urban scene
© Nancy Bourque

Climate Academy 2021: Rethinking urban development

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    Reducing disaster risks and strengthening climate adaptation with nature-based solutions (NbS)

    The floods in Central Europe and Asia, as well as the devastating wildfires around the Mediterranean and hurricanes in America in the summer of 2021, show one thing very clearly: disaster risk reduction and adaptation to climate change are more urgent than ever. Cities in particular, with their tightly packed structures and densely populated areas, are highly exposed. Costly technical protection measures are often far beyond the financial reach of the global South cities, while at the same time cities are being asked to meet ever higher standards of sustainable and climate-friendly development. Nature-based solutions for disaster prevention and climate adaptation can provide an important building block here. The Climate Academy 2021 looked at the opportunities and challenges involved.

    What can NbS contribute?

    The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines NbS as follows: "Nature-based solutions are actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural and modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits." At its core, this is about dovetailing urbanisation together with ecosystem services. There are many approaches in nature that not only support sustainable urban development, but are essential to it. Eberhard Faust (former Chief Climate Scientist at Munich Re) and Simone Sandholz (UNU-EHS) highlighted in their introductory presentations that heat and flood events in particular are increasingly threatening cities. To some extent, NbS provide solutions against both. However, Faust cautioned that beyond a certain severity of disasters, even NbS are powerless. Moreover, NbS must always be developed on a situation-specific basis. There is no "one-fits-all" solution.
    Zita Sebesvari
    © Zita Sebesvari (UNU-EHS)
    NbS can't do everything. If, say, a century storm surge event is imminent, even a sponge city won't be able to do as much. Nor will a meter-high tsunami be stopped by a mangrove planting. But for the "average" risks, NbS can be incredibly valuable!
    Zita Sebesvari
    Head of Environmental Vulnerability and Ecosystem Services (EVES)


    NbS are often less expensive than technical engineering measures and require significantly less maintenance. According to Ingrid Coetzee of ICLEI, nature takes care of itself if you treat it well. NbS often fulfill multiple objectives: they can contribute to long-term adaptation to the consequences of climate change and, in very concrete terms, make a valuable contribution to disaster risk reduction. At the same time, they provide a healthier urban climate and, in the best cases, even create additional livelihood opportunities.

    Case studies from the Academy participants' presentations provided evidence of these benefits. Large green parks in cities can significantly reduce temperatures during the summer months. Heat maps show this for many cities worldwide. In conjunction with urban gardening, this can also create additional sources of income. Trees in streets provide shade and thus coolness. Green spaces facilitate the infiltration of surface water during rainfall.

    Siddarth Narayan of East Carolina University explained the benefits of NbS using a port in southern India as an example. The port is located behind an offshore island. This island itself and its coastline are covered by mangrove forests, which protect the port's infrastructure from flood damage and prevent erosion. Preservation of this ecosystem is in the port's own interest.

    © Worldbank
    Coastal Protection Benefits of Mangroves - Figure from World Bank 2019 report
    Source: https://www.worldbank.org/en/region/lac/publication/forces-of-nature-coastal-resilience-benefits-of-mangroves-in-jamaica


    But given all the enthusiasm for the potential of these solutions, it still begs the question: if there are so many benefits, why aren't these approaches being implemented more widely and quickly? According to Academy participants, securing sufficient capital and long-term funding to scale pilot projects is very challenging, especially if the project is initially funded by NGOs or donor organisations for only two or three years. However, it often takes five or more years for an NbS to truly mature. Thus, numerous small projects can also be found in the global South. Larger projects, on the other hand, are rarer, according to one of the Academy's findings. An innovative idea of financing NbS was brought into play by Fernando Secaira. His organisation, The Nature Conservancy, is working with insurers on a pilot project in Mexico: here, the value of a reef is determined by the damage not caused to the coast behind it as a result of storm and flood events. This gives the reef a monetary value and makes it insurable. After an insured event, the money is used to repair the damage to the reef. Insurance premiums are paid by residents and businesses on the coast that benefit from the action. The idea is new, but there is already other interest from Florida, the Philippines and Indonesia.
    © The Nature Conservancy
    Coral reefs are like natural see walls
    Reefs reduce wave energy that causes coastal destruction and erosion. Reefs measurably protect people and coastal infrastructure from storm surge.

    A major hurdle is the lack of knowledge among many decision makers and the general public. For urban planners, NbS is not yet part of standard training. Improvements are urgently needed here. In addition, scientific findings and experiences from NbS projects must be better communicated to the population. Academy participant Sahana Ghosh showed how this can be achieved. She works as a science journalist at Mongabay-India and provides information on a wide range of NbS projects and local actors in the Nature-based Climate Solutions News.

    A third challenge is the participation of all stakeholders involved. Conflicts often arise over land use in NbS. Especially in cities, where space is scarce, a decision-making process for a new measure must therefore be found together with the affected residents. Otherwise, the NbS risks rejection by the population. They must clearly see the concrete benefits for the community and for themselves as individuals. Dr. Stephen Diko, from the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of Memphis, used the example of Kumansi in Ghana to explain the basically high willingness of the population to further develop the city with NbS. "However, when it comes to concrete implementation, prioritization tends to be low." Other things such as sufficient health infrastructure, educational facilities or simply space for shops are often more important. Education and participatory action are key here.


    The Academy has clearly shown: there are a variety of promising approaches worldwide to develop more sustainable cities together with nature. However, the case studies have also made clear how small-scale these projects often are and on what a shaky funding foundation they often stand. To truly change the way cities can be developed, even on a large scale, with nature-based concepts for climate adaptation and mitigation, a holistic rethinking must first take place.  
    Iceberg Mode
    © Randy Sa'd, Flourishing Enterprise Institute
    The Iceberg Model
    Dr. Randy Sa'd of the Flourishing Enterprise Institute made it clear: "A true paradigm shift in urban development will not be achieved through "action and performance" by a few active drivers of NbS." Rather, it requires a shift in thinking at three levels: in the mindset of decision makers, in systemic structures, and in regional policy development and planning processes. If these then encounter a well-informed society that accepts nature-based solutions as sustainable development, NbS can become established across the board.  


    The Climate Academy 2021 took place online from 27 September 2021 to 1 October 2021. It was jointly organised by UNU-EHS and the Munich Re Foundation in collaboration with the Climate Secretariat UNFCCC, and with the support of ICLEI. A total of around 300 participants from over 60 countries registered for the Academy. There were between 50 and 80 audience members per session. Following the Academy, we will spend the next few weeks working with a core group on concrete outcomes from the Academy. This could be policy briefs, journal publications, workshops or ideas for concrete projects.
    Climate Academy 2021 Group
    © Munich Re Foundation
    The core group of the Climate Academy 2021
    11 October 2021, CB

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