The loss of nature from cities

The United Nations has proclaimed A Time for Nature as the theme for World Environment Day 2020. Nature is something we all rely on – from the foods we eat to the air we breathe, to the water we drink and the climate that makes our planet habitable.

Many people have, however, lost their connection to the natural world and the vital benefits which biodiversity and ecosystems provide us with to sustain ourselves. This is especially true in regions of the world where urbanization is rapidly increasing, such as Tanzania.

Tanzanian cities are amongst some of the fastest growing cities in Africa. The growth and development of these cities usually happens at the expense of natural spaces, biodiversity and ecosystem goods and services. This is because nature’s benefits are often invisible and therefore tend to be under-valued and typically not incorporated into urban planning or civic consciousness. As a result, people risk the loss of nature’s benefits, especially those who live and work in cities, with impacts on health, well-being and economic opportunities.

Reconnecting through outreach

Under the INTERACT-Bio Project, which aims to mainstream the benefits of urban nature into urban spatial and development planning, some of these challenges are being addressed. The project’s targeted outreach programme reconnected more than 600 Tanzanians to nature to broaden their understanding of the benefits of nature, especially within an urban context.

Over the two-year programme duration, nature hubs were established in the cities of Dar es Salaam, Moshi, Arusha and Dodoma to foster an interest in biodiversity, while reconnecting urban residents with some of the benefits of integrating nature into city landscapes. The nature hubs ranged from vertical garden displays at a national construction expo in Dar es Salaam, to tree planting by scholars in Moshi, and food and urban gardens fed by grey water in Arusha and Dodoma.

Participants from the private sector, local communities, local government and public schools were engaged through sensory experiences, workshops and trainings. The outreach programme specifically contributed to achieving Aichi Biodiversity Target 1: By 2020, at the latest, people are aware of the values of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve and use it sustainably.

Children enjoying the demonstration of the benefits of nature at the outreach programme display at a Bonanza at Mburahati

Scholars at Kimochi Primary, Moshi, Tanzania, planting trees at their school as part of the INTERACT-Bio outreach programme.


Lessons from the INTERACT-Bio outreach programme in Tanzania

Upon reflection, there were several intriguing, yet simple lessons that were learnt through the engagement processes.

Lesson 1. In low income urban communities, where there is limited urban greenery and available space is generally assigned to construction of houses, offices or schools, both adults and children engage best with simple analogies and examples, such as ‘trees provide clean air’ or ‘rain provides us with water to drink’. The local production of honey meant that most adults and children understood the importance of bees, but other insects were mostly regarded in a negative light.

Lesson 2. Both primary and high school scholars often associated nature with national parks or isolated rural areas, where there is a low population density. Through the outreach programme, these scholars began to realize that nature can also be associated with urban areas. They also started understanding the benefits which they enjoy from nature, while embracing the idea of restoring and protecting.

Lesson 3. For biodiversity to thrive in urban ecosystems, water is an essential resource. However, in some urban settings water is scare, making it challenging to effectively manage urban food gardens or vertical gardens. Alternate water sources, such as the use of treated grey water, can therefore be effective in overcoming these challenges.

Lesson 4. The outreach programme recognized that to ensure the long-term sustainable management of nature, schools needed to integrate nature in to their curricula across all grades and that local and national governments need to integrate biodiversity and ecosystem services into the core functions of subnational governments.

These valuable lessons illustrate that, for us to continue deriving the benefits of nature, there are simple ways in which to engage and raise awareness among the broader population, and there are also simple solutions to address some of the environmental challenges that we face, particularly in urban areas.

Good education and communication materials are especially helpful, as are opportunities to actively engage in environmental stewardship, such as giving scholars the responsibility to care for the young trees that they have planted and to track tree growth over time.

We all have the potential to contribute towards enhancing biodiversity and protecting the ecosystem services which we rely on if we work together, keeping messages simple and relatable, and reconnecting urban communities with nature.

The Nature Hub in Dodoma uses grey water collected from wash basins in public toilets to irrigate the plants and flowers.

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