Mainstreaming nature in Malawi: Bringing local-level knowledge to national decision-making

In a time when cities are bursting at the seams, policy reform is vital to protect ecosystems and build climate resilient cities that preserve urban nature. This three-part series will share three policy victories in Malawi where nature is being conserved and considered  in Lilongwe City, the country’s capital, and beyond.

Lilongwe City is often referred to as a ‘garden city’ for its wild, open spaces. But rapid urban expansion is posing a significant threat. New developments shoot up on river buffer zones, important wetlands are becoming private developments and new housing plans make limited provision for green or public space.  Retaining natural assets is critical to the health of this mushrooming city.

Nature hotspots revealed through city mapping

Together with the Lilongwe city council, the Urban Natural Assets for Africa’s Rivers for Life (UNA Rivers) project created city maps that showcase the natural assets of Lilongwe. 

This map of Lilongwe shows the biodiversity hotspots and their priority status to be considered during city planning.

These maps show a bird’s eye view of the city, differentiating between built-up and green areas and identifying the priority status of certain natural assets in the urban area. For example, the sections of the maps marked red have sensitive habitats or are biodiversity hotspots that should be conserved. 

Jess Kavonic, programme manager of UNA remarked that “the priority maps that were co-created with the Lilongwe city council not only provided the ideal platform to bridge the worlds of planning and environment, linking those that have the information with those that make decisions, but also allows nature to be at the forefront of planners’ minds.”

Bringing local-level knowledge to national decision-making

National policy has enormous impact on urban growth and in many cases, as cities expand, national policy influences whether nature is conserved or covered in concrete. In Malawi, the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development recently drafted two new national policies: The National Land Use Policy and the Malawi Urban Policy. 

During the development phase of these policies, the UNA Rivers project team weighed in, sharing the maps that were created as visual research products to provide practical, local information to consider during planning. The maps offer a local lens through which to examine national policy in Malawi. They present natural assets in a user friendly format and make the case for the creation and preservation of urban parks and other pockets of nature to permeate the urban infrastructure.

While the maps and research on urban nature are useful for both national policy and city planning, the shared learnings provided during the presentation workshops also opened vital channels for continued collaboration.

This process is one example of local knowledge being employed in policy making at the national level. Multilevel and cross-sectoral collaboration is key to making change. A new report by Future Climate for Africa reveals that, especially in Malawi, effective policy decisions on climate and resilience require integrated planning across sectors. Examples such as these where there is a bottom-up flow of information that closes the gap between different levels of government can improve vital mechanisms of multilevel governance. 

Information from local government level is not often used to influence national policy, yet is so crucial in making change. particularly where there is a strong argument for assessing resilience to future climate change. 

The format in which this local knowledge and information reaches decision-makers can also have an even deeper impact. In this case, rather than merely handing over the priority maps, the UNA project team also presented their co-production methods in undertaking the project. Through deep engagement, policy makers at all levels came together around the importance of mainstreaming nature into urban planning. Beyond influencing policy, this type of engagement can create champions for nature and climate among policy-makers and practitioners at all levels.

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