Natural Infrastructure: A Clear Path towards Urban Resilience?

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This week’s UGEC Viewpoints article was written by Robert McDonald of The Nature Conservency.

There has been an explosion of interest in the idea of “urban resilience”. The Rockefeller Foundation was excited enough about the idea to create the 100 Resilient Cities network, and the World Bank has developed its own methodology to assess urban resilience, to name just two efforts. My own organization has created a global Resilient Cities program, consolidating our various natural infrastructure and biodiversity projects under one conceptual umbrella. The word “resilience” is amazingly flexible, being used for resilience to everything from coastal flooding to terrorism to economic downturns. Like “sustainable development”, “urban resilience” is useful to policymakers because it is so broad as to be all things good to all people.

While I am skeptical as a scientist about a term like “resilience,” I do see one positive thing about the explosion of interest in urban resilience: it focuses society’s attention on solutions. Environmentalists have spent a lot of the last few decades painting maps red, outlining the risks facing humanity and the world’s biodiversity. Thinking about ways to improve resilience inevitably forces us to paint maps green, outlining what solutions work where. For organizations like mine, the main solution we put forward is natural infrastructure, itself an umbrella term for all the different ways natural habitat or semi-natural features can help improve people’s lives: forest cover to prevent erosion from fouling drinking water sources, constructed wetlands to mitigate urban stormwater problems, parks to improve people’s physical and mental well-being, and much more.

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