The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has just celebrated its 5th World Conservation Congress in Jeju Island, Republic of Korea, and is adding a new chapter to its long history of biodiversity conservation. Across the world, dedicated IUCN members are working to expand and improve the management of protected areas, increase knowledge on the status of threatened species, and  build capacity for biodiversity and sustainable use of natural resources through projects. Additionally, the awareness among IUCN members is growing to strengthen engagement with local and regional authorities.

Many cities host a surprisingly rich and diverse natural environment:

• Brussels, for example, contains more than 50 percent of the floral species found in Belgium;

• The Île-de-France region – which surrounds Paris and is the most populated region in France – is home to 10,000 species of animals and 1,500 species of plants. 80% of the region is covered in forest, farmlands and unspoiled countryside;

• The Cape Town region in South Africa is the smallest and richest floral kingdom in the world. It has 9,600 species of indigenous plants, of which 7% are found nowhere else, and 1,406 are listed as facing a high risk of extinction.

• In Hong Kong – one the world’s most densely populated cities – 40% of land is in protected areas. Hong Kong’s terrestrial and marine parks harbour 3,100 species of vascular plants, 57 mammals, 452 birds, 78 reptiles, 23 amphibians, 2,300 insects, 84 stony corals and 96 fish. New records of birds and insects are constantly added to the list;

• In Brazil, over 100 million people live in the urban and industrial areas of the Mata Atlântica Biosphere Reserve, which stretches along a distance of more than 3,000 km parallel to the coast and has some of the richest biodiversity on our planet.

The global IUCN network of NGOs, governmental institutions, scientists and universities, natural history museums, botanical gardens and zoos is paying more and more attention to urban areas, not only because urban developments can have an irreversible impact on biodiversity, but also because this is the era of cities. Over 50% of the world population currently resides in urban areas, and this is expected to increase even further. If we aim to make the transition to a sustainable future, people living and working in cities need to be engaged to find solutions and to learn of the great potential of nature for dealing with today’s most pressing challenges: to reduce climate change impacts; to ensure food, water and energy security; to enhance public health, save money and promote economic development.

To encourage cities and sub-national governments to implement nature based solutions, IUCN aims to bridge the gap between research findings and the practical needs of policy makers and urban planners. Its wealth of expertise on biodiversity and ecosystems services and its well-established strategy of bringing together different groups offer IUCN a unique opportunity to optimize biodiversity values and implement practices that protect, restore or replicate natural functions.

The following examples show that an increasing number of local communities and city councils have come to realize that biodiversity conservation and sustainable use of natural resources can lead to sustainable urban development, particularly, by connecting the city landscape with the ecological landscape outside the city boundaries.

About a third of the world’s largest cities obtain a significant proportion of their drinking water directly from forest protected areas (Running Pure, World Bank/ WWF, 2003). Well-managed natural forests almost always provide higher quality water, with less sediment and fewer pollutants, than water from other catchments. Sofia in Bulgaria, for example, relies for much of its water supply on sources originating from two mountain protected areas: the Rila and Vitosha National Park. These parks consist of coniferous and deciduous forests and are characterized by a rich botanical diversity.

In Canberra, Australia, local authorities have planted 400,000 trees to improve urban air quality, reduce energy costs and store and sequester carbon. In just five years, these benefits are worth between 20 and 67 million US dollars (The Economics of Ecosystems
and Biodiversity, TEEB).

The Green Capital of Europe, Vitoria-Gasteiz in Spain, has developed a ‘green belt’ around the city centre by giving priority to the establishment of new and maintenance of existing natural areas. This has provided important benefits to its citizens, ranging from education and recreation to conservation of biodiversity, water supply and tourism income.

Natural England estimates that if every household in England had good access to quality green space, it could save around €2.5 billions every year in health costs.

15 years ago, the city of Basel in Switzerland invested 1 million Swiss francs in a green roof programme funded by a 5% tax on energy bills. In just 10 years, one quarter of the city’s flat roof areas were greened. The programme saves 4 Gigawatt-hours per year across Basel and significantly reduces the urban heat island effect. The life expectancy of the roofs has almost doubled. Finally, the roofs have become habitats for new species of insects and birds.

These examples demonstrate that there are strong incentives to invest in natural solutions and to maintain vital ecosystems services –  ranging from cost-effective water provision to greater tourism revenues, lower healthcare costs, increased energy efficiency and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

IUCN is committed to exchange best practices  and mobilize the expertise  of its global network to assist local and regional authorities develop natural solutions for increasing biodiversity in urban areas. The IUCN European Programme is developing partnerships with all those willing to contribute to turn nature into a major asset of urban development and to achieve a truly sustainable future.

Chantal van Ham

European Programme Officer
IUCN European Union Representative Office
Brussels, Belgium