How to reimagine our cities as hubs for biodiversity, conservation and climate resilience

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Mauricio Rodas Espinel, Mayor of Quito (2014-2019) and Visiting Scholar, University of Pennsylvania & Lena Chan, Senior Director, International Biodiversity Conservation Division, National Parks Board


Biodiversity – all living organisms, including plants, animals and microorganisms – is essential for human existence. Yet when we think about biodiversity, we rarely picture a city in our minds. Nature has often been associated as purely a feature of rural landscapes, when in fact urban areas are home to a myriad of ecosystems and natural wealth, harbouring rich biodiversity. We are embedded in nature and yet we know very little about it.

Today marks the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which serves as a reminder that we must mobilize urban decision-makers and citizens to put nature at the heart of urban life. We have a unique opportunity to ensure that cities become true drivers of growth, resilience and well-being that operate within healthy social and planetary boundaries.

Cities play a unique role in today’s world. COVID-19 has placed them, once again, at the forefront of dealing with some of the most pressing global issues putting well-being and prosperity at risk, including climate change and biodiversity loss. But imagine a city where buying your favorite products leads to more nature, not less, and where your job can withstand environmental and economic shocks; where the air you breathe is pure and fresh, and where birdsong no longer has to compete with the roar of traffic.

Most cities in the world are ill-equipped to address the threats urbanization poses to natural habitats. In 1800, only 3% of the global population lived in urban areas. Today, we hit 55%, and the figure is projected to reach over two-thirds by 2050. While cities continue to expand at unprecedented rates, so does the pressure that they put on natural resources, ecosystems and the climate. If left unchecked, this puts our livelihoods, sustenance and the very air we breathe under real threat. Thankfully, solutions exist to allow cities to minimize these risks and reinvent themselves for the benefit of nature, the economy and society.

“In comparison with the outbreak of COVID 19 pandemic, the crises of climate change and biodiversity loss develop more slowly and it is more difficult to reverse them.” —Liu Zhenmin, UN Under-Secretary-General

Some cities have understood the opportunities that addressing biodiversity loss and climate change present and have shown leadership in developing innovative solutions. Despite its small territory, Singapore is home to 4% of the world’s bird species, signalling clearly how rich urban biodiversity can be. In response to increasing urbanization and the effects of climate change, Singapore transformed itself from a Garden City into A City in a Garden, and then took a bold step to further evolve into a City in Nature.

Singapore has applied nature-based solutions to achieve climate, ecological and social resilience with innovative modern technology. This paradigm shift focuses on restoring nature in the city to make it both more liveable and sustainable.

Singapore has led the way in preserving and extending urban ecosystems
Singapore has led the way in preserving and extending urban ecosystems Image: Singapore Green Plan

Such inspiring examples can no longer be isolated success stories. COVID-19 has taught us how vulnerable we are to unpredictable events and the consequent need to protect ourselves from future shocks. Conserving urban biodiversity is an important component of such efforts, as well as for ensuring people’s overall well-being. It can be achieved by conserving, creating, restoring and enhancing a diverse spectrum of ecosystems within the city and connecting them with ecological corridors.

Regulations, policies and actions in a city can effectively tackle the issue. For example, cities can contribute significantly to reduce biodiversity loss through land-use policies, while providing a healthier and more resilient lifestyle to its inhabitants. Natural reserves, urban parks and green areas by definition contribute to maintaining natural wildlife within cities’ borders as well as providing physical and mental health benefits for city dwellers.

“Green investments are generating profits in the short and long run and are powerful engines of job creation.” —Virginijus Sinkevicius, EU Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries

Similarly, policies that establish watersheds and restrict construction on wetlands not only maintain natural ecosystems and conservebiodiversity, but also prevent natural risks. Cape Town, for example, prevented a major water shortage by investing in protecting its watershed using nature-based solutions that restore vegetation and degraded land. Urban agriculture is another approach that could simultaneously address social and environmental concerns. Sustainable urban agriculture has the potential to conserve soil, enhance food security and reduces the impact of long-distance supply chains on the climate and biodiversity loss.

In order to improve the quality of life of city-dwellers, urban decision-makers must become champions of urban biodiversity and move away from viewing biodiversity loss as a rural concern. Beyond the implementation of innovative technologies, financial mechanisms that foster public and private investments in urban biodiversity-related projects are a central resource for the transition to net-zero, nature-positive cities.

Strong and diverse partnerships are also a requisite foundation to give decision-makers the confidence to act based on best practices and make impactful investments at scale. Contributions from national government, international organizations, the private sector, civil society and academia are needed to drive the much-needed change. Adequately addressing biodiversity conservation and restoration in cities demands a comprehensive multistakeholder approach to align ambitions towards accountable steps and solutions.

Safeguardingurban ecosystems should not only be seen as a part of a green agenda, but more broadly as a driver of human prosperity and job creation. According to the World Economic Forum’s The Future of Nature and Business Report, a nature-positive pathway in the infrastructure and built environment could create over $3 trillion in business opportunities and create 117 million jobs by 2030. Therefore, there is great potential for the economy to grow and become more resilient by protecting biodiversity in urban areas.

With this goal in mind, the Global Commission on BiodiverCities by 2030 was launched last month, as part of the BiodiverCities by 2030 initiative. The commission is made up of a diverse group of city experts and practitioners from the public and private sectors, civil society and academia whose passion for and expertise in biodiversity conservation and climate change will steer its objectives to make cities safer, more fulfilling and cleaner places to live. The commission is chaired by Lena Chan, Senior Director of the International Biodiversity Conservation Division at the National Parks Board of Singapore, and Mauricio Rodas Espinel, former Mayor of Quito and Visiting Scholar at University of Pennsylvania.

The BiodiverCities by 2030 initiative will develop a framework for a “BiodiverCity” and provides a platform for this group of committed leaders to synthesize new knowledge and explore innovative ways to develop net-zero, nature-positive cities. This is the moment. This is the place. Both the public and the private sector must jointly takethe lead.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the future of cities?

Cities represent humanity’s greatest achievements – and greatest challenges. From inequality to air pollution, poorly designed cities are feeling the strain as 68% of humanity is predicted to live in urban areas by 2050.

The World Economic Forum supports a number of projects designed to make cities cleaner, greener and more inclusive.

These include hosting the Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization, which gathers bright ideas from around the world to inspire city leaders, and running the Future of Urban Development and Services initiative. The latter focuses on how themes such as the circular economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be harnessed to create better cities. To shed light on the housing crisis, the Forum has produced the report Making Affordable Housing a Reality in Cities.

Citizens of all ages must be empowered to be stewards of nature. We must all work in synchrony towards encouraging cities to work for both people and the planet to ensure their long-term viability.

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