• 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.

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.

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.

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.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to improve 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 the world’s population is predicted to live in urban areas by 2050.

The World Economic Forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of Urban Transformation supports a number of projects designed to make cities cleaner and more inclusive, and to improve citizens’ quality of life:

  • Creating a net zero carbon future for cities
    The Forum’s Net Zero Carbon Cities programme brings together businesses from 10 sectors, with city, regional and national government leaders who are implementing a toolbox of solutions to accelerate progress towards a net-zero future.
  • Helping citizens stay healthy
    The Forum is working with cities around the world to create innovative urban partnerships, to help residents find a renewed focus on their physical and mental health.
  • Developing smart city governance
    Cities, local governments, companies, start-ups, research institutions and non-profit organizations are testing and implementing global norms and policy standards to ensure that data is used safely and ethically.
  • Closing the global infrastructure investment gap
    Development banks, governments and businesses are finding new ways to work together to mobilize private sector capital for infrastructure financing.

Contact us for more information on how to get involved.

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.