Is global finance about to back the greening of our cities?

By Jonny Hughes, WCMC Chief Executive Officer, UNEP-WCMC

Humanity’s future lies in cities. Currently, just over half of us live in urban areas – by 2050, three-quarters of the world’s population will be town and city dwellers.

Modern cities are too often disconnected from nature, yet so many of them were originally founded on hotspots of natural capital; water resources, fertile soils, rich biodiversity and safe access to the ocean. For millennia, human civilisations have grown up around these hotpots, transforming them into highly modified ecosystems as they grow. Very often this growth has come at the expense of the health of the underlying natural ecosystem that was the original source of wealth for the city. Rediscovering the original connections between cities and their natural foundations is the key to unlocking a more sustainable urban future – one where cities embrace nature and, in doing so, generate greater health and prosperity for their citizens. 

Investors and city mayors are beginning to wake up to this connection, and the substantial returns on investment that can flow from deploying nature-based solutions in the urban realm.

Last week, the BiodiverCities by 2030 initiative – a collaboration led by the World Economic Forum (WEF) – published a report which sought to quantify the economic benefits of investing in urban greening. The report is compelling, evidence-based and persuasive in making the case for substantial investment in nature-based solutions in urban centres across the world.

The report, called Transforming Cities’ Relationship with Nature, explores the interdependencies between cities and nature and suggests there are tentative signs that global financial flows are beginning to be directed towards investment in urban nature. It goes on to contrast the threat nature loss poses to economic productivity, setting out a strong economic rationale of nature-positive investment.

Erosion of natural capital in cities could reduce productivity by more than 40%but nature-based solutions – from green roofs and storm drain conversions to resurfacing buried urban rivers – are often half the price of “grey” infrastructure, yet deliver 28% more economic return – not including peripheral benefits such as improved well-being and job security. Despite this, nature-based initiatives receive just 0.3% of urban development spending.

The BiodiverCities vision is for cities to exist in harmony with nature by 2030. The report outlines a number of key conditions to achieve this harmonisation. These include ensuring nature reintegration is made a priority in urban planning and that civic leaders and development stakeholders recognise, champion and implement nature positive change.

The report also stresses the critical requirement to measure the state and trends of the components of urban nature – through use of indices such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) new Urban Nature Index – as well as the need for tools, frameworks and expertise to inform and incentivise financiers.

At UNEP-WCMC, we are already responding to many of the recommendations in the report including through an increasing focus on cities and urban areas as we deliver on our new organisational strategy.

In China, we are helping two cities to better understand their interdependencies with nature. Since 2017 we have worked with civic leaders of the provincial capital Chengdu to support maximising the city’s Green Belt ecological zone and measure the impact of its green infrastructure projects. Last year, we began work with one of the country’s largest cities, Shenzhen, quantifying the benefits and use of nature in urban planning. 

We very much hope the WEF report raises awareness of the need for more investment in greening cities. The case for such investment was already a powerful one on the grounds of the environmental and social benefits urban nature provides. With this report, we now have a clear and compelling economic case for investment too.

We look forward to continuing to play our part in helping businesses and city leaders fundamentally transform 21st century cities into places where people live in harmony with nature.  

Jonny Hughes is Chair of the IUCN Urban Alliance and a member of the BiodiverCities by 2030 expert Global Commission.

The new report “Transforming Cities’ Relationship with Nature” was produced by the WEF and the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute, with support from the government of Colombia, Arup International and AlphaBeta, as part of the BiodiverCities by 2030 initiative.

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