Humphrey School News—January 14, 2019

Creating Livable Cities: Implementing Urban Nature-Based Solutions

Social factors, along with ecological and infrastructure constraints, determine where and when nature leads to improved health and well-being of city-dwellers

Two out of every three people will live in urban areas by 2050. In a new Nature Sustainability review article, a team of researchers from six different institutions explore how urban nature can affect the health and well-being of city-dwellers. Urban areas face complex challenges that require creative, cost-effective solutions. The benefits and services that nature provides to people can help solve many of these challenges, but only under the right conditions. The report reviews and synthesizes the most up-to-date research on where urban nature can provide what kinds of benefits, and to whom.

The research team—consisting of scientists from the University of Minnesota, The New School, The University of Washington, McGill University, The Nature Conservancy, and Stanford University’s Woods Institute on the Environment, consider the many social, ecological, and technological contexts that help determine the benefits of urban nature in cities worldwide. "When our team started reviewing past work on urban ecosystem services, we saw a real need to better understand where and when nature delivers benefits in cities. Nature-based solutions—urban trees, rain gardens, et cetera—are being deployed at an accelerating pace without recognition of the key contextual factors that affect the success of these efforts," said Humphrey School Assistant Professor Bonnie Keeler, lead author of the article.  

The review focuses on ten key urban ecosystem services, including air quality, water supply, recreational opportunities, and mental health. The main finding is that context is key: the same approach can have varying effects in different areas and with different groups of people. "For example, street trees can either improve or degrade local air quality in cities, depending on where they’re planted relative to sources of pollution. Rain gardens and stormwater retention devices work differently in cities with separated versus combined sewer systems," Keeler explained.

The authors summarized their findings in a series of research briefs, included as supplemental materials, designed to be used by practitioners interested in implementing nature-based solutions in their cities. "The emphasis on practical guidance for planners and policy-makers makes this contribution unique," said Keeler. “In addition to an academic summary, we included short reviews for each service designed illustrate the practical implications of the latest research.”

Equity also plays a critical role in determining where to implement nature-based solutions. "Historically, urban nature has been deployed in ways that privileges some residents over others—leading to big discrepancies in terms of who benefits from urban nature," Keeler explained. The authors emphasize the importance of considering social context, cultural preferences, and community voices in the prioritization and planning of urban nature.

This emphasis on a tailored, local approach that considers multiple factors is different from what’s been done in the past. Instead of focusing on single goals like mitigating air pollution or reducing carbon emissions, this synthesis suggests that city planners could benefit from  investing in understanding the diverse contributions nature provides to people across all contexts in their particular city. The researchers also call for more urban ecosystem services studies be done in the Global South and in lower-income countries, to add essential contexts that are currently missing in the current body of research. With this knowledge, leaders can make strategic decisions that deliver the greatest impact, maximizing nature’s value where it matters most.

This piece was adapted from a press release originally published by the Natural Capital Project. 

Read the full article in Nature Sustainability

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