Nature-based solutions (NBS) offer multiple benefits to address urban sustainable-development problems, especially related to climate change and biodiversity loss. However, NBS implementation in cities still faces barriers.
This study identifies key interventions – or ‘stepping stones’ – for promoting NBS use in cities. In combination, these can form pathways to normalise and ‘mainstream’ (or integrate) NBS in urban settings.
Working with nature for sustainability has gained wider attention globally through use of nature-based solutions, such as protecting ecosystem services, alongside new infrastructure developments. NBS are multifunctional and have potential to address many socio-economic and environmental goals. However, despite their benefits they are not yet implemented on a widespread basis in cities, due to a variety of barriers. As such there is global impetus to mainstream NBS, say the researchers.
The researchers focused on normalising NBS use in urban areas and reviewed existing practice in European cities, proposing a new approach to promote the use of NBS to deliver multiple sustainability goals simultaneously.
The researchers explored three domains related to urban NBS: regulatory, financial and urban development. They conducted case studies on six countries – United Kingdom (UK), Germany, Hungary, Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands – and on the European Union (EU). The literature analysis, interviews and a participant-observation placement1 informed 21 working papers. Using these papers, the research team identified key interventions, with many overlapping interventions across the three domains. These were further tagged into 20 generic categories, termed stepping stones – considered pivotal for increasing the uptake of NBS.
The next step was to analyse the ability of stepping stones to specifically solve climate-change and biodiversity challenges, individually and together. For climate change, the researchers focused on NBS’ effects on mitigation and adaptation, whereas for biodiversity they concentrated on conservation, restoration and nature’s contribution to people – the latter flagged in the first draft of the UN’s Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.
The researchers found ten stepping stones which had potential to aid mainstreaming NBS for a joint response to climate change and biodiversity. These were:
- aligning NBS with urban strategic priorities – for example, emphasising how those NBS with climate benefits could benefit a city’s health goals – e.g. the Netherlands’ Environmental and Planning Act emphasises health promotion and protection as a key pillar of spatial planning, aligning NBS that have climate benefits for the health goals, emphasising their benefits through supporting recreation, social interaction, mental wellbeing and absorbing pollutants;
- generating partnerships between public, private and NGOs – for example Barcelona’s Urban Ecology Directorate was established to bring together different departments (Environment, Planning and Mobility) for policymaking, and to create the city’s climate-change plans, in which urban greening plays an important role;
- creating intermediaries to work across different sectors – such as the ‘Unburdening Arrangement’ established by the Netherlands’ building-agenda policy programme which incentivises individual actions on implementing nature-based solutions towards urban sustainability by organising single contact points to coordinate implementations of sustainability solutions;
- improving data and monitoring to prove the effectiveness of NBS – this can be led by banks or insurance firms and other businesses;
- advancing valuation models to estimate the cost of an NBS project – for example the ‘Green Benefit Planner’ (GroeneBaten Planner), a valuation tool developed in the Netherlands, providing an estimate of the monetary value associated with NBS, increasing consideration of NBS in investment decisions;
- establishing demonstration projects to showcase the workings of NBS – for example, in response to flooding, the UK Environment Agency invested in a large project in natural flood management, complementing existing expertise in grey infrastructure engineering;
- providing a public mandate – e.g. through tender and procurement policies – such as Stockholm’s ‘Green Space Factor’ which stipulates a certain proportion of green space in new development projects;
- providing economic incentives– such as Hamburg’s green roof subsidies;
- building co-finance arrangements– such as the local crowdfunding platform created in the Netherlands for financing local NBS;
- developing practitioner expertise – such as the Federal Government of Germany’s Green and White Paper on urban green spaces.
In relation to climate change, the researchers also suggest an additional two stepping stones – stimulating institutional investment for risk reduction to direct both public and private funds towards NBS, and engaging the insurance sector to tap into their risk reduction needs and damage cost expertise. While individually these stepping stones had constraints, say the researchers, implementing several of the interventions simultaneously – such as stimulating institutional investment for risk reduction alongside providing evidence via valuation models – can form promising pathways to mainstream NBS for urban climate governance.
Mainstreaming NBS for biodiversity shared the same ten stepping stones as climate change, however, there were a few exceptions:
- regulating for no net loss, e.g. the proposed biodiversity net gain policy in the UK requires developers to achieve a net 10% biodiversity gain;
- including NBS for biodiversity in contractual agreements – to encourage or demand utilities, and network service providers, to work with nature in their infrastructure development;
- integrating NBS into green certification schemes, e.g. the German Sustainable Building council, DGNB (Deutsche Gesellschaf für Nachhaltiges Bauen), incentivising the adoption of NBS by developers in designing and managing buildings.
When combined, the researchers suggest these interventions can forge catalytic pathways to mainstream NBS for biodiversity. For example, they suggest combining the following: aligning NBS with strategic priorities to make use of dedicated resources and capacity, creating intermediaries to work across stakeholder groups and generating partnerships to aid co-ordinated efforts, whilst also improving data and monitoring to provide evidence of the multifunctionality of NBS – thus creating a mainstreaming pathway for urban NBS in biodiversity governance.
The researchers suggest that policymakers can apply NBS to address urban sustainability challenges – by identifying which stepping-stones align with their particular context they can build pathways towards the most transformative goals.
News published on European Commission
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