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Can green spaces rescue our cities?

We're losing the urban green spaces so vital to our survival. It's time to rethink how we plan our cities.

As the global population booms and shifts from rural to city living, sprawling urban landscapes are becoming a common sight.

With cities expanding to accommodate the compact housing, office blocks and new road networks arguably needed to keep up with modern life, we are inevitably eating into the natural green areas so vital for our planet’s survival.

Our current urban population sits around 4 billion with an expected increase to 6.34 billion by 2050. This unprecedented expansion calls for a marked change in how we plan cities to work with nature, and not against it.

Making cities more resilient

This year, Earthwatch launched the global HSBC Sustainability Training Programme to help investigate how maintaining and implementing urban green spaces can help mitigate climate change impacts.

Using HSBC employees as a network of citizen scientists and teaming up with Brooklyn College and City of Toronto, we’re investigating these issues across numerous locations globally, including North America.

From this, the aim is to make key recommendations on future sustainable city planning to ensure our cities globally are more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

The need for this can be seen clearly in the weather changes alone over the last few years.

Toronto is the first city in North America to require green roofs on new buildings

Toronto suffered major flooding in the summer of 2013

'Floodwater has nowhere to go'

Kristina Hausmanis, Project Manager, Green Streets, City of Toronto, says: “We are already experiencing hotter summers and warmer winters with more precipitation. In Toronto in particular, the frequency of high intensity storms resulting in flooding is on the increase.”

In July 2013, the city was stalled by intense flooding which sparked more investigation into flood reduction schemes.

Brianne Smith, Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College, adds: “The two biggest causes of fatalities globally are related to heat and flooding. Cities only stand to magnify those things with the urban heat island effect and the fact that in a concrete landscape, floodwater has nowhere to go.”

Finding solutions

Whilst more in-depth research into these areas is still underway, city planners are already clearly aware of the risks and implementing new measures both retrospectively and within new planning.

Within existing high density landscapes, cities across North America are mostly opting for bioswales, green roofs and street tree lines.

Together these provide a compact, albeit small scale, solution for water run off reduction, cleaner air and even health and wellbeing for urbanites. Within larger spaces, city planners can be more creative with larger networks of parks, or even small wooded areas.

Kristina notes that Toronto specifically is looking at “many different solutions, from large parks to smart urban solutions such as underground storage.”

The City of Toronto has also introduced the Green Roof Bylaw, becoming the first city in North America to require and govern green roofs on new developments.

Looking larger and longer term

However, whilst cities are clearly beginning to step it up when it comes to sustainable planning, there is still a lot of work to be done into exactly how to get the most out of green infrastructure.

Brianne still thinks current measures “can only do so much” and that we should be considering larger and longer term solutions as well.

With continued research into this area though, and through collaborations between NGOs, corporates, academics and local councils, Earthwatch hopes to lead the charge on finding that green infrastructure sweet spot.

Investing in this is absolutely fundamental for the health of our increasingly tarmacked planet - ultimately creating benefits for businesses, wildlife and urbanites alike.

Read our interview with Alex Base, HSBC's Global Head of Operational Sustainability about our programme investigating the benefits of blue and green urban areas globally.

Images: iStock/Iakov Kalinin, iStock/rabbit75_ist, iStock/Michal Stipek

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