What if our cities were more like forests?

By on 04/05/2022 | Updated on 04/05/2022
Photo by Fas Khan on Unsplash

Imagine walking through an ancient broadleaf forest. Above your head, trees reach for the sun, harnessing solar energy. Beneath your feet, the ground teems with unseen fungal networks, breaking down forest floor debris. Everything is interconnected. Nothing is wasted.

We regularly see the natural and built environments as distinct opposites. With the recent announcement of the new Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures, many policymakers and businesses are considering how we can shift investment toward nature-positive outcomes. In these conversations we must ensure that the important relationship between our cities and nature is not overlooked.

While cities only account for 2% of the world’s surface area, over half of the global population lives in an urban area. The sheer number of people who call cities their home means urban environments demand high consumption of food, energy, and water – producing more than 60% of greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, they are also the social, economic, and political hubs of global society. The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the importance of protecting urban citizens and nurturing their relationship with nature, for the sake of their mental and physical health.

We can’t neglect cities, so how we adapt cities to resolve the challenges of the climate crisis and rapid urbanization is vital, for the sake of enhancing both sustainability and community.

What if our future cities could mimic natural structures and systems – integrating the natural and built environments? Would they be better, more resilient places?

Forests: the ultimate blueprint for city planning?

Implementing nature-based solutions into our planning systems can create a more sustainable urban environment, that is both socially inclusive and nature-positive.

Unlike cities, forests have evolved slowly, over many millions of years, to become highly resilient ecosystems. These systems have developed efficient processes for heating, cooling, and managing resources from waste to food. Each layer of the forest offers valuable insights into how a largely vertical environment creates a thriving ecosystem.

For example, one of the key challenges of the climate crisis is how to develop water resilience. In a forest, soil filters water and regulates surface temperatures. Pavement and concrete, meanwhile, not only require intensive amounts of resources to be created and made usable, but also increase urban temperatures and water pollution, as water flows over pavements and is subsequently exposed to surface debris.

Grounding our cities in soil can respond to these effects, by reducing stormwater pollution, mitigating flooding, and reducing the urban heat island effect. One can look to Copenhagen’s Courtyard of the Future as an example. WSP supported a city development project which uses Copenhagen’s courtyards for local rainwater management. By implementing sustainable drainage systems (SuDS), such as swales and rain gardens, not only can these courtyards better retain rainwater to reduce flooding, but also serve as beautiful garden spaces for community enjoyment.

Of course, the most distinctive features of any city are its buildings. Just as a skyscraper supports the social, economic and political lives of thousands of individuals – who live, work, and shop alongside each other – trees provide shelter and habitat for a myriad of plants and animals.

But while trees continue to support new life, even after death, buildings are rarely reused optimally after they are vacated. The construction industry is one of the most carbon-intensive today, responsible for more than a third of all global carbon emissions. Looking to trees to consider how buildings can be reused could reduce these emissions significantly. 

Rather than demolishing buildings only to build new ones, we could instead adapt vacant sites for other uses, while reusing existing materials for new developments elsewhere.

Likewise, buildings can be more energy efficient by harvesting the energy of the sun, and not just by solar panels. In a forest the canopy is the area of greatest energy input into its forest ecosystem. ‘Green’ roofs could also be the canopies of our cities. Therefore, rather than letting our roofs go un-used, we could develop them into green spaces, which not only serve a communal and aesthetic function but also store energy for use within the building.

Ultimately, the way in which we can be future-ready is to think about urban development as a network. Each part of the forest is connected, with the soil, trees, and canopy working together to improve the health of the environment. Likewise, forests have highly sophisticated mycelial networks, which transfer energy and essential resources, like water, nitrogen and carbon.

Understanding how these different elements interact can inform how we develop our urban jungles and design adaptive communication, transportation and energy networks of the future. Can a new structure have multiple uses? How can energy captured by green roofs be used by electric buses, or underground rail? By considering the interconnected nature of our cities, we can design our urban spaces to meet the needs of both the natural environment and the people that live there.

Resilient cities: The future

By embedding nature into city planning, we can not only design our spaces to be more ecologically resilient, by making more efficient use of urban land and infrastructure, but also improve the quality of life in the communities that planning policies affect.

Already, cities around the world are beginning to consider how they can bring together the natural and built environments. In the UK, for example, the most recent 2021 London Plan pays particular attention to the importance of urban greening for future development through its Urban Greening Factor, a tool designed to help local authorities evaluate the quality and quantity of their green infrastructure, such as landscaping, nature-based drainage solutions or green walls.

As policymakers prepare for the COP15 biodiversity summit, the importance of cities to protect nature cannot be neglected. Nature-based solutions should be an important part of our cities’ future and offer a multitude of benefits, not least improving health outcomes for urban communities. We are used to thinking of a city as the antithesis of a natural environment like a forest. But we are a part of nature and so should ensure that we design our cities to be more in step with natural systems.

Imagine if a walk through your home city was more like a walk through a forest – where you experienced cleaner air and a greater diversity of life, where everything was connected and nothing was wasted. Wouldn’t delivering this reality make for a better future for us all, and our planet?

Author: Ludo Pittie, Head of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design at WSP, one of the UK’s leading engineering professional services consultancies.

To find out more about how WSP is supporting clients and communities in developing Future Ready landscapes, or to get in touch, please visit our webpage here

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