Urban planning for the future in Shenzhen

Photo by Brenda Tong on Unsplash / Ke Yuan Nan Lu, Nanshan Qu, Shenzhen Shi, Guangdong Sheng, China

Cities will be critical in helping the world achieve international commitments on nature, climate change, and sustainable development.

Sustainable Development Goal 11 contains targets to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable, and in 2016, the UN General Assembly endorsed the New Urban Agenda, which sets out a shared vision of “cities for all, fostering prosperity and quality of life for all”.

Yet cities are facing unprecedented challenges. By 2050, climate change is likely to place at least 570 coastal cities and over 800 million people at risk from sea-level rise and storm surges, whilst unsustainable urbanisation practices are creating multiple social and environmental challenges, including the loss and degradation of nature within cities and their regions.

Anticipating these pressures by using nature-based solutions to create resilient urban environments could help cities cope better with climate shocks and recover more quickly from increasingly frequent, severe weather events. Greener, resilient cities will also help the world achieve ambitious commitments for a better future for people and nature.

A snapshot from Shenzhen

In China, there is increasing ambition within municipal governments towards designing, and redesigning, urban centres so that nature is at the heart everyday city-life. Cities in China are really recognising the tangible health and well-being benefits this can bring to urban people.

Shenzhen is one of these cities, with its history as an innovator and pioneer dating back to at least the 1980s when it became China's first special economic zone. After decades of rapid economic development, Shenzen has recently been designated as a pilot city in China’s plans for exploring innovative models for building an ecological civilisation.

As part of this work, the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), together with the newly-established organisation WCMC Beijing and the Shenzhen Real Estate Assessment Centre, are launching a new collaboration this year.

Drawing on international best practice and case studies, the initiative will support Shenzhen to explore how the values of nature can be integrated into their policy and practice for the management of natural resources. This will help to reveal the full values of nature in the city, the many benefits it provides to residents, and the range of economic activity that natural resources in the city support.  The work will foster an integrated approach to urban planning in Shenzhen that can deliver better long-term outcomes for people and nature.

This collaboration builds on recent work with UN Habitat and Chengdu municipal government, where UNEP-WCMC helped to advise on the policy implications of Chengdu’s investments in green infrastructure. This included looking at how such investments can help the city achieve its sustainable development goals and contribute to China's overall commitments to global agreements – including the Convention on Biological Diversity, New Urban Agenda, and the SDGs.

Cities for people and nature

As well as contributing to Shenzhen's experience and efforts in sustainable development, this collaboration will also showcase good-practice to other cities worldwide. At this time of global momentum towards a more sustainable world, many other cities are looking for inspiration on how to ensure that nature is at the heart of natural resource and urban planning.

For a new wave of nature-based design solutions to be successful, the world needs a fundamental rethink about nature in cities. Large areas of continuous grey infrastructure are not only impenetrable to nature but can also disconnect urban communities from nature.

Nature in cities keeps us healthy and well. For example, a nation-wide study conducted in Denmark in 2018 and covering over 900,000 people concluded that children who grow up with very low levels of greenspace had up to 55% higher risk of developing a psychiatric disorder, independent from effects of other known risk factors.

Jonny Hughes, WCMC Chief Executive Officer, at UNEP-WCMC said: “UNEP-WCMC and WCMC Beijing are delighted to be working with Shenzen. We look forward to bringing our expertise on natural capital accounting to inform the sustainable design and management of the Shenzen cityscape through the use of nature-based solutions. Natural capital accounting approaches can inform the type, design and location of green infrastructure in a way that optimizes health and well-being outcomes for people whilst reducing the impacts of climate-related extreme events such as flooding and heat island effects.”

“I’m confident this collaboration with Shenzhen marks the start of a great relationship between the institutions. With UNEP-WCMC's technical, scientific and policy-to-practice expertise, recently supported by the new presence and capacity provided by WCMC Beijing - we are looking forward to an enduring partnership.”

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