In an increasingly urbanised world, how we design, build, and manage cities presents a significant opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint and regenerate nature. Transport is a key factor. Too often, transport infrastructure contributes to the reduction of nature in urban environments and adds carbon emissions either through embodied carbon or direct vehicular emissions.
Traditionally, road capacity provisions are based on the predicted demand of car users. For example, if there is a plan for a large business park or residential development, the approach is to provide enough road capacity and parking for the number of people expected to live and work in the new developments. This results in a great deal of space in cities being dedicated to transport infrastructure, especially road and parking systems.
But what if there was another voice in the planning process? Another stakeholder whose views held equal, if not more weight, than the others in the process.
Imagine how a planning discussion would progress if nature was in the room?
Nature as a stakeholder
Nature often takes a back seat and is often not even a consideration when it comes to funding decisions for major transport infrastructure. Project incentives and targets are measured in monetised benefits because it is the easiest way of comparing investment options with limited environmental considerations. Governments and investors want to see tangible returns.
The biggest change nature could bring to the table is a perspective that prioritises environmental benefits. Nature could call on planners to design cities where active travel is the default choice for most journeys, where natural waterways are restored, and where green areas are regenerated and integrated for recreation, biodiversity and movement.
Imagine how a planning discussion would progress if nature was in the room? Would nature care that we save 8 seconds from a journey to work? Would nature be happy that our preferred option dumps less carbon into the atmosphere than other discarded options? Or would nature angrily send us back to the drawing board to rethink why we need the project in the first place.
Would nature tell us to rethink our cities? Would nature veto all our city designs? I think nature would veto the predisposition towards individualised transport and road expansion. Why do we need nature to tell us this? We have known all of this for some time. It is time for us to act in nature's defence.
I call on all transport planners to listen to nature and work with land use planners to fundamentally change the way our cities are built. Propose investments in public transportation to reduce the number of cars on the road; create attractive walking and cycling alternatives; and accelerate moves towards shared fleets of electric vehicles. Enable equitable access to transport options and make them resilient to withstand climate weather events. Reuse infrastructure to minimise waste and take whole-life carbon into account when evaluating the costs and benefits of projects. Nature would surely approve of all these steps.
Listening to nature’s voice
There is an urgent need to disrupt the way we think about transport in cities; how we transition from now to a sustainable future and how we plan for sustainable growth. Transport and city planning are intrinsically, deeply connected. Cities should be designed to bring nature back, and transport strategies shaped to deliver that goal, not simply provide for anticipated demand, or focus on economic growth to the detriment of everything else.
As the World Economic Forum says: ‘designing, planning, building, renovating and managing cities with nature-positive interventions is arguably one of the most feasible approaches for tackling climate change and biodiversity loss.’ Nature can play a critical role in helping us tackle urban environmental challenges such as stormwater and flood mitigation; carbon sequestration; pollution reduction; sandstorm prevention; species protection; urban heat islands; soil retention; and climate resiliency by bringing non-monetised ecosystem benefits into the business case process.
Broader benefits of considering nature can help cities generate sustainable value for the long-term. Healthier, more inclusive and more desirable locations lead to economic benefits, from lower healthcare costs, increased property value and increases in tourism, to cultural and social growth.
Listen to nature’s voice and gone are the congested roads, the smoggy skies, and the polluted waterways. Instead, cities that consciously bring nature back will reap the rewards of economic and ecosystem benefits by valuing what we are losing and restoring what we need for our own survival.