We now live in the global urban age – but one also marked by a series of interrelated environmental challenges and risks, particularly arising from anticipated climate change. For much of the 20th century, planners have viewed ‘urban’ and ‘nature’ as opposite ends of the spectrum, with nature often associated with the countryside and landscape, serving as a backdrop to urbanisation. In this way, nature was preserved or protected but planning for natural capital was largely separated from urban development.
In recent years, there has been increased attention given to understanding the potential avenues for planning to deliver ecologically sound outcomes through examining the intersection between ecosystem approaches and spatial planning frameworks which considers the city in terms of a social-ecological system. While greater recognition has been given to thinking about spatial planning as an activity inherently concerned with social-ecological interactions, limited attention has been given to addressing the principles of ecologically sound spatial planning and how these may be translated into practice through the procedures employed in the formulation and implementation of policies designed to stimulate practical interventions. One way to address this deficit is through the concept of nature-based solutions and green infrastructure.
Phoenix Park, Dublin. Photo credit: Robert Lawro/Flickr.
Nature-based solutions have emerged as a concept that may be employed to operationalise an ecosystem services based approach within spatial planning policies and practices to fully integrate the ecological dimension alongside traditional planning concerns. This approach moves beyond traditional site-based approaches of ‘protect and preserve’ towards a more holistic ecosystems approach, which includes not only protection but also enhancing, restoring, creating and designing new ecological networks characterised by multi functions and connectivity, and importantly seeks to connect nature and the city.
In this context, nature-based solutions have emerged as the latest term to reimagine the relationship between nature and the city. In a recent European Commission publication, Nature-based Solutions and Re-naturing Cities (2015), it is defined simply as ‘actions which are inspired by, supported by or copied from nature’ and therefore encapsulates inter alia green infrastructure, blue infrastructure and biomimicry as urban design and planning tools for ecologically sensitive urban development. The EC publication outlines four interrelated goals for a nature-based approach, namely: enhancing sustainable urbanisation; improving the restoration of degraded ecosystems; developing climate change adaptation and mitigation; and improving risk management and resilience.
Therefore, nature-based solutions applied at the urban scale emphasize multifunctionality in terms of services and functions to include drainage management, habitat provision, ecological connectivity, health and well-being, recreational space, energy reduction and climate change mitigation and adaptation. This suggests a range of scalar interventions, from the design of city-wide ecological networks to local multifunctional urban parks providing recreational functions and cooling/flood alleviation services, and micro-scale design including streetscapes designed to retain water (e.g. rain gardens, roadside bioswale) and the integration of living systems with built systems such as green walls and green roofs to reduce heat stress.
These themes are addressed in the latest Planning Theory and Practice Interface (free of access) with a collection of papers from academics and practitioners exploring nature-based solutions and the implementation of green infrastructure within spatial planning. These include the tensions between promoting compact urban forms and urban form which incorporates ecological thinking, and the potential of converting brownfield sites to greenspaces particularly in communities vulnerable to climate change. One of the contributions outlines the experience of a local planning authority promoting green infrastructure as the key integrative concept within its most recent spatial plans to protect, enhance and manage green infrastructure as a strategic resource – an approach that recognises that the creation of a connected and multi-functional green infrastructure will yield economic and social benefits as well as the more obvious environmental benefits.
As we live in an ever more urbanised world, incorporating natural capital into urban development provides one approach to enhance the resilience of our cities while also providing a key resource for enhancing biodiversity and allowing urban citizens to reconnect with nature for enhanced well-being and quality of urban living.
Mark Scott is Professor of Planning in the School of Architecture, Planning & Environmental Policy, University College Dublin. His main research interests relate to planning for natural capital and green infrastructure, rural planning, and built heritage. Twitter: @marksco_envplan