Blog post

To measure is to know?

Published on
November 23, 2020

The role of assessment in renaturing the city

Narrow problem framings are not only an issue for environmental resource management at large scales, but also play a role at our own doorstep in the very towns and villages that we work and live in. Shifting demographics and an ongoing process of urbanization have led to a persistent demand for more housing in cities. Many cities push for a strategy of growth through densification rather than expansion, given demands for more sustainable urban development. This is putting pressure on pockets of greenspace in cities, including e.g. land available for urban gardens in new housing projects, which is often regarded as land representing low economic value. This results in a trend for land take in many cities across the world, with very few managing to compensate for this. Often, budget cuts for urban greening have been further aggravating this trend – for example, the city of Edinburgh lost 33% of its street trees between the 1990s and now, despite considerable population growth over this period.

To get urban nature higher on the agendas of decision-makers, and reverse the process of greenspace loss, an increasing number of scientists are developing new approaches to assess the benefits of nature. This shows that urban nature delivers a range of values, varying from improved air quality to higher biodiversity and from improved health & well-being to urban cooling and stormwater runoff. This emphasis on assessment and instrumentalization of nature serves to bring it in line with the routines of decision-making typical of a technocratic and rational society, where the power of numbers in making effective and cost-efficient decisions is held in high esteem. It is a highly dominant system given that it is central to the reliable production and delivery of products and services, such as access to sufficient and clean drinking water, a well-stocked supermarket packed with products from across the world, trains leaving on their scheduled departure time and keeping our feet dry in a country partially below sea water level. Therefore, alignment with those routines and rationalities often seems to be the only way to improve the protection and enhancement of nature.

A top-down, expert-driven approach to organizing society is, however, not without its risks. This becomes especially apparent when problems in need for a solution are stripped off their complexity to enable assessment and monitoring. This mechanism can explain why intensive farming is subsidized, despite its huge environmental footprint. Likewise, decisions on urban planning are also often made based on narrow problem framings by individual departments, each with their own budgets, interests, ways of assessment and preferred solutions. This leads to a situation where e.g. health and well-being challenges are addressed with new sports facilities and health centres, drainage issues with new pipes and economic challenges with investment in shopping malls and business districts. This tendency to operate in disciplinary silos is disadvantageous to the status of nature in cities, which has diffuse benefits distributed over many policy domains.

Given the way cities tend to organize themselves, it is uncertain if attempts by researchers to collect more quantitative data on the different benefits of nature will generate an impact. After all, who is going to use this data? However, there are at least three more challenges limiting the impact of urban nature assessment. First, the values of nature cannot be easily assessed. The functioning of nature is influenced by factors such as which species of flora are used, how this is matching the local natural and climatic conditions, as well as human use patterns and quality of maintenance. The time of year matters, and also factors such as how mature the shrubs and trees are and in which combinations these are planted. This is unlike, say, a sewage pipe with a reliable life expectancy and performance, which is roughly the same all over the world. This is a problem for investors, which are generally risk-avoidant and favor investments consistently delivering high returns. Second, urban nature mostly generates public goods that cannot be easily monetized by an individual investor. Third, the sociocultural qualities of urban nature, such as what it contributes to relational or spiritual qualities of a place, remain nearly impossible to quantify, leading to an underestimation of its value. Over the next years, I will be working together with Arjen Buijs on understanding the challenges of practitioners in attempt to renature cities, and the role played by assessment in this. Within the Horizon 2020 CONEXUS project, we will address questions such as: What benefits of urban nature are cities currently assessing, and why? What other aspects would they like to measure, and what barriers do they experience? What is the potential of participatory approaches to account for the actual needs of practitioners, also to increase the impact of data collection? How to measure ‘Nature-Based Thinking’ – the understanding that communities, ecology and governance are intimately connected?

With this research, we aim to contribute to the uptake of assessment and improve awareness. Not only of urban nature benefits, but also of urban nature governance challenges. Overcoming the decomposition of complex problems into isolated parts is likely a crucial step in creating more nature-based cities. This calls for an approach where the identification of urban challenges, and the strategies responding to these, are open to readjustment based on emerging insights. Urban nature is a topic that concerns most of us, what are your suggestions for renaturing the city and the role of research in this? - by Sander van der Jagt