Green cities club expands

Cross-posted from The Guardian.  Birmingham joins San Francisco and Oslo in a global green cities club: City famous for its industrial heritage joins network of ‘biophilic’ cities celebrated for their open spaces and links to nature. Birmingham city centre

‘I’m pleasantly surprised – Birmingham is a remarkably green city,’ said Biophilic Cities network director Tim Beatley.

The city of Birmingham is renowned for its great industrial history, vibrant cosmopolitan communities, an extensive canal system (larger than that of Venice) and, at a push, its football clubs.

But now, possibly to the surprise of many outsiders and even some of its own citizens, England’s second city joins the likes of San Francisco, Wellington and Oslo in a global network of “biophilic cities” – urban centres celebrated for their green credentials, their open spaces and their links to nature.

The idea is that nature is, or should be, central to a happy, healthy and meaningful life not only to country dwellers but to those living in cities. Birmingham, the first British city to be invited to join the “biophilic network”, is pledging to work with the eight other cities to find out ways of making sure its inner city dwellers and suburbanites are linked to nature and living organisms.

Once they had worked out exactly what “biophilic” actually meant city councillors welcomed the status. James McKay, the cabinet member whose portfolio includes green matters, said Birmingham was committed to becoming one of the world’s most environmentally friendly cities.

“We are committed to ensuring our city has a green future. Birmingham stands to gain a great deal, in what we can learn from these global green cities and being invited to join the network confirms we are headed in the right direction.”

“Biophilia” is a term popularised by the American biologist E O Wilson as a way of describing how, in his words, humans are “hard-wired” to need connection with nature and other forms of life. Wilson wrote: “Biophilia is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.”

The Biophilic Cities network is aiming to find ways of making sure this need is met in the world’s urban centres.

The project’s director, professor Tim Beatley, chair of the department of urban and environmental planning at the University of Virginia, said the support for “biophilic” design – from green spaces in workplaces, hospitals and homes, had been growing dramatically.

He said: “Less attention, however, has been focused on the city or urban scale, despite the fact that the planet continues an inexorable trend in the direction of urbanisation. Urban residents need nature more than ever, and much work is needed to find creative and effective means for incorporating it into urban environments.”

Beatley was in Birmingham this week for a conference on urban trees hosted by the Institute of Chartered Foresters – and was pleased by just how green the city turned out to be.

He visited Sutton Park, a national nature reserve and the largest urban park in Europe, and enjoyed tramping around the heathland there. “That’s a remarkable place.” Beatley was also impressed by the refurbished canal basins that provide relief from the pubs and clubs of the teeming Broad Street and by some of the city’s squares. “I’m pleasantly surprised – Birmingham is a remarkably green city,” he said.

Charities and other organisations working to improve the natural environment in Birmingham welcomed membership of the exclusive biophilic club, which also includes Singapore, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Portland and Vitoria-Gasteiz in the Basque Country.

John Box, chair of the Birmingham and Black Country Local Nature Partnership, said: “Birmingham has a superb network of blue and green infrastructure: parks, canals, nature reserves, rivers, woodlands and open spaces that connect the city centre with the open countryside.”

The Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country flagged up initiatives it has led such as the transfer of wild flowers from meadows in Worcestershire to inner city sites including Castle Vale, where they used to build and test Spitfires.

Alison Milward, the trust’s vice chair, said: “Birmingham is a city that understands how important the natural environment is to the social and economic wellbeing of our citizens.”

Nick Grayson, climate change and sustainability manager at the city council, said Birmingham faced many and varied challenges ranging from a surprising tendency to be hit by flooding – though it has no major river – and inner city neighbourhoods that turn into “urban heat islands” when the temperature soars.

Grayson reeled of the statistics that show how (literally) green Birmingham is – 571 parks, more than 3,500 hectares of public accessible space, 250 miles of urban brooks and streams. He emphasised the “biophilic” status should not be taken as recognition that Birmingham has done enough – but that it may be going in the right direction.

Birmingham has developed ambitious strategies and targets as it aims to make the city as green as possible. Last year it launched its “green vision” covering topics ranging from planning to transport and energy. It has also pledged to reduce C02 emissions by 60% by 2027 from 1990 levels.

Pat Laughlin, chief executive of the Business Council for Sustainable Development, said: “Birmingham has an ambition to become a world leading ‘green’ city. Membership of the biophilic cities network will provide Birmingham with the opportunity to learn from and exchange good practice with exemplar cities across the world.

“Birmingham was recognised as the heart of the industrial revolution and can become a centre for the green economic revolution.”

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What are biophilic cities and important considerations?

  • Important Ties to Place. There are considerable place-strengthening benefits and place-commitments that derive from knowledge of local nature, including: direct personal contact, enhanced knowledge, deeper connections, greater stewardship, and willingness to take personal actions on behalf of place and home;
  • Connections and Connectedness. Caring for place and environment, essential for human wellbeing and in turn an essential ingredient in caring for each other;
  • A Need for Wonder and Awe in Our Lives. Nature has the potential to amaze us, stimulate us, and propel us to want to learn more and understand our world more fully; nature adds a kind of “wonder value” to our lives unlike almost anything else;
  • Meaningful Lives Require Nature. The qualities of wonder and fascination, the ability to nurture deep personal connection and involvement, and visceral engagement in something larger than and outside oneself, offer the potential for meaning in life few other things can provide.

Urbanists and city planners have special opportunities and unique obligations to advance biophilic city design, utilizing a variety of strategies and tools, applied on a number of geographical and governmental scales. The agenda is one that must extend beyond conventional urban parks, and beyond building-centric green design. It is about redefining the very essence of cities as places of wild and restorative nature, from rooftops to roadways to riverfronts. It is about understanding cities as places that already harbor much nature and places that can become, through bold vision and persistent practice, even greener and richer in the nature they contain.

What a biophilic city is or could be is an open question, and it is hoped that this website will help to stimulate discussion of this. As a tentative starting point I offer some of the following as key qualities of biophilic cities:whatisbc3

  • Biophilic cities are cities of abundant nature in close proximity to large numbers of urbanites; biophilic cities are biodiverse cities, that value, protect and actively restore this biodiversity; biophilic cities are green and growing cities, organic and natureful;
  • In biophilic cities, residents feel a deep affinity with the unique flora, fauna and fungi found there, and with the climate, topography, and other special qualities of place and environment that serve to define the urban home; in biophilic cities citizens can easily recognize common species of trees, flowers, insects and birds (and in turn care deeply about them);
  • Biophilic cities are cities that provide abundant opportunities to be outside and to enjoy nature through strolling, hiking, bicycling, exploring; biophilic cities nudge us to spend more time amongst the trees, birds and sunlight.
  • Biophilic cities are rich multisensory environments, where the sounds of nature (and other sensory experiences) are appreciated as much as the visual or ocular experience; biophilic cities celebrate natural forms, shapes, and materials;
  • Biophilic cities place importance on education about nature and biodiversity, and on providing many and varied opportunities to learn about and directly experience nature; in biophilic cities there are many opportunities to join with others in learning about, enjoying, deeply connecting with, and helping to steward nature, whether though a nature club, organized hikes, camping in city parks, or volunteering for nature restoration projects;
  • Biophilic cities invest in the social and physical infrastructure that helps to bring urbanites to closer connection and understanding of nature, whether through natural history museums, wildlife centers, school-based nature initiatives, or parks and recreation programs and projects, among many others;
  • Biophilic cities are globally responsible cities that recognize the importance of actions to limit the impact of resource use on nature and biodiversity beyond their urban borders; biophilic cities take steps to actively support the conservation of global nature.