Local governments are poised for a bigger role in protecting nature. Is your city on board?

“Humanity’s relationship with nature is broken.”

That’s the unsettling observation UN Secretary General António Guterres made in a recent speech that Kobie Brand says helps keep things in perspective for her in her capacity as Global Director of the ICLEI Cities Biodiversity Center.

“He said that we are in a crisis… and the defining issue of the 21st century will be to restore humanity’s intersection with nature. What that means is we need to get our relationship with nature right… now… in the COVID-19 recovery period. Otherwise, whatever efforts we make to address climate change or any other global agenda for that matter will be in vain.”

Against the backdrop of this heightened sense of urgency, coupled with last year’s Edinburgh Declaration (which recognized the essential role of subnational governments and other local groups in supporting biodiversity conservation and ecosystem restoration efforts), the upcoming ICLEI World Congress session “Engaging Cities and Regions in the Global Nature Agenda” couldn’t be more timely.

“The Edinburgh Declaration is unprecedented, because it formally recognizes the role of local and subnational governments as keys actors in addressing losses in biodiversity and restoration efforts,” says Brand, who will be chairing the Global Nature Agenda session. “In other words, it’s recognition of the importance of governments at all levels joining hands to develop a nature plan.”

Because last year’s UN Biodiversity Conference (CBD COP 15) in Kunming, China was cancelled due to COVID-19 (rescheduled for October 11-24, 2021), Brand says the Global Nature Session represents “an important juncture” that can help keep the momentum going as part of efforts to ramp up nature-based solutions at the local level. The session will facilitate a high-level discussion on how subnational governments need to do more to preserve and protect nature. Equally importantly, presenters will use the session as a platform to make the case to cities from around the world to get on board with this challenge.

One way subnational governments can get more involved says Brand is to join initiatives such as CitiesWithNature, a shared platform for urban centres and their partners. “It’s an open and collaborative platform that cities from around the world  are partnering through. It’s just shy of 200 cities but we would like to get that to 1,000 because the more participation, the more key practices are shared and partnerships are built.”

Looking ahead to the Global Nature Agenda session, Brand anticipates that participating panelist Valérie Plante, who is the Mayor of Montreal as well as ICLEI’s global ambassador for local biodiversity action, will speak to the need for more multilevel government cooperation. “She’s doing a fantastic job of promoting conservation and access to nature,” for Montreal’s residents and visitors, observes Brand. Accomplishments that include working with her provincial and federal counterparts to create Canada’s largest park. Plans call for Grand Parc de l’Ouest to have a 3,000 hectare footprint that’s eight times the size of New York’s Central Park.

The social aspects of nature will also be on the table in the session. “With COVID-19 lockdowns many people cannot access nature or walk through the park to touch and feel the plants and see the animals around them,” says Brand. The only good thing to come from the resulting sensory depravation she says is that “it has made us better appreciate how deeply connected we are with nature.”

The panel discussion also includes Cheryl Jones Fur, Deputy Lord Mayor of Växjö Municipality, Sweden, who will speak about nature-based solutions through a European lens. “In Europe, the way we live and the way we develop our cities is a root cause and driver of climate change and the loss of biodiversity,” said Jones Fur. But with a note of optimism, she added “there is still a great potential and capacity in cities and towns to combat these negative impacts through innovation and co-creation.”

The opportunity for ICLEI Members she says, is to spearhead a positive transformation within cities by “mainstreaming green infrastructure,” helping them to become more resilient in the process. Although cities have long employed nature-based solutions with their urban forests and parks, Jones Fur feels these assets are now threated by everything from global warming to unchecked urban development.

In the face of these threats, she says subnational governments need to adopt more standards, rules and regulations along with the funds needed to implement “an increasing catalogue of well-developed nature-based solutions which could accelerate the uptake of best practices in cities and towns.”

Jones Fur also emphasizes the need for geo-specific, place-based initiatives. “There are many examples of solutions that you would not expect to be applicable to certain regions. For example, green roofs can work both in Nordic and Southern regions, by using plants which are more likely to survive local climate conditions with varying temperatures and water availability.” In other words, innovative new practices can be introduced successfully, if they’re deployed within a local context.

Jones Fur also feels COVID-19 has redefined our relationship with nature and as part of ‘building back better’ we need to stop falling into the trap of doing the same thing and expecting different results. “We cannot apply the same principles as before… we need to build forward and we need to do it in a way that is smart, fast, systematic and global.” She says a prime example of that approach is embodied by the EU Resilience and Recovery Facility, which includes funding designed to catalyze a green transformation at the local level.

Adding to Jones Fur’s observations on how to fast-track positive change, Brand says cities need to do a much better job of leveraging relationships for the common good. “ICLEI always works with partners… an approach that intersects with the interests and values of our organization. It’s an approach that works beautifully in the nature space, where we collaborate with other key groups including the UN and CitiesWithNature. So it’s not just a process, but a platform that helps cities to ignite and inspire quicker, more scalable action on the ground in order to accelerate efforts to bring nature back into urban life.”

Join the Engaging Cities and Regions in the Global Nature Agenda session on Wednesday, April 14, 2021 from 16:00 to 17:00 CEST.

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