it offers. But at the same time, it’s important to have a positive vision of the future to fight for, instead of just the obligation to mitigate a series of baked-in disasters. We could live in cities that combine the best of the urban and pastoral, collapsing a centuries-old dichotomy. If we do have to live in a post-apocalyptic society, it would be better to live in a lush, verdant one like Station Eleven or “Nothing but Flowers” by the Talking Heads (“this was a Pizza Hut, now it’s all covered with daisies!”) Even in the midst of the climate crisis, a better future - and better cities - are still possible. But there are powerful forces stacked against us and we’re going to have to fight.