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Why nature matters in our new urban world: Making the case for nature in cities

For over 10,000 years people have been irresistibly drawn to urban life, where they live, work and play in close proximity. Our early settlements often rose, quite literally, from mud to irrevocably transform society, necessitating the development of new codes of behavior and laws to reorganize ourselves in a world of close coexistence.

We have been shaping and reshaping our cities – from ancient settlements to the world’s most modern and magnificent metropolises, bustling hubs for people to trade, govern, socialize, cultivate and inspire. It has been in our cities where we’ve kept pushing the boundaries, innovating and striving for a better life. Technological solutions designed to serve our expanding urban population with high-speed connectivity and associated comforts have brought us even closer together, connecting people seamlessly and at multiple levels with each other and the urban world around them.

This trend of urbanization has continued for thousands of years, with urban life transforming at a staggering pace. Today, most of us – well over 50 percent of humanity – are already living in this new world!

Why does nature matter in our newly shaped urban world?

Despite this apparent progress, all is not well in our cities. Growing urban decay and increased levels of poverty plague many cities across the world. Inadequate and even non-existent access to basic services, together with the resultant social degradation, violence and crime are just some of the daily challenges people face. Coupled with this is the serious threat posed by climate change—to urban infrastructure, quality of life and entire urban systems—in rich and poor countries alike.

All our advances and changes are not always translating into more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities. On the surface we are more connected and living in closer proximity than ever before, but in many ways, we have erected barriers between ourselves and nature.

It is my opinion that we can only reach our noble global goals for sustainable urban development if we plan, work and grow with nature. By valuing, nurturing and restoring this essential connection between nature and ourselves within our cities, we can harness the solutions provided by nature along with the incredible innovations made by humanity to shape a strong and resilient urban future.

It’s important not to forget that we are inherently part of nature, and that nature’s resources are often the very building blocks used to construct our highways, skyscrapers and ports. We can never completely exclude nature from cities.

One way of looking at our engagement with nature is to consider the numerous and diverse benefits it provides to urban communities. In such analyses, we soon realise that these benefits are seldom, if ever, only one-dimensional.

Rivers of opportunity

Consider the multiple cross-cutting benefits that a healthy, well-managed river ecosystem running through an expanding city in a developing country can offer. The river would not only provide clean drinking water and fishing grounds for the adjacent communities, but also the water needed for cooking and cleaning. Safe access to the river banks can also offer the community myriad social benefits linked to cultural, spiritual and recreational pursuits. Economic benefits would relate to job creation, transport, flood retention—the list goes on. Add to these the obvious benefits for the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems dependent on such a river system, and one soon realizes the irreplaceable value and richness nature adds to city life.

Natural well-being

There is also an emerging body of knowledge that demonstrates the benefits nature provides to human health and well-being. In this context, it is often less important whether a green urban space or ecosystem is totally indigenous or instead introduced. Far more important is the fact that people have easy, safe and equitable access to these green spaces. Benefits of being surrounded by nature range from individual physical, mental and spiritual health to community health and well-being, even contributing on a broader scale to the social reconstruction of poor and crime-stricken communities.

Advantages related to early childhood development, including cognitive and social development, are also starting to crystallize, and many scientists from various disciplines agree that we are only starting to understand the value of living, working and growing with nature.

Food for thought

Cities are ideal hubs for reconnecting people with the natural origins of the food they consume, through urban farms and food markets, edu-nutritional school programs, and through strengthening urban-rural linkages essential to deliver affordable and cost-effective agricultural products to urban communities. And let’s not forget the essential role urban communities play in providing habitat to pollinators such as bees and other endemic, threatened species in our gardens across the globe.

A climate of change

Climate change will render our urban populations particularly vulnerable, especially those living in coastal or island cities and in low-lying areas. Climate change threatens not only existing and essential infrastructure, food systems, and indeed our very way of life—it also poses a direct threat to biodiversity and to the ecosystems underpinning our social and economic welfare. By planning and building cities in ways that apply nature-based solutions and strengthen green and blue infrastructure, we can increase local resilience by lessening the impacts of extreme weather events and by providing more sustainable essential services to communities, such as reliable access to energy, water and sanitation. Nature also provides us—through low-cost solutions such as green spaces, urban forests and vertical gardens—with effective relief from the escalating effects of inner city heat islands and air pollution.

For the love of nature

As custodians of nature, we are reminded that we are all part of nature. Some are calling for reshaping our cities as ‘biophilic cities,’ adapting the term ‘biophilia’ first used by E. O. Wilson to describe the innate emotional affiliation human beings have for other living organisms. In this view, humans are recognized as being intrinsically part of nature, and not through any form of superiority entitled to the services or benefits nature provides to us.

This theory places humans alongside nature in a way that speaks to the deep connection and duty of care toward life around us. It is not yet possible to fully describe what such a ‘biophilic city’ would look like or which criteria it would need to adhere to. However, as these ideas develop, the notion of living with nature, as opposed to living through or being provided for by nature, is inspirational.

Future choices

Humanity shares a common future—one that resides in cities. The Cities and Biodiversity Outlook report states that more than 60 percent of the urban area projected for 2030 has yet to be built. We are in the midst of an exponential infrastructure explosion on the planet. The jury is still out on how this boom is irrevocably reshaping our lives, our world and our finite natural systems.

Yet, never before have there been so many diverse and simultaneous opportunities for us to build and exchange knowledge, pioneer new, systemic solutions and develop a shared vision for an urban future that incorporates nature and all it offers.

Cities are platforms for knowledge and incubators for innovation, early adoption and transformative change. Steering our research and our actions toward new solutions which will re-connect us with nature and shape a future urban world where not only cities but the nature in and around them, will thrive, is within our reach. The time to act is now, as thresholds and tipping points are looming, but the new urban world is brave, young and capable of making the right choice.

This article is the first in a think piece series entitled “Investing in nature for resilient cities”. The series, a partnership between ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability’s Cities Biodiversity Center and The Nature Conservancy, makes the case for investing in nature-based solutions and explores mechanisms to leverage the funding and political will for such investments.

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