Notes from the Field

Urban Ecology Reconnects Humans with Nature

April 16, 2014

Last month, China unveiled its grand urbanization plan to increase the number of people living in cities to 60 percent, or around 100 million additional people, by 2020. In fact, China’s migration plan reflects a global trend: right now, about half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and that number is expected to rise to 70 percent by 2050, according to UN predictions. Many of these urban residents have minimal access to green spaces, and fewer people than ever have connection to the ecosystems and biodiversity on which all life depends. Rapid development, especially across cities in Asia, is leading to the destruction of natural assets and threatening to dispel the vital relationship between nature and humanity.

There are few densely populated cities in the world today that can claim a better record of integrating natural environments into the urban experience than Singapore’s “City in the Garden” model. Photo/Flickr user Jamie Carter http://bit.ly/1l3OUr8

There are few densely populated cities in the world today that can claim a better record of integrating natural environments into the urban experience than Singapore’s “City in the Garden” model. Photo/Flickr user Jamie Carter http://bit.ly/1l3OUr8

An emerging positive trend, however, is the unprecedented priority given in recent years to urban development that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s patterns and strategies. Known as biomimicry or biophilic cities, the core idea is that nature, innovative by necessity, when in balance is able to innately adapt and respond to shocks – and that animals, plants, and microbes can act as expert engineers providing city planners with ecological solutions to urban development challenges. Proponents of biophilic cities emphasize the importance of good governance in greening initiatives, with a focus on taking into equal account all species impacted by urbanism and equal access to ecological benefits in development plans. In these types of cities, green space does not deteriorate at the expense of economic and population growth.

Global collaborative research, dialogue, and policy work on biomimicry and biophilic cities, led by the front-runner Biophilic Cities Project out of the University of Virginia, aims to identify obstacles to achieving best practices in ecologically balanced urban planning. As opposed to other more well-known terms such as “eco-cities, green cities, and sustainable cities” that focus on the balance between consumption and waste, research into biophilic cities specifically looks at indicators that evaluate interaction between humans and nature, including: the percentage of population within a few hundred feet of a green space, percentage of city land covered by vegetation, number of green design features (i.e. rooftop gardens, use of solar energy, and water run-off systems), average portion of the day spent outside by residents, number of trips made on foot, percent of residents who can identify local flora and fauna, and priority given to nature conservation by local government.

There are few densely populated cities in the world today that can claim a better record of integrating natural environments into the urban experience than Singapore’s “City in the Garden” model. With 5.3 million residents living on 700 square kilometers of 63 islands, maintaining ecological balance and equal access to green spaces took five decades of coordinated planning on behalf of Singapore’s Ministry of National Development, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Land Transport Authority, Public Utilities Board, Housing Development Board, and the National Parks Board. These efforts include adding green walls and green rooftops on high-rise buildings, establishing city-wide park connector networks in the form of elevated canopy paths, transforming waterways for recreational use, supporting community gardens and green schools, and documenting a comprehensive marine and bird biodiversity inventory. Satellite images of environmental change also show that while the city’s population increased 68 percent (by 2 million people) between 1986 and 2007, the green area percentage of the island actually increased as well, from 36 percent to 47 percent during the same period.

Another important element of ecological urbanism is that biodiversity conservation in cities doesn’t just make people happier, but also has significant impact on increasing urban resiliency to climate change. On a visit to Sri Lanka last week, I spoke with the Department of Town and Country Planning at the University of Moratuwa about their research work with UN-HABITAT to address climate change impacts for the densely-populated, narrow coastal urban areas around Batticaloa in the country’s Eastern Province. In 2012, the two organizations developed an adaptation action plan for the coastal urban areas of Sri Lanka, which included working with stakeholders in the Batticaloa Municipal Council and local Urban Development Authority to develop and implement a multi-purpose green belt re-design along a 12km stretch of coastline in Batticaloa that was badly damaged during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The green belt plan includes afforestation efforts, mangrove and biodiversity conservation, as well as restrictions on industrial and residential development. It acts to protect the province’s lagoon and coastal areas from future ecological degradation and natural disasters (mostly from high winds, storm surges, and erosion), but also provides a serene recreational area for local residents and visitors. The project documented the municipal councils’ implementation experiences and shared best practices through a series of local community, provincial, and national consultations supported by the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Local Government, provincial councils, and the national Urban Development Authority, so that other coastal urban areas could learn from their biophilic approach to building climate change resiliency.

These examples demonstrate that although both Singapore and Batticaloa have high population densities, nature still plays an important socio-functional role in their urban designs. It is urgent that the region ramps up innovative green approaches to city planning and governance such as these, especially considering the rapid rate and poor quality of urbanization currently happening throughout low – and middle-income countries in Asia. Restoring ecosystem services and promoting biodiversity is not only essential to creating a “soul” for a city, but could also help save hundreds of thousands of lives in climate-vulnerable and disaster-prone urban areas.

Kourtnii S. Brown is a program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Environment Programs in San Francisco. She can be reached at kourtnii.brown@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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