Urban Natural Assets for Africa: Rivers for Life

ICLEI Cities Biodiversity Center, together with project partners SwedBio and the Stockholm Resilience Centre, have designed a cutting edge project—Urban Natural Assets for Africa (UNA)—to support the local implementation of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets to conserve and protect nature in cities in sub-Sahara Africa.

The UNA Rivers component of this project is being implemented through generous funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), through SwedBio at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. UNA Rivers aims to mainstream nature-based solutions into land use planning and local government decision-making processes relating to urban river systems. The project is doing this through better coordination and community-based activation, with the aim of building sustainability and resilience at the local level, for the enhancement of human well-being and poverty alleviation.

UNA Rivers low res logo
Map updated

Oval 377 Created with Sketch Beta. Project cities

Oval 377 Created with Sketch Beta. Project details


  1. Increased understanding of the socio-economic importance of biodiversity and ecosystem services and its role in strategic climate change adaptation plans, with a specific focus on enhanced human well-being.
  2. Mainstreaming of biodiversity and ecosystem services into local land use and development policy and planning systems.
  3. Enhanced coordination and engagement within the project cities (between departments and key stakeholders: Community-based organisations (CBOs), Non-profit organisations (NGOs), researchers, communities inter alia) as well as between cities (through city-to-city exchanges) for increased awareness, integrated biodiversity and ecosystem service management and enhanced networking at both regional and national levels.
  4. Alignment of project-related activities and outputs with international policy and processes such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Conference of the Parties (COPs) to the CBD, as well as the Sustainable Development Guidelines (SDGs).
  5. Locally appropriate, scalable project implementation, with a specific focus on community-based art and culture activation, connecting people/ urban communities with biodiversity and ecosystems within an urban river context in a holistic way, enhancing overall human well-being.

Overarching project activities and methodology

  • Co-production and transdisciplinary processes are being used to align the project activities with city needs.
  • Stock-taking of urban natural assets in the project cities.
  • Identifying risks to minimise impacts on the ecosystem processes that urban natural assets provide.
  • Incorporating nature-based solutions into urban planning approaches and improving the capacity of local and city authorities to apply these.
  • Initiating various methods to improve the links between land-use planners and environmentalists.
  • Gaining an in-depth understanding of decision-making processes in each of the project cities in order to effectively identify entry points for transformation and for embedding urban natural asset information into government systems.
  • Mainstreaming urban natural assets information into local planning systems and development policy.
  • Improving coordination of city region [1]stakeholders.
  • On-the-ground community activation through innovative and scalable implementation projects at the local level.

All project activities are implemented with the intention of creating transformation in the city landscape, as well as leaving a legacy of strategic change. In this way ICLEI, through the UNA Rivers project, aims to play its role in the process of transformation by effectively challenging the dynamics that created the challenges in the first place. Furthermore, we aim to build capacities to be able to enable the change the project is supporting.

Project expansion

Due to the positive responses received from the existing UNA Rivers cities, as well as the interest shown at regional and international events where the project has been showcased, it has been the project team’s intention to seek out ways to roll out the UNA Rivers methodology to further cities and countries in Africa. In 2017, we began this process by engaging with three more cities, in two new countries. The additional cities and countries are: Kisumu (Kenya), Kampala (Uganda) and Entebbe (Uganda).

One of the many activities under this expansion is a focus on city-to-city learning, with both existing and new UNA Rivers cities sharing lessons learnt on how to better manage urban natural assets in African cities that are urbanising rapidly.

The transformation of the ecological components of urbanised environments, has long been a discussion point, due in part to the fact that 70 percent of the world’s population is expected to become urban by 2050, with major implications for the provision of natural assets. The Urban Natural Assets for Africa: Rivers for Life (UNA Rivers) project, being implemented in Lilongwe (Malawi), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Kampala and Entebbe (Malawi) by ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability – Africa Secretariat (ICLEI Africa), aims to work with city region stakeholders for improved management of urban natural assets, with benefits including improved human wellbeing and resilience to climate change. We are attempting to utilise innovative practices, such as co-production and transdisciplinarity to align the project activities with city needs, with an explicit aim of better understanding and taking cognisance of the local context in each of the city regions. This sequence of articles discuss some of the lessons learnt while implementing the UNA Rivers project to date and what they mean for the management of natural assets in urbanising city regions in sub-Saharan Africa.

Oval 377 Created with Sketch Beta. Outputs & activities

The Sustainable River Based Urban Planning Guideline addresses the fundamental questions of HOW and WHY to plan for rivers in African cities. The target audience for this guidelines is those working within the urban planning and environmental sectors in sub-Saharan African city regions. The guidelines presents a range of principles, strategies and tools to better design for rivers and riversides; planning both “for” and “with” rivers.

The Case Study document compliments the Sustainable River Based Urban Planning Guidelines by providing real world examples of successful river rehabilitation projects enacted in city regions, as well as the methodologies used and lessons learnt from these initiatives.

A high proportion of community members in the UNA Rivers cities rely on natural assets for their livelihoods. Thus, effective management of urban natural assets can only truly be achieved by providing alternatives to unsustainable use of these assets. The Alternative Livelihoods Guideline provides guidance on how to generate livelihoods and income by sustainably using the natural asset base.

THRIVE is a mobile application that provides step-by-step guidance on how to implement 60 nature-based solutions for the protection and sustainable use of natural assets in sub-Saharan African city regions. The solutions can be used either by an individual or a community. The guidelines are divided into 6 themes:

  • Restoring soil
  • Saving water
  • Rehabilitating green spaces
  • Producing food gardens,
  • Sustainable cooking and energy
  • Preventing disease and disaster.

ICLEI Africa convened and facilitated a session at the 2017 Local Climate Solutions for Africa (LoCS) congress, which:

  1. Explored ideas on what should be contained in the Sustainable River Based Urban Planning Guideline for increased uptake and use.
  2. Showcased lessons learnt to date from the UNA Rivers project.
  3. Provided a platform for the UNA Rivers project cities to discuss the work they are undertaking with other African city stakeholders.
  4. Shared case studies and examples of nature-based solutions for rivers.
  5. Engaged with overarching principles for how to design riversides in urban areas.

UNA Rivers is creating space for effective dialogue by all key stakeholders in project cities on why urban natural assets are essential and how they can be better managed for transformative change. We are doing this by:

  • Co-designing the project activities to meet city needs, at every juncture of the project.
  • Using innovative ways, such as Minecraft, to design public open spaces along rivers.
  • Conducting site visits by multi-stakeholder groups to enable transdisciplinary place-based dialogue.
  • City-to-city learning exchanges and lessons sharing for the development of contextually relevant solutions.
  • Facilitating constructive dialogue between different sectors, e.g. land use planners and environmentalists, and city officials and community members.
  • Building in-city champions for urban natural assets.
  • Developing innovative mechanisms to harness the innovation, energy and skills housed in urban informal areas.

UNA Rivers effectively builds on the UNA Africa project (2014-2015) by tackling the main themes that arose from UNA Africa city engagements. Innovative practices, such as co-production and transdisciplinarity, are being used to align UNA Rivers activities with city needs, with an explicit aim of better understanding and taking cognisance of the local context in each of the project city regions.

Through our ongoing work, ICLEI has come to realise that city practitioners operate within a complex municipal decision-making space, where increasing urbanisation, informality and inequality, and a pressing service delivery mandate, is overlaid by environmental and climate change impacts. In alignment with Leck & Roberts (2015), ICLEI Africa has come to appreciate and recognise that there is both an official and unofficial decision-making structure in city councils. The official structure can be easily mapped through city departmental organograms and through policy, project and planning mandates. However, the unofficial or ‘shadow system and space’ (Leck & Roberts, 2015) represents the more complex inner social working of a council as it recognises the invisible aspects at play within learning and decision-making processes of municipal institutions. Both the formal and informal decision-making systems are vital to the functioning of city regions and need to be understood for effective change to be enabled. This requires significant time investment and the building of trust.


The development of networks and improving coordination within city regions is essential in harnessing diverse sets of ideas for innovative and cross-sectoral solutions to unprecedented challenges. Enabling effective dialogue and actions that brings sectors together and keeps them together is an express aim of ICLEI Africa. Through the UNA Rivers project, as well as ICLEI Africa’s multiple and diverse interventions in African cities, we are further developing the means to enable such dialogue and action. For more information on these learnings in relation to UNA Rivers, see each city’s project page.


UNA Rivers is assisting local governments to enable city planning that sustainably manages the natural asset base and the ecosystem services these assets provide A novel methodology and approach is needed in African cities to better plan and integrate biodiversity into local development agendas and we are exploring the use of innovative approaches such as  urban tinkering and scenario planning.

Project profiling at international and national events

  • Presentation on the UNA Rivers project during a parallel conference session.
  • Two events presenting the THRIVE mobile application and the UNA Rivers project were held in the Habitat III exhibition halls.
  • 500 THRIVE flyers and 500 UNA Rivers flyers were distributed.

The lessons learnt and main achievements of the UNA Rivers project were presented in a parallel sub-plenary.

  • 150 THRIVE flyers and 50 UNA Rivers flyers were distributed.
  • UNA Rivers and the THRIVE mobile application was profiled at the 5th Global Biodiversity Summit of Cities & Subnational Governments, in relation to how biodiversity can be mainstreamed into city planning.
  • A presentation on UNA Rivers and introduction to the THRIVE App was given at a side event to the Global Youth Biodiversity Network.
  • 2 000 flyers (ICLEI Africa and CBC, UNA Rivers and THRIVE) were printed and distributed at side events and in smaller sub-plenaries.
  • In addition to this, SwedBio distributed 300 THRIVE flyers and 300 UNA Rivers flyers.
  • ICLEI’s contributions to CBD COP 13 were profiled in two ICLEI newsletters and via a 5th Global Biodiversity Summit of Cities & Subnational Governments report. It is estimated that this profiling has reached upwards of 6 000 stakeholders.
  • Profiled UNA Rivers at the event through presentations.
  • Facilitated the attendance of project cities for city-to-city learning as well as capacity building.
  • Organised a mini workshop session in order to co-design and co-produce the Sustainable River-Based Urban Planning Guideline Document.
  • LoCS report profiled the UNA Rivers project.
  • Showcased UNA Rivers through running a core session during the colloquium.
  • Engaged with the Guidance for Resilience in the Anthropocene: Investments for development (GRAID) programme to explore synergies and opportunities for UNA Rivers.
  • Showcased UNA Rivers through running a core session during the symposium.
  • Facilitated the attendance of project cities for city-to-city learning as well as capacity building
  • Showcased UNA Rivers project to better align activities with TURP.
  • UNA Rivers promoted at these two international events via appropriate printed material, session inputs and one-on-one meetings.

Oval 377 Created with Sketch Beta. Lessons learnt to date

To date, a range of lessons have been learnt. These include (but are not limited to):

  • A focus on the process of co-producing project deliverables is just as important as project outcomes.
  • During project development, adequate time needs to be given to project planning to allow co-production of project aims, objectives and activities. A flexible scoping period was built into the project planning phase and proved to be extremely beneficial in terms of aligning the project with city needs and ensuring project buy-in.
  • Smaller one-on-one meetings are valuable in terms of accessing information and building partnerships, relationships and trust.
  • City officials and stakeholders are asking external funders to elicit long-term change in their cities; how this will be achieved must be clearly communicated.
  • The centrality of land-use planning in improved management of urban natural assets.
  • Increased understanding of the socio-economic importance of biodiversity and its associated ecosystem services.
  • Terminology can be complex when engaging with multiple sectors and stakeholders (from different backgrounds); establishing a common understanding of what is meant and intended is essential and requires significant time investment.
  • Transdisciplinary and co-production of information is not the norm.
  • The need to work with informality.
  • The role and effectiveness of on-the-ground activation projects.
  • Improved understanding of the immense effort and time needed to effectively build partnerships and relationships.
  • The importance of context specific information in planning.
  • How to harness opportunities in African cities, and not just focus on barriers or challenges.
  • The importance and value of providing data, information and baselines.

[1] City regions are made up of combinations of several cities, towns, informal settlements, smaller urban settlements, semi-urban and rural surroundings that are linked by functional ties. They can be demarcated by an administrative boundary, such as a metropolitan development area, or topographical features, such as watersheds and depend on the same ecosystem services and natural assets, like water catchments and biodiversity corridors. A city-region includes the entire functional area under the city government administration, with at least one higher level of subnational government.

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