While the way we develop our cities is largely seen as part of the climate problem, developing it as a part of the solution is also possible. What we need is viable solutions backed by effective policies and planning.
The childhood mornings started with all the chirping, peeping, and tweeting of the birds. However, growing up, I realised the dawn chorus grew softer, and the artificial alarm clock grew louder and louder. Well, this is not the only thing that has changed around; the beautiful verdant forest was slowly lost to the massive, dull greys. These dominating grey areas are what we call ‘cities’.
The cities around the globe are growing at a speedy pace; the growth in developing countries is even higher. According to the data provided by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the urban population will grow by another 2.5 billion by 2050. Additionally, most of the increase in the population is expected in countries like India, China, and Nigeria. India’s capital city is projected to be the most populous city on the planet by 2028.
While urbanisation looks like a lucrative process, with promising economic development accompanied by better living standards. It also has a dark side; the unplanned development globally has resulted in land-use change, increased crime rates, pollution, loss of biodiversity, increased inequality, and social exclusion.
To give an illustration of biodiversity loss, the Living Planet Report of 2020 highlights five major threat categories to illustrate the global biodiversity decline; these categories included land & sea use change, pollution, species overexploitation, climate change, and invasive species & diseases. The report highlighted an alarming decline of 68 percent of the vertebrate population between 1970 and 2016, and the wildlife population felling down by 84 percent. The planet is flashing a red flag, yet we have decided to stay blind towards it.
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Given the now seemingly ubiquitous presence of cities globally, it is difficult not to consider them as part of the problem. As centres for economic activities, cities are responsible for land use conversions, a significant contribution to GHGs emissions, pollution, and other associated problems. The gravity of the existing problem will further be exacerbated by climate changes, leading to the already lousy scenario towards a worst-case scenario. Also, with the realization that the cities are expected to grow in the coming future, it is futile to cast them as the problem. Instead, we need to give them an opportunity to identify as part of the solution.
To make cities part of the solution, we essentially need viable, sustainable solutions backed by the right choice of urban policies. A promising solution for the existing urban problems could be ‘Nature-based’ Solutions (NbS). The term is an umbrella term used for a range of solutions; like urban food gardens, green & blue infrastructure, and several others. These solutions have multiple benefits and can deliver climate action along with several economic and social benefits.
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For example, Singapore’s Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park model of how natural solutions can help implement a project at a much lower cost than traditional grey infrastructures. The project relied on a mix of blue and green infrastructure to redesign the canal and surroundings. The project resulted in multiple communities’ benefits and addressing the needs for flood benefits, increased biodiversity, and improved water quality. Projects like this help to enhance the resilience of the urban system towards multiple stressors.
Another viable urban solution could be growing miniature forests in the cities. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, about a quarter of the world’s land is degraded. In the last few decades, the increasing rate of urbanization has triggered faster land degradation. These degraded lands can, however, be restored as greener spaces. A successful way to do it could be using the Japanese Miyawaki method. The method is based on the work by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki. The Miyawaki method of afforestation involves the growing of a forest using native species. The grown forest can act as urban biodiversity hotspots and can support local biodiversity like butterflies.
After extolling these paragraphs about the benefits of a natural solution, scaling them has several challenges. The nature-based solutions and urban greens are increasingly recognized for their benefits; their implementation requires sustainable financing until the forest is mature enough to self-sustain. According to the report “State of Finance for Nature”, the NbS investment ought to triple by 2030 and increase fourfold by 2050 if we need to meet its climate change, biodiversity, and degradation targets. Another concern is that while the popularity of green solutions is increasing globally, most of the funding sources are limited to the early plantation of the species. The thought that the newly developed forest will require care during the initial growth period is ignored altogether.
Besides finance, what concerns me, even more, are our obsessions with trees. While I believe urban greens are an ardent part of the solutions to urban problems, it is not a silver bullet to all our worries. We must understand that plantations not backed with a scientific approach will do more harm to the local biodiversity. Alternatively, urban greens must be accompanied by other urban solutions to create better urban spaces.
Cities need mainstream planning with natural solutions as an integral part of their policies. These solutions will help the city breathe, look more lively, and beautiful. The birds in the backyard will sing again, louder than our morning alarms, the bees will do the bumble dance, and the vision of the landscape will change with the greens around. However, we must be willing to give them a chance, not in the hit of a moment, not as a ‘cool’ thing to do but as a necessary step to build a better today and resilient future. Do we have the boldness to leap?
If we care about our common future and the common future of our descendants, we should all in part be naturalists.– Professor Partha Dasgupta
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About the author
Tarun is an intersection environmentalist, working as a research assistant in Climate Change and Sustainable Development at Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), New Delhi.