ICLEI Europe & European Commission hosted a session during EU Green Week 2021, to discuss the role of nature-based solutions in addressing local pollution. The event gathered experts working with cities throughout Europe discussing how nature-based solutions are by far the most beneficial tool for cities to become more sustainable.
Pekka Timonen, Mayor of Lahti (Finland) opened the event. The city is the EU Green Capital 2021, a true sustainability pioneer! Pekka Timonen spoke about how Lahti has worked with nature-bases solutions for some time, improving among other things air quality steadily. He highlighted the exemplary example of storm water management in the hilly city, where they have engaged citizens to learn about how water behaves in various parts of the city and harnessed natural landmass to re-direct flows. The pride of Lahti – the beautiful lake Vesijärvi, used to be polluted, but now with the help of several nature-based solutions has become clean enough to swim and even fish in. 'How can we help nature to help us to create more sustainable urban lifestyles?' Is at the heart of Lahti’s approach Timonen stated.
Iva Bedenko, Architect at Office of Strategic Planning at Zagreb (Croatia), a partner in the EU funded proGIreg project, that uses nature for urban renewal in post-industrial districts, took the stage next. She pointed out that successful nature-based solutions need to address several challenges – they need to be socially inclusive and provide economic benefits. Zagreb is doing just that, with proGIreg helping to implement solutions in cities and the project allowing Zagreb to engage with other cities in similar situations and to learn from them. Bedenko said that it is crucial to involve citizens to achieve lasting solutions, and to educate them about the effects of nature-based solutions, such as pollution mitigation and improved health. To this end, Zagreb will incorporate a public information point near proGIreg green areas to increase understanding of nature-based solutions. Zagreb has been able to design nature-based solutions together with local associations and citizens, with a recently opened therapeutic garden, providing green spaces for everyone with special consideration to engaging disabled groups.
Duarte Mata Climate & Green Infrastructure Advisor from Lisbon (Portugal) echoed Bedenko’s statement saying how Lisbon is trying to inform citizens about nature-based solutions, as this is crucial to increase their demand and help maintain them in the long term. Lisbon is increasingly implementing urban gardens, with locals showing great interest to have an allotment. Lisbon is also introducing green corridors in the city to help foster biodiversity and address pollution. Mata agreed that vulnerable populations need to be taken into account and prioritized when implementing solutions. Lisbon’s has had problems with heatwaves, which affects climate justice as often those most vulnerable suffer the most, such as elderly people and those with illnesses – 'This is where green infrastructure can truly come in and help save lives' Mata stated. Mata reminded participants that nature-based solutions are cost-effective as they are creating natural and climate adaptive landscapes. He also discussed how the time for aesthetic `boutique` green spaces is over, and there is a need to choose solutions that are useful, productive and addresses pollution and helps conserve resources.
The final speaker Fabio Masi, Environmental Chemist, Managing Director of Iridra – an innovative engineering firm specialised in sustainable water management with green infrastructure and nature-based solutions discussed water pollution. He talked about harnessing nature for wastewater treatment and how these systems can be replicated worldwide, as it is a solution stemming from nature, not a difficult technical apparition. He echoed Mata saying that there is a need for multipurpose solutions where aesthetics are not the primary consideration.
Photo: Speakers in the EU Green Week session on nature-based solutions
A lively discussion ensued about how to mainstream solutions, with Pekka Timonen reminding that Lahti is a great example to follow. By European standards it is a rather average city resource wise, but has still managed to transform itself into a greener city: 'Whatever you do in environmental projects in general – this idea for togetherness is vital – together you can do more and get further'. Mata agreed that bringing people on board is crucial, but can be challenging as the understanding and appreciation of nature at an urban level is different. People like controlled nature and biodiversity as a concept, but when it comes down to fostering pollinators resulting in more bees, or not watering greens in the summer, then you will be met with resistance. Which is why Bedenko reminded that there is a need to involve citizens as early as possible to foster understanding. Timonen brought a great example from Lahti for engaging citizens by using local heroes, e.g. from the local Ice Hockey team, to advocate for green solutions, as these are the people locals look up to. Masi stated that in addition to convincing the citizens, one needs to convince policy makers, which should not be a challenge as there are scientific studies and functioning systems that have proven that nature-based solutions are cost-effective, e.g. helping to ensure a longer lifetime for sewage systems and reducing water pollution. Mata agreed that for cities to be able to replicate nature-based solutions, one needs to communicate the cost-effectiveness and the fact that they are designed to address several challenges in one, the choice for decision makers coming apparent if 'You can solve 10 problems instead of 1' Mata said.
The session clearly highlighted the enthusiasm European cities have to utilise nature-based solutions and how they are eager to gather and learn from one another how these solutions can be spread. Nature-based solutions are inclusive and engage people; they have multiple benefits, are cost-effective and provide returns on investment – truly a path for a more sustainable future.
Watch the session recording here.
Top photo: Kristen Morith, Unsplash