Why nature-based solutions should be central to urban pandemic recovery

COVID-19 has unveiled stark environmental inequalities in our societies, particularly in cities. Recovery efforts can prioritise green initiatives to improve climate resilience while increasing job opportunities and population health.

C ovid-19 and the ensuing lock-down regulations have not affected everyone equally. Residents living in dense informal settlements lack access to clean water, do not have adequate space to self-distance and isolate, and are disproportionately affected by job losses and food insecurity. The current health crisis has heightened the urgency of addressing the systemic, underlying causes of exclusion, unemployment, and poverty across the countries, but specifically in cities.

Whilst the immediate response to the pandemic has rightly focussed on challenges relating to the health and wellbeing of people, we now need to plan for recovery and future resilience that takes into account increased climate variance and impacts, reduced income and revenue for the foreseeable future and the need to reduce inequality within our cities and to build a fairer and healthier society. 

Given South Africa’s endemic unemployment, the immediate economic priority should be to invest in programmes with the shortest lead times that will deliver the greatest job-creation and protection benefits and which will set cities firmly on the path to a zero-carbon economy.

A new report by WWF and the International Labour Organization (ILO) compiles international evidence through case studies and confirms the potential of nature-based solutions to drive a sustainable, job-intensive economic recovery in the wake of the pandemic.

It urges policymakers to explore the potential of nature-based solutions and integrate them into their responses to Covid-19, and shows they are cost-effective solutions that will have a multiplier effect in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Cities the world over are facing unprecedented challenges that require of them to deal with the immediate effects of the pandemic as well as declining revenues which will have long-term negative impacts on their finances and ability to address infrastructure backlogs.

These challenges are compounded by the impact of climate-related shocks and stresses. In recent years, cities have faced the devastating physical impact of climate change. Increasing extreme weather conditions and resulting damage has led to unexpected expenditure and disruptions in operations because of budget reallocation and prioritisation.

Nature-based solutions such as parks, urban food gardens, green roofs, green walls, greenbelts, river corridors, green and blue infrastructure and sustainable urban drainage systems offer municipalities the triple dividend of delivering climate, economic and social benefits in the context of long term recovery, post Covid-19.

The job creation potential is important because initial estimates of job losses in South Africa indicate that they have been disproportionately concentrated among the already disadvantaged groups and the low skilled groups in the labour market. Additionally, workers in the informal sector who are self-employed have also been highly vulnerable to livelihood shocks. In this backdrop, investments in nature-based solutions that are labour-intensive can be critical to creating low-skill and fast-implementing jobs.

This is not peculiar to South Africa. A new publication by the European Union points out that while nature-based solutions can be a powerful tool for cities dealing with sustainability challenges and have potential to boost local economies and create business opportunities, many public authorities have difficulty in using public procurement to implement nature-based solution projects.

These challenges are not insurmountable, but they do require of practitioners and cities to work collaboratively in building the capacity and knowledge of cities to support the planning, financing and implementation of nature-based solutions.

Cities need to mainstream nature-based solutions in their policy and praxis as a crucial option to generate employment and economic growth in cities in the context of long term recovery plans from Covid-19, while achieving long-lasting change by making cities climate resilient, healthy, and liveable.

The ideas presented in this article aim to inspire adaptation action – they are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Global Center on Adaptation.

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