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How Nature Can Save Our Cities

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The Climate Commission largely bases its modelling, and its recommendations, on urban life as we know it – but our cities could be very different, writes Rod Oram

Aotearoa has two abundant and distinctive climate opportunities: urban form; and agriculture. If we seize both boldly, we will respond effectively to the climate crisis while improving our lives physically, socially, culturally, environmentally and economically.

This column considers the urban opportunity; next week’s the rural one. Our abundance of natural capital is at the heart of both, as last week’s column discussed.

The Climate Change Commission is on to both opportunities in its draft recommendations to government. But superficially and timidly because it seriously neglects nature-based solutions to the climate crisis. Instead, it bases its advice on current technological solutions. It refers to but passes on the bigger challenges of overcoming the cultural, political and policy inertia blocking changes in attitudes and systems.

As the Commission points out: “Around 85 percent of New Zealanders live in urban areas with populations greater than 50,000. As a result, much of the country’s transport emissions occur within these urban areas. Cities can ‘grow up’ or ‘grow out’.

“Historically, cities in Aotearoa have had a tendency to grow out, resulting in growth at the urban boundary rather than the urban centre. The result has been sprawling car-oriented cities in the style typical of Australia or North America, rather than the more compact transit-, cycling-, and pedestrian-oriented cities typical of Europe and many parts of Asia.”

But the Commission fails to prioritise how we must and can change our urban forms and built environments so they are more beneficial to people and the climate. Pessimistic about us making those changes over the next few decades, it largely bases its modelling, and thus its recommendations, on urban life as we know it. Yes, we’ll walk, cycle and take public transport a bit more. But it relies on rapid adoption of electric vehicles to do the heavy lifting of emissions reduction.

Given that inertia, our urban lives will get worse, judging by the population projections the Commission uses for its modelling. Taking the mid-point of Statistic NZ projections, it says we will number 5.524 million people in 2030 and 6.160 m in 2050. Our growth from 2018’s 4.841 m people would be 14 percent by 2030 and 27 percent by 2050.

Auckland would bear the brunt of this. The Commission says its population could increase by 1m by 2050, a 60 percent increase from 2018.

As it happens, Auckland Council declared a climate emergency and adopted a climate plan late last year. The goals are a 50 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 (which would require a 64 percent reduction in transport emissions) and net zero emissions by 2050.

… we build cheaply for the short-term; we squander land; we don’t plan strategically for the long-term; and we have yet to create a distinctive Aotearoa style of urbanism

But the council emphasises that we need big changes in our urban form, built environments and consumer behaviour to meet those goals. To help us shift those, we need the Government to transform how it makes policies and funds projects.

If the Government fails to do so, Auckland won’t meet even its short-term climate goals. Thus, it could soon be forced out of the C40 group of cities leading the urban flight against the climate crisis, as Newsroom reported recently. The group has grown from its original 40 cities to 96, which account for 25 percent of global GDP.

We should be at the forefront of the urban response to the climate crisis because we are a highly urbanised nation. We rank 28th in the world right behind the United Arab Emirates. By comparison, the UK is 33rd, the US 36th, France 51st, Germany 53rd, Switzerland 62nd and Ireland 89th.

We’re urban laggards for many reasons, such as: we build cheaply for the short-term; we squander land; we don’t plan strategically for the long-term; and we have yet to create a distinctive Aotearoa style of urbanism enlivened by the natural beauty and cultural riches of our nation.

Hamilton and Wellington show the way

Yet, Hamilton and Wellington are showing us the potential of our unique style as they embrace two of the most important concepts in the urban response worldwide to the climate crisis: creation of the 15-minute city; and regeneration of urban ecosystems.

The principle of the first is simple. However large a city is, each neighbourhood offers almost everything its residents needs for their day-to-day life and work within 15-minutes travel by walking, cycling and public transport. No cars required. The concept is spreading fast, as Bloomberg explains in this article. Paris is one example, with The 15-Minute City website offering more.

Hamilton shares the ambition, though in pragmatic Kiwi style it has stretched the definition to the 20-minute city. Hamilton City Council, NZ Transport Agency and Waikato University worked up the plans for it, as Iain White, one of the authors and a professor of urban planning, describes here.

Last year, the city submitted them to the Government’s Covid-recovery “shovel-ready” infrastructure fund. They met all the criteria for projects. They were ready to proceed ($193m worth in the first six months out of $500m in the full plan); they created construction jobs (over the first two years they would create 11,792 full-time employment years of which 3,378 would be direct, 4,966 indirect and 3,448 induced); they would generate economic activity (every one dollar invested in construction would produce between $2.51 and $3.11 in economic activity, giving a total return of approximately $1.37 billion in economic benefits); and they would deliver multiple, identifiable environmental, social, health and other benefits.

But Hamilton failed to win any funding. The Government favoured other applications, most of which were distressingly business and climate-as-usual rather than as transformational as Hamilton’s. Still, the city council is pressing on piecemeal with a few of the projects as fast as its constrained finances allow.


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Meanwhile, Wellington has long made good progress on regenerating its urban ecosystems. For example, it is famous internationally for Zealandia, the first fully-fenced urban ecosanctuary in the world. It is restoring 225 ha of valley to as close as possible to its pre-human state. So far it has reintroduced 18 native species.

Wellington has been a member since 2013 of Biophilic Cities, an intentional network seeking to build the understanding of the value and contribution of nature to cities. So far it is the sole NZ member but hopefully many more of our towns and cities will see the sense of making nature central to their futures.

There’s abundant evidence of the benefits, such as in the most recent report of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity. From an economic and business perspective, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development offered this reflection on the report.

Similarly the value to cities of restoring biodiversity are explored in this report from the UN, ICLEI (an international network of local governments focused on sustainability), and the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

So, yes to EVs. But it is our natural capital which will make our towns and cities liveable, distinctive, climate-resilient and internationally recognised.

How Nature Can Save Our Cities

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