How do we create thriving and resilient cities?
For most, if not all of us, spending time outside - whether that’s in a garden, the countryside or a park - is critical for our mental and physical health.
But as the number of people working and living in cities increases, so too does the decline of urban nature. Continued urbanisation of the landscape, coupled with modern lifestyle trends and a growing digitisation in our work and social lives, is undermining the cultural, social and economic significance of nature, and people have become less connected with nature than ever before.
Whilst urban life brings many social and financial advantages, it can also leave us vulnerable. Environmental issues such as flooding, pollution and heat stress continue to impact our cities, posing significant risks to businesses, communities and society as a whole; this is only expected to worsen in the face of climate change.
Never has this been more acute than in recent months, with the COVID-19 pandemic exposing fundamental disparities in public access to green space.
But we now have a chance. Throughout these unprecedented times of global lockdown, social media and news channels have been awash with stories of people rediscovering the joys of nature; of families turning gardens and balconies into wildlife havens; of business and civil society working together to help children experience the nature right on their doorsteps. Our recent survey shows that 59% of 2,000 respondents had spent more time with nature since lockdown.
Elsewhere, legislative measures and industry-wide commitments signal a renewed commitment to restoring and protecting nature. The recovery principals of #BuildBackBetter are gaining traction, accompanied by opportunities to properly position human, social and natural capital alongside economic capital; to align fiscal policy with climate action; to build societal resilience against future environmental challenges.
All manner of organisations, from NGOs to scientific bodies and healthcare communities are calling on governments worldwide for a “green recovery” from COVID-19, one that also acknowledges and seeks to remedy the health and environmental, as well as the economic, cost of the climate crisis.
Whilst there is still more that can and must be done, there is an emerging awareness that urban nature is not simply a nice to have but an integral component of the city ecosystem, with potential to dramatically enhance living conditions in urban environments:
Resilience. Studies from Earthwatch and other leading institutes have repeatedly shown that well placed and carefully managed urban nature supports climate mitigation and adaptation efforts; natural and constructed green spaces, woodlands, and waterbodies help regulate temperatures, mitigate flood risk, reduce pollution and support carbon uptake.
Protecting biodiversity. The most recent Global Risk Report from the World Economic Forum explicitly references the risks posed by biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse. Green and blue spaces represent a vital habitat for native wildlife species and helps protect the ecosystems that provide important services in urban environments.
Improving wellbeing. Evidence also suggests that being in nature reduces stress levels, improves mood and that people with easy access to green space are 40% less likely to become overweight. A report by the UK Faculty of Public Health concluded that so-called “green prescribing” may be as effective in treating some mental health issues as medication.
Now is the time for change. Despite all that has happened and all that will change in 2020 and beyond, we must remember that the climate and ecological crises still represent a profound and existential threat to humanity and the natural world.
As we emerge into a post-COVID world, questions are inevitably being asked about the resilience of our global economies, supply chains, healthcare systems and communities. These questions are intrinsically linked with our response to climate change; we must make sure that the answers capitalise on this pivotal moment to embed behaviour change, transform business models and accelerate sustainable development.
At Earthwatch we continue to collaborate with businesses, local authorities and communities, to harness the opportunity to build a new, inclusive and green normal that is fit for the future.
We are developing evidence-based solutions that use nature to enhance climate resilience, protect wildlife and improve urban planning and management practices. And we are educating people about the critical role of nature, as well as promoting individual and collective action in the home, the workplace and the community.
Because ultimately, if we are to create thriving, resilient places to live and work, it is critical that we make space for nature.
Maria Pontes, Director Programmes and Partnerships, Earthwatch Europe
Originally published on Linkedin