Tapping Nature’s solutions for sustainable urban development

By Chantal van Ham of IUCN’s European Union Representative Office, Brussels.

Chantal van Ham

In my work on urban biodiversity conservation, I discover every day more and more, how powerful nature can be in improving the quality of life of urban citizens. Protecting nature in and around cities, can help secure resources for the future and turn our current economic challenges into opportunities to achieve sustainable growth.

Imagine what can be achieved if we ensure the optimal functioning of green infrastructure, such as nature parks, green roofs, trees, ponds, city gardens and allotments in city development? Nature-based solutions have enormous potential in making cities more resilient to change. Biodiversity and ecosystems can be used to address some of the biggest challenges cities face today: reduce climate change impacts, ensure food, water and energy security, as well as improve health, save money and promote economic development.

Even more, beyond these functional benefits of nature, our contact with the natural world is essential for a happy, healthy and meaningful life. Nature has always been a source of wonder in my life, growing up in a small village in the South of the Netherlands, where I was surrounded by animals and farmland biodiversity. Living in Brussels, with its astonishing Forêt de Soignes, beautiful parks and Green Belt, located close to the heart of the city, I experienced a similar feeling of wonder for nature.

Investing in nature can offer a valuable return for cities and urban areas. Biodiversity is present in all cities and its value is often underestimated. Increasing people’s understanding of the benefits of green space can help to strengthen sustainable urban development. IUCN is currently involved in the Urban Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services - ‘URBES’- research project, which aims to bridge the knowledge gap on urbanization processes and the ecosystems services sustaining them. IUCN’s role in this project is to present, together with IUCN member organization ICLEI, the research outcomes and examples of the benefits that ecosystems services offer for cities to a variety of stakeholders in Europe. It is also building the capacity of local authorities in Europe on sustainable management of natural resources.

There are many examples that show how biodiversity conservation and sustainable use of natural resources can lead to sustainable urban development, in particular by connecting the city landscape with the ecological landscape outside the city boundaries.

About a third of the world’s largest cities obtain a significant proportion of their drinking water directly from forest protected areas (Running Pure, World Bank/WWF, 2003). Well-managed natural forests almost always provide higher quality water, with less sediment and fewer pollutants, than water from other catchments.

Sofia in Bulgaria, for example, relies for much of its water supply on sources originating from two mountain protected areas: the Rila and Vitosha National Park. These parks consist of coniferous and deciduous forests and are characterized by a rich botanical diversity.

An increasing number of local communities and city councils are realizing that nature makes a strong contribution to both the well-being of their citizens and the competitiveness of their businesses. In Canberra, local authorities have planted 400,000 trees to improve urban air quality, reduce energy costs and store carbon. In just five years, these benefits are worth between USD 20 and 67 million.

The Green Capital of Europe, Vitoria-Gasteiz in Spain, has developed a ‘green belt’ around the city centre by giving priority to the establishment of new and maintenance of existing natural areas. This has provided important benefits to its citizens, ranging from education and recreation to conservation of biodiversity, water supply and income from tourism.

Natural England estimates that if every household in England had good access to quality green space it could save around €2.5 billion every year in health costs.

These examples demonstrate that there are strong incentives for cities, local government, business and other interested parties to invest in natural solutions and to maintain vital ecosystems services. These range from cost-effective water provision to greater tourism revenues, lower healthcare costs, increased energy efficiency and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

IUCN is committed to mobilize the biodiversity conservation expertise of its large network and exchange best practices to help local and regional authorities develop natural solutions for urban areas. The IUCN European Programme is developing partnerships with all those willing to help turn nature into a major part of urban development and to achieve a truly sustainable future.

To learn more, please contact me at: chantal.vanham@iucn.org

Work area: 
North America
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