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A crucial co-dependency

Sara Borgström on why protected areas must be better incorporated with urban areas

Much has been said about the interactions between urbanisation and nature conservation, particularly the importance of preserving landscapes surrounding protected areas. Sceptics suggest that protected nature attracts urbanisation, and that this in turn might negatively impact the area.

Optimists, on the other hand, argue that nature reserves are not necessarily eaten up by urban sprawl, and that cities can be a great hope for environmentalism and sustainability. The problem is more that the nature-protected areas are treated as 'green islands' and kept separate from the urban areas.

In an article published in Applied Geography (request article - include title in subject line), centre researcher Sara Borgström together with colleagues from Stockholm University have looked at Swedish land use changes in the surroundings of urban nature protected areas over the last 50 years in order to address issue of 'green islands'.

Dont treat them as separate areas
They found that nature protected areas within cities are usually viewed as static patches best preserved if isolated from the surroundings. This could have undesired consequences in the long term.

"There is a general neglect from both planning and nature conservation agencies to recognise protected areas' dependence on the surrounding landscape configuration. This could be detrimental to sustain their values in the long term," says Borgström, who specialises in nature conservation in urban landscapes.

Crucial linkages across borders
There are both ecological and social linkages across the borders of protected areas. They satisfy an increasing diversity of public demands that most built up areas cannot meet, such as outdoor recreation, ecology education and regulatory ecosystem services as well as species refuges from harsh surrounding urban environment.

However, these benefits are often dependent on, or at least impacted by the surrounding landscape. If you treat protected areas and urban areas as two opposites, you risk depleting both of them.

"Although there is an emerging recognition of these linkages in both science and practice, there is a need for improved knowledge and additional tools for nature conservation that can embrace cross-scale temporal and spatial ecological dynamics to bridge the administrative landscape divisions," Borgström and her colleagues argue.

Furthermore, improved communication between stakeholders of green areas can boost such urban ecosystem governance.

Have we learned from the past?
For the cities in this study there is a forecasted increased population growth that might indicate the beginning of an urbanisation wave similar to the 1960s and the 1980s.

During that time, many urban protected areas were established as a result of increase in perceived threats to urban nature. They were established after the urbanisation and hence had to be streamlined to already existing houses and infrastructures and less adapted to ecological or social dynamics.

The question is whether we have learned from the past.

"There is a risk that in 20 years time new protected areas are established in the same manner as we did 30-50 years ago with the consequence that nature reserves will become increasingly isolated and hence less ecologically sustainable in the long-term perspective," Borgström warns.

Time to be innovative and proactive
A straightforward response would be to add ecological buffer zones with low degree of urbanisation when establishing new protected areas. However, this has been argued to be almost impossible in the urban setting, where the potential buffer zones in many cases  are already exploited.

Another solution are so-called 'zones of interaction' that potentially diminish the need for buffer zones between urban areas and protected areas and gives room for recognition of the landscape dynamics.

"In such zone the local context both inside and outside the protected area is of vital importance. In applying such approach, the local history, current social as well as ecological landscape, and future visions are crucial components for creating long-term functional landscapes where the urban protected areas are integrated," Borgström concludes.

Source: Borgström, S., S. Cousins, & R. Lindborg. (2011). Outside The Boundary — Land Use Changes In The Surroundings Of Urban Nature Reserves. Applied Geography, 32, 350-359.

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Borgström, S., S. Cousins, & R. Lindborg. (2011). Outside The Boundary — Land Use Changes In The Surroundings Of Urban Nature Reserves. Applied Geography, 32, 350-359.

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Sara Borgström's field of study is urban ecology, particularly planning and management of green areas in urban landscapes. It's a transdisciplinary approach including geography, planning, conservation biology and sociology beside systems ecology.


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