Regreening Cities: Strategies to Build Resilience and Community

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By Laura Huffman, regional director of The Nature Conservancy in Texas

Cities are on the front lines of climate change and have committed to meeting the goals of the Paris climate agreement even as the Trump Administration has declared its intentions to withdraw. The administration is now finalizing that decision, and while disappointing, it also underscores the importance of cities driving that momentum forward.

We’ve got to do more, do it bigger and get it done faster. The best way to tackle our planet-sized problems? Through planet-sourced solutions that harness the incredible resilience of nature, the power of our cities, and the strength of people and communities.

As our global population stretches to nearly 10 billion by 2050, almost 70% will concentrate in our cities. Cities are incredible engines of innovation, progress and prosperity that are increasingly called upon to solve for clean air, water quality and quantity, reduced emissions, healthy and sustainable agriculture, resilient coastlines and the preservation of critical habitat and biodiversity. Climate change creates an added layer of urgency on top of all of that.

Moreover, the Las Vegas rule doesn’t apply here—what happens in cities doesn’t stay in cities. The problems they’re facing are big and integrated, creating a domino effect that impacts everything from the health of our natural resources to the strength of our economies and our very quality of life.

As our global population stretches to nearly 10 billion by 2050, almost 70% will concentrate in our cities. Cities are incredible engines of innovation, progress and prosperity that are increasingly called upon to solve for clean air, water quality and quantity, reduced emissions, healthy and sustainable agriculture, resilient coastlines and the preservation of critical habitat and biodiversity. Climate change creates an added layer of urgency on top of all of that.

It’s easy to pit cities against nature, but envisioning ways in which the two can work in tandem can create a similar domino effect of solutions that scale and can be tailored to the needs and opportunities within specific regions and contexts.

Take San Antonio, for example, where more than 4,000 representatives from nearly 2,000 cities are convening next week for the National League of Cities’ City Summit. Residents of the River City are keenly aware of the connections between natural resources and their way of life; if you ask a fifth grader where their drinking water comes from, they’ll tell you: the Edwards Aquifer.

That aquifer stretches across 12 counties and protects drinking water for 2 million Central Texans, and The Nature Conservancy has long worked with the City and partners to protect water quality by protecting land atop the aquifer. To date, approximately 21% of the recharge zone—nearly 160,000 acres—affecting San Antonio drinking water has been conserved. The proof is in the pudding: San Antonio has seen little growth in water demand in the last three decades, despite a population that’s grown over 20% during that time.

This strategy, known as a water fund, is one of those planet-sourced solutions you see replicated all around the world, from Nairobi to New Mexico to Mexico City. They bring business, government, nonprofits and residents together around the common goal of securing water supplies by safeguarding natural resources.

Regreening our cities is also gaining traction as a strategy to enhance resilience, combat flooding and address stormwater pollution. In a natural setting, stormwater soaks into the ground; when it hits paved city streets and sidewalks, it pools and flows over those surfaces, picking up dirt and pollution before emptying into our rivers and lakes. Using solutions borrowed from nature, we can help cities function more like the natural ecosystems that once thrived in these areas.

Here in Texas, the Conservancy is looking at where in Dallas natural infrastructure can be implemented for maximum efficacy, from both a technical and cost-benefit perspective. We’re also working with the water department in Philadelphia to transform 10,000 acres of hard surfaces into green stormwater solutions by 2036. And across the globe in China, national and local governments and private developers are creating dense natural areas in 32 pilot “Sponge Cities” with the goal of 80% of its urban areas absorbing and reusing at least 70% of rainwater by 2020. The common denominator across all of these efforts? Using public and private investment to rethink the built environment and reshape the future.

One of the most beautiful things about rewilding our cities is that it creates a host of other benefits—from improving mental and physical health to simply getting people outside to connect with the natural world. For example, in Houston, the Conservancy is working with the National League of Cities and the Children & Nature Network to retrofit schoolyards for resiliency—giving kids daily access to nature and creating living laboratories that help teachers meet their academic goals.

Nature’s stacked benefits and collective impacts can make our cities places where people and nature both thrive; where green space is not seen as a luxury—but as critical urban infrastructure that solves problems for the entire living community, from people to plants to wildlife.

What’s clear is this: with the country’s official withdrawal from the Paris agreement looming ahead, cities are poised to keep taking the wheel as the federal government takes a back seat on the planet’s most pressing problems.

About the author: Laura Huffman is the regional director of The Nature Conservancy in Texas