Toward just environmental futures: Exploring the equity dimensions of nature-based solutions in cities

Blog 10th May 2023

In this guest post, Dr Maike Hamann and Dr Kate Derickson write about their seminar series on nature-based solutions in cities. Hamann and Derickson were supported by the USF with the Seminar Series Award.

Our seminar series Toward just environmental futures: exploring the equity dimensions of nature-based solutions in cities provided an opportunity for sharing best practices and future directions for anti-racist and decolonial research on nature-based solutions in cities. Bringing together urban studies and nature-based solutions scholars from around the world, this seminar series asked: What role can nature-based solutions play in remediating urban inequality and creating more just, equitable, and environmentally sustainable urban futures?

Graffiti art in the Edith Stephens Wetland Park in Philippi, Cape Town
Edith Stephens Wetland Park in Philippi, Cape Town, November 2022 (source: Finn Lawler)

Urban development in the last century has been characterized by state-led investment that has disproportionately channelled resources to middle classes and elites at the expense of poor and working class communities. In the US, for example, much scholarly work has focused on how public policies worked (and continue to work) in lockstep with financial institutions to create racially segregated urban landscapes with consequences for the distributions of urban amenities, from public schools to grocery stores to environmental hazards (Sugrue 2014, Derickson 2016). Far less is known, however, about how infrastructure investments to manage the natural environment – like urban parks, storm water retention ponds, street trees, and wetland reconstruction – have shaped and been shaped by regimes of racialized and class-based investment. In South Africa, the political economic context of apartheid history continues to shape vastly unequal access to urban infrastructure, with recent research showing the same pattern for urban green space and ecologies (Anderson et al 2020, Venter et al 2020). As climate change intensifies extreme weather events, and urban growth machines reorient themselves toward resilient urban planning, we urgently need a clearer understanding of the relationship between infrastructure and equity to ensure that future investments in “green” infrastructure remediate, rather than intensify, past inequalities (Romero-Lankao et al 2018).

Addressing this gap in sustainable urban development, the goal of this seminar series was to provide a space for exchange and learning between scholars in the fields of urban studies and nature-based solutions. After adjusting plans to account for COVID-19 travel restrictions, two events were held to facilitate discussion between a diverse set of participants. The first event was a public online seminar (or webinar) titled “Towards just environmental futures in cities”, held in March 2022. The webinar was attended by more than 60 people, including six speakers who had been selected from across the world for their expertise and community-engaged urban research. These speakers were:

  • Bonnie Keeler, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, USA
  • Pippin Anderson, Department of Environmental & Geographical Science, University of Cape Town, South Africa
  • Olumuyiwa Adegun, Department of Architecture, Federal University of Technology Akure, Nigeria
  • Linjun Xie, Department of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Nottingham Ningbo, China
  • Seema Mundoli, Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability, Azim Premji University, India
  • Austin Gage Matheney, Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain

The speakers had been instructed to give scene-setting “lighting talks”, i.e. short presentations in which they presented their research and outlined key knowledge frontiers in the fields of equity and urban nature-based solutions. Following the lightning talks, a facilitated discussion between speakers and the audience ensued. The webinar laid the groundwork of introducing concepts and exploring research agendas. It was also an important first step in creating a shared identity as a collaborative group that would take forward the tensions, challenges, and opportunities identified within urban studies and nature-based solutions research.

A group of people on a fieldtrip, standing in front of the River Club development in Observatory, Cape Town
River Club development in Observatory, Cape Town, November 2022 (source: Maike Hamann)

The March webinar was followed by an in-person workshop, held in November 2022 in Cape Town, South Africa. The workshop was attended by eleven participants based in the US, South Africa, India, and Spain – including three of the speakers from the webinar. The workshop allowed for in-depth discussion and comparison across cases and contexts. It included a fieldtrip to two key sites of contestation between urban development and nature-based solutions within the city of Cape Town: the Edith Stephens Wetland Park in Philippi, and the River Club development in Observatory. The wetland park is a municipal nature reserve surrounded by highways and low-income housing, providing access to green space in an otherwise densely built-up area. The reserve represents an ongoing negotiation between agendas of biodiversity conservation, housing development, and equitable access to public spaces and their ecosystem services. In a different part of the city, the River Club development is a highly contested mixed-use development site within a riverine corridor. Local civic organizations and traditional cultural groups oppose the building of extensive infrastructure on the site, due to the high heritage and ecosystem service value of the corridor.

Drawing upon these site visits, as well as a wide variety of experiences and expertise from different regions of the world, workshop participants began to craft a collaborative synthesis paper that outlines key challenges, future directions, and a research agenda for equity and urban nature-based solutions.