Making re-naturalisation of cities a common practice

Cities provide a locus for sustainability.

We live on an increasingly urban planet. Roughly three-quarters of Europe’s population lives in cities today, including the Czech republic. Scientists predict that this will be the case for the rest of the world by the second half of this century. People are moving into cities and thus cities expand. Now, what does it mean for all of us?

The current phase of urbanization and contemporary lifestyles create immense pressures on Earth’s biosphere. Untamed land take, resource exploitation and polluting – unwanted co-products of human activities mainly to please the demand of urban populations – lead to a rapid deterioration of ecosystem health, biodiversity collapse and fast-changing climatic conditions. Eventually, we are losing ecosystem functions and services that underpin our very existence on this planet. Reportedly, in Europe, more than half of the societal demand for regulating ecosystem services (e.g. responsible for maintenance of microclimatic condition, water flows or clean air) and cultural ecosystem services (e.g. providing recreational opportunities or mental benefits) is insufficiently covered, showing an important ecosystem deficit.

Cities suffer from climate change and environmental degradation. Nature in cities is in retreat (source: Shutterstock). 

The ecological and climate crisis exposed the health and wellbeing of urban populations. We are experiencing growing intensity and frequency in climate-related events such as heatwaves, droughts, or floods resulting from heavy rains that altogether have negative environmental, economic and health implications. These are emphasised by an unequal distribution of urban commons and related access to universal services that nature provides us with, making some societal groups privileged over others. We are failing to plan cities for all and for future generations, and we are failing to prevent the decay of the natural world within and beyond the urban realm. Urban policy and planning practice need to change discourse if we are to sustain our living environment.

Let’s bring more nature into cities and fix the problem. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

A number of concepts have been developed to represent the urban ecosystem. Green infrastructure, or the umbrella concept of Nature-based solutions, has gained the greatest attention among them all. The European policymakers have embraced these allocating great portions of resources to support their integration and implementation across the continent.

Green infrastructure is a connected network of natural and semi-natural elements and open spaces that deliver a multitude of ecosystem services, provide habitats for species, enhance climate resilience and promote health, wellbeing and social cohesion. This green infrastructure supports socio-ecological coherence within and beyond cities. Yet, the services and benefits provided by urban ecosystems can’t be taken for granted. It is the role of policymakers, planners and practitioners, but also of other influential actors including academia and civic society, to plan for and manage nature in and around cities in a way that secures a sufficient supply and even distribution of its services.

At the Department of the Human Dimension of Global Change (Global Change Research Institute, CAS), we continuously study how the socio-ecological and political processes form and shape (un)sustainability. In my doctoral research, I focus on the issue of urban regeneration through strategic green infrastructure planning and governance. To be more specific, I study the underlying processes that enable or hamper the creation of more natural urban environments, which are the precondition for urban sustainability.

Cities are complex socio-ecological systems, formed and shaped through complex processes.

The concept of green infrastructure is not only accepted as a representation of biophysical substance – connected and multifunctional ecosystems – but also as a strategic planning approach and a policy tool that serves us as a communication platform in reaching sustainability objectives. It calls for the integration of certain principles that define strategic planning practice and governance. These are the principles of social inclusivity, inter- and trans- disciplinary collaboration, multiscale spatial and temporal approaches, and of integrated solutions.

Strategic green infrastructure planning and governance processes can ensure continuous implementation and stewardship for urban nature (author’s work; graphics on the right adopted from Bundesamt für Naturschutz, 2018).

The research I conduct aims to improve the understanding of the factors that hamper strategic green infrastructure planning and governance and clarify the enabling factors. A recent extensive review of the research articles on green infrastructure from the last decade (n. of articles = 1946) revealed that we have limited knowledge on green infrastructure operationalisation – i.e. concurrent social, administrative, planning and governance processes. We interpret these processes as ‘procedural aspects’, referring to modes of courses or actions in which the green infrastructure is put into practice.

Knowledge on substantive aspects is prevailing. We have limited knowledge on procedural aspects – GI operationalisation and its underlying processes. (preliminary results based on Vaňo and van Lierop et al., in preparation).

*Scope of S and P aspects in studies conducted between 2010 and 2020 (searched in Scopus and Web of Science): S = substantive focus (physical and spatial assets, components and design, mapping and modelling, benefits, performance and assessment); P = procedural focus (planning, governance, policy, socio-cultural preferences and perceptions); S>P = more substantive, less procedural focus; SP = substantive and procedural focus; P>S = more procedural, less substantive focus; SPC/SC/PC = conceptual framing with a procedural/substantive/combined focus. 

Understanding the processes can bring us closer to urban sustainability.

Based on the review, we are currently undertaking a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the relevant articles (i.e. those with the prevailing procedural focus) on various factors affecting the procedural dimension of green infrastructure. We look into the spatial scales in which reviewed studies operate, the types and extent of disciplinary engagement, the types and extent of participation, addressed factors for barriers and enablers, and suggested guidelines and tools for green infrastructure operationalisation.

If we fail to understand and improve important urban processes, we will most likely fail to ameliorate urban environments and thus miss our chance to hop on the train towards sustainability. With our study, we aim to produce recommendations for optimised planning and governance processes where the re-naturalisation of cities is at the heart. The research is conducted in Slovakia and Germany, but in order to generalise and disseminate final recommendations, considerations of the other urban and national contexts will be critical.

(Collaborating researchers: Martina van Lierop, Stephan Pauleit, Peter Mederly)

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