Creating Urban Environments Which Let Nature and People Thrive




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Jun 04, 2019
by Jonny Hughes
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Creating Urban Environments Which Let Nature and People Thrive

Chair of IUCN Urban Alliance Jonny Hughes outlines six issues which, if we make progress on, could be transformative in creating urban environments for the better Jonny Hughes, chair of the IUCN Urban Alliance, at Salzburg Global Seminar

Salzburg Global Seminar is an independent non-profit organization founded in 1947 to challenge current and future leaders to shape a better world. Its multi-year programs aim to bridge divides, expand collaboration, and transform systems.

In my capacity as Chair of the IUCN Urban Alliance, I was recently asked to chair a program at Salzburg Global entitled, Partnerships for Urban Wellbeing and Resilience: Harnessing Nature and Protected Areas for the Sustainable Development Goals.

The program is part of a series - the Parks for the Planet Forum - a ten-year collaboration to reconnect people and nature in an urbanized world. Launched in 2015, it aims to improve human and societal well-being by expanding access to nature-rich urban spaces, increasing investments in urban conservation, and creating dynamic partnerships between people, cities, and protected area systems.

In my opening remarks, I challenged the assembled delegates to think about six issues which, if we can make progress on, could be transformative in creating urban environments which sustain thriving nature and thriving people while helping address the twin global crises of biodiversity loss and climate warming.
1. If not, now then when?

The urban-nature agenda is an agenda whose time has finally come, but we need to act fast to transform urban environments as we adapt to a changing climate and a rapidly urbanizing world. How do we move from a series of inspiring case studies, pilot projects, and green architectural statements and make "ecological urbanism" the new normal?
2. Without inclusivity and equitability, this agenda will fail.

The urban-nature agenda cannot be exclusive – we must resist falling into the trap of being too purist and siloed. This means designing nature-based solutions with a myriad of other considerations in mind from aesthetics to the often particular needs of the communities that call cities their home. Ecologists, road engineers, and real estate developers need to be speaking with each other more regularly and combining skill sets. The recent IPBES assessment included strong calls to action on green infrastructure provision but what was missing for me was an understanding that we will remain siloed in our own bubble until we have a proactive strategy of embedding ecological thinking and practice into all aspects of urban design and neighborhood life. All city people are not alike – cultural differences abound, and we must embrace local ideas if we are to create enduring, successful, and truly green neighborhoods.
3. Multi-scale or bust.

We will need to succeed at all scales in the urban ecosystem – from window box to the city region. For this to happen, both citizen-led bottom-up approaches will need to combine with top-down planning and design approaches. How do we successfully meld the two? Hinterlands are critical – both as a resource for city dwellers to experience rural nature and as a provider of vital water and even climate services to cities. Cities must care more for their hinterlands, and yet this will continue to be a massive challenge in the global south (where most population expansion will take place) due to lack formal governance structures, reliable financing mechanisms and the almost overwhelming pace of urbanization.
4. The time has come for a new economics for cities.

The natural capital assets that underpin healthy, liveable cities, and by extension, healthy, fulfilled people have been undervalued or ignored for too long. The challenge is to make the value of this vital natural capital visible through true-cost accounting – only by doing this can we expect to attract the levels of investment from both the public and private sectors that we need to unlock transformational change.
5. Urbanization is good for the planet.

The fact that urban area has doubled since 1992 is reported in the IPBES assessment as a negative trend – at least that is the inference. Perhaps this needs to be challenged? Peak rural population may be as near as 2030, and if we can combine the design of a sustainable agri-food system with sustainable urban design, then urbanization could take massive pressure off rural ecosystems. This is already happening in some parts of the temperate zone as we see re-wilding of landscapes and the return, for example, of the grey wolf to parts of Europe and North America where it has been absent for decades.
6. Big data and disruptive digital technology could help to reduce the exported ecological footprint of cities - that is, the impact cities have on ecosystems across the world.

How can we use such technological advances to drive down the global impact of cities as we strive for carbon neutrality and net biodiversity gain? We also need reliable metrics to track the health of nature and other aspects of natural capital in cities - something the IUCN Urban Alliance is working on through the development of a standard Urban Nature Index.

I share these thoughts in this article and invite comment and ideas for those interested in this fascinating subject area.

If you would like to respond to this op-ed, please email

The Salzburg Global Seminar program, Partnerships for Urban Wellbeing and Resilience: Harnessing Nature and Protected Areas for the Sustainable Development Goals, is part of the Parks for the Planet Forum. This program is supported by Future Cities Forum, ICLEI CBC, IUCN Urban Alliance, Learning Economy, National Park City Foundation, The Centre for Conscious Design, World Urban Parks, and 21st Century Trust.