Nature is something that we need desperately in cities for things like draining rainwater and tempering the heat. Trees provide cleaner air, bees pollinate flowers, and greenery has been proven to be good for our well-being. Furthermore, nature is valuable in and of itself. This is why Wageningen researchers are working on projects involving threatened animal and plant species in the city, tiny forests, nature-inclusive construction, urban agriculture, and green business parks. “There is lots going on, but there are still substantial barriers.”
Five years ago, Heineken brewery began stimulating the natural environment and biodiversity on a third of its 100-hectare business property in the South Holland city of Zoeterwoude. “An area once covered with shortly mowed grass, now houses native flowers as well as ten bee stations. These also attract diurnal butterflies and songbirds. Rare insects and orchids can even be found there now,” says Wageningen researcher Robbert Snep. He has been conducting research on nature and the city for years. Heineken’s “bee landscape” joins bee initiatives by farmers, businesses, and residents from the Zoeterwoude region and is a part of the Groene Cirkels (green circles) project.
Government bodies, citizens, and businesses are increasingly feeling the impact of how important nature is to urban environments. Urban expansion is continuing in the Netherlands and worldwide. In 1950, 50% of the world’s population lived in urban areas. That number is currently 55% and the UN predicts that it will have risen to 66% by 2050. Furthermore, the food supply for this growing population comes at the cost of the natural environment, which is progressively getting smaller. At the end of October 2018, the WNF reported that the size of animal populations in the wild has dropped by an average of 60% over the past 50 years. "If we don’t watch out, nature will disappear as a result of urbanisation,” warns Snep.
Bats and mosses
Most animals do not like noise, human activity, or disturbances. However, environment and ecology researcher Joost Lahr realised that for roughly 10% of plant and animal species, the city actually serves as a sanctuary. These species find food, shelter, and nesting places in the city itself and along the urban periphery. Some of these are places where human activity is infrequent, such as sports pitches, community gardens, and business properties, but parks, plantations, courtyards, cemeteries, and city canals are popular as well. “The funny thing is that, from an animal perspective, the city is a rocky environment. This allows swifts to find good nesting places. However, there are also special mosses and ferns that you can find on old city walls or between bricks,” explains Lahr. Let’s not forget about bats, which hibernate in the shelter of attics and old churches.
Hunting in artificial light
More and more predators are discovering the city. “There is a steady food supply throughout the year, such as rubbish and rodents. Foxes, martens, sparrow hawks, goshawks, and peregrine falcons are increasingly finding their way into city limits. They get their food from the city and breed in the surrounding rural areas or vice versa,” says Lahr "They are continuously learning how to better adapt, too. For instance, goshawks use building cover and artificial light to hunt after dark.” Lahr emphasised, however, that people benefit from animals in the city as well. Pill bugs and ants clean up waste, we need bees for pollination, spiders and birds eat mosquitoes, and worms keep the soil healthy, enabling it to absorb rainwater.
Smart green ideas
The government wants to strengthen biodiversity in cities and is eager to know the best way this can be done. Lahr is developing a model that will assist policy-makers in better estimating the effects of the actions they take for biodiversity. "For nature reserves, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency has already been using these types of model, but it hasn’t begun using them for cities and agricultural areas yet. The future models will indicate the stress factors that put a strain on the natural environment, but will also show the effects of positive actions taken as measures to promote natural ecology and expand upon green zones,” says Lahr. In his opinion, good policy is crucial in this regard. “Cities are becoming more dense and expanding outwards. This results in the increased importance of biodiversity, but less of it is being retained. That’s a problem. However, by using smart ideas and taking the right measures, we can stimulate the natural environment in cities.” Some examples are nest boxes, living roofs and walls, greenery along building fronts and in their courtyards, ponds, smaller lawns near larger parks, and the ecological management of green zones.
One new idea, which has found its way over from India, is the tiny forest, a dense miniature wood about the size of a tennis court: 10 by 30 metres with 600 trees from 40 different species. In 2015, the organisation for nature education (IVN) planted two tiny forests in Zaanstad. IVN is working to realise a hundred tiny forests in the Netherlands, using money from the Nationale Postcode Loterij (national postal code lottery). Twelve have been planted so far. Researcher Fabrice Ottburg, along with volunteers, is mapping out the flora and fauna in these miniature forests and will also observe their effect on air quality, water storage, and summer heat in the city. However, Ottburg stressed that something else was even more important.
“This is a wonderful way to get children out into nature. Research indicates that children in the city operate within a 300-metre radius. Unless their parents take them to the woods, they rarely come across a natural environment.” In the meantime, a special lesson packet has been developed for primary schools, which includes lessons in the tiny forests. “Sometimes I run into children while I’m monitoring the area. They are often very excited. Hopefully, this promotes a sense of involvement with nature at a young age,” says Ottburg.
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Interaction with animals
Ottburg’s colleague, Robbert Snep, agrees urban dwellers should come into contact with nature in their home environment. He even gave a lecture on it for the Universiteit van Nederland:
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“You might visit a national park during your holiday, but nature in the city ensures that people see animals and plants in their daily lives, too, and that they participate in the cycle of nature. We hardly know anything about nature any more and we make ourselves vulnerable if we leave everything about it up to experts and farmers,” says Snep. Not to mention that nature is progressively creeping its way into cities. Snep: “The interaction between human and animal demands a symbiotic relationship, so that we can avoid situations such as excess populations of mosquitoes, crows, or sea gulls. Nature adapts itself to city and there is still a great deal to discover.”
Initiatives such as the tiny forest and Groene Cirkels have very different objectives. Successful projects, such as with Heineken in South Holland, serve as good examples. “17 municipalities have since joined the fray and begun making efforts to save wild bees. More and more businesses in the region are getting involved as well,” says Fabrice Ottburg. These companies can contact Groene Cirkels for advice from experts on potential measures they can take. In the Netherlands, the national bee strategy operates according to the same principle.
Another positive trend has been urban agriculture. “Food production at the local level is not profitable, but it is meaningful in terms of social connectedness and biodiversity,” says Robbert Snep. "Bees, hoverflies, and butterflies have a lot to gain from it, because it means that there is always something in bloom in a city field or home garden. The students who are researching this counted more insects in these locations than in adjacent public green spaces.”
Read the dossier:
- Urban agriculture
Nature is healthy
An increasing number of studies indicate that a green environment has a positive impact on our health. Plants bring people peace of mind. Patients recover a bit more quickly at hospitals with green spaces and views of the natural environment. Greenery also contributes to the well-being of those with dementia, mental illness, and depression. In the workplace, the presence of a plant or a view of a green space reduces stress, making staff members more productive, and absences are less frequent.
Read more in the dossier 'Natural surroundings and health'
Companies, which more frequently pride themselves on sustainable work methods and corporate social responsibility, are able to effect a great deal for nature in their respective fields. This creates a positive image, an appealing work environment, and a good business climate. Nevertheless, the creation of green business properties is still a groundbreaking effort. “Of the roughly 3600 business properties in the Netherlands, less than 1% are doing something substantial with green space,” says Snep. “There is huge potential at large business properties, like Heineken’s, as well as at harbours and in industrial areas. For example, the Antwerp harbour is implementing a Wageningen plan that will allow the protected natterjack toad to get the space it needs.” In contrast, the earnings model in smaller business parks, which house many small- and medium-sized enterprises, is based on having a high density of construction and parking spaces. Snep: “But in those locations, too, you can remove the concrete slabs and replace them with green patches for lunch breaks. We devised that plan for the company Forbo Eurocol and it has since been successfully implemented.”
High tech going green
The existing examples focus on public green spaces on the one hand and biodiversity on the other. Eindhoven has taken a big step with its green High Tech and Brainport Industries Campus. Snep: “High-tech companies are inspired by businesses like Apple, where the buildings are situated in a lush, green landscape.” Tilburg has plans for a green shopping district with outdoor shops, garden centres, and an equestrian complex. “These kinds of products have a long lead time. You have to discuss them with the businesses, municipalities, and business park managers first,” says Snep.
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Nest stones and collection canals
Nature-inclusive construction is currently taking off in cities such as Amsterdam, The Hague, and Tilburg. Ottburg: “A municipality or province can include conditions requiring sustainable measures that promote biodiversity to be taken during the construction of a residential neighbourhood. That is not happening often enough.”For example, new construction can be equipped with living roofs and facades, bat shelters, and nesting stones for sparrows, swifts, and starlings.
Furthermore, nature-inclusive construction offers many opportunities, such as offsetting the extreme weather effects caused by climate change through the construction of empty canals or reservoirs that collect rainwater. WUR is involved in the development of various sustainable residential districts, such as the green Geerpark in Vlijmen and the planned circular neighbourhood of Bosrijk in Eindhoven.
Sustainable business chains
A lot of research is already underway in Wageningen, but through the Green Cities programme a lot more can be done to research biodiversity, sustainability, and nature-inclusive cities, according to programme leader Marian Stuiver. “It is also good that businesses are looking into improving biodiversity: not only on their own property, but also in their company systems and throughout the entire chain. After all, many companies source their raw materials from abroad, where the same challenges for nature conservation apply.”
Some companies are already working on this, such as WUR, Heineken, the Province of South Holland, and other partners who are collaborating with Groene Cirkels in finding improvements and natural solutions regarding energy, water, resources, mobility, and living environment. For a business like Heineken, this means taking a closer look at the production of materials such as barley and methods for transporting it and working towards sustainable energy and water purification.
Raising green awareness in urban development
According to Marian Stuiver, it is not just the activities of businesses that impact the natural environment, it is those of city dwellers as well. “If we throw away a lot of waste like plastic and it ends up in the ocean, this has negative consequences for the rest of the world.” At the same time, the city itself is also important for our health. “Just as with healthy food, a green living environment is increasingly being viewed as a key factor in preventing illness and reducing stress (see box). There are municipalities that want to join us in getting this onto the agenda. However, cities and project developers often opt for “concrete jungle” solutions, because the financial considerations of building or maintaining green spaces are often less favourable. For this reason, it is important that the value of greenery be made much clearer, for health, quality of life, etc.,” says Stuiver.
People often play their own role in making cities greener. An interesting example of this is Operatie Steenbreek. In this movement, residents remove tiles and other items from their gardens and replace them with plants. Stuiver: "This is good for raising awareness in the neighbourhood and it is also enjoyable to come together and make your living environment greener. Garden centres have begun working on making things greener as well. Your garden will become more resilient because of its diversity. This year, we have seen boxwood numbers drop substantially. What’s the alternative? These are intriguing questions that may impact the natural environment.”
Green makes for a better urban climate
During summer heat waves, it can be up to ten degrees warmer in cities than in rural areas. Research indicates that this “heat stress” can be offset by up to two degrees with the addition of streetside greenery and living roofs and facades. In urban parks and forests, it can be anywhere from 1.5 to 3.5 degrees cooler than elsewhere in the city. Furthermore, greenery improves air quality, partly because particulate matter is filtered out, but it can also be because plants serve as a barrier between busy roads and residential neighbourhoods, so the air stays cleaner. Furthermore, trees and shrubs help drain rainwater more quickly.
Longread: Seven reasons to invest in a green city
Green at heart
All in all, there are many matters involved at various levels. “How do we set up a city so that the ground, water, and air remain clean, that animals share it with you, and that plants grow? All of these aspects will come into play for future urban development,” predicts Stuiver. She is calling on all cities, businesses, organisations, architects, and project developers that understand the value of nature in the city to contact WUR. “Early next year, we will be organising a meeting to establish new coalitions focusing on nature, health, and the design of nature-inclusive cities. Anyone that wants to join us in doing so is welcome."
Going green because you want to
The researchers also feel that more can be done. "The urban landscape should be more diverse and more robust. You have to keep your finger on the pulse of it all and closely track the developments,” recommends Fabrice Ottburg. Cities such as Amersfoort, Tilburg, Ede, and Amsterdam are already on the right path in his opinion. For example, they have already hired urban ecologists. However, the time has come for government bodies and project developers to do more than simply follow the letter of the law. “Nowadays, open spaces are being fully built up and some greenery is added just for show. Start building residential districts with bee landscapes or neighbourhoods pierced by greenery that extends from beyond the city,” says Ottburg. "The time has come for a different perspective on spatial planning in urban areas and the relationship with nature and biodiversity.”
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Over the next ten years, a million new residential units will be built in the Netherlands. This expansion and increasing density of the city will come at the expense of green spaces. Robbert Snep has already noticed a lot in the works when it comes to nature and biodiversity. “But there are still substantial barriers. Stereotypical thinking and the invisible walls between the different disciplines sometimes make collaboration difficult. Furthermore, the budgets for green spaces are separate from those for residential matters or water.”
Snep points out that the construction industry is rather conservative, too. "There is a lot of prejudice regarding natural solutions. People fear inconvenience and are accustomed to technological solutions. However, sewage pipes will soon be unable to withstand the heavy rains to come - it’s not feasible financially and it’s simply not possible.” “Rainwater collection canals are a better solution, but plants grow in them, so the water management comes along with it,” says Snep. “What’s funny is that natural solutions are often more effective and affordable, and they yield more, too. So at some point, nature will start creeping its way back into the city anyway.”