Atlas for the End of the World

A new atlas designed through an ecological lens spotlights cities that could wipe out the Earth’s most valuable environments with their rapid urban sprawl.

At the United Nations ‘Earth Summit’ held in Rio de Janeiro, 1992, 196 countries subscribed to a major strategic target to protect 17% of the earth’s terrestrial area ‘biodiversity hotspots’ by 2020, in order to sustain the long-term health of the planet.

“Biodiversity hotspots are regions of the world recognised by the global scientific and conservation community as containing an exceptional and irreplaceable diversity of life that is threatened with extinction. The cultural equivalent to destroying these landscapes is akin to bulldozing the world’s libraries and burning all the books,” said Founder of Atlas for the End of the World, Professor Richard Weller.

142 of the nations needed to take immediate action. As of 2016, 15.4% of the earth is protected. While the additional 1.6% may sound small, it is the equivalent of almost 700,000 NYC Central Parks’ worth of land, with two years remaining to secure it.

Recognising the need for science and urban design to align to solve this global concern, Weller was inspired to take action with the Atlas for the End for the World project.

“The global conservation community and the design professions (architecture, landscape architecture and urban design) are operating in different universes so I wanted to conceive of a research project that would bring them together,” Weller says.

In 2014, the well-known Landscape Architecture Professor and team Claire Hoch and Chieh Huang from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia began their project to audit the world’s biological hotspots against projected requirements of land, farming and more to support the world’s predicted population growth, based on current trends.

The Atlas presents their findings in a series and maps and infographics, which the team hope will become a powerful new world reference.

“The first Atlas was produced by Abraham Ortelius in Antwerp in 1570. Its maps opened the world up to European colonisation and exploitation. Five centuries later, we have a ravaged global ecosystem and are now trying to seriously do something about it. So, to make an Atlas now for the “end of the world” means to make an Atlas that is the end of Ortelius’ world – the end of a world where we thought we could exploit the ecosystem without consequence, indefinitely. To be correct, it is also literally the end of the world for many species that are being impacted by urban growth. By identifying these places, the Atlas makes the first step toward its mitigation.”

The research found that of the 391 different ecoregions that make up the 35 hotspots identified by the UN, only 43% had achieved their 2020 goal of 17% (or more) protected land. There are 422 main cities in the world’s hotspots and 91% are forecast to sprawl directly into remnant habitat containing threatened species. In Australia, this includes Perth and Sydney.

“We have carefully mapped a set of 33 cities which are the largest and fastest growing in the world’s biodiversity hotspots. We are now organising an event where we bring representatives of these cities together to discuss how they might avoid sprawling into habitat harbouring endangered species,” Weller says.

Weller and his team also have their sights set on developing a “World Park” of intercontinental walking trails that link together many of the world’s protected areas and biological hotspots so that species can migrate and adapt to climate change. The trails go from Alaska to Patagonia in a north-south direction and Indonesia to Morocco in an east-west direction.

Richard Weller is a respected Australian Landscape Architect and author of four published books. His projects include design for the National Museum of Australia and Elizabeth Quay Waterfront, Perth. His work has been exhibited in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, the Gardner Museum in Boston and the MAXXI Gallery in Rome.

Maps and data courtesy of the Atlas for the End of the World.