Nature-based solutions generate greener urban renewal

by Caleb Davis

While nature is good for the body and mind, nature-based solutions are being adopted in urban renewal projects to mitigate the effects of climate change and create healthier communities.

Long lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic have provided us with a reminder of the restorative power of nature for body and mind. However, reconnecting people with nature, particularly in cities, has been the focus of many European research projects long before the outbreak of COVID-19 nearly three years ago.

These projects use solutions from nature to address fundamental economic, environmental, health and social challenges in an effort to improve urban living conditions in general. They are bringing together European cities to chart paths towards a more sustainable social and economic system and improved welfare.

Take Dortmund in Germany, Turin in Italy, and Zagreb in Croatia. It is part of a project to add biodiversity-rich greenery to urban areas and create economically beneficial environmental resources.

“It’s not just about planting a tree,” said Dr. Axel Tempe from RWTH Aachen University in Germany. “It’s building a living system that produces productive output.”

He is coordinating the proGIreg project, which addresses the challenge of post-industrial renewal by establishing living laboratories in urban areas.

Dortmund, located in the heart of Germany’s industrial Rhine-Ruer region, was once a center for the steel industry. Turin, in the shadow of the Alps, is home to the world’s largest one-time car factory in Lingotto, now largely deserted. Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, used to have the world’s largest pig farm and a huge sausage-making factory – both of which no longer exist.

While their manifestations, geography, and history differ, the three cities face some similar challenges. These areas lack green spaces of high quality, and suffer from social and economic disadvantages.

urban agriculture

In this context, one of the objectives of the project was to turn the landfill in Dortmund into a park. This area is cleaned and planted with trees, while solar panels are used to generate energy and cultivate wildflower lawns.

The project also promotes urban agriculture with a special focus on fish and plants – a food production system known as aquaponics. This combination of fish farming (aquaculture) and growing plants without soil (hydroponics) uses less space than conventional farming.

Plants are fed with nutrient-rich aquaculture water in an ancient form of food production that has found a new role to play in urban areas. By working with local citizens, the project’s aquaculture systems make local food production more economically viable.

The city of Turin has given land to volunteers to open an urban farm in a post-industrial area, where a range of activities are being carried out, according to Dr Tempe.

Volunteers rent land for people to use as gardens and hydroponics is used to grow high-quality herbs for local restaurants. There is a garden for the disabled. Cooking and gardening classes are offered there as well.

“The whole thing is also a business,” said Dr. Tempe. “The volunteers who run this now make a living from it, and they have a convenience store on site as well.”

Nature recruiting

The overall goal of such projects is to make our cities better places to live through “nature-based solutions” – or NBS (see box below). This means enlisting nature to confront the greatest threats of our time – including threats to food, water, biodiversity, human health, the economy and the climate.

The classic example of NBS use is the planting of tropical trees known as mangroves along the coasts of Papua New Guinea to protect them from erosion. Another example is the installation of green roofs in Malmö, Sweden, which are used to cool buildings in the summer and prevent heat loss in the winter, and an open sewage system, biodiversity-rich ponds and flood areas, which helps improve drainage to mitigate flood risks.

Researchers look beyond technical solutions, addressing challenging questions such as the role of local communities in the design and implementation of NBS and how best to bring together multiple nature-based solutions.

Together with Dortmund, Turin and Zagreb in their leading roles, proGIreg is working with several affiliated cities to build on the lessons learned so far. These are Cascais in Portugal, Cluj-Napoca in Romania, Piraeus in Greece and Zenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Dr. Timpe and his team are producing a catalog of business models that can help local residents keep activities going.

Social focus

Another project to develop nature-based solutions is called URBiNAT, which is initially working with three cities including Sofia (Bulgaria), Nantes (France) and Porto (Portugal).

URBiNAT has a particularly strong social focus. At a later stage, Brussels in Belgium, Siena in Italy, Hujje Tastrup in Denmark, Nova Gorica in Slovenia and elsewhere are due to join. People who live on the outskirts of these places often lack good jobs and have high rates of truancy.

“They often also feel very disconnected from the city in which they live,” said Dr Gonzalo Canto Muniz, of the University of Coimbra’s Center for Social Studies in Portugal, speaking of community residents. He coordinates URBiNAT with Isabel Ferreira, Natalie Nunes and Beatriz Caetana.

“There is no sense of belonging.”

Their project seeks to expand the concept of NBS so that it also takes into account human nature. Concretely, this means developing things like local markets, where the focus is not so much on planting trees and plants as on promoting a sense of community. They also find ways to combine nature and social, such as a conservatory that also serves as an outdoor classroom.

URBiNAT creates NBS in coordination with local residents but is distinguished by the way NBS groups together. The thinking here is that by attaching NBS to a specific area, it amplifies the positive effects.

healthy corridors

Dr. Canto Muniz and his team drew inspiration from the concept of “green corridors” which are areas of land returned to nature where animals and insects can move unimpeded. They wanted to explore what they called the “health corridor” to connect disadvantaged neighborhoods. So far, the project has created a full-scale NBS catalog – from community gardens to green walls – in pilot cities.

Air technology is used to gather evidence of the results. Drones with thermal imaging cameras will be deployed to determine how much of the newly planted trees and other green spaces have lowered street-level temperatures. Surveys conducted with local residents will compare their social and economic well-being before and after the NBS is put in place.

The projects of Dr. Canto Muniz and Dr. Tempe started in 2018 and will conclude next year although there are no deadlines for the NSO.

“They’re here to stay,” Dr. Tempe said.

The research in this article was funded by the European Union. This article was originally publishedIn sightEuropean Union Journal of Research and Innovation.

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