Cities must put nature at the heart of their recovery | WWF South Africa

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Cities must put nature at the heart of their recovery

As it has around the world, Covid-19 has exposed our vulnerability to systemic shocks and aggravated the stark inequality in South African cities, writes Louise Scholtz.

Covid-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 responses to the pandemic has rightly focussed on the immediate 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 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. The report urges policymakers to explore the potential of nature-based solutions and integrate them into their responses to Covid-19. The report also shows that nature-based solutions provide cost-effect solutions that will have a multiplier effect in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly those relating to poverty, water and food security, human health and climate action.

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 expenditures and, subsequently 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 benefits include:

  • improving resilience to climate change through improved water management, addressing rising temperatures and heat islands in cities and improved air quality,

  • supporting mitigation goals through increasing urban carbon sinks and reducing carbon emissions

  • rapidly generating jobs and providing accessible employment opportunities for lower-skilled workers

  • creating healthier, greener and more liveable cities

  •   supporting long-term economic growth by increasing food and water security, business productivity, and tourism and recreation value.

The job creation potential is important because initial estimates of job losses from South Africa’s  National Income Dynamics Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey indicate that job losses 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.
However, a key barrier to adoption is the lack of capacity and knowledge of nature-based solutions within cities. As captured in a policy brief produced by WWF SA earlier this year (The case for investment in green Infrastructure in African citiescities face knowledge gaps in several areas including:

  • the scope and role of green infrastructure in the urban sphere,

  • a lack of technical guidance for the implementation of green infrastructure in cities,

  • knowing which ecological functions to promote in their own context,

  • operationalising, maintaining and integrating nature-based solutions with existing conventional infrastructure, and

  • how to finance nature-based solutions (understanding who should pay for nature-based solutions and how to finance it can be complex because benefits accrue to multiple stakeholders and it is difficult to determine who should pay).

Collectively these barriers point to the difficulties of retrofitting nature-based solutions into a procurement regime that is more attuned to costs and accountability.
This is not peculiar to South Africa. A new publication by the European Union (Public Procurement of Nature-Based Solutions Addressing barriers to the procurement of urban NBS: case studies and recommendations) 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 options 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.

Louise Scholtz is the Senior Programme Manager for Urban Futures with WWF South Africa. This is a version of an opinion piece first published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Cities must lead the way when it comes to nature-based solutions.

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