Challenges and Opportunities in the Use of Nature-Based Solutions for Urban Adaptation
2. NbS in the Context of Climate Change
2.1. General Concept and Definitions
- The lack of functioning ecosystems, meaning that NbS must involve natural processes taking place and not only be “inspired by nature”, as this can take the form of solar and wind energy or biomimicry.
- Being random actions, meaning that NbS must follow clearly defined goals, beneficiaries, and governance systems; actions that do not include a diagnose of social, economic and environment conditions prior to implementation should be excluded. This would exclude, for example, artistic installations using plants.
- Not having post-implementation goals, as NbS must be specifically focused on solving existing problems. This would exclude, for example, historical gardens.
- Having negative/no impact on biodiversity, which would exclude, for example, monoculture and reduce “greenwashing” strategies.
- Having equal benefits to grey infrastructure. This is particularly interesting, as it highlights that NbS must provide added benefits to the alternative, stating that the degree of human intervention cannot be the sole criteria for an intervention. Hybrid solutions are often best suited for urban spaces .
- Unfair distribution of benefits. NbS must guarantee simultaneously environmental, human well-being and economic benefits without putting one goal above the others.
- Being a copy–paste implementation approach. NbS are specific to context, and expertise is required for its design. Solutions can be replicated if adaptive management and design are put in place.
- Adopting a top-down model of governance, as NbS requires community participation.
- Having a static management approach, meaning that NbS should have adaptive management with innovation throughout its lifespan, being based on the theory of change. Transparency in decision-making is key, including public participation.
- Disproportionate financial expenses in terms of benefits, as NbS must be cost-effective.
- Point-scale approaches, as NbS imply interactions across social and ecological dimensions at a landscape scale, while having cumulative impacts, and are not meant to be isolated interventions.
2.2. The Age of Crises
2.3. Urban Adaptation
2.4. Relevance for Vulnerable Communities
2.5. Transdisciplinary Dimension
2.6. Typologies of NbS
- Sustainable urban drainage systems, which are small green areas such as accessible green roofs, swales and/or rain gardens. These solutions are flexible, requiring little or no space. The typical spatial scale is inferior to 1 ha.
- City parks, green areas with room for several types of recreation that might contain blue areas, for example, a lake. In the referred research, a city park is 1–50 ha.
- Nature areas, green areas with room for diverse types of recreation that might contain blue areas; for example, a wetland. Compared to a city park, they are wilder and provide more biodiversity, are larger than 50 ha and are typically adjacent to a city (for example, a forest).
- Rivers/streams, in which most of the area is water, so there may be a riverbank or flood plain along the river people can access. Typically, only partial sections of the river with urban recreational activity are considered, with a spatial scale of 1–60 ha.
3. Knowledge Gaps
- Future climate. There is uncertainty, both in climate science and in policies, regarding the solutions to be adopted by national governments. This leads to ambiguity and to the need for permanently updating estimates. In 2022, the World Meteorological Organization  announced that there was a 50% probability that the 1.5 °C of increase above pre-industrial levels (the target of the Paris Agreement for 2100) would be achieved between 2022 and 2026. In 2015, the probability of this occurring was zero. Another example of this uncertainty, a study published in September 2022, revealed that Greenland’s glaciers appear to be melting 100 times faster than previously thought . The four representative concentrative pathways (RCPs) allow us to explore future climate scenarios, but it is not certain that one of them (or within their spectrum) will take place. Some climate impacts are clear, but their degree of intensity is yet to be determined by human action, by unknown ecosystem interrelations and feedback loops, and potentially by other unknowns. Some areas of the globe will likely become unlivable due to the wet-bulb temperature [95,96], but which areas will be impacted first, and when? This is key knowledge for purposes of risk management.
- Technical design. A substantial part of the technical knowledge required for the implementation of NbS for urban adaptation comes from landscape architecture, urban planning, engineering, and environmental sciences [16,88,89]. However, if the goal is to develop a solution to achieve specific targets within a timeframe, more research is needed. The design approach must be based on evidence, having specific targets associated with NbS’ multiple benefits and co-benefits , including biodiversity, impacts on social cohesion and environmental justice , and on synergies with mitigation [1,92].
- Governance. The two main knowledge gaps in terms of governance are identifying the most suitable planning and policy frameworks for NbS implementation and procedures in terms of stakeholder engagement . The implementation of NbS can contribute to reduce knowledge gaps, and combining policymaking with scientific research should be encouraged . The benefits of NbS must be accessible to all residents . Some studies point to the fact that the introduction of NbS in urban areas may have negative impacts in terms of equality, contributing to increase costs of property in the areas surrounding the new green interventions, leading to gentrification . Engagements with the communities are crucial to identify potential unintended impacts.
- Assessment. The main knowledge gaps in terms of assessments of effectiveness are related to cost–benefit evaluation, effectiveness at different time and geographical scales, and across socio-ecological contexts . The methodology for mapping ecosystem services is not suited for urban adaptation, due to the complexity and coexistence of several types of elements in the urban fabric; as it is challenging, very few studies attempt to transfer values of urban nature .
4. Barriers to Implementation
- Spatial. Often, NbS require more space than traditional “grey” solutions, particularly for water management; this means they may be competing with other uses for space allocation [69,105]. Other uses, such as urban development projects, tend to have more vested interests behind them, and therefore have a competing advantage for valuable urban land. Public participation may help to shift the power balance from private interests, such as property development, to public interests, such as communal green spaces. It is important to note that not all urban spaces are suitable for NbS, depending on the topography, physical structure and urban density, and projects must be contextualized to the local environment to deliver outcomes for people and the environment .
- Governance. There are many challenges in initiating climate adaptation projects by municipalities. While some developed nations are promoting NbS adaptation, as is happening in the European Union , developing nations often do not have access to the knowledge or resources to do so. Lack of knowledge and capacity, particularly at the city council level, is a strong barrier for NbS implementation. Traditional structures in city governments are based on sectoral silos, which can be a barrier to the implementation of approaches as transdisciplinary and intersectoral as NbS . Governance for NbS in urban adaptation must not only be transdisciplinary and intersectoral, but also systemic, so it can challenging to the capacity of local governments, particularly in developing countries. Strong support from global institutions for design and development is needed, including knowledge tools. Urban planning and policies must be adjusted as well; NbS are seldom implemented if they are not integrated into planning tools and mechanisms [25,106], embedded within viable governance or business implementation models . According to Frantzeskaki, Mahmoud and Morello (2022) , for urban planning to integrate NbS, tools and procedures adopting the following principles must be put in place: (1) planning tools must become adaptive and reactive to living materials; (2) the design approach should be based on evidence of the benefits and co-benefits of the NbS adopted; and (3) a collaborative approach to planning and design is essential for the success of NbS implementation.
- Assessment. Policymakers tend to prefer engineering solutions, as they are more easily calculated and quantified than NbS . Research indicates that, for NbS to be implemented, their transformative potential must be recognized as being superior to grey infrastructure . Their benefits compared to the alternatives must be proven, which is not necessarily easy, particularly for co-benefits. The lack of monetary outcomes from the implementation of NbS can be an obstacle to their implementation , even though they have been increasingly monetized [100,101]. Addressing this challenge has required special valuation techniques, such as measuring indirect public health benefits by diseases avoided. Despite new types of assessment and monitoring methods being tested, studies show that the existing green infrastructure valuation tools are not being employed in decision-making processes when deciding in grey vs. green infrastructure .
- Finance. Addressing nature-related issues from a financial point of view can be challenging, not only for governments, as corporations are struggling with knowledge gaps in nature-related finance . Currently, the biggest investor in NbS is the G20, with approximately USD 120 million/year, which mostly goes to domestic projects . In developing countries, which should benefit from global climate finance, the main concern is the lack of funding available [110,111]. Currently, climate finance is supporting NbS for adaptation with USD 3.8–8.7 billion/annually, approximately 0.6–1.4% of the total climate finance in 2018 [109,110]. Considering the urgency of urban adaptation, and that NbS have proven to be a reliable, no-regrets approach, a bigger percentage of climate finance should be allocated to projects in this realm. Most funding organizations, such as the Global Environmental Facility, the Green Climate Fund, and the Adaptation Fund, have supported NbS projects in the past ; however, if a specific funding stream is created for urban adaptation using NbS, it can become transformational in terms of supporting a more targeted approach towards action.
- Sociocultural. Humans not respecting and properly attributing value to non-human nature is mentioned by some authors as a barrier to the implementation of NbS . Our current paradigm, and what brought us to this age of crises, is one of economic growth, relying heavily on consumerism, and depending on cheap energy . There is currently some support for the need to shift from endless growth to a degrowth model of development . Degrowth [114,115,116] is a field of research and a social movement that questions the importance of economic growth, primarily because endless growth is not compatible with a world of finite resources; it is an alternative to the sustainable development paradigm, which has failed to produce results . Contemporary social and cultural identities and experiences are so deeply rooted in consumerism and resource exploitation that a change in system seems unattainable. If we are to change the system, we must understand its relevant underlying issues. One such issue is the fact that western civilization is built on the premise that humans and nature are separate . The dominant culture is based on human/nature dualism, a thousand-years-old western-based cultural ideology that sees the human and the mind as part of one category of reason and consciousness, separate from a lower category that comprises the body, the animal, and the pre-human [29,118]. In this hyperseparation [29,118], the physical sphere is nothing more than a resource, existing to serve the superior conscious, spiritual and mindful human; nature is devoid of individuality, spirit, conscience, and agency, which belong exclusively to the human. This differs from the view of most Indigenous people, who view themselves and nature as part of the same ecological family, considering that human survival depends on nature . Sustainability in interaction with the natural world is key to most Indigenous communities, as illustrated by the Seventh Generation Principle, an Iroquois Confederacy law that states the chief must ensure the land is managed sustainably to provide until the seventh generation into the future .
- Systems change. To address the overwhelming challenges of the climate change and biodiversity crises, systems change is required . Systems change seeks the transformation of the status quo by altering underlying structures and supporting mechanisms of a system with a series of focused interventions . It is aligned with the concept of transformational adaptation, adaptation that is not merely defensive, but that contributes directly to transform society in necessary and beneficial ways, and that simultaneously prevents/mitigates further climate damage . NbS are relevant in this context, working with nature instead of against it, promoting resilience and placing efforts towards a green economy instead of industrialized activities . Recent research is encouraging, showing a correlation in the participation in NbS projects with behavioral change towards more sustainable choices . The role of NbS in supporting systems change seems promising and deserving of further research .
- Social resilience. The participation of local communities and Indigenous people in implementing NbS can contribute to reduce their vulnerability, including and beyond income-generation. They can build capacity and promote innovation, thereby supporting adaptation [25,83]. Educational programs should be included. NbS are also an opportunity to empower vulnerable communities at a time of great inequality all over the world. Only by leading society away from a resource-extracting paradigm, which is partially responsible for inequality, and towards renewable resources and equality, can they become real solutions .
- Mitigation and adaptation synergies. NbS can be vital for some parts of the developing world. Substantial areas of irrecoverable carbon stored in ecosystems such as peats and mangroves are located near the equator, and, if destroyed, will lead to runaway climate change . This has been identified as a critical international priority in terms of mitigation [128,129]. As mangrove forests can play a substantial role in the adaptation of coastal cities to sea level rise, strong synergies between adaptation and mitigation could be developed. Many cities, particularly in the developing world and in Southeast Asia, could benefit from this combined approach, as it is the region with the largest and most diverse mangrove forests in the world .
- Funding–knowledge support systems nexus. Funding streams focused on supporting NbS for urban adaptation should be associated with a knowledge support structure to help overcome local governments’ limitations, assisting in building institutional capacity. These knowledge support structures could also help map and address existing gaps, assisting with the global knowledge exchange. Synergies should be developed with urban planning departments and entities, as they are the natural change agents and drivers for NbS .
Institutional Review Board Statement
Informed Consent Statement
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
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|Nature of Gaps||Broad Topics of Gaps||%|
|NBS Technical Design||Relationship between biodiversity, ecosystem functions and ecosystem services||14%|
|Synergies and trade-offs between goals||7%|
|Direct and indirect benefits for climate mitigation||7%|
|Social cohesion and environmental justice||3%|
|Performance and characteristics of plants||3%|
|NBS Evaluation||Effectiveness across socio-ecological contexts||14%|
|Effectiveness at different time scales||3%|
|Effectiveness at different geographical scales||3%|
|NBS Capacity Building||Awareness and Capacity Building||31%|
|NBS Governance||Planning and policy Framework||10%|
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Castelo, S.; Amado, M.; Ferreira, F. Challenges and Opportunities in the Use of Nature-Based Solutions for Urban Adaptation. Sustainability 2023, 15, 7243. https://doi.org/10.3390/su15097243
Castelo S, Amado M, Ferreira F. Challenges and Opportunities in the Use of Nature-Based Solutions for Urban Adaptation. Sustainability. 2023; 15(9):7243. https://doi.org/10.3390/su15097243Chicago/Turabian Style
Castelo, Sofia, Miguel Amado, and Filipa Ferreira. 2023. "Challenges and Opportunities in the Use of Nature-Based Solutions for Urban Adaptation" Sustainability 15, no. 9: 7243. https://doi.org/10.3390/su15097243