Celebrating the biodiverse cities of the future this International Day for Biological Diversity

This article originally appeared on ICLEI Europe’s website.

Today, 22 May 2020, we celebrate International Day for Biological Diversity. For the year 2020, the day’s theme is ‘Our solutions are in nature’. This theme includes recognising the role of nature and biodiversity to address environmental and social challenges, and emphasises the need to regard humans as part of nature, rather than separate from it.

Cities across Europe and beyond are re-assessing the diverse roles of nature in the urban fabric, and striving towards not only protecting and conserving nature in cities, but also increasing, enhancing and bringing nature back into our urban areas for good.

This work requires support from national and European levels. As Parties to the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the EU and its Member States have adopted a series of strategies and action plans aimed at halting and reversing the loss of biodiversity. This includes the EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy, which was just replaced on 20 May 2020 by the latest EU Biodiversity Strategy that sets ambitious targets for urban biodiversity.

Nature-based solutions (NBS) also play a central role in current efforts to step-up these and other international commitments. Efforts will culminate in a new Global Biodiversity Framework to be adopted at the Convention on Biological Diversity CoP15 event, which has been postponed to 2021.


Biodiverse cities are the cities of the future

All cities across the globe have the potential to host rich biological diversity. In an article written by the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, Dr. Thomas Elmqvist, professor of natural resource management, explains, “Cities are often very rich in biodiversity, and that is because they were located in very rich areas, in floodplains and in low areas with high fertility. So, naturally, you would have very high diversity of plants and animals. Now, cities need to learn how to co-exist with that biodiversity.” But, what practical steps can cities take to do this?

A number of projects are taking Dr. Elmqvist’s words forward, supporting local governments to identify, preserve, co-exist with, and foster their rich biodiversity for the benefit of both the environment and for people. The CitiesWithNature platform enables cities and their partners to engage and connect over their shared commitment to recognise and enhance the value of nature in and around cities. In addition, ICLEI Europe leads the capacity-building UrbanByNature programme, which empowers local governments from across the world to harness the potential of nature for sustainable urban development.

These are but two examples of the capacity-building initiatives that are ensuring that, in the future, our cities are equipped to protect and embrace nature. But why protect urban nature? What benefits can cities actually see in their communities?


Barcelona: harnessing its natural heritage to benefit all

ICLEI Member Barcelona (Spain) is one example of a city deriving tangible benefits from enhancing its urban nature.

Barcelona is committed to preserving and transforming its green spaces into habitats for diverse flora and fauna. It aims to promote natural processes with a view towards supporting complex vegetation and optimising so-called “ecosystem services” – in other words, the benefits that people get from ecosystems. In Barcelona, these benefits include lowering air temperature by increasing shade and combatting the “heat island effect”, benefits to residents’ physical and mental health, economic benefits derived from tourism, and much more.

The city has rich natural heritage due to being surrounded by the Serra de Collserola mountain range, which brings with it habitats that are home to a diverse array of species. Barcelona has been working to promote a network of green corridors that connect the Collserola’s natural spaces, as well as the city’s coastline, with green spaces in its urban fabric. This facilitates the movement of species and supports biodiverse systems.

Furthermore, the Barcelona Biodiversity Atlas provides a set of maps showcasing some of the most relevant data on Barcelona’s biodiversity, including its parks, gardens, plant species that live there, street trees and the birds nesting in the city, in order to make this biodiversity more accessible for residents.

Barcelona has set a target of increasing urban green space by 1.6km2 by 2030. This will ensure that inhabitants have easier and more access to green space, and will be enhanced by various activities and events that bring residents closer to these natural areas. Some examples of such activities are the “How does Barcelona work” programme, with a thematic hub on “a greener city”, as well as the “Music in the Parks” festival, which makes the city’s green spaces the stage for music festivals, often alongside guided tours that raise public awareness of the environmental and heritage values of urban parks.

“We cannot underestimate the benefits of urban nature for our communities,” explains Toni Pujol Vidal, Environment Officer at Barcelona City Council’s Urban Ecology Directorate. “When we bring nature closer to people, we can see tangible positive impacts on residents’ physical health and mental wellbeing, not to mention the environment. We can mitigate urban heat, pollinators return to support Barcelona’s trees and flowers, and the city becomes an even more pleasant place to be.”

During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Barcelona is once more turning to urban nature as a tool to mitigate challenges. The city is giving free plants to its residents to grow on their balconies and in their homes. Barcelona is using these plants as a simple way to promote the wellbeing of its inhabitants, while also supporting the greening of residential urban spaces like balconies.

With its ample experience promoting urban biodiversity, Barcelona strives to lead by example, and inspire peers in the global community to learn from its experiences. Barcelona has, for example, signed on to the CitiesWithNature platform, to showcase and share its achievements in terms of work done on biodiversity and nature-based solutions over the past years, whilst continuing to set high ambitions for its future.


Interlinkages between urban biodiversity and nature-based solutions

It is clear that there is a lot to learn from nature and natural processes. Nature-based solutions provide a glimpse into the value of nature in our surroundings, and how nature can be an ally in tackling urban challenges.

Nature-based solutions provide a wide range of benefits for humans, including improving health and wellbeing, social cohesion, civic participation, and much more. NBS can also play a critical role in contributing to urban biodiversity when cities plan, design and implement these solutions while keeping biodiversity centrally in mind. According to the European Commission, “nature-based solutions must benefit biodiversity and support the delivery of a range of ecosystem services.”

Several international projects – such as CLEVER CitiesConnecting Nature and REGREEN – are dedicated to working with cities to increase their urban biodiversity via the introduction of nature-based solutions to diverse urban challenges.

“Nature-based solutions have become indispensable elements of urban planning to safeguard our natural environment, while providing important health services to inhabitants,” explains Holger Robrecht, Deputy Regional Director at ICLEI Europe. “They are at the heart of what makes our cities attractive and liveable, and hold significant potential to scale up the protection of biodiversity in urban areas. Linking the concepts of urban biodiversity and NBS will enable us to concentrate our efforts for vast positive impacts.”


Our solutions are in nature

This International Day for Biological Diversity, let’s celebrate the large number of local and subnational governments that are stepping up their efforts to mainstream biodiversity protection into policies, and are seeing NBS as a key method for moving this agenda forward.

Cities across the world are encouraged to join in this effort, and make use of the great network of capacity-building initiatives and knowledge-sharing opportunities to support them in this venture.

For more information and to join this movement, click here.