Nature-based solutions help create more resilient places and people

It’s not just about planting trees. 

At least that’s how sustainability expert Peter Vos sees it, when talking about nature-based solutions. And he should know. Currently, Vos is helping to oversee the remarkable transformation of the municipality of Genk, Belgium (population 66,000), from former coal-mining town to one of the greenest urban areas in Europe. 

“Nature-based solutions have a value proposition that’s not only ecological, but also about socio-economic transformation,” he observed during a recent presentation in the session entitled “Building Resilient Urban Futures with Nature” at the Daring Cities conference currently underway. 

One of Genk’s flagship nature-based projects is the redevelopment of Stiemer Valley, an area surrounding a small river that runs through several neighborhoods, many of them lower-income areas with a high percentage of immigrants. Over the past decade Vos says the town has pretty much turned its back on the river, but because of its location “it can be the driver for multiple changes… it can be the driver for spatial transformation, but also a lot of other challenges we are facing. Especially now with COVID-19 there’s even more need for social cohesion.” 

What is emerging as a catalyst for that cohesion, is a master plan for Stiemer Valley that says Vos is designed to create a “longitudinal Central Park”. The project involves sectioned off areas along the river — with the goal of creating a variety of natural settings that are co-created by the town in partnership with neighborhood residents. 

Although in varying stages of development, one project that has already been implemented is a park where space is dedicated to both green and blue infrastructure. Green spaces include everything from open fields for picnics and play, to playground equipment to a community garden. Blue in the form of a catchment pond for stormwater runoff. 

In the past Vos said most of Genk’s stormwater was expedited through the town’s sewage system, contributing both to flooding and waste quality problems. In response, the Stiemer Valley project is being used to accelerate the transformation from grey to green by investing in the creation of localized reservoirs and catch basins, so the water can be retained and to support local wildlife and biodiversity. 

Although separated by an ocean and several time zones, during the same Daring Cities session Wade Troxell, Mayor, City of Fort Collins spoke of a similar approach they’re taking – turning to nature as a means of better coping with extreme weather conditions. “We’ve had three 100-year storms here during my lifetime, most recently in 2013,” Troxell said. 

The last storm could have resulted in major flooding issues if not for the fact that the city has created several nature-based solutions. Solutions designed not only to help manage stormwater runoff, but also to support ongoing efforts to improve public access to nature. 

Fox Meadows Natural Area is a collaboration between the city’s stormwater management and natural areas departments. As a result of this initiative, 41 acres of nature have been preserved in a highly developed area. The site includes walking trails and is frequently used by local schools as an outdoor classroom. 

Yet another project Troxell spoke about, where nature-based problem solving is being used to support recreation and integrate natural landscaping, is Sugar Beet Park. Not unlike many sections in Genk’s Stiemer Valley project, Sugar Beet Park (a name inspired by the area’s legacy dating back 100 years for beet farming) is also adjacent to low-income neighborhoods, providing much-needed access to nature as well as a place for local kids to play. 

Apart from the obvious benefit of flood mitigation, one of the driving forces behind Fort Collins’ drive to create parks and natural buffer zones throughout the city is the goal of ensuring no resident is more than a 10-minute walk from green space. The city’s success in creating these areas Troxell says, is through a combination of breaking down silos and connecting city departments, the public and private sectors as well as residents toward a common goal. He said the city perceives Fort Collins’ residents “as co-creators with us – the city government, in building a better community.”

Similarly, Genk has adopted a people-centric approach with some of its initiatives to simultaneously promote nature while responding to the social needs of the town. Through its ‘Stiemer Deals’ program, individuals, groups and companies are encouraged to come up with project ideas which on the one hand support efforts to rehabilitate Stiemer Valley and on the other, help those recommending these initiatives to achieve their own objectives. 

Once projects are approved, the town provides financial and logistics support. One of the projects Vos mentioned involves individuals with social and psychological vulnerabilities. As a way of building confidence and a greater sense of self-esteem for these individuals, local conservation authorities have involved them in nature management activities. 

It’s no small irony that these people, together with the land they are now helping to nurture, once ran the risk of being abandoned by society. Now, thanks to the nature-based solutions being employed, both place and people are becoming more resilient.  

Daring Cities has been organized by ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability along with the Federal City of Bonn and several other partners, including Shareable. The event runs from October 7-28 with complimentary admission for all.  

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