Biodiversity and ecosystems for sustainable towns and cities

23 April 2013 | News story

The rapid expansion of cities is putting nature and the resources it provides at risk. Yet nature can help urban planners to make cities more sustainable and reduce costs, while improving the well-being of their citizens. 

Hosted by IUCN’s Member ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability, the 7th European Conference on Sustainable Cities and Towns, held from 17 to 19 April 2013 in Geneva addressed the potential of nature-based solutions for economic development in urbanized environments in Europe.

IUCN facilitated the side event 'Management of biodiversity and ecosystems, a new way of looking at sustainable cities' where keynote speakers highlighted European examples which show how investing in nature can contribute to managing cities in a more sustainable way.

Cities such as Vitoria-Gasteiz, winner of the 2012 Green Capital of Europe award, use nature, instead of built infrastructure to offer citizens important services. Vitoria-Gasteiz’s ‘green belt’, a large network of green areas surrounding the city and covering spaces partially reclaimed from degradation, offers recreational opportunities, and vital services like air and water regulation and flood prevention. “Where green is capital” is the slogan the city adopted, as presented by Luis Orive, Director General for Strategic Environment and Nature.

Barcelona is another city in Europe to give importance to nature. Toni Pujol, Environment Officer at Barcelona City Council, presented the city’s approach to develop a green infrastructure and biodiversity plan - unique in a compact city like Barcelona. This approach integrates the management of urban green spaces with biodiversity planning which can ensure both human and nature’s well-being.

The Mayor of Grandt Synthe, Damien Carême, explained how in this small French town of 22,000 inhabitants, everyday life is connected with the natural environment and local ecosystems. A wide range of environmental actions and initiatives, such as planting trees and increasing species diversity have been promoted by the administration, as the city became highly industrialized and unattractive for its citizens due to pollution. This resulted in better connections between people and nature and citizens giving nature a more prominent place in their everyday life. Grandt Synthe received the French Capital of Biodiversity Award in 2010.

Catherine Lambelet, Florist at the Geneva Botanical Garden and Conservatory, highlighted the importance of green spaces in urban areas as a privileged place for citizens to learn about plant diversity in their home region and create better understanding of the values of biodiversity for urban life. The understanding of these values is essential to motivate urban administrators to take adequate conservation action and get citizens’ support.

Marco Fritz, Policy Officer at the Directorate General for the Environment, European Commission emphasized how cities can greatly contribute to the Commission’s strategy on green infrastructure by developing their networks of green areas. He said that it is essential to map ecosystem services in cities and their monetary and non-monetary values, and exchange examples and best practices across countries. This will better inform administrators on the benefits of investing in natural infrastructure and generate more action.

The natural environment is the foundation of sustainable urban development and integrating biodiversity and ecosystem services in urban planning can offer a valuable response to the economic challenges Europe is facing by contributing to sustainable urban development, concluded Chantal van Ham of IUCN. Nature is at the centre of the green urban economy.