Olivia Heininger


Olivia Heininger

Olivia is a recent graduate in Geography from the University of Cambridge and brings knowledge of risk, disasters and urban environments to the UMGCY team. Currently working at the European Parliament in Brussels, before beginning legal training in September, she hopes to move into environmental law and later on, international environmental policy.

The Urban Environment: A Paradox?

For centuries, an antagonistic separation between the urban and rural environments has been ingrained into our social fabric. Part of a wider the nature-culture divide, this demarcation between industrialising societies and the natural environment, has forced nature to the sidelines both physically and metaphorically. Boundaries are drawn on maps to mark city limits and open spaces are transformed into constructed urban environments. It is easy to separate the urban and rural in our minds when there is so little visible evidence of their connection when walking through the streets of London, Singapore or Addis Ababa.

Now, however, there is an active attempt to blur this separation and reverse the exclusion of nature from the urban context. Increasingly, efficiency arguments are being made for the role of cities in tackling climate change and new urban environments are putting nature at the centre with Green infrastructures and green spaces featuring heavily in urban planning agendas. Nonetheless, are these changes simply superficial, cosmetic? Is there more to be done to highlight the synergies between urban development and the natural environments? And what can be done to build sufficient connections between the urban and the rural? Cities continue to negatively impact the environment and need to adapt in order to meet the needs of an environmentally aware society and widescale environmental problems.

Increasingly cities are turning their gaze inwards and looking at ways to integrate natural and built environments. One example is ‘green infrastructure’ which range from small roof gardens and city wall gardens on individual buildings, to larger infrastructures such as London’s new Garden Bridge. All of them are designed to embed natural ecosystem services into urban environments. For example, plants naturally filter city air, removing harmful pollutants which are currently threatening human heath in cities across the globe. Although these infrastructures are environmentally (and aesthetically) beneficial, they can be tokenistic and only go so far towards the adaptation necessary to reduce negative externalities of urban development. Instead, there needs to be full integration of environmental considerations in urban development. Easier said than done, however; issues with funding and expertise are often faced when trying to achieve full integration.

In the 2013 book ‘Nature’s Fortune’ the authors, Mark Tercek and Jonathan Adams, argue that taking a business approach to natural environments and ecosystem services offers a way to conserve them. Could this perspective offer a solution to the funding issue? The book correctly makes the connection between ecosystem services and economic profitability, demonstrating the dependence on the latter on natural products such as fresh water, fish and forests. Businesses and governments who have fully recognised both the economic value of these resources (which are often taken for granted) and the importance of investing in them, mostly through conservation efforts, are seeing positive returns on their investments. Although I don’t fully subscribe to Tercek and Adams’ capitalist commodification of nature, I can see the value in making these arguments as they effectively speak to an audience that is in a position to make real change happen.

One example used in ‘Nature’s Fortune’ is New York City’s choice to actively invest in conservation in the Catskills area in order to protect the City’s fresh water supply which is seen as particularly unique (in taste!) and of great importance to the City. Instead of constructing filtration plants, the City chose to invest in the natural ecosystem’s purification system by working with landowners and farmers to protect the land and reduce pollution, as well as purchasing much of the land for complete conservation. Crucially, the City transcended the urban-rural divide and recognised the connection of New York City with the wider natural environment. This holistic approach to urban development is an example of full integration of environmental considerations, in this case specifically related to water conservation, into urban planning. Now the City enjoys the benefits of naturally filtered water and stunning conservation area just outside its City limits.

Many cities in today’s world do not have the same flexibility that cities like New York, London and Seoul have to spend millions on large projects. This is certainly a challenge that should be tackled within agreements like Habitat III. However, this is not to say cities that lack these levels of resources are not making those important connections between urban environments and the natural environment; these connections are just happening in different ways. In Mathare, an informal settlement in Nairobi, informal networks and organisations, mostly operated by young residents, provide environmental services such as recycling and urban farming (Thieme 2013). These efforts are polar opposite to the large-scale, hard infrastructures mentioned so far; they are informal and chaotic, but they work.

Urban farming provides a complete inversion of the urban-rural divide. Successful urban farming projects are springing up in cities across the globe such as Chicago. Alongside these, sky-scraping urban farms are being dreamed up by urban planners and could be a feature of the future city landscape. Offering an alternative to these large urban infrastructures, an example of urban farming at its most grass-roots level the MANYGRO youth organisation in Mathare. Crucially, urban farming provides in-situ food production as an alternative to relying on imports from the surrounding rural areas or widescale distribution through commercial supermarkets. This represents a step towards urban sustainability through encouraging small, local-scale supply chains..

So here I have taken you on a journey; from the large-scale green infrastructures of London and Seoul, to the large-scale water conservation efforts in New York City, and on to the urban farming and recycling systems in the informal settlements of Nairobi. There are a multitude of ways to integrate ecosystem services and the natural environment into urban development and these produce a multitude of outcomes. Some of these efforts go further than others in achieving full integration and transcending the urban-rural divide to recognise the reliance of urban environments on their natural surroundings. These are important connections to make as more needs to be done to take a holistic approach to urban development and reduce its negative externalities; a priority of Habitat III.

Photo Credits: ''Seoul City Hall building is solar powered and the wall garden acts a natural air filter, inhabit.com 2014 (CC)''

  1. ‘7-Story Indoor Green Wall is an Enormous Air Filter for Solar-Powered Seoul City Hall’ Internet [25.03.16] http://inhabitat.com/7-story-indoor-green-wall-is-as-an-enormous-air-filter-for-solar-powered-seoul-city-hall/
  2. Tatiana A. Thieme (2013) The “hustle” amongst youth entrepreneurs in Mathare's informal waste economy, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 7:3, 389-412