• Designing, building and managing cities to be nature-positive is a key component of the battle against climate change.
  • A nature-positive approach means addressing municipalities' financial, as well as physical, infrastructure.
  • The resourcefulness of informal settlements could be a source of solutions for this transition.

From the many groundbreaking commitments heard at the COP26 climate summit to the outcomes of the first part of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s COP15 last October, there is a growing recognition that most of the global challenges affecting us, such as the intertwined climate and nature emergencies, can be addressed through their urban connections.

In truth, most urban development today still harms nature. But designing, planning, building, renovating and managing cities with nature-positive interventions is arguably one of the most feasible approaches for tackling climate change and biodiversity loss. This can be achieved both by integrating nature into the urban infrastructure, as well as redirecting their footprint across the world. Currently, the issue of harmful incentives – public and mixed investment programmes aimed at economic growth in strategic sectors but that also cause irreparable environmental degradation – is a critical lag on making progress on this front.

More than two-thirds of the targets in the UN’s draft one of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework are directly affected by the encroaching footprint of human settlements. Planned urban expansion will impact 16% of Key Biodiversity Areas over the time period of the framework and the Sustainable Development Goals. Equally concerning, national parks will, on average, be less than 50 kilometres from cities by 2030.

Increasingly, the footprint of urban production and consumption will have a tremendous impact, both on the nature that surrounds us and for achieving the targets of the post-2020 framework. For instance, the development of urban infrastructure for housing, transportation, air and water impacts target 11 on air/water quality, while protection against extreme events and energy development affects targets 7 and 8 on climate change and pollution. How cities are provisioned with food, timber and textiles, target 10, clearly impacts ecosystems worldwide.

Arguably, the most important target of the draft post-2020 framework for cities is number 12, where parties commit to “increase the area of, access to, and benefits from green and blue spaces, for human health and well-being in urban areas and other densely populated areas”.

Taking real, substantial action is imperative for a sustainable future. It is therefore especially urgent that we incorporate nature into the design and construction of urban and peri-urban spaces towards an integrated approach, using solutions and strategies that can fully respond to multiple problems at once. These may include protecting wetlands for recreation, flood control and temperature regulation, as in the example of Curitiba, Brazil. The city, situated in the Atlantic rainforest ecosystem, has been a leader in green design since the 1960s. With over 50 square metres of green space per capita, many of the smaller parks are dedicated to the city’s ethnic groups. Much of the 400 square kilometres of parkland doubles as a naturalized, decentralized stormwater management facility.

Going beyond the visible

Still, we must remember that it is not only about the physical form of cities. How they are designed to function and who finances them plays a critical role. Mobilizing urban connections to climate and nature requires going upstream in the city’s “life cycle”: To examine how decisions on finance and investment affect not only nature, but the generation of green and blue jobs and business opportunities.

Fortunately, a significant part of infrastructure and resources extraction investments can be controlled and monitored at the urban level. We must, as noted in the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, integrate biodiversity values into urban development and regulation plans and policies – as stated in the framework’s target 14: “accounts, and assessments of environmental impacts at all levels of government and across all sectors of the economy”. Local authorities will play a central role in ensuring that “all businesses assess and report on their dependencies and impacts on biodiversity, from local to global, and progressively reduce negative impacts, full sustainability of extraction and production practices, sourcing and supply chains, and use and disposal”, as stated in target 15.

Transformation Map on BiodiverCities
Transformation Map on BiodiverCities
Image: Alexander Von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute

The footprint of human consumption can be “shifted” towards nature-positive approaches, and most effectively at the local level. The benefits will be enormous. Think of the possibilities when the 36 million inhabitants of greater Sao Paulo, or the millions of people that comprise the greater London or Paris metropolitan areas, as put forth in target 16 of the post-2020 framework, “make responsible choices and have access to relevant information and alternatives, taking into account cultural preferences, to reduce by at least half the waste and, where relevant the overconsumption, of food and other materials”.

The world’s one million municipalities, as engines of change, can also significantly contribute to redirect incentives harmful to biodiversity. If we can redirect their public procurement to nature-positive and fair-trade products and services, in aggregate these amounts can make quite a difference for target 19: “Increasing by at least $10 billion per year international financial flows to developing countries, leveraging private finance, and increasing domestic resource mobilization”. Crucially, many already do so.

A roadmap towards nature-positive cities

To accomplish this transformation, we need strong and effective leadership from cities and metropolitan authorities, supported and integrated with the efforts of subnational governments, national authorities, the international community, business, finance and society in general. The Global Commission on BiodiverCities by 2030 enables this leadership and advises on actionable elements for the post-2020 framework.

We also have to consider that future cities will be mostly poor, or transitioning from low-income districts. Cities like Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro or Nairobi are hosts to significant biodiversity, yet they are also home to large informal settlements. People living in these settlements, roughly one-seventh of the world’s population, have their own arrangements for sanitation, water, urban amenities, employment and security. When addressing the wastefulness of today’s urban planning in terms of materials and space, it is possible, if not probable, that solutions for nature-positive future cities will come as much from such struggling suburbs, where creativity in terms of materials and design and cross-fertilization of cultures frequently happens, as from well-established, comfortable old-world cities with steep footprints.

The Transformation Map on BiodiverCities, curated by Colombia’s Alexander Von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute, shown above, showcases how the different aspects of urbanization affect and interact with many of the elements in the Sustainable Development Goals.

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.

It is important to remember that there is no silver bullet. There is no single solution. The post-2020 global biodiversity framework and the UN’s 2030 Agenda for sustainable development can serve as the guideline towards achieving transformative change, but it is up to each individual city to reinvent themselves in order to become engines for effective change. The Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity is ready to help the 195 national governments that signed on to it, as well as their development partners, unleash the tremendous power of truly nature-positive cities.