At the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, the important topic of urbanization keeps coming up in various discussions. For environmentalist like us, it’s a critical issue, too.
As the world’s population grows and as our planet increasingly urbanizes, we need to redefine the relationship between cities and nature. It is no longer enough for us to “protect the last great places,” as we used to say at our organization, The Nature Conservancy.
Don’t get us wrong—nature needs the Conservancy and the other great environmental organizations to continue championing protection of the lands and water on which all life depends. But if we are going to have a broader impact and if our work is to be relevant in the future, we need to expand our environmental mission to include work in cities.
We need to unleash the power of nature to help make cities more resilient, livable and ultimately flourishing so both nature and people can thrive.
We now need to work closely in partnership with the people and organizations who have been focusing on cities for a long time.
Since our founding more than 60 years ago, the Conservancy has built a strong track record of helping solve major environmental challenges. We have developed world-leading expertise in science-based outcomes, worked hard on inclusive policy work and have often acted as reliable conveners in multi-stakeholder approaches. We have always worked hard to collaborate with others.
We can now bring these same skills to our work with cities.
Nature can help cities solve some major environmental, social and financial challenges. Nature-based solutions can play a major role in providing clean drinking water and cleaner air, and they can help lower pollution impacts from cities.
And, perhaps even more importantly, our work in cities can help connect new, younger and more diverse people with nature to ensure the next generation of environmental stewards and supporters.
Take our work to provide clean water, for example. We are working with more than 40 cities around the world on water funds—using a small levy on urban water consumption to help preserve the pristine area above a city, thereby ensuring clean, cost-effective drinking water for city residents.
It’s a great win-win: Clean nature assures clean drinking water. The Nature Conservancy’s urban water blueprint report has identified cities around the world where this approach could work especially well, affecting more than 700 million people.
What about the impact of water once it leaves a city? Stormwater—rain that falls on paved areas, flows into overtaxed sewers and then carries all the pollutants directly into rivers and oceans—is now the biggest form of water-related pollution coming from cities. Two trillion gallons of untreated water per year flow out of cities in the United States alone.