Nature-based solutions for health and equality

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The European Commission defines nature-based solutions (NBS) as ‘solutions that are inspired and supported by nature, which are cost-effective, simultaneously provide environmental, social and economic benefits and help build resilience’[1]. This wiki page examines how NBS can play a role and bring green elements into everyday urban living in the most equitable of ways, so that citizens of all communities have access to such urban regeneration projects.

This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.

General introduction to approach

Traditionally urbanisation has meant the loss of green spaces in cities, which has a negative impact on water, air, soil, biodiversity and the climate. Indications exist that close contact with nature brings benefits to human health and wellbeing, but the extent of this association varies by country and in urban areas of differing levels of prosperity. While nature-based solutions (NBS) can generally play a role to bring green elements into everyday urban living, this cluster focuses on how citizens in all urban areas benefit from such processes, as opposed to just a privileged few, with health concerning the full physical, mental and social well being of citizens.

Shapes, sizes and applications

The approaches included in this cluster range from: exploring the regeneration and integration of deprived social housing urban developments through urban innovation; to the co-creation of public space with citizens, using NBS to improve accessibility to post-industrial parts of cities; and to assessing medical health effects of the natural outdoor environment in typical populations in different regions in Europe. URBiNAT[2] (Healthy corridors as drivers of social housing neighbourhoods for the co-creation of social, environmental and marketable NBS) began in 2018 and consists of a worldwide consortium of academic and business partners around 7 European cities that will act as living laboratories[3] to implement healthy corridor solutions emerging from community-driven design processes. It focuses on the regeneration and integration of deprived social housing urban developments through an innovative and inclusive catalogue of NBS, ensuring sustainability and mobilising driving forces for social cohesion. Interventions focus on the public space to co-create with citizens new urban, social and nature-based relations within and between different neighbourhoods.

ProGIreg[4] (Productive Green Infrastructure for post-industrial urban regeneration) began in 2018 and is active in urban areas that face the challenge of post-industrial regeneration. These areas suffer from social and economic disadvantages, inequality and related crime and security problems. They lack quality green spaces, have a negative impact on human health and wellbeing and are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Phenotype[5] (Positive health effects of the natural outdoor environment) focused on the day-to-day environments in which people live, other places where they spend time, and the effects on mental and physical health in cases from Lithuania, the Netherlands, Spain and United Kingdom between 2012 and 2015. Spaces included in their research were green spaces (roof gardens, city parks, courtyards) "greenery" (forests, nature reserves/parks, mountains, farmland, trees, landscaping) and “blue spaces” (water such as canals, ponds, creeks, rivers, beaches).

Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice

All the approaches have a high urban focus, with each project exploring different aspects of health and equality. While Phenotype (2012-15) explored more specific medical issues related to citizens proximity and use of local green spaces, both URBiNAT and ProGIreg seek to activate citizen involvement in regeneration of urban areas of varying scales along specific urban corridors in a number of cities. Phenotype mentions social justice, equity and fairness, and explored the health impacts on populations in residential neighbourhoods that did not live nearby to green public spaces. URBiNAT and ProGIreg both target unprivileged areas with low levels of green infrastructure, aiming at increasing availability and access to those areas, thus also environmental health justice.

Regarding sustainability issues, the 2 current projects, URBiNAT & ProGIreg, explore many aspects of sustainability to a very deep degree, seeking to identify and improve areas in cities through NBS including: biodiversity, the carbon cycle, soil consumption and use of natural resources in urban environments, citizen involvement, education and empowerment. Phenotype explored specific issues of air quality, fitness and related aspects associated with specific urban green areas.

Narrative of change

With increased urban transformation being implemented using NBS and other forms of Green Infrastructure (GI) in post-industrial urban areas suffering from social and economic disadvantages, inequality and related crime and security problems, the interests of the local citizens are not always paramount.

These approaches attempt to make urban transformation work with and for citizens, where solutions address all technical, social and economic challenges to bring green elements into everyday urban living. They seek to activate citizen involvement in the regeneration process of urban areas of varying scales along specific urban corridors in post-industrial districts in a number of cities and often use Living Labs as a community led tool for urban change. Further opportunities for change include: 1) Clustering of NBS + knowledge, people sharing 2) Poverty reduction opportunity (improved health, better nutrition) 3) Raise awareness about inequality. Further challenges include: 1) Still need to value green infrastructure 2) Engage local beneficiaries, but take care about what stage and don’t be arrogant 3) Life style changes 4) Secured livelihood and incomes 5) Speaking mother languages / need for translation work 6) NBS in indoor spaces, cultural and religious spaces.

Transformative potential

This approach has a high transformative potential, mostly seeking to act in currently problematic post-industrial urban areas, engaging and facilitating citizens to become involved in the urban regeneration of degraded environments in their localities, to develop community dynamics to take collective ownership for these areas and in some instances bring about a situation where NBS can offer new economic opportunities. Such community engagement can have a catalyzing effect, leading to organized local communities having greater say in future scenarios for their territories, thus amplifying democracy in innovative ways[6]. involving people in creating much needed green amenities/NBS helps them take the issue of health and local environment into their own hands, thus empowering them in taking decisions about the kind of life they want to live.

Examples of approaches

ProGIreg is creating Living Labs in post-industrial districts in four front-runner cities (Dortmund, Germany – Turin, Italy – Zagreb, Croatia - Ningbo, China) to develop, test and implement NBS. Another four follower cities (Cascais, Portugal - Cluj-Napoca, Romania - Piraeus, Greece - Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina) will closely follow the progress and engage in city-to-city exchange to replicate NBS locally. One of ProGIreg’s 8 types of NBS is “Accessible green corridors”. Based around rivers that nowadays are often left derelict and inaccessible for locals, projects involve local citizens in renaturing the rivers and green corridors, using a Living Labs[7] approach. The project’s focus is to improve the accessibility to these green corridors so that that deprived urban neighbourhoods become more livable and locals can connect more to nature.

URBiNAT aims to co-plan a number of healthy corridors as innovative and flexible NBS. From West to East, the cities of Porto, Nantes and Sofia act as frontrunners based on their demonstrated experience in the innovative use of public space with NBS. From South to North, the cities of Siena, Nova Gorica, Bruxelles and Høje-Taastrup share and replicate URBiNAT concepts and methodologies, acting as ‘followers’.

The Health Corridor is a ‘Green Articulation’ designed as a pedestrian walkway/viaduct in the public space to integrate neighbourhoods into the urban structure. Each Health Corridor will integrate and link diverse NBS developed by the horizontal partners, deploying the NBS Catalogue and appropriate monitoring and evaluation methods and tool. This will be achieved by focusing on the citizens’ well-being in relation to energy, water, food, nature, mobility, participation, behavioural change, digital democracy, social cohesion and the solidarity economy.

Healthy Corridors, with a customized NBS catalogue, will be co-created and co-planned for the frontrunner and follower cities, testing an innovative and inclusive urban model to regenerate deprived districts, specifically within and linking social housing neighbourhoods. Participative-design will be the cornerstone approach in achieving new models of urban development. Design thinking processes and methods will underpin the creation of Healthy Corridors with NBS.

Some further notable approaches leading to greater equality, both in Europe and beyond, include: 1) Parklets[8], rethinking value of green infrastructure (Rotterdam) 2) Edible Forest Madrid (vegetable forest, biodiversity, refuge for low income residents) 3) Nature in religious centres, (Wuppenthall, Germany) 4) `Esto no es un solar`[9] (Zaragoza, Spain) 5) Groente Connecte – Rotterdam – Connecting green initiatives by a walking route 6) Bromatrixx, river scrubbers (Manila, Philipenes) 7) NBS for treated wastewater reuse 8) HOPE (Helping Other People Eat)[10] school gardens feeding families, creating nexus for community (Grand Rapids, Michigan, US) 9) Healthy Slum, creating vegetable gardens, solar energy cooking, knowledge sharing (Nairobi, Kenya) 10) Nest City Lab[11], Small scale urban agriculture production, based on NBS to cluster vertical food producing (organic) and create local economic opportunities (Barcelona, Spain) Activities for biodiversity and water retention (Poland).