Action to restore and enhance nature, green space, and biodiversity in urban areas should be a ‘foremost priority’, World Economic Forum warns

Investing in nature-based infrastructure in cities worldwide could enhance biodiversity, boost climate resilience, curb economic risks, and unlock 59 million new jobs, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF).

The influential think tank urged urban planners to make restoring nature a “foremost priority”, warning that almost half of global GDP in cities – $31tr – currently runs the risk of disruption from flooding, drought, air pollution, a lack of green areas, and unsustainable urban growth, all of which are exacerbated by nature loss.

Cities are “the engine of the global economy”, contributing to around 80 per cent of the world’s GDP, but exponential, unsustainable growth of the built environment – which has increased by two-thirds since 2000 – has come at the expense of nature and clean air, a new report from WEF argues.

Yet by investing in nature-based infrastructure such as wetlands and trees, and working to enhance biodiversity and green spaces in cities, it argues urban planners can significantly reduce the risks cities face, while also making urban areas more climate resilient, healthier, and more attractive places to live and work.

It estimates spending $583bn on myriad nature-based solutions and interventions that release land to nature – such as reclaiming car parking spaces – could create more than 59 million jobs worldwide by 2030, including 21 million livelihood-enhancing jobs dedicated to restoring and protecting natural ecosystems.

Moreover, nature-based infrastructure investment is on average 50 per cent more cost-effective than man-made alternatives, while delivering 28 per cent more added value, according to the report.

Akanksha Khatri, WEF’s head of nature and biodiversity, said that while cities and urban development may be traditionally seen as coming at the expense of nature and biodiversity “this does not have to be the case”.

“Nature can be the backbone of urban development,” she said. “By recognising cities as living systems, we can support conditions for the health of people, planet and economy in urban areas.”

However, the report highlights a multitude of challenges stopping urban investors and decision-makers from taking a more nature-positive approach to development. City planners have too often prioritised ‘quick wins’ for infrastructure investments, while there also remains a lack of green expertise and data to aid more nature-positive decisions from city policymakers, the report warns.

Moreover, it said “many fiscal policies also make destroying nature cheaper than protecting or leveraging it”. “In particular, prevailing subsidies and tax reliefs for land transformation, fossil fuels, road and infrastructure development and water artificially lower the costs of nature-negative business models in these areas, and far outnumber existing incentives to protect nature, especially in cities,” the report added.

In order to overcome these hurdles and ensure a greater focus on greening urban environments, nature-related considerations should be embedded more deeply into economic and financial decision-making, bolstered by social and governance goals, and new measures of economic success, the report suggests.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Arup’s global sustainable development leader, Jo da Silva, stressed that cities “don’t need to be concrete jungles in conflict with nature in and outside their boundaries”.

“They should be places where all people and nature co-exist and thrive together,” she said. “Nature-based solutions offer wider benefits than traditional engineered ‘grey’ solutions – such as improving resilience, increasing citizens’ health and wellbeing and moving cities to net zero. Using powerful new digital mapping tools to help us understand cities as complex systems, we are increasingly adopting nature-based solutions in our projects – this needs to be accelerated on a global scale.”

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