In partnership with UNEP

Biodiversity, a rich resource for cities and people

Chantal van Ham

Chantal van Ham, European Programme Officer, European Union Representative Office, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

17 July 2013 | Biodiversity, Cities & the Built Environment, Europe, North America

Sustainable urban development finds its foundation in maintaining and restoring our natural environment. Taking care of nature means taking care of life, for us and for future generations. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global union for a sustainable future, believes that nature should be at the centre of the green urban economy.


Nature is essential in maintaining our quality of life and a healthy environment. The continuous decline of biodiversity has serious consequences for human life and its protection and enhancement are essential for a sustainable future. We depend on biodiversity for food, health, natural resources and a range of ecosystem services such as air and water purification, soil fertility and plant pollination.

In a rapidly expanding urban world, the ecological aspects of urban planning and decision-making deserve to be an integral part of our society. While architects and designers are beginning to incorporate nature into their work, planners and policy-makers have lagged behind. Instead of an infrastructure agenda in which nature is a problem, a cost and a political risk, we can make nature part of the solution.

Some argue that an increasing human population and the pursuit of economic growth are incompatible with a sustainable urban future, but many good examples demonstrate that making nature part of daily life pays off. Homes with green views, for instance, sell at a premium compared with those in less green areas. The city of Basel in Switzerland invested 1 million Swiss francs in a green roof programme funded by a 5 per cent tax on energy bills. In just 10 years, one-quarter of the city’s flat roof areas were greened. The programme saves 4 Gigawatt-hours per year across Basel and significantly reduces the urban heat island effect. The life expectancy of the roofs has almost doubled and the roofs have become habitats for new species of insects and birds.

The nature of European cities

Many European cities host a surprisingly rich and diverse wildlife. As such, they have an important role to play in halting biodiversity loss. Brussels, for example, has more than 50 per cent of the floral species found in Belgium. Berlin is home to 22 habitats of global importance. The Île-de-France region, which surrounds Paris and is the most populated region in France, is home to 10,000 species of animals and 1,500 species of plants. Eighty per cent of the region is covered in forest, farmlands and unspoiled countryside.

There are an estimated 270 species of birds in New York City’s Central Park (pictured right), out of the 305 widely distributed bird species in North America. Even backyard gardens can harbour significant biodiversity: a study of 61 gardens in the city of Sheffield, UK, found 4,000 species of invertebrates and more than 1,000 species of plants.

The European Union Biodiversity strategy to 2020 provides key directions for Europe to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems services within the EU and beyond, as well as their restoration and awareness for the value of natural capital for human well-being and economic prosperity. José Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, confirms the vital role that cities will play in economic recovery and green growth. He calls on ‘all levels of government, including the regional and local authorities’ to deliver on the goals of the strategy. By 2020, it is estimated that 80 per cent of European population will live in urban areas. The quality of life in European cities is better than many others, and can therefore serve as a worldwide model.

Investing in nature offers an enormous potential for cost-effective solutionsto make cities more resilient to change. Biodiversity and ecosystems can help cities enhance quality of life, save money, strengthen the local economy and reduce the impacts of climate change.


Disturbing projections

During the 11th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP11), the Cities and Biodiversity Outlook – Action and Policy was presented. This is the first global assessment of the impact of urbanisation on biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Drawing on contributions from more than 120 scientists worldwide, it states that over 60 per cent of the land projected to become urban by 2030 has yet to be built upon. This is an astonishing figure. Urban expansion will place high pressure on global natural resources and will often consume prime agricultural land, with knock-on effects on biodiversity and ecosystem services elsewhere.


Natural solutions for urban areas

Quantifying the value of nature and ecosystems in both monetary and non-monetary terms and attaching qualitative values are important tools for mainstreaming ecological considerations into the management of a city. Unfortunately, the value of natural capital is not often appreciated by society, and until recently, few attempts have been made to quantify it. If we look a bit closer at some of these attempts the wealth of biodiversity immediately becomes clear.

Natural England estimates that if every household in England had good access to quality green space, around €2.5 billion could be saved every year in health costs.

Green spaces and green roofs can increase carbon storage and uptake. The economic value of the CO2 stored in 400.000 trees in Amsterdam is estimated to be worth €72,000 annually. A mature hardwood tree can provide for example the equivalent air conditioning benefits of ten air conditioning units.

Scientists at the Universities of Birmingham and Lancaster (UK) argue that by ‘greening up’ our streets a massive 30 per cent reduction in pollution could be achieved. Trees, bushes and other greenery growing in cities would deliver cleaner air at the roadside where most of us are exposed to the highest pollution levels, and could be implemented street-by-street without the need for large-scale and expensive initiatives. Plants in cities clean the air by removing nitrogen dioxide and microscopic particulate matter, both of which are harmful to human health. These pollutants are significant problems in cities in developed and developing countries: the UK Government Environmental Audit Committee estimates that outdoor air pollution causes 35,000-50,000 premature deaths per year in the UK, while the World Health Organization’s outdoor air quality database puts the figure at more than 1 million worldwide.

According to the World Bank and WWF, about one-third of the world’s largest cities obtain a significant proportion of their drinking water directly from forest protected areas. Well-managed natural forests almost always provide higher quality water, with less sediment and fewer pollutants, than water from other catchments. Sofia in Bulgaria, for example, relies for much of its water supply on sources originating from two mountain protected areas: the Rila and Vitosha National Park. These parks consist of coniferous and deciduous forests and are characterised by a rich botanical diversity.


Naturally sustainable design

The international community is more and more aware that sub-national and local governments have a crucial role in developing sustainable growth. They are considered guardians of natural resources because they set the local environment and development policies, are responsible for land use planning, and develop and manage infrastructure and construction standards.

Buildings should aim to be permeable to wildlife, and incorporate design that helps to sustain and increase particular species. Such measures will also play a significant role in helping to adapt to climate change. There are many approaches that can be included in the detailed design of development, to help achieve permeability – such as sustainable drainage schemes and green roofs and walls – and to provide habitats for various species, such as nesting spaces for bats and birds.

The UK Green Building Council Chief Executive Paul King has commented: “All too often our mindset is simply to reduce the negative impacts from construction and development. But it’s important to think about how we can actually increase positive impacts – for people, wildlife and the economy.”


Urban partnerships for biodiversity and ecosystem services

IUCN is part of the Urbanization, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (URBES) project, which bridges the knowledge gap on the role of urban biodiversity and ecosystem services for human well-being. It further aims to inform city planners and decision-makers on how to best integrate the natural environment and human needs. The URBES partnership started in 2012 and brings together leading academic institutions and international organisations from European countries and beyond and translates science into policy action for cities. URBES also aims to build the capacity of cities to adapt to climate change and reduce their ecological footprint.

Increased knowledge on the functioning and role that ecosystems play in ensuring human well-being can help to find and promote approaches to development that are based on nature-oriented, innovative solutions to meet human needs. These solutions can support sustainable urban planning, decision-making and accountability. They can also strengthen the interactions between experts and practitioners.

While pioneering urban ecosystems research, URBES will further explore monetary and non-monetary valuation as well as multi-criteria assessment techniques of urban ecosystem services and biodiversity. It will develop guidelines to enhance ecosystem service benefits in urban landscapes. It is also building the capacity of local authorities in Europe on sustainable management of natural resources. To achieve this, it is essential to strengthen the knowledge on the interaction between urbanised areas and the surrounding rural areas for their biodiversity and ecosystem services values.

The URBES project has analysed the climate regulation function of green infrastructure in four case study cities. The results of this study confirm that green infrastructure can significantly reduce the urban heat island effect – the increased temperature of the urban atmosphere compared with its rural surroundings.

The Green Capital of Europe 2012, the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz in the Spanish Basque country, presents an excellent model for greening the urban environment. The city’s ‘green belt’ around the city, which was partially reclaimed from degraded areas such as a former municipal airport, offers many values to citizens, who are all a short walk away from large natural areas. The green belt, developed over the years, is a network of green spaces and natural habitat that circles the city and it is an important local ecological network, supporting a wide range of wildlife. It also provides the city with multiple benefits, including recreational options, air and water regulation, and educational opportunities. The current efforts to connect the biodiversity of this outer green belt with a new interior green belt within the city itself underline once again how the powerful message of Vitoria-Gasteiz, ‘Where green is capital’, is being turned into reality.


Green spaces in Helsinki

Helsinki, located in one of the fastest growing urban regions in Europe, offers a good example of regional green space planning as it has extended its old growth forest at the city’s edge to its centre. The city has a set of clearly defined and diverse management objectives including the conservation of biological diversity in forests.

While 700 hectacres are devoted to natural preservation, the resulting 300 are for the citizens to actively occupy and use. Depending on the area and season, a variety of recreational activities are available.



Investing in nature

The way we design and plan urban development determines our future global sustainability. The examples above demonstrate that investments in nature are an effective way to improve the quality of life of urban citizens profoundly, while reducing the ecological footprint. The incentives range from cost-effective water provision to greater tourism revenues, lower healthcare costs, increased energy efficiency and reduced climate impacts.

IUCN is committed to mobilise the biodiversity conservation expertise of its large network and exchange best practices to help local and regional authorities develop natural solutions for a truly sustainable urban future.

Chantal van Ham

Chantal van Ham

Chantal van Ham is European Programme Officer in the European Union Representative Office of IUCN. She is responsible for IUCNs activities on urban biodiversity in Europe. She develops and coordinates projects for biodiversity and ecosystems services conservation, restoration and valuation that help European urban policy-makers and cities find nature-based solutions for sustainable growth, by mobilising IUCN knowledge and best practices. Before joining IUCN, she worked as Finance Specialist with PricewaterhouseCoopers in the Netherlands. She has a degree in International Business and an MSc in Forest and Nature Conservation Policy. Chantal is passionate about nature and perceives the exchange with people from different professional and cultural backgrounds as an enriching and inspiring starting point for sustainable change.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

The IUCN helps the world find pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges. IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organisation, with more than 1,200 government and NGO members and almost 11,000 volunteer experts in some 160 countries. IUCN’s work is supported by over 1,000 staff in 45 offices and hundreds of partners in public, NGO and private sectors around the world. IUCN offers its knowledge and know-how in nature and natural resource management as a contribution to addressing some of the biggest challenges of our time.