As the world commemorates International Biodiversity Day under the theme “Be part of the Plan,” we spotlight cities and their pivotal role in safeguarding biodiversity. In a rapidly urbanising world, the imperative for urban areas to embrace biodiversity conservation has never been more pressing.

Currently, over half of the global population calls cities home, a figure projected to surge to 68% by 2050 (UN-Habitat, 2022). This urban migration, coupled with the proliferation of megacities—expected to rise from 33 to 43 by 2030—underscores the sheer magnitude of the impact urbanization will have on biodiversity. Moreover, the demographic composition of urban populations underscores the urgency of action. By 2030, an estimated 60% of urban dwellers will be under 18, a generation acutely aware of the existential threats posed by biodiversity loss. For these young urbanites, safeguarding biodiversity isn’t just about preserving ecosystems but also securing their futures.

Cities are not only demographic hubs but also hotbeds of innovation and productivity. They serve as engines of economic and social development, concentrating opportunities for progress and creativity. Yet, this urban dynamism comes at a cost: burgeoning consumption and production patterns strain natural resources, exacerbating biodiversity loss and ecosystem destruction.

However, amid these challenges, cities and regions emerge as beacons of hope. Local governments wield significant power to shape urban landscapes, from planning sustainable development to conserving natural habitats. 

The mobilization and level of commitment among subnational and local leaders at COP15 demonstrated their ambition to contribute to the implementation of The Biodiversity Plan and achievement of global biodiversity targets adopted by the Parties for 2030. This commitment is recognized in The Biodiversity Plan, which urges Parties to enable participation at all levels of government, and calls for urgent and transformative action by governments, specifically subnational and local authorities, to halt and reverse biodiversity loss to achieve the outcomes it sets out in its targets and goals.  Additionally, several of the 23 action-oriented global targets are relevant to both subnational and local governments. For example the so-called ‘30 by 30 targets’ (for example Targets 2 and 3); Target 7 on reducing pollution risks and impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem functions; Target 11, which seeks to restore, maintain and enhance nature’s contributions to people (NCP) through nature-based solutions (NbS) and/or ecosystem-based approaches (EBA) for the benefit of all people and nature; Target 12, the first global biodiversity target directed at cities, seeking to increase and improve the area, quality, connectivity, access to, and benefits from, green and blue spaces in urban areas; and Target 14, which addresses biodiversity mainstreaming by ensuring that biodiversity issues are integrated into policies, regulations, planning and different strategies within and across all levels of government.

Aligning with The Biodiversity Plan and the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, the Generation Restoration Project spearheads a global endeavour to prioritise large-scale restoration initiatives, particularly within urban landscapes. Currently, 19 cities are actively engaged in this initiative, with eight serving as pilot cities pioneering innovative projects aimed at revitalising urban ecosystems.

These efforts are further bolstered by 11 role model cities, which serve as champions of restoration, offering support and guidance to the pilot cities. With the support of organisations like UNEP and ICLEI, these cities are equipped with both financial assistance and technical expertise, ensuring the success of their restoration endeavours. These cities are embracing Nature-based Solutions (NbS) and ecosystem-based approaches, fostering a renewed synergy between urban landscapes and the natural world, all while tackling the complex challenges posed by climate change.  For instance, in Kochi, India, extensive efforts are underway to restore the city’s historic canals, once comprising 70% of its territory, with a dual aim of reducing urban flooding and enhancing water quality, thereby advancing targets 1, 2, and 3. Similarly, in Quezon City, Philippines, local communities and students are actively engaged in identifying and revitalising urban spaces, transforming them into flourishing ecological corridors, lush green sanctuaries, and vital havens for pollinators, contributing significantly to targets 1, 2, 3, 12, and 16. Meanwhile, in the heart of the Amazon, Brazil’s Manaus stands as a beacon of innovation, vigorously promoting agroecology in urban and peri-urban areas, offering a nature-based solution to bolster food security and alleviate pressures on the region’s invaluable forests, thus aligning with targets 1, 2, 3, 10, and 12. Each of these city’s restoration efforts contributes significantly to global biodiversity targets, ranging from enhancing water quality and mitigating urban flooding to fostering ecological corridors and promoting sustainable agriculture.

Focusing more on governance and capacity, the Urban Natural Assets Programme, funded by SwedBio and implemented by ICLEI Africa,  has worked with several African cities to build resilience, agency and momentum to include nature in governance, planning and finance considerations. By transforming development trajectories, cities can specifically contribute to Targets 11, 12 and 14 of The Biodiversity Plan. By enacting policies and initiatives at the grassroots level, cities can mitigate the drivers of biodiversity loss and foster environments where both people and nature thrive.

By integrating green spaces into urban planning, cities not only enhance biodiversity but also improve residents’ quality of life. Protected areas within cities offer myriad benefits, from ecological connectivity and biodiversity conservation, to cultural enrichment. For example, in Dodoma City, Tanzania, the Nyerere Square, revitalised under Interact-BIO, is an urban oasis in the heart of the city, showcasing the integration of nature conservation, greywater innovation and urban development, serving as a model for sustainable city planning in drought-prone cities.

Recognised as a global leader in biodiversity restoration, Paris, France, adopts a multifaceted strategy that includes meticulous green space management, widespread implementation of green roofs, and rigorous protection of ecological corridors. These concerted efforts not only enrich the city’s urban landscape but also greatly enhance the well-being of its residents. Paris’s commitment to such initiatives exemplifies its dedication to achieving the restoration efforts to reconnect and enhance green spaces, providing habitats for various species.

City-focused initiatives, like CitiesWithNature, facilitate knowledge sharing and collaboration, enabling municipalities to share best practices and learn from one another’s successes and challenges. Moreover, CitiesWithNature is endorsed by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Decision 15/12 as an official mechanism for cites to report their actions for nature.

The Action Platform allows cities and regions to showcase the projects, programmes and other initiatives they are taking for nature under three key themes: i) protect and restore nature, ii) use nature sustainably, and iii) develop tools and solutions. By joining CitiesWithNature and registering their actions for biodiversity on the platform, these cities are recognised as contributing to global nature goals and achievements.

The economic dimension of biodiversity conservation cannot be overstated. Urban areas generate over 80% of global GDP (World Economic Forum, 2022), while 50% of global GDP is dependent on nature and natural resources to some extent (New Nature Economy Report II, 2020). Recognising the symbiotic relationship between urban development and biodiversity is crucial for long-term sustainability and prosperity.

As urbanisation continues, cities and regions must embrace their role as stewards of biodiversity. By harnessing innovation, fostering collaboration, and prioritizing sustainable practices, cities can navigate the complexities of ecological change and ensure a prosperous future for generations to come.

In essence, cities are frontline champions for the implementation of The Biodiversity Plan, driving tangible action at the local level and inspiring global change. As we celebrate International Biodiversity Day, let us reaffirm our commitment to making cities not just centres of human activity, but also sanctuaries for the biodiversity that sustains us all.

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