Weaving an Equitable and Sustainable Urban Fabric

An Update on NatCap’s Livable Cities Program

By Marie Donahue | October 2017

Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/

Supporting the development of livable cities has been a core component of NatCap’s strategic engagement and research in recent years, and for good reason. With rapid population growth in cities and expanding urban footprints, there is no shortage of demand for relevant science, approaches, and tools that improve our understanding of the role nature plays in improving the livability and sustainability of cities worldwide.

This demand comes from within and across cities. Within cities, residents from local communities and urban planners working for municipalities often need to make a strong case for investing in—and not paving over—nature. These groups and others within cities require information about the net benefits of nature-based solutions like street trees or bioswales and the diverse co-benefits these “green infrastructure” strategies provide as part of the urban fabric, when compared to grey infrastructure. Looking across cities, both multinational organizations, such as the UN-Habitat program, Inter-American Development Bank or Asian Development Bank, and global networks of cities themselves, including 100 Resilient Cities, ICLEI, and C40 Cities, need information and tools on best practices and approaches to prioritize and direct resources in support of cities’ sustainable development or resilience goals.

That’s where NatCap’s Livable Cities Program comes in—to help meet this demand. Over the last several years, NatCap researchers have nurtured a keen interest in addressing the needs and information gaps of cities related to nature-based solutions across these different scales and sectors by pushing the frontiers of science and decision-making support. Our team has drawn on lessons learned from over a decade of previous work on the topic of ecosystem services and a growing network of partners and portfolio projects in cities across the globe.

Under the leadership of Bonnie Keeler (University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment) and Perrine Hamel (Stanford University) with support from core partners including Rob McDonald (The Nature Conservancy), NatCap is steadily building a robust Livable Cities team with expertise in urban ecology, urban ecosystem services, planning, design, and resilience.

“Our vision,” says Keeler, “is to take the same science-based approach NatCap has developed for rural landscapes and use this knowledge to inform conservation and development decisions in urban areas. Cities are where the connections between people and nature have real and immediate consequences for health and wellbeing, so there’s a great opportunity for NatCap to expand our impact.”

A member of the Cities team, Maike Hamann, began a new post-doc with NatCap this year to advance a goal, shared by NatCap and TNC, to create a compelling, evidence-based visualization tool for urban leaders that depicts where and when nature provides benefits in cities.

“Personally, I am studying the value of nature in cities because I spent much of my adult life in one of the most biodiverse yet unequal cities in the world—Cape Town, South Africa,” Hamann says as she explains the motivation behind her research. “Living in a city like Cape Town means being confronted in a very visceral way by the many different forces that drive and influence nature and people. I’m hoping our work will enhance and shape our understanding of how cities can harmonize the sometimes competing objectives of their residents and the environment.”

Increased capacity at NatCap has allowed our Livable Cities program to expand its reach and research with an emphasis on three major activities that drive the team’s work: building software tools and capacity to support green infrastructure planning, assessing the equity and distribution of urban ecosystem services, and supporting our partners’ implementation of approaches and policies to nature-based solutions that build more livable cities.

Natural Capital Project’s Working Vision for the Livable Cities Program. A draft overview developed by the Livable Cities team is also available (updated in August 2017).

With these in mind, our team has embarked on a number of projects exploring nature in cities to-date, from Minneapolis-St. Paul and the San Francisco Bay metropolitan regions in the United States to Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen in China, with aspirations to expand and accelerate our work in other cities through new partnerships.

“The questions around integrated urban planning, resilient cities, smart cities, and other urban sustainability concepts are shared by thousands of professionals and researchers worldwide, and we are finding the right partners to increase the impact of our research,” notes Hamel, acknowledging how much relevant work in understanding the benefits of nature-based solutions has been done and yet is still left to do. Hamel leads the Livable Cities team’s model and tool development initiative called Urban InVEST, a new direction for NatCap’s well-known InVEST suite of ecosystem services models currently suitable for more rural contexts.

In addition to developing new tools, the Livable Cities program is making a concerted effort to engage with and empower vulnerable and marginalized community partners in urban areas to envision the sustainable, environmental futures they want and need.

“Our work on cities also allows us to more explicitly address issues of social justice and equity in the management and prioritization of nature-based solutions than we have in the past,” explains Keeler. “The planning of green spaces and allocation of resources in cities can have unintended consequences if researchers aren’t careful about understanding existing landscapes of inequality,  with an awareness of the importance of social dimensions of sustainability, including power, access to resources and influence, governance and representation.” Keeler believes that lessons learned from explicitly exploring urban nature through a lens of equity will push the frontier of NatCap’s work in more rural contexts, as well.

Through a diverse set of toolkits, engagement approaches, and projects, the Livable Cities team will keep exploring the evidence of where and why nature matters in cities and work to keep cities from taking that nature for granted.

“After all, urban nature—whether it is yards, parks, or street trees—may be most people’s only contact with the natural world,” predicts Keeler, particularly as the world’s population in cities continues to expand.

Marie Donahue is a Program Manager with the NatCap team at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment