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BiodiverCities: how infrastructure could transform the urban relationship with nature

Cheonggyecheon, an 11km recreation space in Seoul, South Korea, shows how nature can be worked into the urban fabric.

Cheonggyecheon, an 11km recreation space in Seoul, South Korea, shows how nature can be worked into the urban fabric. Image: Wikicommons

Ivan Duque
Senator of the Republic of Colombia, Congress of Colombia
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This article is part of: The Davos Agenda

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  • Escalating urbanization threatens the natural world on which cities ultimately depend.
  • The World Economic Forum's BiodiverCities by 2030 initiative provides a roadmap for a sustainable approach to city development.
  • Nature-based solutions can replace traditional 'grey' infrastructure.

Supporting urban development is a foremost priority for any global leader steering a 21st-century sustainable development agenda. In less than 30 years, three-quarters of the world’s population will be living in cities, with citizens holding high expectations for their economic opportunities, well-being and prosperity.

Cities should provide key services for all, such as sufficient and clean water; reliable food systems; housing, energy and medicine; jobs and places for leisure, innovation and co-creation. Nevertheless, many cities currently fall short and are failing city-dwellers, as well as the natural environment that urban life depends on.

The many positive outcomes that urbanization has provided to mankind notwithstanding, its development still largely depends on the alienation from and exploitation of nature, which causes ripple effects threatening planetary stability. City officials are being confronted on a daily basis with the consequences of such environmental impacts, having to manage increasing droughts, flooding, fires, and health emergencies, among others.

Over 70% of the largest urban centres in the world – and their more than 1.4 billion inhabitants – are deemed to be at high or extreme risk of environmental harm, and nearly 60% of all cities are highly exposed to at least one of the six main natural hazards: cyclones, floods, droughts, earthquakes, landslides and volcanic eruptions.

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The case for transforming cities is strong, and the time is now. Natural ecosystems and their biodiversity provide many fundamental benefits to urban societies, including climate resilience. Strengthening the resilience of cities is a matter of urgency for humanity and the economy. Cities need to be prepared to cope with the social, environmental and financial consequences of ever-increasing natural hazards, and act systemically to reverse such risks.

The fates of the urban and natural worlds are intertwined
The fates of the urban and natural worlds are intertwined. Image: BiodiverCities by 2030 report

Urban life and nature in harmony

To address these significant challenges and reposition cities’ potential as engines for transformative, positive change, the government of Colombia has been collaborating with the World Economic Forum on the BiodiverCities by 2030 initiative – supporting city governments, businesses and citizens around the world to create urban environments that live in harmony with nature by 2030.

BiodiverCities is an urbanization approach that provides social and economic benefits by advancing carbon neutrality, biodiversity conservation and social justice. This is achieved through three interconnected steps: reconnecting the built environment to nature; giving equal access to nature to all city dwellers, and fostering an economy based on the sustainable use of nature.

In order to foster resilience and well-being for billions of people, we must make nature a top priority for the urban agenda, and promote greater interaction and coordination among urban stakeholders. It is time to embrace the opportunities offered by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, build new platforms of collaboration and share experiences on how to reconcile safeguarding biodiversity with responding to pressing urban challenges such as food security, poverty, mobility and sanitation.

Key initiatives are supporting our endeavour: C40 Urban Nature Declaration, CitiesWithNature, and Cities4Forests are some of the coalitions helping cities to connect and take unequivocal climate and nature action through nature-based solutions (NbS).

Nature-based solutions for cities

The BiodiverCities by 2030 initiative has presented a new report calling for multistakeholder collaboration to integrate nature as infrastructure into the built environment. By shifting investment to NbS for infrastructure, cities can leverage natural ecosystems to provide the key functions of conventional grey interventions.

NbS can help cities to sustain water security and resilience through watershed conservation, as already seen in China through several pilot schemes on sponge cities and water-sensitive cities. NbS can also improve the aesthetics of neighbourhoods while drawing in other significant benefits and economic returns, as demonstrated by the High Line in New York City. In addition, NbS in urban areas can improve urban microclimates, reduce urban heat islands, offset carbon emissions and support species richness through increased green roofs and green areas, as seen in Shah Alam, Taipei, London, Seoul, Cordoba and Barranquilla, among many others.

NbS for infrastructure could cost 50% less than grey infrastructure alternatives alone and deliver 28% in added value such as carbon sequestration, cleaner air and water, better health, recreational services, jobs and opportunities for growth in other sectors (e.g. real estate and tourism). By investing in nature-based infrastructure and fostering land-sparing within the built environment now, cities can secure their future, increase their liveability and build resilience against the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Green urban development promises substantial socio-economic benefits
Green urban development promises substantial socio-economic benefits. Image: BiodiverCities by 2030 report

Despite the clear evidence of the benefits of NbS, the new BiodiverCities by 2030 report shows that cities currently invest less than 0.3% of their infrastructure spending, most of which stems from domestic government funds, in them. There is an imminent potential for cities to harness NbS and increase investment four times beyond the current levels – an opportunity that could reach up to $583 billion by 2030. In addition, the report finds that those investment opportunities could, taken together, create over 59 million jobs by 2030, which equals to 1.5% of the projected global labour force in 2030.

Building the BiodiverCities of tomorrow will require leveraging innovation, applied research, improved governance and new investment mechanisms. Strategic alliances are needed between the private sector, civil society and national and local governments. These partnerships will set the standard for nature to become a model for greater competitiveness, resilience and sustainability in urban centres.


How is the World Economic Forum supporting the development of cities and communities globally?

I encourage national and local governments, as well as the whole urban community to harvest and spread the evidence on the real opportunities for cities to become nature-positive. We must work together to build an enabling environment in each unique city context whereby biodiversity and nature-based solutions are prioritized on the urban agenda.

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Forum InstitutionalUrban TransformationClimate Action
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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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