Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The critter that climbed a 25-story building in St. Paul, Minnesota, is a reminder: We could design for cohabitation between humans and urban wildlife.
The latest face of urban exploration—the kind in which daredevils scale structures of dizzying heights—belongs to a furry masked bandit with sharp claws and beady eyes, who found herself atop the 25-story UBS building in St. Paul, Minnesota early Wednesday.
It all began Monday when maintenance workers from a nearby building spooked a raccoon raiding a pigeon’s nest. Rather than climbing down, the critter scampered next door to the 305-foot UBS tower. And so began a harrowing ordeal that lasted more than 24 hours as the #MPRraccoon—so named after public radio reporter Tim Nelson started live-tweeting the spectacle—clawed her way up the concrete walls.
She reached the 23rd floor before stopping on a window ledge to do some grooming, stretching, and napping, unaware that she had much of America and beyond rooting for her safe ascent. By the time she reached the rooftop and was rescued by wildlife management, the MPR raccoon had captivated an entire nation in ways that perhaps no (human) climber has.
Her perilous journey also caught the attention of Joyce Hwang, architect and director of the Buffalo-based firm Ants of the Prairie, which studies how to incorporate wildlife habitats into city structures. “The fact that you have a raccoon basically climbing a skyscraper in and of itself is a really kind of phenomenal feat,” she said.
Phenomenal, yes. But was it unusual? We won’t necessarily see a surge of daring raccoons racing to the top of skyscrapers, but in an increasingly urbanized world, we can expect to share more of our structures with the urban wildlife. “It really says a lot about how buildings participate in the larger ecosystem,” she said. “There is a web of multiple species that are interacting with those structures, so because of the pigeons’ nest nearby and the raccoon wanting to raid that, it escaped to this [taller] building.”
So how should cities prepare?
The MPR raccoon wouldn’t be the first to find refuge in the built environment: Just days before, a Londoner found a fox sunbathing on the rooftop of his warehouse-turned-housing after it had climbed up the fire escape. And in 2015, a coyote that found its way to the rooftop of a bar in Queens, New York, managed to escape police officers by hopping onto the roof of a nearby building.
In fact, the MPR raccoon isn’t even the first of its kind to scale a skyscraper. In 2016, a baby raccoon named Scoop spent days stuck on the 4th floor window ledge of the Toronto Star offices in Canada before firefighters finally rescued it. Though baby Scoop didn’t make it all the way to the top, the entire operation elicited the same kind of nail-biting suspense that MPR raccoon did.
And those are just the extraordinary cases. Animal interactions are already an integral part of urban environments. In the future, we’re likely to see even more animals transforming everything from buildings to bridges into their habitat, according to Hwang.
The thing is, animals are opportunistic. And they don’t care if a structure is meant for them or not. In the cases of the terrified raccoons, they find higher ground to feel safer. “If a building has a kind of surface that's climbable, if it has ridges or if it's made out of material that can be hung onto, the animal won't necessarily see the difference between that and a tree,” said Hwang.
By the same token, it wouldn’t be uncommon to find birds nesting in buildings of varying heights, like in the case of that pigeons’ nest. “Even if a building is too high for the raptors, they'll just nest at a level that they're interested in,” said Hwang. “I don’t think the height matters [as much as] the kind of building material, and the temperature, humidity, and physical condition of that particular space.” And human presence—or rather, the lack of it. “If a building or landscape is not maintained,” she added, “the default condition is that animals will inhabit it.”
Meanwhile, bats will take up residence in anything that has crevice-like spaces that create a cave-like environment. That sort of behavior is what leads to one of the most spectacular wildlife sighting in Austin, Texas, in which millions of bats from the world’s largest urban colony would fly out from underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge at sundown.
For cities, that means there are opportunities to better incorporate wildlife habitats into the built environment, rather than designing structures to keep animals away. (Think bird spikes and glass structures that animals can’t grip onto).
Despite the remarkable height of the UBS tower, it’s no match for the incredible climbing skills of this particular raccoon. Raccoon grips in general are amazingly strong, and their natural instinct will tell them to eventually climb back down—though it seems like the rescuers’ initial plan to wait for the raccoon to do just that proved fruitless. Also, had it involved a younger critter like Scoop, who could barely reach the fourth floor of the Toronto Star office without coming dangerously close to falling, the story could have ended tragically. From an architectural standpoint, said Hwang, a designer may want to make tall buildings more “porous at multiple levels.”
“Maybe there's a way to rescue it from the mid-level if there had been, say, a balcony,” she said.
For animals that fly, better design doesn’t necessarily mean more green roofs atop highrises, as the lack of careful planning may result in hurting the animals instead. Hwang pointed to Toronto, where a local wildlife rescue group is often stretched thin from having to rescue hundreds of ducklings and gosling from falling to their death from rooftop gardens shortly after hatching.
Rather it’s more about being mindful, about designing structures in such a way that humans, who still largely see urban wildlife as pests, can gradually get comfortable with the idea of sharing their space with their four-legged and winged neighbors as cities spread out further into the natural landscape.
Take the example of parks, where humans inevitably share the space with birds. “If you design something in a way where there's ledges above a picnic area, you can be sure that there will be birds up there, which becomes a problem for the people,” she said. “But what if ... the habitable space is off to the side, [above] a garden or something that might actually benefit from bird droppings as fertilizer?”
Cohabitation between humans and urban wildlife may be inevitable, and rather than ignoring that, Hwang said, the key is to ”choreograph” the design of our built environment so that people don’t see their new neighbors as a nuisance.
Perhaps then, all the love for MPR raccoon is a good starting point.