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How can nature help us meet the climate challenge in towns and cities?

Updated Monday, 4th April 2022

At COP26 in Glasgow, we saw that scientists, politicians, and environmental activists love their jargon. Everyone who attended came away with a new climate buzzword firmly planted in their minds: nature-based solutions.

Conservation of machair at Calgary Bay, Isle of Mull, for biodiversity protection and reducing coastal erosion.

Conservation of machair at Calgary Bay, Isle of Mull, for biodiversity protection and reducing coastal erosion.

Definitions, definitions, definitions

Nature-based solutions are actions that protect, manage or restore natural environments to support people’s wellbeing and enhance the quality of the environment. If you think that sounds broad, you’d be right. Nature-based solutions come in many shapes and sizes and can prioritise different issues. Managing a community park to hold more rainwater, restoring a peatland landscape to soak up more carbon dioxide, or enhancing a seagrass bed to create a richer habitat for marine wildlife could all be considered examples of a nature-based solution.

Working in partnership with nature to bring benefits to people is not new. For thousands of years, residents in tropical countries have planted greenery to provide shade and guard against oppressive heat. Rural farming communities in countries like Japan have for centuries understood that protecting the health of forests, rivers and uplands enables them to return healthy crop yields. But what is different about nature-based solutions now is the strong and explicit drive to understand how nature can reduce the extent of climate change, and help our societies adapt to the climate change impacts we will face.

Photo of a modern city surrounded by jungle in Malaysia.

Nature in towns and cities

Nature-based solutions can straddle land and sea, and cover a very large scale like a whole forest or moorland. Today, though, we will focus on nature-based solutions we might see in our towns and cities. The United Nations estimates that around three-quarters of the world’s population lives in urban areas. Sustainable Development Goal 11 is devoted to sustainable cities and communities. It will therefore be in towns and cities that most of us experience, and have to respond to, climate change. Urban areas don’t just refer to megacities of many millions of people, but also towns of several hundred or thousand people.

Towns and cities globally are already working with nature to guard against the weather extremes we see as climate change intensifies. Gothenburg in Sweden is enhancing the grass and vegetation within its parks, to retain stormwater and reduce flood risk under extreme rainfall. Fukuoka, Japan, has identified the areas of the city that are likely to get hottest during periods of extreme heat and has trialled planting trees and expanding grassy areas in these places to lower the temperatures. Singapore, meanwhile, protects and restores its coastal mangroves, which can help to take the energy out of the sea during storm surges and stabilise the coast against erosion under rising sea levels.

All of these show how nature-based solutions can help urban environments adapt to climate change. Other cities are looking at how their natural spaces can mitigate the extent of climate change. In Durban in South Africa, the city government has worked with scientists to understand how the city’s natural spaces store carbon dioxide. Scientific evidence like this helps local authorities to make a stronger case for why green and natural spaces should be protected against housing and development.

A fair response

Nature-based solutions might be ‘green’, but this does not automatically make them ‘good’. A study by researchers from The Open University and Robert Gordon University found deprived areas in Glasgow tend to have lower-quality and less biodiverse green space than their wealthier counterparts (Baka and Mabon, 2022). The world over, benefits from nature-based solutions disproportionately accrue to the wealthiest people and places, and not the people who are at greatest risk under a changing climate. It is also important that strategies for nature-based solutions are respectful of communities who are already living and working in a locality and are not forced on them from the top down.

Glasgow City Region’s climate change adaptation strategy is a good example of how nature-based solutions can be developed in cooperation with communities, and targeted towards the places that need them most. The city’s planners and environmental managers have collaborated with academic researchers and with residents to understand where the areas of highest heat and flood risk are in the city and have developed a plan to target tree-planting and green space enhancement in these locations.

No silver bullet

Nature-based solutions are not just a buzzword, but rather a very real and important tool in our climate change response. However, it is important that these approaches are implemented in a way that is scientifically sound, and fair to the people who have to bear the most risk from a changing climate. Above all else, nature-based solutions are not a ‘silver bullet’, and are not a substitute for rapid and sustained reduction of emissions or investment in public health and disaster risk reduction infrastructure.


  • Baka A and Mabon L (2022) ‘Assessing equality in neighbourhood availability of quality green space in Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom’ Landscape Research Advance version available online   

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