Feature Story

Cities must embrace nature to survive

April 19, 2017

Skyline of downtown El Paso, Texas. The city is balancing the tension between urban sprawl and the importance of maintaining its delicate desert ecosystem. Photo: Frontpage/Shutterstock

By Elizabeth Yee, vice-president, City Solutions, 100 Resilient Cities

Ensuring the vitality of the global commons – the natural assets and ecosystems that form and sustain our world – has become urgent for planetary survival. Cities are poised to either accelerate the commons’ demise, or to provide innovative, scalable solutions that can restore natural assets and the value they provide.

More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. By 2050, this will reach a staggering 70%, adding more than 3 billion people to urban centres. And more than 60% of mid-century metropolitan regions have yet to form. According to the World Economic Forum, $3.7 trillion (£2.4tn) will be needed every year to 2050 to fund basic infrastructure. The actions cities take to build their own resilience to climate change, mass migration, and other major challenges of the 21st century, will have a fundamental impact on the rest of the world.

Building urban resilience requires an approach that cuts across different systems, with cities addressing their relationship with the natural environment as a critical part of strengthening themselves. Understanding the value of natural assets lies at the heart of any viable solution for protecting our commons.

Traditional models of conservation and regulation alone cannot catalyse the kind of systemic behavioural change that will renew our relationship with the environment, and return it to its central role in our affairs. We must design and implement strategies that articulate the benefits of nature – economically, socially and as a critical piece of building future resilience.

Through our work at 100 Resilient Cities (100RC), we have begun to see successful approaches that do just that – programmes and projects that incentivise investment in cultivating natural assets. From supporting environmentally friendly growth and sustainable waste management in Bangkok, Thailand, to identifying measures for coastal management and the protection of marine biodiversity in Byblos, Lebanon, cities are committing to defend the global commons as a natural way to create resilience.

El Paso, Texas, is balancing the tension between urban sprawl and the importance of maintaining its delicate desert ecosystem. Its office of resilience and sustainability collaborated with our partner, Earth Economics, to complete ecosystem service identification and valuation for a critical area near the Franklin mountains. Together, they are working to make the business case for preserving and responsibly developing land.

Just last month, Earth Economics also took part in a 100RC network exchange in Melbourne, Australia. Chief resilience officers representing the cities of Boulder and New Orleans in the US, Durban in South Africa and Semarang in Indonesia explored and developed multi-benefit solutions that build urban resilience through biodiversity. They committed to bridging the gap between the need to value nature, and political and financial will in policy and capital investments.

The work of another 100RC partner – Arcadis, the Dutch engineering firm – reflects a growing trend to move away from traditional rigid barriers against flooding and sea level rise, and towards restoration projects that cultivate natural infrastructure. New York’s Big U, also known as the Dryline – an Arcadis project done in collaboration with yet another 100RC partner, Rebuild by Design – combines flood protection with amenities that foster social cohesion and revitalise neighbourhoods.

Using berms creatively and relying on salt-tolerant trees and plants to build a resilient urban habitat, it is adding beautiful parks and public areas – unique to each location – in a 10 mile “U” around lower Manhattan. Such new landscapes provide natural infrastructure that is much more effective than traditional manmade structures in withstanding water. Rather than endlessly plugging proverbial holes in concrete walls, we can help nature synchronise with such economic needs.

If they are to build meaningful resilience, cities must develop solutions for the entire urban ecosystem. This requires articulating the value of natural assets and their essential role in ensuring we not only survive but thrive amid the challenges of the 21st century. Only by making them intrinsic to economic, social and political solutions in our cities will we be able to save the global commons and endure as a society.