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The Nature City: How to preserve biodiversity by evolving the built environment

Biodiversity – the variety of plants, animals and other organisms – is the foundation of human health. The continuing loss of biodiversity therefore represents a direct threat to our health and wellbeing. By growing momentum for a ‘nature in the city’ approach to planning and design, we have the collective power to rise to these challenges.

Sustainability Insights

One of the consequences of climate change is the loss of biodiversity, which has also had a damaging effect on human health and wellbeing. Traditionally, nature conservation has been put into practice outside cities. But cities are actually part of the answer. Here we look at a number of ways the built environment can play a central role in preserving – and even enhancing – biodiversity.

Once we pay more attention to connecting the rural biodiversity hotspots to urban ones and mimic the natural environments in urban areas, cities can be the key to increasing biodiversity and bring many opportunities to support well-being. Our land use and infrastructure planning and execution should take a more holistic approach to urban design.

What is biodiversity and why is it important?

On our way to carbon-neutral and citizen-friendly urbanisation, we should try to save vegetation and soil when and wherever possible, create new habitats inside our cities that are maintained in optimum condition through as series of nature-sensitive maintenance techniques and Nature-based Solutions, restore habitats where needed, use permeable surfaces in construction, and get citizens involved in planning and taking care of their environment.

Urban planning on all scales can influence how people and communities experience and understand biodiversity and ecosystem services. That is, local communities are more likely to be involved with protecting and enhancing the biodiversity when their neighbourhoods are designed to enhance human-nature interactions. The key point is that everyone is responsible, on an individual, community, business, local government and government level for ensuring that biodiversity thrives in our cities so that it may contribute to climate adaptation and human well-being, now and for our future generations.

The impact of climate change on ecosystems

Almost 75% of the human population in Europe lives in an urban area. Continuing loss of biodiversity, the variety of plants, animals and other organisms, represents a direct threat to people’s health and well-being

How can we utilise the built environment as part of the ecological system?

In urban planning, we need to shift focus from merely extracting benefits from the natural world to addressing how we can enhance our world and surrounding environment based on human needs for interaction with nature.

Urban planners should incorporate local and native biodiversity as natural elements that promote well-being to include trees, shrubs and other vegetation, water features, parks and gardens. Vegetation provides nesting and resting places for animals, buffers noise, offers shade, reduces the effect of heat islands, traps particulates and other airborne pollutants, captures carbon dioxide and mitigates global warming.

How to protect and restore our ecosystems

Parks and other natural areas filter groundwater and reduce stormwater runoff and therefore support public safety. When urban planners are able to choose measures that both support biodiversity and increase resilience, this will also benefit people living in cities.

Vital body – benefits for physical health

Exposure to microorganisms in soil, especially at an early stage, benefits the human immune system and can protect us from diseases like asthma and atopy (the tendency to develop allergic diseases). Biodiversity plays a role in the regulation and control of infectious diseases and provides important resources for medical research, for both traditional and modern medicine.

Balanced mind – benefits for mental health

There is a growing body of evidence showing that time spent interacting with natural habitats increases mental well-being and decreases the effects of stress. These benefits include:

  1. Improved general psychological well-being
  2. Positive effects on emotions and behaviour
  3. Positive effects on cognitive function
  4. Increased ability to perform mentally challenging tasks
  5. Less stress
  6. Facilitated social interaction

By mimicking natural processes and favouring species that are native to a biogeographical area, we can create more diverse habitats for animal and plant species and create places for recreation. Most cities also have local nature conservation associations where citizens can do voluntary work to preserve an area’s natural values.

How to build green cities

The perfect way to help biodiversity thrive in cities is your very own backyard or a community garden. The four basic needs for wildlife include food, water, shelter and nesting.

Consider what species you want to help and what their food and habitat requirements are. Implement suitable horticulture practices by getting rid of invasive species and cultivating species native to the area. Plant trees and shrubs to provide sources of food and shelter and to sequester carbon. Flowers will attract bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects. Bird and bat houses offer shelter and nesting places for these species, alongside insect hotels, green roofs and walls, urban beehives and wetlands, which are good examples of mimicking ecosystems in the urban landscape.