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Natural cities: Putting people back into nature

natural cities

Current and future pressures of population growth will require a radical rethink of the way that our cities are designed.  David Cope (Director of Strategy & External Affairs at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) offers his views on the pressing need for ‘natural cities’…

natural cities

The future is urban

Over 4 billion people around the world live in urban areas today. By 2050 that number will be well over 6 billion, twice as many as who will be living in a rural setting and a complete reversal of the situation that existed in the 1950s. In one hundred short years, humanity will have changed from being two thirds rural to two thirds urban.

In many ways this is great – towns and cities have historically been engines for growth, prosperity and improvements in living standards. But they can also be tough places to live too. People can become socially isolated and yet live at high densities, creating mental health issues. They can be unhealthy physically too due to high concentrations of pollutants and more sedentary urban lifestyles can lead to obesity, they are also tough mentally with constant noise, activity and little respite.

We need to completely reimagine what a town or a city is, and what it means to be a town or city dweller.

As humanity moves into the urban world of the future, we face one of the most critical challenges of our generation: how do we make the make the best of this opportunity and avoid the worst of the risks? My answer is that we need to completely reimagine what a town or a city is, and what it means to be a town or city dweller. One part of the solution is to bring nature back into our towns and cities, connecting people back to nature and embracing decisions that will create a new era of natural cities.

natural cities

Putting cities back into nature

A natural city will be one where people, infrastructure and wildlife dynamically interact as part of a single ecosystem, positively supporting the whole system. These cities will be more resilient to environmental extremes such as drought, storms and heatwaves; citizens in these cities will reap the benefits that nature provides for free.

I recently spoke at an event on ‘Future Cities’, where I made the case for bringing nature out of the background, and placing it firmly at the front and centre for future urban developments. By doing this, by putting people back into nature in our cities, it opens up so many opportunities for improving the lives of every urban citizen.

Of course, there is very little in a dense urban environment that is truly ‘natural’. Humanity has managed, often fundamentally changed and adapted, nature and natural processes. This management has in the past often been to the short term benefit, but long term disbenefit, of the citizens of those towns and cities. I am pleased to say that there is an ever-increasing recognition that we need to reverse this trend and manage our urban environment for the long term.

To adopt this new management approach, mutliple professions will need to actively contribute. Planners, architects, civil engineers engaging collaboratively with ecologists, horticulturists and sociologists. Collaboration that draws on diverse perspectives is needed.

natural cities

London as a natural city?

Many cities around the world are taking this on board. Singapore is often cited as a city that truly puts nature at its heart, but there are many others that are showing innovative thinking such as Melbourne, New York and Bogota. Recently the Mayor of London published his draft Environment Strategy and opened it up for consultation.

One of the real strengths of the draft London Environment Strategy is that it considers many dimensions of the ‘environment’ – from air quality to climate change mitigation and from waste management to noise – and the interactions between them. The fact that the Mayor is considering all these aspects at once, recognising that there are connections between them, is very pleasing. He understands that an ecosystem-approach is needed, and I’m really pleased to see that a Natural Capital Account of London’s public green spaces was recently published, which estimated that there was a combined asset value of £91bn.

At Kew, we reviewed the Mayor’s draft strategy and have responded to his consultation. Our expertise is on the diversity of the plant kingdom and the benefits of plant diversity, so the section on green infrastructure was particularly interesting. Our view is that investing in green infrastructure sits at the heart of creating a vibrant natural city, not just delivering environmental benefits, but social, economic and wellbeing benefits to London’s citizens. The main themes of our response are that the Mayor should:

  • Consider plant (and fungal) biodiversity when planning the creation or improvement of green spaces. What are the characteristics of different tree species that will make them the ideal street trees for the future? How can we ensure resilience is built into any planting schemes? Should native or non-native species be prioritised when designing green infrastructure?
  • Fill knowledge gaps around how benefits can flow from natural capital assets. Using a test and learn approach could allow quick improvements to be made, while monitoring the benefits and therefore making adaptations in future improvements. Can authoritative information sources be pooled together in order to provide a one-stop shop for advice?
  • Find ways to better connect Londoners with nature in the city. Being surrounded by nature has mental and physical health benefits, and actively engaging people by creating opportunities for them to care for nature can create better community pride. It is important that Londoners have a greater appreciation and understanding of the natural world through engaging with it every day in their lives in London.

natural cities

Turn grey into green, yellow, blue and red

At Kew, we want to make a difference to nature in cities, for plants and for people. Just one example of the work we are doing in urban areas with our knowledge of plant diversity is Grow Wild. The idea behind Grow Wild is that through the simple act of sowing native wild flower seeds, you can transform spaces and transform communities.

Working across all four nations of the UK, with a focus on urban areas and youth projects, we fund and provide vital support to individuals and community groups who want to turn grey into green, yellow, blue and red. We focus on native wild flowers, providing high quality seeds that are specially selected to be suitable for each national situation. So far, we have engaged well over 4 million people with Grow Wild in one way or another, and created 2.5 million square metres of wild flowers in just the first two years of the programme.

Importantly, as well as creating the opportunities to put nature right back into the heart of the urban environment, Grow Wild has had amazing positive individual and community impacts too. Nearly two thirds of participants felt a greater sense of belonging to their neighbourhoods, eight out of ten people felt a greater sense of responsibility for our native wildlife, and over a third of people spent more time outside being active after taking part in Grow Wild activity.

(You can find out more about Kew’s other work and the various ways we release the power of plants for you and your future by visiting our website).

natural cities

Now is the time to reimagine the future of cities

To prevent cities from becoming unbearable places for people to live, work and thrive, I am firmly of the view that we need to put nature back into the heart of how we plan for tomorrow’s urban environment. I am delighted to see cities like my own starting to recognise the importance of this thinking. To achieve this reimagined urban ecosystem, we must all pull together, collaborate with professions that we have previously had little contact with, and engage our citizens to find the best ways of realising this vision of natural cities.

This matters for those of us who live in cities and towns today, but it matters more for the billions of people who will be urban citizens of the future. With the huge expected growth of cities in the global South, there stands an opportunity to create a new type of city that works well for citizens and works well for nature.

About the Author: David is Director of Strategy & External Affairs at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew ( He and his team are responsible for building Kew’s profile and influence amongst a wide range of audiences, creating opportunities for Kew’s experts to have an impact in UK and global biodiversity policy.

David would love to hear your thoughts on the topics raised in this article, and would be especially keen to hear about projects which are already bringing this type of vision into reality. Please get in touch: and @DavidCope_Kew