A special issue of Current Conservation emphasizes the importance of seeing cities not only as concrete and asphalt but also as sources of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Photo: A. Maslennikov/Azote

Urbanisation

The case of nature in cities

Special issue of Current Conservation on why it's time to start thinking of cities as more than grey patches of asphalt and concrete

Story highlights

  • Increased urbanisation is leading to considerable challenges for biodiversity, but also new opportunities to protect nature in cities
  • Special issue of Current Conservation has a special focus on India and cities in of the southern hemispher
  • Good governance of urban systems requires the involvement of actors on many levels in the system, from governments to local urban planners

As urbanisation continues at a rapid pace, cities provide the daily living environment for a growing majority of the world’s population.

In Asia and Africa, people are moving to the cities at an unprecedented pace and the expansion of urban land is more extensive than ever before, a pattern also seen in South America.

"While these rapid and extensive changes lead to considerable challenges for biodiversity, they also create new opportunities to protect nature in cities and beyond, and enhance the values that nature in cities generates for people," say Stockholm Resilience Centre researchers Maria Schewenius and Maria Tengö in the editor’s note in the special issue, published online by the journal Current Conservation.

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Development brings opportunities
The message that the world is currently undergoing an urbanization process unprecedented in rate and extent, but that this brings unprecedented opportunities to support a global sustainable development, is also the foundation for the Cities and Biodiversity Outlook (CBO) project, to which the Special Issue connects. The project concluded that for cities to sustainably support human wellbeing, they need to promote biodiversity and healthy ecosystems.

The special issue has a special focus on India and cities in other countries in the southern hemisphere. For example, Maria Tengö, together with colleagues Divya Gopal and Harini Nagendra, describes the sacred trees in urban environments in Bangalore in India:

"In India, sacred ecosystems are immensely valued in a way that is deeply etched in the cultural and spiritual realm of society," explains Tengö.

"In urban systems this kind of cultural protection has been less acknowledged, but in Bangalore we have found that the sacred sites act as pockets of greenery in the city landscape."

The special issue further tells the story of heritage trees in Cape Town, South Africa; discusses emerging planning and management frameworks in Colombia; and highlights tools for assessing urban biodiversity.

Drawing upon examples from Bangalore and Rio de Janeiro, it presents some examples of the meaning of nature in cities, and the challenges and opportunities associated with urban nature conservation. A historical narrative from Madras, India, gives readers the chance to reflect upon the changes in the natural landscape in one of the world's largest cities over the last five decades.

Beyond asphalt and concrete
Urban development can have devastating consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem services, in turn affecting human wellbeing and resilience. Madhusudan Katti from California State University, together with Maria Schewenius, emphasizes the importance of good ecological governance in cities:

"Good governance of urban systems requires the involvement of actors on many levels in the system, from governments to local urban planners. Ensuring knowledge sharing between groups, implementing regulations and maintaining people’s engagement are crucial parts in successful governance," says Katti.

The special issue adds weight to the findings of the Cities and Biodiversity Outlook project, which argues that it is high time to start thinking of cities as more than grey patches of asphalt and concrete.

"Rich nature already exists in cities, and is an important part of our culture as well as our environment," conclude Schewenius and Tengö in their editorial. 

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"An Urbanizing Planet" takes viewers on a stunning satellite-viewed tour around our planet. By combining more than 10 datasets, and using GIS processing software and 3D graphic applications, the video shows not only where urbanization will be most extensive, but also how the majority of the expansion will occur in areas adjacent to biodiversity hotspots.