Discovering Basel's natural beauty

The banks of the Rhine represent an important corridor for plants and animals. Daniel Küry

Basel is the last place one would expect to find a diversity of flora and fauna. But Markus Haefliger took a walk through the industrial city and discovered various plant and animal species asserting their existence against all odds.

This content was published on October 23, 2000 minutes

Walking along the river Rhine, Daniel Küry stops in his tracks and points to the ground. This reporter would have probably just passed by, but things look different to the trained eye of the ecologist.

"This lilac bellflower can only live in natural grasslands which are not fertilized", says Küry, bending down to examine the pretty flower, which stands lonely and knee-high among the stone slabs of the bank enforcement.

Küry, who is 42, is the co-author of a policy guideline commissioned by the government of canton Basel City on nature conservation. He has also authored a more popular guidebook on the theme, complete with photographs, maps and suggested walks(*).

"Many people still think that there is no such thing as a natural habitat in a city, and that you have to get out to the country to find it. But they are wrong."

Various institutions hire Küry and his consultancy firm to raise awareness of nature in the city. This summer, a colourful eight-page newssheet, baptised "Stadtnatur-Anzeiger" (City Nature Herald) was put in the letterbox of every citizen of Basel for the first time.

There are signs that attitudes are changing. A two-hour stroll along the banks of the Rhine is the best way to enjoy nature in the city.

Fixed to cables across the river, and pushed only by the force of the current, traditional ferryboats take pedestrians from one bank to the other.

The Rhine itself may be the greatest ecological policy success. Its water has improved considerably since the 1970s when the health authorities banned swimming. The city's sewage and liquid industrial wastes are now systematically purified.

"It's hard to draw comparisons, because in the 1970s nobody counted the number of river species," says Küry. "But the improvement is certainly great." A recent count revealed that 35 species of fish live in the Rhine, and ecologists are waiting for salmons to re-appear over the next two to three years for the first time in half a century.

Small animals - water snails, crabs, larvae and shells - are just as important to the river ecology. Their numbers have also increased, and the Rhine, for all its use as a navigable river and the many chemical factories along its banks, hosts more species than any of its tributaries.

The habitats along the Rhine embankment are also rich in biodiversity. The enforcement on the sunny northern side, upriver from the Wettstein Bridge, is grown over with a thick and colourful assortment of grasses and shrubs. Only a few years ago, city workers meticulously weeded out every crack between the limestone slabs, but they are now almost invisible under their natural cover.

Across the river lies the St Alban Tal, a quaint part of the old town in the vicinity of the Gegenwartsmuseum (museum of modern art). This is where an old canal joins the Rhine. The canal is accompanied by a narrow strip of forest that brings plants and animals into the city.

"Such corridors are extremely important to the city ecology, and in a wider context to the ecology of the whole region," says Küry. "Basel lies at a geographical bottleneck between the upper and the lower Rhine regions, and to survive, many plant and animal species must be allowed to migrate along such corridors."

For the same reason, Küry and his team have singled out railway tracks as life support systems for dry grassland species. Wherever possible, railway tracks are now considered areas of limited nature conservation.

The wholesale spraying of tracks with herbicides, common until a few years ago, has been replaced by a more careful approach. On tracks that are used for goods trains or as sidings, rare flowers that flourish under the dry and often hot conditions are left to grow - as they do near the river port in Basel's northern industrial area.

Parks and gardens too, have become more ecologically friendly. Common gardens and winding gravel paths have replaced the domesticated urban lawn and asphalted footpaths in new housing estates upriver from the St Alban Tal.

The public park in the St Johann area, upriver and opposite the port, is an example of a modern public park design. On a site where the city's slaughterhouse once was, the small park is divided into a flat lawn - used as a playground - and elevations where plants are left to themselves. "The shrubs are a habitat for various insect species and butterflies, while their fruit attract birds," says Küry.

It is here and in the embankment below that Basel's only known unique species scrapes together an existence - well, almost unique. Dorcardion fuliginator, a beetle that doesn't fly, also occurs in neighbouring Alsace in France.

Since it was discovered as a champion of urban nature conservation, Basel's favourite beetle has had quite a scientific career. In spite of its unseemly appearance, it is counted on a regular basis. The result, however, is not encouraging: From 800 in 1988, its population has dwindled to roughly half that number in 1997.

But Küry hasn't lost hope. "It is possible that in the ongoing construction and development process, we can lay a green corridor for the beetle's between here and the larger areas where it lives downriver in France," he says.

"We have to protect the beetle like any endangered species because the law says so, but the effort makes sense in another way. Few things have improved public awareness of nature conservation in the city like that beetle."

by Markus Haefliger

(*) Daniel Küry, Basler Stadtnatur, 1997.
(The booklet can be obtained at the price of SFr10.- at the Fachstelle für Naturschutz, Rittergasse 4, 4001 Basel, Tel. 4161 267 6728)

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