This blog begins a four-part series from the Renaturing Cities: Systemic…
I had the opportunity to join a European conference with the promising title “Nature-Based Solutions to Climate Change in Urban Areas and the Rural Surroundings – Linkages between Science, Policy and Practice” from 17th till 19th of November in Bonn, Germany. Over 230 participants from all over Europe came together to find solutions. What did we find out?
What are we talking about?
After two days into the conference, my ears were ringing with a phrase like a mantra: Nature-based solutions, nature-based solutions, nature-based solutions. While everybody was pointing out, that nature-based solutions have a tremendous potential on providing multiple benefits when used in cities, a concrete definition of what actually a nature-based solution is, was missing to me as a science-outsider. So I had to look it up. According to the Department of Research and Innovation of the European Commission a nature-based solution is…
“ …a solution to societal challenges that is inspired or supported by nature, which is cost-effective, simultaneously provides environmental, social and economic benefits and helps build resilience. These solutions bring more, and more diverse, nature and natural features and processes into cities, landscapes and seascapes, through locally adapted, resource-efficient and systemic interventions.”
That sounds very promising. And reminded me weirdly about solutions designed according to Permaculture Design Principles.
Why are we talking about it?
Europe and the World are in the midst of multiple crises already and we are facing even more partially unpredictable challenges ahead. To name a few, Europe and the World suffer from
- unsustainable urbanization and related human health issues,
- degradation and loss of natural capital and the ecosystem services it provides (like clean air, water, soil and thus food),
- climate change which comes along with
- an alarming increase of natural disaster risks like floods, droughts and heat waves.
Currently over 70% of Europe’s population live in cities. This is expected to increase to over 80% by 2050. This would mean 36 million new urban citizens, who will need housing, transportation, employment and care. To break this down for you, this comes down to about 2.850 more people in European cities in each week for the coming 35 years. And I’m not sure if or how the current numbers of migrating refugees influenced these figures.
Cities can be seen as being their own metabolisms, with various matter and energy fluxes meandering through. At the same time cities are highly dependent on their surrounding landscapes and in a globalized world on imported goods and services. There is an ongoing dilemma in city planning on how to deal on the one hand with the pressing needs for more and more dense housing, jobs and roads for all the new people and on the other hand with the spatial requirements for green urban spaces with all their vital benefits on air quality, cooling, water retention, biodiversity and human mental and physical health.
I could witness interesting scientific findings and promising developements at the conference. Check out this link for the lists of speakers and the presentations.
To my pleasant surprise there is growing recognition and awareness growing in the spheres of policy, science and business that humankind is part of nature and that nature can help provide viable solutions for many of these challenges.
Once again, similar like in the Informed Cities Forum in Rotterdam in March 2015, speakers were talking about the need to think in a systemic manner rather than in silos, to work inclusively together with “unusual” allies and to work with nature, rather than against her.
I was inspired by the presentation of Christine Wamsler about mainstreaming climate change adaptation in urban governance and planning. She made clear that four types of measures have to be systematically implemented in the planning and governance procedures to reduce climate hazard risks. These measures are
- reduce / avoid exposure to hazard
- reduce location- specific vulnerability / sensibility
- ensure effective response as soon as hazard strikes and
- ensure effective recovery mechanisms after hazard.
She pointed out that there are examples and nature-based solutions for all four measures.
Some speakers at the conference reconfirmed my experiences of the tremendous health benefits of green spaces in cities. Matthias Braubach from the WHO European Center for Environment and Health pointed out that green areas can have psychological, physical activity-related and ecosystem-related health effect mechanism which lead to an increase in general wellbeing, disease prevention and healing as well as quicker recovery.
“Europe needs a circular economy, strong natural capital and a low carbon production and consumption system as soon as possible.”
He pointed out, that we cannot expect reliable and good environmental services (a.k.a. the basis of our livelihoods) from an increasingly depleting nature. The converse argument would be that we need strong and resilient natural ecosystems to be able to apply strong nature-based solutions and expect good ecosystem services.
So far, so good. What sadly made me worry, that we and nature-based solutions can face and deal with the multiple challenges for humankind in the shortening time frame were two things.
Firstly, from my point of view most of the speakers were not thinking systemic enough. When the EU Commision and Kurt Vandenberghe pointed out at the last day of the conference that
“Working with nature, rather than against it, can further pave the way towards a more resource efficient, competitive and greener economy. It can also help to create new jobs and economic growth, through the manufacture and delivery of new products and services, which enhance the natural capital rather than deplete it.”
then I still feel like in a movie from the 1950s where everyone is singing “It’s all about money, jobs and growth”. As one of the more critical comments in the final plenary pointed out, Europe has globally outsourced most of its production industries to countries with low requirements on environmental standards, human health and worker’s rights. And thus is left with cities with a decreasing number of (really useful) jobs, former industrial zones and commercial areas laid bare and a rural community with precarious jobs and an aging population due to an industrialized and globalized agriculture. And now – to be a bit simple and sarcastic here – were are whining about that we need more jobs again for all the people coming to the cities and keep them healthier than other countries can afford by greening our derelict urban land.
Is it really systemic enough to stop the thinking process at the European border? Or even at the North-West European border? Is it really systemic enough to not at all examine or question the universal advantages and disadvantages of our current global financial and economic models?
As I understand it, numbers and economic terms are a global language. But to me that does not mean that we only consider things in the living world as valuable when they have a price tag. I doubt that common goods and services can be managed successfully and socially just when they are made into commercial goods and services. As also Bernd Hansjürgens (UFZ Germany, TEEB Project) pointed out, economic valuation methods are only useful if a holistic approach is taken.
The question to me remains, if we can create a sustainable future within or out of the same concepts that created our unsustainable present. I do not believe that we can endlessly follow an outgrown idea of everlasting growth on a limited planet. Let us talk about degrowth for a change…
Secondly, I became the feeling that the responsibility was tossed around in a funny manner between the scientists, the policy makers and the economists present at the conference. It seemed like everybody was waiting for the other to start implementing changes first and testing nature-based solutions in the real world. People from the city planning asked the scientists to provide evidence that nature-based solutions where worth their investments, so that they could convince their engineers, authorities and investors. Economists like Luise Noring from the Copenhagen Business School said that the public sector should lead the way with implementing nature-based solutions as an example to others, using public money. And scientists said that evidence cannot depict the entire reality and that it would need visible and working models run by companies to further the experience with and feasibility of nature-based solutions. So who will be the one to actually start? Do we have time for this?
Of course I’m not an expert in the fields and I admit that I have an idealistic view into the future which is not always grounded in reality. I did not become a scientist but went for trying possible solutions out in the real world, with all the trial and error and learning involved. So, I do not want to sound too pessimistic in my description of the conference, because I think there were a lot of sophisticated, innovative and creative people present, who made good connections and learnt from each other.
Stepping into the unknown
At last, I want to highlight the two things, I found really fascinating at the conference.
Firstly, we know we have to change but I am sure there are very different ideas about what we have to change into. Where does this all lead to? Do we have a common vision or even just values? Do we need that in order to change collectively? I found it brave that for example Luise Noring highlighted in her presentation the positive features of a circular economy that we will have to transition to and at the same instance admitted, that she has no clear idea on how it would work. What could be testing grounds and methods to get familiar with the field of the unknown, where we will have to transition to?
Secondly, where there to me seems to be the biggest hesitation and a methodical ignorance is on how to actually work systemically together with different stakeholders. So we figured that thinking in silos and working in departments is not sufficiently helping us in dealing with the multifaceted challenges we are facing. We know that we also have to talk with people we might not understand although we may speak the same language. We will have to work with people with diverse world-views, whose thoughts and actions are based on diverse facts and experiences, and who follow diverse concepts, values and behavioral patterns. And the question remains: How are we supposed to work together? Urgently? Under Stress? At its best, to the benefit of all?
A few of these questions were raised in the interactive sessions of the conference, namely in the sessions
- “Nature-based solutions and the role in fostering social-environmental justice in cities” and
- “Nature-based solutions from a transitions’ perspective”.
In the first session I brainstormed with others about how to exchange knowledge and experience about nature-based solution between different people of different social and cultural contexts. To sum up the first session, I reduce our findings to a few key words: Openness, transparency, inclusion, mutual respect, appropriate settings and methods.
- The new actor networks are niches and they need to grow out of them, changing governance as we know it.
- Nature-based solutions require business as unusual networks: inclusive, enabling and transformative.
- To share and aggregate nature-based solutions adapt to your audience and scale: A good mix of personal contacts, social networks and systematic description is recommended.
Do you see a pattern here?
I hope to see some more and really interdisciplinary conferences and events happening with more diverse methods applied to gather and harvest the collective knowledge and experiences of the participants present. We have to find and test methods of translating our world-views and expertise to each other. We should try and test a range of different solutions in real life always asking ourselves “Is it good enough for now? Is it safe enough to try?”. And we should aim to find a common vision of how human life on this planet can be first of all sustained and thus be. To the benefit of all humans and life itself.
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