People walking in a park

Bringing nature back to cities

Cities around the world are adopting programmes to introduce more green space and bring people closer to nature, even in urban environments. 

Cities around the world are adopting programmes to introduce more green space and bring people closer to nature, even in urban environments. 

More than half (55%) of the world’s population live in urban areas and with this expected to rise to more than two-thirds (68%) by 2050, the need to transform the relationship between cities and nature has never been more urgent. 

Sustainable cities can improve both ecological and human health. Investing in nature-based solutions in a densely populated urban area creates resilient and adaptable cities that can mitigate the effects of climate change and enhance biodiversity, while also improving the quality of life and wellbeing of their residents. 

Urban nature can also affect how humans behave in cities and this in itself can help tackle the impact of global warming. 

“Changed behaviour is important both for reaching climate objectives and for allowing enough space for citizens in cities that are densifying,” says Helen Toxopeus, assistant professor at the Utrecht School of Economics and Sustainable Finance Lab, Utrecht University, and a postdoctoral researcher on the EU’s NATURVATION project. 

Fighting emissions with green space

Cities are estimated to account for 75% of global carbon emissions, and air pollution is largely considered to be an urban problem, so moves to improve city living by increasing access to nature have long been in the works. “For example, the public park movement in 19th-century England (and beyond) centred on the belief that nature was restorative, both physically and mentally,” says Meredith Whitten, ESRC postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Geography and Environment at the London School of Economics & Political Science. 

Melbourne, Australia’s second most populous city, faces the dual threat of both strong population growth and increasing climate extremes, such as bushfires and floods. So the city brought together public and private funding streams to create an  Urban Forest Strategy, which aims to increase canopy cover from 22% to 40% by 2040 and boost forest diversity in order to mitigate the urban heat island effect. 

The US city of Seattle is also seeking to protect and enhance its urban forest and green spaces, increasing canopy cover to 30% by 2037. It uses “walkability” – the distance a person walks within 10 minutes – as both a measurement and an urban design concept to ensure all its residents have equitable access to green space. 

Similarly, Paris is one of several major European metropolises planning to become a “15-minute city” – where all residents’ basic needs can be met within a quarter of an hour by foot or by bike. By doing so, it hopes to reduce car use and remove 70,000 parking spots, replacing them with allotments, green space and playgrounds instead. 

Singapore was named Asia’s greenest city in 2016 and the island city-state has even set up the Centre for Liveable Cities body to share ideas with other policymakers. As well as having a thriving green canopy, Singapore’s building developments often include green walls, landscaped walkways and atriums – the most famous of which is the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, known for its 12,400 m2 green roof of more than 700 trees and palms.

Pandemic an opportunity to rethink cities

However, the importance of developing more sustainable lifestyles has undeniably been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced millions across the world out of their offices to work from home. Many bustling city centres now stand empty, while leafy suburbs and rural areas are increasingly popular due to their access to outdoor space. 

The pandemic thus presents an opportunity to rethink how cities are planned, designed and used as communities seek to promote healthy growth at all levels – from municipal to individual. 

Cities around the world have risen to this challenge. In many places, parking spaces have been taken over by outdoor cafes and bike lanes have expanded into previously busy roadways. According to the European Cyclists’ Federation, in 2020, urban areas across the continent created at least 1,000 km of car-free lanes. As cities gradually reopen, many are considering how to adapt these changes to their infrastructure for the long term. In Paris, 50 km of pop-up bike lanes will be made permanent. In Milan, an initial 35 km of permanent bike lanes have been expanded to 67 km. The Washington, D.C. suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland, has made a temporary ‘streetery’ permanent.

Challenges of urban greening efforts

The list of ways to create a sustainable city is far from exhaustive. In Milan, architects created a “vertical forest” on two residential tower blocks, while cities including Bangkok and New York have created parks on former elevated railway tracks. In China, the “sponge city” initiative seeks to turn concrete neighbourhoods green to reduce flood and improve water supplies. 

City greening isn’t without its challenges, however. Access for delivery trucks and emergency vehicles needs to be maintained even in car-free zones, and many hastily constructed restaurants do not meet codes and regulations. But advocates hope that these new spaces will be a starting point for a greener urban future.

“The problem with the benefits of urban nature is that they are hard to measure, value and quantify,” says Toxopeus. “But the nice thing about urban nature as opposed to say, solar panels and windmills, is that people actually enjoy having them nearby. Hopefully that will support this sustainability transition.”

Written by
Natalie Marchant
Contributing Writer at Spoon Agency