Climate Innovation Summit // 2017

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Bringing nature back into cities can be done through integrated planning

Urbanisation has become a hallmark of the modern world. As we so often hear, more than 75 per cent of the global population will live in cities by 2030.

This pace and scale of urbanisation is transforming landscapes: metros run where rivers once meandered, motorways have replaced tracts of forest, and tall buildings increasingly cast their shadow. Glittering skyscrapers and the glow of city lights may have come to symbolise progress, but in the face of climate change, masses of glass, concrete, tarmac and paving can render the city a hostile place. Sweltering temperatures, urban heat islands, impermeable surfaces, swollen drains, flooding and air pollution all pose severe threats to the health and stability of our cities and towns.

Around the world, communities are increasingly feeling the impact of this. Readers will no doubt remember the Indian city of Valsat’s melting roads during an ongoing heatwave last year; or the devastating winter floods that left more than 5,000 Cumbrian homes submerged when Storm Desmond deposited a record month’s worth of rain in just one day in 2015.

The simple truth is we can’t keep building bigger tunnels or covering over surfaces in ways that encourage downstream flooding, suffocate biodiversity and cause our cities to overheat. The solution is to re-introduce nature back into our cities. There are many drivers for this. An increasingly mobile global workforce is looking for high quality, healthy urban environments – resource-efficient, climate-friendly infrastructure, green space and clean air.

A big part of our work here at Climate-KIC is developing novel solutions for cities and the urban environment. We believe that integrating nature into urban development offers vital restorative potential and can deliver attractive world class urban environments. It’s really heartening to see a growing number of projects around Europe with this aim at their core. Manchester’s City of Trees, for instance, is looking to plant three million trees over the next 25 years as part of a move to green the region, improve air quality and explore flood management.

Pocket parks, trees as shading and cooling, and natural drainage systems all have highly desirable environmental benefits, and offer ways to engage communities. But, making the economic case to planners and developers is not always easy. While cities have the talent, knowledge and ambition to make this transition, putting this holistic perspective into practice is an entirely different matter. It involves transition from old ways of perceiving nature in our cities – as costly maintenance or nuisance – to really articulating the myriad value of lower life cycle costs, enhanced property values, and improved health.

One of the long-term projects we’ve been working on is Blue Green Solutions. It’s now at a point where, with our partner Imperial College London, we’ve consolidated nearly three years of research to get past this stumbling block. What’s remarkable about the approach we’ve developed is an alternative holistic planning framework that considers city functions at the systems level, quantifying both the tangible and non-tangible performance of nature-based solutions.

It’s been a long-haul, but 13 Pan-European pilots are now demonstrating some promising results. Zagreb University Campus, for instance, shows how integrating trees and natural cooling and heating systems into planning at the master level, resulted in a near-zero-energy campus, with overall energy savings of 68 per cent for heating, 92 per cent for cooling and 60 per cent for electricity.

Armed with this evidence, we’re setting out to challenge the status quo. As biomimicry expert and architect Michael Pawlyn says, “if we can learn to do things the way nature does, we could achieve factor ten, factor 100, or maybe even factor 1,000 savings in resource and energy use”. Urbanisation might be the hallmark of today, but by scaling and integrating nature-based solutions, the blue green city can be the hallmark of tomorrow.

Sean Lockie is the director of Urban Transitions at Climate-KIC. He has been working with Dr Maarten van Reeuwijk, Imperial College London, to bring Blue Green Solutions, the nature-based urban planning project, to scale.

You can hear Dr Maarten van Reeuwijk speak at the Climate Innovation Summit parallel session "Greening the City" at 15.30 on Monday 30 October.

Bringing nature back into cities through urban planning, materials and nature-inspired design can support both adaptation and mitigation.

Here we introduce one nature-based urban planning approach that considers the city at a systems level

Take part in the discussions with expert speakers such as Michael Pawlyn from Exporation Architecture and Dr Maarten van Reeuwijk from Blue Green Solutions

Join us at the Climate Innovation Summit for the parallel session, Greening the City

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