Nature-based solutions deliver greener urban renewal

Green wall at a homeless shelter in the proGIreg Living Lab in Turin. Credit: © proGIreg/Nea Pakarinen, 2022

Nature-based solutions are being applied in urban regeneration projects to mitigate the effects of climate change and create healthier communities.

Long lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic were a reminder of nature’s restorative power for body and mind. Yet reconnecting people with nature, particularly in cities, has been the focus of several European research projects since well before the COVID-19 outbreak nearly three years ago.

These projects use solutions from nature to address fundamental economic, environmental, health and social challenges to improve urban living conditions in general. They bring European cities together to chart paths towards a more sustainable socio-economic system and improve well-being.

Take Dortmund in Germany, Turin in Italy and Zagreb in Croatia. They are part of a project to add biodiversity-rich greenery to urban areas and to create economically beneficial environmental resources.

“It’s not just planting a tree,” says Dr. Axel Timpe of the RWTH University of Aachen in Germany. “It’s building a living system that creates a productive output.”

He coordinates the proGIreg project, which addresses the challenge of post-industrial regeneration by creating living labs in urban areas.

Dortmund, in the industrial heart of Germany in the Rhine-Ruhr area, was once a steel production center. Turin, in the shadow of the Alps, is home to the once largest car factory in the world at Lingotto, which has now largely fallen into disuse. Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, used to have the world’s largest pig farm and a huge sausage factory – both now defunct.

While their appearance, geography, and history differ, the three cities face some similar challenges. These areas lack high-quality green spaces and suffer from social and economic disadvantages.

Urban cultivation

In this context, one of the objectives of the project was to turn a landfill in Dortmund into a park. This area is being remediated and planted with trees, while solar panels are used to generate energy and flower meadows are cultivated.

The project also promotes urban agriculture with a particular emphasis on fish and plants – a food production system known as aquaponics. This combination of fish farming (aquaculture) and growing plants without soil (hydroponics) uses less land than traditional farming.

Nutrient-rich aquaculture water is fed to the plants in an old form of food production that has taken on a new role in urban areas. Working with local citizens, the project’s aquaponics systems make local food production more economically viable.

Turin has ceded land to volunteers to open an urban farm in a post-industrial district, hosting a range of activities, said Dr Timpe.

The volunteers rent out plots for people to use as gardens, and aquaponics are used to grow high-quality herbs for local restaurants. There is a garden for those with special needs. Cooking and gardening classes are also offered.

“It’s all a business too,” said Dr. Timpe. “The volunteers who run this now make a living and they also have a small shop on site.”

Enabling nature

Floating aquaponics beds for the production of herbs and salads in the proGIreg Living Lab in Turin. Credit: © proGIreg/Nea Pakarinen, 2022

The overall goal of such projects is to make our cities better places to live through nature-based solutions—or NBS (see box below). That means we need to engage nature to tackle the biggest threats of our time, including threats to food, water, biodiversity, human health, the economy and the climate.

The classic example of using NBS is planting tropical trees known as mangroves along the coasts of Papua New Guinea to protect them from erosion. Another example is the installation in Malmö, Sweden of green roofs, which are used to cool buildings in the summer and prevent heat loss in the winter, and a system of open soil drainage, biodiversity-rich ponds and overflow areas, which help to reduce run-off. to reduce the risk of flooding.

The researchers look beyond technical solutions and tackle tough questions, such as the role of local communities in designing and implementing NBS and how best to combine multiple nature-based solutions.

Along with Dortmund, Turin and Zagreb as frontrunners, proGIreg is working with several trailing cities to build on the lessons learned so far. These are Cascais in Portugal, Cluj-Napoca in Romania, Piraeus in Greece and Zenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

dr. Timpe and his team are creating a catalog of business models that can help locals operate sustainably.

Social focus

Another project developing nature-based solutions is called URBiNAT, which is initially collaborating with three cities, including Sofia (Bulgaria), Nantes (France) and Porto (Portugal).

URBiNAT has a particularly strong social focus. At a later stage, Brussels in Belgium, Siena in Italy, Høje-Taastrup in Denmark, Nova Gorica in Slovenia and other places will join. People who live on the outskirts of these places often have poor jobs and high school absenteeism.

“Often they also feel very disconnected from the city they live in,” said Dr. Gonçalo Canto Moniz of the Center for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra in Portugal, speaking about local residents. He coordinates URBiNAT with Isabel Ferreira, Nathalie Nunes and Beatriz Caitana.

“There is no sense of belonging.”

Their project aims to expand the concept of NBS to include human nature. Specifically, this means developing things like local markets, where the focus is not so much on growing trees and plants, but on fostering a sense of community. They also find ways to combine the natural and the social, such as a winter garden that doubles as an outdoor classroom.

URBiNAT creates NBS in consultation with the local population, but it is distinguished by the way the NBS clusters into groups. The idea here is that by linking NBS in a certain area, the positive effects are increased.

Health corridors

dr. Canto Moniz and his team were inspired by the concept of ‘green corridors’, areas that have been returned to nature so that animals and insects can move around unhindered. They wanted to explore what they called a “healthy corridor” to connect deprived neighborhoods. So far, the project has established a whole catalog of broad NBS – from community gardens to green walls – in the frontrunner cities.

Air technology is used to collect evidence of the results. Drones equipped with thermal imagers will be deployed to determine how much newly planted trees and other greenery have lowered the temperature at street level. Surveys conducted with the local population will compare their socio-economic well-being before and after the introduction of the NBS.

The projects of Dr. Canto Moniz and Dr. Timpe both started in 2018 and will be completed next year, although their NBS has no end dates.

“They’re here to stay,” said Dr. Timpe.


Urban farming: Europe’s untapped potential


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Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation Magazine

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Nature-oriented solutions ensure greener urban renewal (2022, 8 August)
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