By working with the natural environment as a key driver, Cities Alive presents an economic way of addressing the challenges of population growth and climate change in our cities to deliver significant social and environmental benefits.
Population growth, climate change, resource depletion, pollution and urbanisation are all major global challenges facing humankind and nowhere more than in our cities. The quality of our urban environments is particularly at risk and vulnerable. As we move towards a more sustainable future it is critical that cities adapt to and address these contemporary challenges.
Reflecting the scale of the challenges ahead, there is urgency to develop more sustainably and this has become pervasive at all levels of government. The 1987 Brundtland Commission looked to unite countries worldwide to pursue sustainable development, and in 2006 the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change discussed the effect of global warming on the world economy. The main conclusion of the Stern report was that the benefits of strong, early action on climate change far outweigh the costs of not acting.
Government policy on the natural environment
Emerging government policy in the UK such as the Natural Environment White Paper 2011 (NEWP)2 and the National Planning Policy Framework 2012 (NPPF) recognise the essential contribution and services that by our natural environment can provide in the move towards more sustainable development. These policies also reflects the public’s interest in creating healthier, greener cities. Under the NPPF local plans are required to incorporate polices addressing strategic priorities, with specific reference to the landscape. It also requires public bodies to cooperate on these proprieties across administrative boundaries. The NPPF emphasises the importance of the multifunctional use of land, stipulating that planning should “promote mixed-use developments and encourage multiple benefits from the use of land in urban and rural areas, recognising that some open land can perform many functions such as for wildlife, recreation, flood risk mitigation, carbon storage or food production.”
The NEWP is a statement of adopted government policy that outlines the government’s vision for the natural environment for the next 50 years, underlining its fundamental importance thus: “The natural environment underpins our economic prosperity, health and wellbeing. The aim of the White Paper is to ‘set out a clear framework for protecting and enhancing the things that nature gives us for free, which are too often taken for granted.
The importance of ecosystem services
The NEWP lends support to the importance of “ecosystem services” and the promotion of multifunctional land use and connectivity. The ecosystem services concept promoted by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in the early 2000s4 looked to understand nature’s value to society, as humankind depends in a multitude of ways upon the services provided by ecosystems and their components: water, soil, nutrients and organisms.
Collectively these benefits are known as ecosystem services and can be defined as the processes by which the environment produces resources utilised by humans such as clean air, water, productive soils, food and materials. To help inform decision-makers, many ecosystem services are now assigned economic values. In the UK the key messages of National Ecosystem Assessment5 are clear on the importance of nature: “The natural world, its biodiversity and its constituent ecosystems are critically important to our wellbeing and economic prosperity, but are consistently undervalued in conventional economic analyses and decision making.” The importance of acting now is also spelt out: “Actions taken and decisions made now will have consequences far into the future for ecosystems, ecosystems services and human wellbeing.” Included in this vision is explicit support for green infrastructure (GI). In an urban context the NEWP advocates that GI is “one of the most effective tools available to us in managing environmental risks such as flooding and heatwaves.”
A green-infrastructure-led design approach
In response Cities Alive proposes a design approach for urban environments that promotes nature as a key driver. This embraces the direction of national government policy described above that acknowledges the essential value of the natural environment and its role in underpinning our economic prosperity, health and wellbeing. The approach seeks to create healthier more socially cohesive and biodiverse urban environments and a connected city ecosystem for people and wildlife that also builds in resilience measures against climate change in the form of storm, flood, heat, drought and pollution protection.
The Cities Alive approach seeks to positively utilise the key GI components that lie within our city environments and perform essential ecosystem services. These components may include open spaces, natural areas, urban woodland and parks; green streets, squares and public realm; sustainable drainage systems, rivers and waterways; cycleways and pedestrian routes; and smaller scale interventions such as green roofs, walls and facades.
A GI-led design approach aims to create a network of healthy and attractive new and upgraded city environments, sustainable routes and spaces. The approach would build on, strengthen and link existing GI components described above. Over time this resilient and networked “city ecosystem” will be capable of generating a substantial range of social, environmental and economic benefits for urban citizens, whilst also providing protection against the effects of climate change. A key component is also the promotion of multifunctional design (where a range of benefits are provided in one area through careful planning, integrated design and management) to deliver an array of substantial social, environmental and economic benefits.
In a world where numbers matter Cities Alive uses global research to demonstrate these benefits. Using nature as a driver for the design of urban environments can deliver wide-ranging gains including greater social cohesion, improved mental and physical health (with resulting economic savings), and lower crime; economic vitality, inward investment and increased property prices; and better urban microclimates, reduced pollution, flood resistance, an increase in biodiversity and lower city carbon footprints.
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