World Cities Day: renaturation as a response to urban transformation

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October 31 marks World Cities Day, a date promoted since 2014 by the United Nations (UN). This event marks the end of Urban October, a month that focuses on urban issues and sustainable development. This year, under the theme “Financing a sustainable urban future for all”, the aim is to identify ways to unlock transformative investments in urban planning and achieve appropriate fiscal decentralization. This responds to the need for cities and governments to raise revenue and funding for large projects and invest in sustainable and scalable urban transformation.

According to the United Nations, urbanization presents some of the most important opportunities and challenges in the world today. Cities are centers of economic growth and development, but they also face demographic, environmental, economic and social challenges. This implies a growing demand for urban infrastructures, which require significant investments.

Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities and by 2050, this figure is expected to rise to 70%. Moreover, according to the organization, the total area covered by the world’s largest cities could triple in the next 40 years.

In economic terms, the UN points out that cities around the world generate more than 80% of the world’s GDP. The higher the level of urbanization of a country, the higher its GDP per capita.

However, the United Nations reports that less than 20% of the 500 largest cities in the developing world are considered creditworthy. In addition, the OECD notes that the global need for infrastructure investment will range between $30 trillion and $40 trillion over the next two decades, so reducing the infrastructure financing gap would ensure that cities can meet their urban development needs and drive growth.

In this context, urban renaturalization and resilience building emerge as a response to the complex challenges facing urban environments today. The facts have shown that distancing nature from cities has entailed unbearable economic costs in terms of health and quality of life. Therefore, working from the source of the problem and bringing nature back to urban environments would not only be beneficial from an economic point of view but also to address environmental challenges such as the effects of climate change (floods, heat waves, etc.), pollution and health and vulnerability to health crises, among others.

To this end, it is necessary to promote a paradigm shift in the management of urban environments and mobilize more resources to promote a real approach of nature to cities, giving capillarity to green infrastructure. At the national level, the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan (PRTR) financed by the European Union – NextGenerationEU has provided the economic impetus to undertake the transformation that our cities need to face the challenges of the future. restoring urban nature, mitigating the risk of river flooding in urban areas and adapting to the effects of climate change. The Biodiversity Foundation of the Ministry for Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge (MITECO) has made a solid commitment to the renaturalization and restoration of river environments in urban areas. Between 2021 and 2022, 195 million euros have been earmarked for the implementation of 74 projects, led by local administrations, aimed at improve the quality of life of citizens and to respond, from the cities, to the rest of the urban challenges for the medium and long term. The selected projects include diverse measures at different scales: vegetated roofs and facades on buildings; urban gardens with sustainable management, green areas and tree-lined streets with native species and forms of sustainable management that favor the emergence of pollinators and nesting; urban forests, green rings, natural networks of urban climate refuges from extreme temperatures, renaturalization of urban sections of rivers, restoration of wetlands or lagoons in urban spaces, bio-retention areas, floodable parks and other sustainable urban drainage systems with ecological functionality, naturalization of degraded spaces or urban voids. These actions are part of local green infrastructure and biodiversity strategies that take into account the importance of rural-urban connections, peri-urban spaces and their connectivity.

The 74 Spanish cities that are currently developing their renaturation and river restoration projects thanks to the support of the Biodiversity Foundation are pioneers in this transformation process. The urban renaturation initiatives financed by the PRTR funds have been selected among almost 400 proposals, which shows the great interest of local administrations in renaturation and adaptation to climate change. A line of work which will be extended beyond the Recovery Plan thanks to the designation of the Fundación Biodiversidad as the Intermediate Management Body of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) for the period 2021-2027, which will allow for continuing the drive for renaturalization of Spanish cities.