Overcoming the Nature versus Urban Divide

Protected Areas in and around cities offer many benefits to citizens by providing vital ecosystem services such as supplying and storing clean water, reducing air pollution and moderating the urban heat island effect, fostering biodiversity and supporting the local economy. Yet even though there are clear linkages between natural areas and human well-being, nature continues to be treated as a separate entity rather than the foundation of our entire socio-economic system.

Greater collaboration between policy-makers, local communities, urban planners and other stakeholders is needed in order to ensure the continued protection of natural areas, particularly in the face of growing threats such as urban sprawl and pollution, for the benefit of citizens around the world.

On 12 May, IUCN in cooperation with ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability hosted a webinar: “The benefits of protected areas for urban citizens – Overcoming the ‘Urban versus Nature’ Divide”, as part of the Urban Biosphere Initiative Dialogue series. Organized by the URBIS initiative on a monthly basis, the webinars bring together representatives of cities and local governments and experts from around the world to share experiences and address challenges related to the sustainable use of regional biodiversity and the supply of ecosystem services in a rapidly urbanizing world. The aims of this session, facilitated by IUCN’s Chantal van Ham – EU Programme Manager Nature Based Solutions - were to showcase how nature contributes to the well-being of urban citizens and share examples of successful multi-stakeholder initiatives for protected area management in and around cities. It also aimed to demonstrate how healthy ecosystems can be integrated into city planning and explore how economic opportunities related to protected areas can be promoted.

As the first speaker, Pam Veinotte, Field Unit Superintendent of Rouge National Urban Park, Toronto, shared insights into the collaborative and integrated approach to urban park planning and governance in Toronto’s national urban park. Once fully completed, The Rouge will become the largest urban park in North America, 22 times larger than Central Park. With more than 80% of Canadians living in urban areas, the park offers a major opportunity to protect nature, culture and agriculture in Canada’s largest metropolitan area, and thereby connect to 20% of the Canadian population.

Rouge’s mixture of landscapes and resources, high level of biodiversity and rich cultural history, and the presence of a vibrant farming community and Indigenous Peoples, requires an integrated, collaborative approach to ensure sustainable use and protection of the natural landscape. Rouge Park has led the largest engagement programme in Parks Canada’s 105-year history, engaging 10 First Nations, 200 groups and 20,000 Canadians to gather a broad range of perspectives. The park works in close collaboration with municipalities, NGOs, farmers and First Nations to identify and implement current and future projects. Rouge Park offers citizens attractive and varied experiences and inspires personal connections to its natural beauty and rich history. Visitors have ample opportunities for engagement and volunteering, by taking part in litter cleanups, excursions, wildlife monitoring and restoration activities, as well as numerous themed programmes, which allow millions of Canadians, many without the means to visit other protected areas, to discover or reconnect with nature. The Rouge presents a truly inspiring example of a collaboratively managed urban park which promotes engagement with citizens, while also ensuring the continued provision and sustainable use of essential natural resources and services that are so critical in an urbanising world.

In the second presentation, Daniel Raven-Ellison, Guerilla Geographer and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, shared his motivation and vision behind the current campaign to make London the first National Park City. In the context of a growing urban population and disconnect from nature, Daniel highlighted the urgent need for a cultural shift in the way cities and citizens perceive, manage and use green spaces. Often viewed as bleak and grey concrete jungle, the Greater London area is in fact one of the most biodiverse regions of the UK. 47% of the London area is physically green. Yet, although about 1/3 of the landscape in Greater London is legally protected, formal protection has not been enough to prevent the erosion of ecosystems. With over 80% of trees in outer London, and 60% of trees in inner London outside of public control (i.e. privately owned) there is a need to unlock the potential of informal environmental stewardship by all of London’s 8.6 million citizens.

Daniel’s vision for London as the first National Park City, has already garnered the support of the new London Mayor, local council and local businesses, and builds upon numerous small-scale local initiatives to bring about a real, large-scale change in culture, and strategic thinking, when it comes to the management of green spaces and the appetite to spend time outside. With ¾ of children currently spending less time outdoors than prison inmates, there is clearly a need to make sure that children are given more opportunities to be outside, for the benefit of their mental, physical and emotional well-being. The London National Park City initiative has the potential to initiate a powerful shift in thinking, both at a symbolic and a practical level, which will help to overcome the nature versus urban divide currently permeating urban planning and management.

The final presentation of the webinar featured Sean Southey, IUCN Commission on Education and Communication Steering Committee member and CEO of PCI Media Impact, who spoke about Nature For All, a movement led by IUCN to inspire a new generation to connect with nature. Evidence consistently demonstrates that awareness, experience and connection with the natural world are key to engendering stronger valuation of nature and support for conservation across generations, sectors and societies. The Nature For All initiative, which will be officially launched at the 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress, acts as a broad umbrella under which existing, new, and non-traditional partners can unite in order to build support for conservation. Sean shared a number of examples of outreach campaigns and initiatives from around the world, which are already working and igniting a passion to conserve nature. In Peru, for example, the “Bahuaja Sonene: Learn, Inspire” campaign has engaged new partners like artists by bringing artistic “ambassadors” to Bahuaja Sonene National Park to help raise public awareness through their park-inspired art, design, culinary events, music and more. In the USA, the new Every Kid in a Park Pass initiative provides free entry to National Park Service sites for all U.S. 4th graders and their families, to help engage and create the next generation of park visitors. The Junior Ranger Programs offered by EUROPARC and Korea National Park Service empower young people to play a role in their community and see how their actions can have a positive impact locally and globally as a member of the junior ranger network. The sharing of best practice examples, such as these, plays an important part in fostering pro-environmental attitudes and beliefs which are vital to conserve biodiversity. While a ‘one size fits all’ approach cannot be used to replicate these types of good-practices, they do offer inspiration for similar initiatives which could be adapted to a range of different contexts.

The well-attended URBIS dialogue provided an inspiring insight into how innovative approaches, creativity, and collaboration can foster biodiversity, raise awareness of the value of ecosystems, reconnect citizens with nature, and thereby invert the common yet mistaken assumption that cities and nature are separate entities. IUCN looks forward to continuing its collaboration with URBIS and ICLEI to connect people with nature by sharing biodiversity conservation success stories and best practices from around the world.

A recording of this webinar can be found here - URBIS Dialogue 12.

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