Sea and the City

IUCN European Regional Office's EU Programme Assistant, Helen Klimmek, discusses the vital, yet not so obvious, links between marine and urban areas.

"Whaling wall," San Diego, California

Urban areas are often thought to be disconnected from the sea. While the ocean is commonly associated with deep blue waters teeming with life and colourful coral reefs, cities are generally seen as dense, grey, concrete jungles.  If you are a diver you will be familiar with the blissful feeling of slowly submerging beneath the ocean surface and immersing yourself into a wondrous world far removed from the hectic, chaotic life on land.  It’s like entering an alternate universe; the contrast could not be greater.

While they may seem separate, our ocean and cities are, in fact, inextricably interlinked: the ocean is our life support system - it acts as the earth’s lungs, heart and kidneys. Microscopic phytoplankton are responsible for producing half of the oxygen we breathe – essentially, every second breath we take is sponsored by the sea. The ocean absorbs the majority of the sun’s heat and then distributes it around the globe. Ocean currents regulate our climate, transporting warm water from the equator to the poles and vice versa. The sea is a major carbon sink, and a source of food, energy and minerals and almost all of the rain that falls on land once started off in the ocean. As the famous marine biologist and explorer Sylvia Earle writes in her book The World is Blue: “Even if you never have the chance to see or touch the ocean, the ocean touches you with every breath you take, every drop of water you drink, every bite you consume. Everyone, everywhere is inextricably connected to, and utterly dependent upon, the existence of the sea.”

There is a clear connection between our cities and our ocean when we look at the services the sea provides for us and we depend on. But there is also a flip side, a less positive connection: more than half of the world’s inhabitants now live in cities, and many of the ecological threats facing the marine world stem from the demands of a growing urban population. Worldwide, two-thirds of the sewage from urban areas is released untreated into lakes, rivers and coastal waters1. There are now 5.25 trillion pieces – 269,000 tonnes - of plastic distributed across the ocean2 (that’s equivalent to stacking two-litre bottles from here to the moon and back...twice!)3 and a rising number of so-called dead zones where ocean life has become impossible as a result of nutrient pollution.

It is easy to despair at the sheer immensity of destruction, pollution and waste impacting the ocean environment. At the same time, there is cause for hope. Working on both urban and marine projects at IUCN I have come to understand that while cities are among the major culprits of environmental degradation, they can also be hubs for innovation and change. Cities are increasingly recognized as leaders in conservation; they are seen to have a more direct connection to their citizens and to be more attuned to local challenges than national policymakers. As cities grow and become more influential, they can play an active role in raising awareness for the importance of the ocean for daily life, adopting policies that have a positive impact on the marine environment and inspiring change at a national level.

In his book “Blue Urbanism”, Timothy Beatley argues that we need to rethink the relationship between urban development and the ocean; cities around the world can (and should) muster their wealth, creativity and political influence to come to the aid of oceans. Some, like San Francisco, have already shown their potential for leadership by banning single-use plastic shopping bags, which often end up discarded in our waterways. In other cities, people are finding ways of integrating nature into urban planning and design to combat flooding and natural disasters – in Staten Island New York, for example, which was badly affected by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the $60 million “Living Breakwaters” project plans to build living oyster reefs, which will not only protect urban areas from coastal flooding and storms but also foster biodiversity and contribute to water filtration (it is estimated that a single oyster can filter between 20-30 gallons of water per day!)4.

One of the biggest challenges ocean activists face is raising awareness for the importance of the ocean amongst those who may not interact with it on a daily basis. After all, how can you convince someone to care about something they may know nothing about or have no connection to? Exciting projects like Google Ocean Street View aim to tackle this issue by enabling anyone with an internet connection to take a virtual tour of the underwater world and explore a realm which may seem distant and alien just as easily as they might explore city streets via Google maps. The Mapping Ocean Wealth initiative, led by The Nature Conservancy, creates maps that show the services delivered by oceans in different regions of the world. By knowing how much more a shark is worth alive than dead (at prime scuba diving locations in Palau, a single shark has been estimated to have a lifetime value of $1.9 million as opposed to a fished value of $109), how vital mangroves are for reducing erosion and flood risk, and the extent to which healthy fish habitats contribute to livelihoods, food security and economies, decision-makers can better understand the true value of the ocean and mobilise resources to protect it. The challenges facing our ocean can also be brought to citizens’ attention in an even more tangible way – the Healthy Seas Initiative is just one of many projects that uses waste found in the sea, such as fishing nets, to make everyday items such as socks, swimwear, and carpets.

There are many innovative projects out there, which, if scaled up, could make a lasting, positive impact on our ocean. By supporting them, and acknowledging the connection between our ocean and our cities, policymakers can play a key role in conserving not only one of the most beautiful realms of the planet, but also the services it provides for us and on which we all so dearly depend. In the words of Robert Wyland: “The sea lives in every one of us”. By protecting it, we protect ourselves.








Work area: 
European Union
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