Urban Forests as Nature-based Solutions: Local Actions for Resilient Cities

Think global, act local.

(Patrick Geddes)

Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

Functional biodiversity, healthy society

Thriving communities need healthy ecosystems. The conservation of biodiversity is closely tied to the health and well-being of people. In recent years, increasing worldwide recognition of this interrelatedness emphasises the need for preserving and enhancing functional biodiversity. We depend on nature as our substantial infrastructure. Especially in expanding urban and peri-urban areas, living with the pandemic has revealed how healthy, biodiverse green spaces are increasingly frequented by urban dwellers and help foster societal resilience. Biodiversity conservation is therefore high on the international agenda.

The IUCN World Conservation Congress 2021 – Managing landscapes for nature and people

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the French government are holding the IUCN World Conservation Congress from September 3 to 11 2021 in Marseille.

Bringing together the global nature conservation community, the Congress opens the stage to leading conservation scientists, policy experts and practitioners and invites 1,400 Member organisations. Among those organisations, states, civil society and Indigenous Peoples exchange views about pressing issues in nature conservation and ways to tackle them. As one of the main Congress themes, attendees discuss how to manage landscapes for nature and people.

Urban Forests as Nature-based Solutions

As defined by IUCN, Nature-based solutions are “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”.

The Sino-European CLEARING HOUSE Horizon2020 project is developing a novel typology for urban forests, urban green and urban trees. In this context, Urban Forests as Nature-based Solutions (UF-NBS) are built on tree-based ecosystems in urban areas and play a fundamental role in providing ecosystem services for biodiversity benefits, human health and well-being. Focussing on Europe and China, the project’s diverse typology assumes a broad perspective and intends to provide grounding knowledge on UF-NBS beyond the project scope. On the way towards sustainable urbanisation, UF-NBS connect urban and peri-urban ecosystem services with societal demands. Do you want to learn more about the typology and its role to gather and exchange knowledge and integrate models and data on UF-NBS? Join the Humboldt University Berlin, the European Forest Institute (EFI) and the CLEARING HOUSE project in an Online Workshop on October 7th (8:15 – 11:15 CEST) – click here to register.

Urban trees and green spaces provide multiple benefits for people. Through CO2 sequestration and pollutant absorption, urban forests improve air quality. The rapid worldwide urbanisation entails increasing extensive ranges of impermeable hard surfaces in the built-environment, exacerbating the urban heat-island effect. Through shade provisioning and the process of evapotranspiration, urban trees and forests mitigate heat stress whilst saving energy through less use of air-conditioning and increasing urban liveability. Urban green spaces further reduce stormwater runoff, improve water filtration and water storage and reduce soil erosion. No less crucial, urban forests shelter numerous species, serving as a biodiversity hub for declining flora and fauna.

UF-NBS: A focus on health, well-being and inclusivity

Photo by Alan Healy on Pexels

Trees and forests in cities invite urban dwellers to connect with nature and provide an open space for physical activities and interactions with others. Why is this increasingly relevant? While projections assume a global urban population of 68% by 2050, nearly 85% of the worldwide population will live in cities by 2100 (UN, 2018). This trend is associated with rising levels of illnesses, stress and anxiety. Peoples’ nowadays communication patterns, characterised mainly by less direct contact and more screen-to-screen interaction, tend to bring communities further away from nature.

Reconnection with nature plays a vital role in preventing the development of illnesses, treating developed illnesses and ultimately in helping to reduce costs of health care. The positive effects of nature on health and well-being are rapidly becoming recognised on a broader scale. To better align stakeholders in the healthcare sector, the last IUCN World Conservation Congress, which took place in Hawaii in 2016, brought the IUCN Resolution 064 ‘Strengthening cross-sector partnerships to recognise the contributions of nature to health, well-being and quality of life’ to life. This resolution includes the urban context as: “Recognising that places, including urban areas, with a rich natural heritage, improve physical and mental health and spiritual well-being, and can increase the appreciation of nature including by the elderly”. 

Biodiversity and UF-NBS enhance the health and well-being of urban dwellers in different environments, be it urban forests, parks or trees, public gardens, urban gardening projects or green spaces around health institutions allowing for nature encounters and boosting the well-being of patients and staff. However, it deserves mentioning that to build a flourishing connection to nature for all, inclusivity is essential. In many urban scenarios, opportunities to engage with nature leave out those who may benefit most, resulting in green gentrification and social exclusion. The IUCN World Conservation Congress 2021 invites attendees to discuss initiatives designed to deliver social justice together with benefits for people and the environment. See the latest news from the Congress.

Think global, act local

Looking at how pressing environmental threats such as the global biodiversity crisis evolve and how devastating those effects turn on a global scale, one can easily get frustrated and some of the challenges can appear as very remote. What can be done to drive change? How can individuals contribute to a sustainable transition that acknowledges the importance of biodiversity protection and human well-being? The concept “Think global, act local” has been introduced in 1915 by Patrick Geddes, a Scottish pioneering town planner and conservationist. Following a strong belief to work with the environment, rather than against it, Geddes’ concept shaped the idea in architecture and planning. Putting a spotlight on the impact urban development has on its surrounding environment, Geddes makes an important point that becomes increasingly meaningful in the face of a globalised world. Whilst a local action may not directly lead to saving the Amazon rainforest from deforestation or saving species on the brink of extinction, showing solidarity through local activities must not be underestimated. Enhancing consciousness about pressing environmental topics starts on a local scale.

Photo by Anna Earl on Unsplash

All around the globe, local communities take initiatives to improve the liveability of their urban neighbourhoods. This development enhances cooperation among urban dwellers such as bottom-up and citizen engagement approaches, grassroots movements and urban agriculture initiatives. The positive effect of shaping common spaces in a community is shown through manifold benefits: shaping and meeting in urban green areas has a catalysing impact on social cohesion and social capital, fosters personal and societal resilience and enables early development of landscape stewardship through educational networks.

Life on earth relies on intact ecosystems. However, to collectively shape the healthy planet we want to live on, change does not emerge out of political agendas but also needs to be driven actively from the bottom. Turning ambition into science-informed action, engaging in volunteer programs, harnessing opportunities of citizen science and getting to know the ecosystems in front of your own door are important and impactful steps on the way towards creating environmental consciousness and tackling the biodiversity crisis.

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