1. Our urbanizing planet

Biodiversity, the variety of all living things on earth, has weathered the storms, folded them into its genes and created the world that created us … it holds the world steady. The nature we see around us is a constant reminder that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. We are part of a vast web of life to which we are inescapably connected.

Planet earth has been our home for hundreds of thousands of years. Our cultures, traditions and lifestyles have been supported, shaped and influenced by the diversity of nature around us. The very first human settlements laid their foundations in areas rich with biodiversity, or what we like to call natural assets- places with healthy soil, clean air, fresh water and an abundance of plants and animals. But these settlements soon grew into towns and these towns eventually developed into cities and little by little nature started to be pushed out. Because, as they stand, cities are not discrete, self-contained spaces, but are rather dynamic hubs of activity, consuming vast quantities of natural resources, producing immense amounts of waste and considerably altering both near and distant natural systems.

Today, Africa is the world’s most rapidly urbanizing continent. Between 2000 and 2030 the urban population will more than double. For the first time in human history we will be called an ‘urban species’ with cities as our natural habitat. In Africa the urban area will increase by more than 700% during the same period. This urban area will need more land. Land with valuable and unique biodiversity, which we are all dependent on in order to secure the health and wellbeing of future generations.

Ahead of us our urbanizing African continent presents great challenges, but also great opportunities.

The imperative for action spurred the establishment of a global Center to address these challenges focusing on the design and governance of urban regions. Today, ICLEI’s Cities Biodiversity Center, hosted by the ICLEI Africa Secretariat, involves a global alliance of various partners, who together through initiatives like the Urban Biosphere Initiative and projects like the Urban Natural Assets for Africa project, aspire to reconcile urban development with the conservation of nature and the sustainable use of natural resources – a quest to engender cities with greater resilience in the context of global change.

2. Life blood of a city

Most African cities laid their foundation on areas with rich biodiversity, and rich natural assets, including rivers and fresh water systems for transport, fishing, farming and recreation. Rivers catchments are the lifeblood of our cities- they not only provide essential services, they shape the way a city operates, they not only connect natural systems from source to sea- but they connect people, communities and cultures- they connect districts, they connect levels of government from local to national and they connect the cause- and-effect of our actions from upstream to downstream, for you cannot effect a part of the river without affecting the whole system. Most importantly- rivers connect people to nature. There’s a saying- we love what we are able to enjoy and we protect only what we love. Restoring our cultural links to rivers needs to be an important priority. In urban areas, particularly so as in order for people to take care of their environment, they have to care for it, and in order to care for it- they have to be able to enjoy it.

But rivers do not exist alone in allowing a city to function- they are part of an intricate web of natural assets which we call green/blue infrastructure. When nature is harnessed by people and used as an infrastructural system it is called green/blue infrastructure including green spaces (the green) and fresh water systems (the blue). Green/blue infrastructure occurs at all scales and serves to provide an ecological framework for social, economic and environmental health of our surroundings, providing us with valuable ecosystem services including: allowing us to produce and harvest food, keep flooding and natural disasters at bay and keeping our cities’ air and water clean- ultimately keeping US healthy, happy citizens.

3. Everything is connected

Underpinning the functioning of our cities’ green and blue infrastructure, is biodiversity or the variety of all living things. Different species within natural systems fill particular roles. They all have a special function. They all have a niche. These different species interact with each other and the physical environment to provide the ecosystem services that are vital for our survival. For example plant species convert carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and energy from the sun into useful things such as food, medicines and timber. By protecting biodiversity in a city, we maintain ecosystem services.

It’s essential to have a diversity of living species, in order to secure our way of life and the resilience of our cities’, meaning that if one species providing an essential ecosystem service disappears in the city (e.g. pollination), there’s another, similar species ready to take its place.

As in nature- everything is connected. All challenges are connected. But so are the solutions.

For example:
The clearing of plants and trees or deforestation is a major problem in many African cities. People cut down plants and trees to burn for heat and cooking, to make charcoal, for building and also to clear land for crops and housing. Plants and trees are very important for the quality and quantity of water in river catchments. By clearing them, the soil washes away (triggering soil erosion), more nutrients leave the soil and reach the rivers (leading to soil degradation, which leads to poor yield). The fewer plants there are, the hotter the city is and the less water is released by plants into the clouds, thus affecting rainfall patterns as well as making a city more prone to flooding (as there are no plants to absorb the water). Plants and trees also help clean the air we breathe and provide homes for all kind of birds, insects and animals which are also important for keeping the catchment functioning at its best. Unsustainably cutting down trees and vegetation may provide wood and useable land for today, but it will make farming and living much more difficult in the future if soil has washed away and the water is polluted.

This could be reversed… Instead if we sustainably harvested wood combined with energy efficient stoves which reduced the amount of wood needed and sustainably planned which areas to clear for housing or farming, we could keep our forested areas and green spaces functioning, which would in turn help to keep our air clean, our soils healthier, our city cooler and greener, less prone to flooding and our rainfall regular. More green space would also provide a variety of habitats for local species, more spaces for recreational activities and overall increased human well-being.

4. Nature’s services are free but they need to be sustainably managed.

If we can make this work we will keep getting a lot of services, for free, from nature. Services that are expensive or even impossible to replace.

By keeping healthy green spaces in a city intact, trees and vegetation will continue to provide clean air, healthy soils and climate regulation. Nature will continue to provide for you, for you to feel alive and thrive!

By leaving the smaller fish today we secure the possibility to fish in the future. Nature will continue to provide for you, for you to feel alive and thrive!

Human development cannot take place without a wider recognition of nature’s contribution.

5. Thrive!

In order to make our selves and our cities thrive, we have to make sure that our environment thrives as well.

We need long term solutions but there are also things you can do right here and now, with instant results. Nature helps to bring us together, it helps to promote socializing, formation of friendships and community, building a sense of place and a commitment to a place. And all of those things can help us be more resilient in the face of a series of potential future shocks, both economic and environmental. Nature holds all the solutions.

This application is a guide on how to achieve the most with limited resources. A set of 60 step-by-step nature-based solutions to improve your life. Suggestions which can be achieved by yourself, at the community-level, and at the city-level as whole. From restoring soil, to saving water, from rehabilitating green spaces, to producing food gardens, from sustainable cooking and energy, to preventing disease and disaster.

We live on a vast continent, brimming with natural resources, rife with spectacular wildlife, and bursting with human ingenuity. As Africans, we have every reason to be optimistic and take pride in what we do, so let’s play our role with vigour and make the greatest contribution possible to make this magnificent continent’s cities THRIVE.

You can be the start of something bigger.

Developed by ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability - Africa Secretariat. Funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) through SwedBio at Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Contact: thrive@iclei.org