One of the most difficult challenges that humanity faces is combating climate change and mitigating its effects. Because of their ability to create a new social paradigm based on sustainability, urban environments, both large and small, play a transcendental role. Greener cities, cleaner cities, cities that are more inclusive and friendly, cities that are more circular, in short, cities for the future.
What role do cities play in the fight against climate change?
Cities play an important role in the fight against climate change. They cover only 3% of the earth’s surface, but they are home to 4.5 billion people, or 55% of the world’s population, and this figure is expected to rise to 80% by 2050. Furthermore, cities consume between 60 and 80 percent of global energy and account for 70 percent of CO2 emissions. In our country, urban areas also house the majority of the population.
On the one hand, it is critical to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through measures such as energy efficiency in housing, sustainable transportation, and the expansion of green spaces that aid in CO2 absorption. Furthermore, urban environments are affected by climate change and have higher temperatures than their surroundings, particularly at night, as well as a higher risk of flooding due, among other things, to the high degree of impermeability of the soils. As a result, they are also a critical space for adaptation, as rising average temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns will exacerbate these issues if we do not take precautionary measures.
“Cities are critical battlegrounds in the climate fight. They are home to 55 percent of the world’s population, and this figure is expected to rise to 80 percent by 2050 “rcent by the year 2050.”
How can we prepare and adapt our cities to the unavoidable changes?
Because this is a complex problem, the solution will not be simple, but one important aspect is to strengthen the role of nature in urban planning and city planning. Parks and gardens, green facades and roofs, tree-lined streets, meadows, and urban orchards promote biodiversity and provide a variety of ecosystem services related to citizens’ quality of life, health, and well-being, such as thermal regulation, air purification, and noise abatement. At the same time, they provide spaces for leisure and recreation while also contributing to soil permeability to deal with torrential rains and floods, allowing them to adapt to the effects of climate change.
Until now, nature and city appeared antagonistic; what role does the naturalization of large cities play in all of this? What can we expect to see in this area in the future?
For far too long, urban development has been conducted with one’s back to nature, resulting in an accelerated process of expansion, overpopulation, and biodiversity loss. Cities must reconnect with nature and invest in low-cost solutions that will make them greener, more resilient, and healthier. As a result, we will see revitalized cities in the future that are better managed and more resilient to the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.
The idea is that nature conservation becomes an integral part of city planning and management, that the process of urbanization does not result in the deterioration of the territories’ flora and fauna, and that we can thus preserve the services that biodiversity provides.
Actions can be taken at the building scale, such as vertical gardens or green roofs; at the block or neighborhood scale, such as urban orchards, green areas, and tree-lined streets with native species and forms of sustainable management that encourage the appearance of pollinators and nesting; or at the city scale, such as urban forests, green rings, or the re naturalization of urban stretches of rivers.
“Nature conservation must be an essential component of urban planning and management.”
Where are cities going, and what will they look like in a few years?
The ideal model would be a city designed for people rather than vehicles, in which the most disadvantaged people have access to all of the city’s opportunities, and which includes a gender approach. An environment with enough green spaces (the WHO recommends a minimum of 10 to 15 square meters of green space per inhabitant), in which nature and the benefits it provides are integrated, including, as previously mentioned, aspects related to leisure, health, well-being, social aspects, and so on, as well as the regulation of natural processes (thermal and water regulation, air purification, erosion control, etc.).
The proximity of services is also an important aspect of making cities more livable, as basic services such as work, health, shopping, culture, and leisure should be close to the place of residence and easily accessible on foot or by bicycle. This entails changing the location of land uses, including the development of proximity business models, the expansion of public spaces for meetings and social interaction, a commitment to de carbonized mobility models, and the possibility of reintroducing biodiversity into cities through re naturalization.
Are there enough tools available to help cities make the green transition?
Fortunately, some tools are available. International organizations and governments are developing strategies to integrate nature into urban environments. The European Commission approved the Biodiversity Strategy to 2030 ‘Re-integrating Nature Into Our Lives’ in 2020, which proposes “ensuring that cities with 20,000 or more inhabitants have an ambitious urban greening plan.”
Also in 2020, the Spanish government approved the National Strategy for Green Infrastructure, Ecological Connectivity, and Restoration, which focuses on green infrastructure solutions in urban environments. Similarly, the National Plan for Climate Change Adaptation (PNACC) establishes a series of action plans to integrate climate change adaptation into territorial and urban planning, as well as the building sector.
We have funding linked to the Spanish Government’s Recovery, Transformation, and Resilience Plan (PRTR), which is financed by the EU’s Next Generation funds, to materialize the guidelines provided by these strategic and planning instruments.
“Re-naturalization must become a cross-cutting and structuring issue, resulting in effective changes that allow us to move toward more habitable and resilient urban models that are more integrated with nature.”
In this context, the Foundation has developed a call for grants for urban re naturalization, with the goal of promoting activities that contribute to urban re-naturalization, increasing green infrastructure and connecting green and blue spaces, increasing biodiversity and its conservation and adaptation to climate change, and improving the livability of provincial capitals and other Spanish cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants.
We have approved a first call for 58 million euros in 2021, and a second call for 62 million euros in 2022. Similarly, we have issued a new call for 75 million euros to promote actions aimed at the restoration of river ecosystems and the mitigation, adaptation, and protection of flood risk in urban areas through nature-based solutions, which will be open until March 16 of this year. 270 million over two years for large projects that will transform our cities into greener, more livable, and better adapted places to mitigate the effects of climate change by 2025.
What are the main plot lines and actors involved?
Re-naturalization must become a cross-cutting and structuring issue that generates effective changes at different territorial scales, different sectors of the economy, and in everyday life, allowing us to move toward more habitable, resilient, and nature-integrated urban models. As previously stated, solutions based on ecosystem services are cost-effective and efficient ways to address environmental and social challenges. The Foundation intends for the projects it will now support to be more than just one-time events.
We want specific municipal strategies on these issues that are approved in plenary and set a course that cannot be reversed in order to generate a long-term process. A challenge of this magnitude necessitates multidisciplinary and intersectoral collaboration, as well as the participation of the local community, research organizations, and civil society, in short, a true governance process.
It may also necessitate “horizontal integration” between cities and adjacent populations, such as the rural-urban link, ensuring ecological connectivity, or taking into account aspects related to the water cycle, among other things. Another critical component is the incorporation of scientific evidence for data-driven decision-making based on the best available knowledge.
Furthermore, in order to learn and replicate good practices, it is necessary to monitor the process and evaluate the results obtained. Finally, I believe that a global shift in mindset is required to define our relationship with nature, imposing its protection as a health investment. In this sense, comprehending the value provided by biodiversity enables us to make more informed decisions. A value that can be expressed qualitatively or quantitatively and can be economic, social, environmental, or cultural.
“Knowing the value of biodiversity allows us to make better decisions.”
Which cities should be emulated around the world? What about in Spain?
According to the annual ranking prepared by the consulting firm Arcadis in collaboration with UN-Habitat, the most sustainable cities are currently London, Stockholm, and Edinburgh. To arrive at this conclusion, the ranking focuses on three sustainability concepts: people’s quality of life, cities’ impact on the planet, and city economic development. In terms of nature, it highlights London’s commitment to public transportation and connectivity, Stockholm’s high air quality as the world’s greenest city, and Edinburgh’s plan for sustainable mobility.
Cities in Spain are also making strides. For example, Vitoria-Gasteiz, whose commitment to sustainability led to its designation as a European Green City in 2012 and a Global Green City in 2019. It currently has 42m2 of green space for every resident, 150 kilometers of bike lanes, and 833 ha of interconnected parks in a Green Ring that includes the Salburua Wetland.
Without a doubt, this is one of the paths to take in terms of urban re-naturalization, as will cities such as Valladolid, Zaragoza, or Soria, which, along with Vitoria-Gasteiz, have recently joined the initiative “Climate Neutral Cities in 2030,” of which large capitals such as Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, and Seville were already a part, and whose goal is to position Spain at the forefront of climate action, with cities as the main agents
Article Author Gerluxe