Nature is not only something we need to protect, the annoying obstacle to bypass when designing our grand future projects, nor something that exists purely for our enjoyment, pleasant but essentially useless.
By Ania Rok
I am not a big fan of new terms that appear seemingly out of nowhere and become wildly popular despite being so vague that most people struggle to define them (to be fair, vagueness is probably precisely what makes them so popular). I have witnessed my share of hypes and they mostly make me feel old. When the term “nature-based solutions” appeared on the sustainable cities circuit a couple of years ago, I was skeptical. How many more ways do we need to tell people that environment is the basis upon which human life depends?
And yet I’m happy to report I was wrong. Nature-based solutions, first promoted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and then quickly picked up (and generously funded, both in terms of research and implementation) by the European Commission and other international actors, have turned out to be useful in flipping the conversation. They provided a user-friendly umbrella term for other, more academic concepts describing how well-functioning ecosystem services help to address some of the biggest societal challenges of our times, such as climate mitigation and adaptation, water management, food security or health and well-being.
As humans, we are shaping our natural environment — but we are also shaped by it: our well-being, our health, the way we relate to each other, the way we fulfill our needs and organize our institutions.
This rhetoric shift, together with the evidence generated, reminds us that nature is not only something we need to protect, the annoying obstacle to bypass when designing our grand future projects, nor something that exists purely for our enjoyment, pleasant but essentially useless. Instead, nature is reframed as a source of inspiration and innovation, a resource that can be harnessed, one that in fact we would be stupid to waste.
This perspective is not without its problems, but the purpose of this article is not to offer in-depth analysis of nature-based solutions as a concept. In fact, I would like to take a step towards an even more abstract territory and share, from my personal experience, a few points on how thinking of, learning from and working with nature can benefit our work on urban change. So what does taking nature as inspiration mean for the messy business of transforming our cities?
Nature and cities
Historically, building cities was about conquering nature. It is only recently that this opposition has become increasingly blurry or simply false. We think of cities as socio-ecological systems, with its different human and non-human components interacting and influencing each other. As humans, we are shaping our natural environment — but we are also shaped by it: our well-being, our health, the way we relate to each other, the way we fulfill our needs and organize our institutions. There is no longer a clear boundary between the city and nature. This also means that activities that previously took place outside city limits, such as food or energy production, are being brought back into the city — redefining the relationship between the city and its hinterland.
Nature and culture
This is yet another opposition that is losing its power. Nature was long understood as something raw and uncontrollable that needs to be tamed and civilized. Culture, on the other hand, was seen as the civilizing force per se: distinguishing humans from the natural world, a predominantly urban phenomenon. Today, we are learning to value both cultural and natural heritage, appreciate the complexity and ingenuity of nature and acknowledge the oppressive nature of culture understood as civilization. We are also witnessing an increasing number of transdisciplinary projects where artists and cultural practitioners collaborate with social and environmental scientists, further contributing to blurring the boundaries between research and art. One interesting parallel is to look at how nature and culture are both instrumentalized in urban development, with a range of indexes expressing their value in economic terms and yet their space to grow increasingly limited by growing pressure on urban land or failure to support the diversity both need to flourish.
Nature and communities
In our increasingly divided and individualized cities, nature provides an easy meeting point. Urban gardens and parks offer us a chance to experience a community with all its highs and lows: sharing space, engaging in common activities, solving conflicts. Fighting for the quality of our urban environment — whether protecting green spaces or mobilizing against noise and air pollution — is often a gateway drug towards civic activism. Nature and natural resources understood as urban commons help to reinvent urban governance, questioning both traditional top-down narratives and more recent neoliberal ones. We should also keep in mind that the quality of the urban environment is yet another dimension of spatial segregation so prevalent in our cities — and a changing climate only serves to amplify those inequalities, making certain areas hotter and drier, more prone to flooding or erosion.
Nature and change
It is hard to forget the lessons on change that nature can offer us. The lenses we use to study the resilience of socio-ecological systems (basically their capacity to adapt to change) bring really interesting results when applied to cities. One of the properties of resilient systems I particularly enjoy bringing up in my work with local governments is redundancy, meaning duplication by design. Isn’t it the very opposite of efficiency and cost-effectiveness we so enthusiastically praise in our organizations? Observing nature reminds us that change is the only constant. Instead of imposing rigid (policy) structures, we should rather train ourselves in thinking in cycles, identifying critical points and understanding interdependencies.
There are many other “C’s” I could bring up here: crises and conflicts, complexity and control, consumption and circularity, capitalism and climate, connections and conversations. However, I would like to leave you with just one, that for me is the essence of the Actors of Urban Change program: curiosity. The reason why I have been such a big fan of this community since the very beginning is that it invites its participants to explore the unique living ecosystem that is their city, with all its human and non-human elements, with all its contradictions and blank spots. By taking people out of their comfort zones and confronting them with new ideas, new questions and new places, it lets them look at their own cities with a new sense of curiosity and helps them to critically examine their own role in this ecosystem, changing it and being changed by it at the same time.