Cities have a long-standing association with nature, it having usually shaped their development over time. Early settlements were strategically located close to water sources, which were critical for survival.

The siting of Roman towns and cities was also influenced by topography and water availability. In the Middle Ages, western civilization in Europe harboured a negative perception of nature, viewing forests as perilous areas plagued by wild beasts.

This perspective, however, began to shift during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods. People began to appreciate nature for its inherent logic and order, leading to a more amiable relationship between humans and nature. During the 18th century, the Romantic movement sparked a newfound appreciation for nature as a source of pleasure and aesthetic enjoyment. This represented a significant departure from previous views, as nature was now valued for its intrinsic beauty, spiritual significance, and positive impact on quality of life.

Alongside this shift in attitudes, there was a growing awareness of the environmental consequences of human activity. In the 19th century, scientific research began to reveal the importance of nature in public health, particularly in relation to diseases like cholera and malaria that were linked to the environmental conditions and practices. As a result, people began to recognise the interconnectedness of human actions and natural systems, leading to initiatives like sewer systems in cities such as London to address problems like water pollution caused by sewage discharge.

A new reckoning with nature

Throughout history, there has been a growing apprehension about the negative impacts of rapid urbanisation on nature, leading to the loss and degradation of natural resources. Various measures have been implemented to address these issues, such as conservation and land-use planning, striving to find a balance between developing land use and the needs of environmental sustainability. However, despite these efforts, mismatches continue to occur, including poor land use decisions, environmental changes that arise after land use is established, social and technological shifts, and lastly human misuse and greed.

The environmental crises of the 1960s and 1970s were a turning point in modern history, as concerns about the impact of human activities on nature began to grow. During this time, widespread pollution and environmental degradation led to greater public awareness and spurred a wave of environmental activism. This saw the establishment of the first Earth Day in 1970, which brought millions of people together to raise awareness about environmental issues. The environmental crisis of the 1960s and 1970s brought the need for greater environmental protection to the forefront of public consciousness and paved the way for greater environmental regulation and activism in the decades to come. Despite policies and regulations, the environmental crisis remains to date and aggravated by increased urbanisation, increased consumption and a changing climate - an environmental crisis is a human crisis.

Nature as a client

Humans have always had an extractive relationship with nature. We were the clients and nature served us different purposes from providing food, beauty, quality of life, to ecosystem services. Our relationship with nature is changing, and it needs to change again by considering nature as a client. If we listen to nature, what would it be telling us?

In reality, this is just another way of asking how we should reconsider and adapt the decisions we make, and the designs we pursue. Designing cities with nature as the client requires a fundamental shift in our approach to urban planning, design, and development.

Imagining nature as client leads to a valuable breadth and depth of approach, helping us to look beyond individual issues or partial solutions. Adopting a nature-positive mindset means taking a systemic and consistent approach to evaluating the impacts of built environment proposals, and finding new and innovative ways to bring people closer to nature within our shared urban habitat.

Let nature speak

Given the damage nature has suffered in many of the world’s cities, we can predict what it might demand of any future project:

‘Do not harm and let nature be’ Avoiding activities that cause damage to nature such as pollution, deforestation, overdevelopment and taking measures to limit and reverse negative impacts. We clearly need to conserve and protect natural systems and phenomena. This is going to be more of a mindset change, but we do need to ask – is this development justified? Would it be better to leave the site or parts of it unchanged and let nature remain undisturbed? Protecting nature will in turn protect us and our cities from natural hazards such as landslides, wildfires, flooding and drought.

‘Heal nature’ 
We have to invest in efforts to restore, halt and reverse damaged and degraded ecosystems, and enable them to return to their original fit and healthy state. At a minimum this means that any development project must undergo a rigorous early assessment for its impacts on nature. The 2023 Global Biodiversity Framework, agreed at COP15 in Montréal, helps organisations to explore these issues in a joined-up way for the first time. The framework, as my colleague Rory Canavan has pointed out, should lead to greater response from business and governments alike.

‘Increase nature’
 This means prioritising and investing in the value, quality and quantity of nature in cities. This will in turn increase the benefits that nature provides to us, such as reducing air pollution and urban heat, and improving our mental health. Many of the world’s favourite cities are rightly celebrated for the way they bring nature, woodland and rivers, canals and parks, into the centre of the urban experience. We’re also seeing cities pivot towards rewilding at scale; Paris is undergoing a green revolution, from a proposal for a car-less Champs Elysées to plans for reforestation across the city. The ethos is clear: by prioritising and investing in nature you’ll enhance live-ability, increase active travel, and ensure your city becomes more resilient to climate change impacts.

‘Let nature help’
 Working with nature to find solutions to urban and climate challenges, such as air pollution, urban heat and flooding. If you look at the need to mitigate extremes of temperature or wind and rainfall in cities, nature-based solutions are always more sustainable than either building more infrastructure or using powered technology. As my colleague Rudi Scheuermann has long championed, nature can be a powerful partner in lowering urban temperatures by greening buildings’ façades. Tree planting brings shelter from sun and rain, and improves air quality in any neighbourhood. The list of benefits is long and many faceted. By collaborating with nature, we can create sustainable and resilient cities that benefit both us and the environment.

If we were to respond to these four priorities, the nature-positive city would become a reality. After two centuries of continuous urbanisation and industrialisation, and against a backdrop of the pressing need for climate change adaptation and resilience-building measures, we need to listen to nature. Only then can we embrace a different vision for city making and let nature into the rooms where clients’ schemes are shaped from the very start.