As the European Urban Resilience Forum in Malmo, Sweden comes to a close, we can breathe in some chilly Swedish air and reflect on the emotions, intense discussion, and the main messages and key takeaways of the forum so far.

Day 1

As was very well said by Angelika Tamasova from the European Environment Agency at the very beginning of the forum:  Today, around 75 percent of population on the European continent lives in urban areas, so to ensure future prosperity, cities already need to plan for urban sustainability, actively addressing their environmental, social and economic challenges. Each city is unique, and each city has its own challenges, but all cities need to implement measures to ensure they are prepared to meet climate change impacts. All cities should be striving for low carbon development. And all cities should ensure there is a healthy environment for their inhabitants. The vision of making cities sustainable is a shared one, but the pathways they take to it will be different.

The strategies and insights that European institutions and cities provided demonstrated how Europe can become more climate resilient by 2030. With over 2,000 cities in 35 countries all over the world having declared a climate emergency as of 1 October 2021, the subject of effective programming to raise preparedness for climate change is already one of the hottest subjects today. Distinguished speakers from the EBRD, EIB, European Commission, UNDRR and others shared their insights into the implementation of the new EU Adaptation Strategy, unveiled on 24 February by the European Commission, providing a look at its linkages with the Mission for Adaptation to Climate Change and Societal Transformation. There was also overview of cities’ plans to build resilience in the upcoming months and years, and the links to efforts to achieve a green and resilient recovery from COVID-19.

Talking about the recovery from COVID-19: At the “Towards a Resilient Recovery” forum session it was highlighted that countries’ and cities’ recovery plans  need to put equity, economy, and climate action at the centre of their approaches, so that national and local governments can build back stronger, fairer and greener than before. This is a task in which the international development community can play a key role, applying international expertise and detailed knowledge of the tools for achieving sustainable development worldwide. As noted by Dr. Oleksandr Sushchenko, UNDP Ukraine Energy and Environment Portfolio Team Leader: “When we saw that Ukraine’s national recovery package lacked a green component, we stepped up and developed a project with a focus on green initiatives, enabling private financing of green sustainable recovery projects. The project is now being implemented, and will soon produce scalable results that can be implemented countrywide, ensuring sustainable recovery and resilience in the future.”

The discussion on resilience to severe climate events was a sombre one, as the participants had to reflect on the many tragic events – some of which they had experienced personally – that took place in 2020 and 2021, including wildfires, floods, and some of the highest temperatures ever recorded on earth. With UNDP Ukraine as the moderator of the “Disaster Risk Reduction: Thinking about Present and Dreaming about Future” forum session, the discussion attempted to connect the dots between these tragic events, exploring how they create serious challenges for countries and cities trying to achieve sustainable development, how to better prepare for them, and how to adapt in the face of such dangerous manifestations of climate change. The discussion showcased various Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) tools and methods, challenges and lessons learned, as well as various examples of financing of DRR programmes. The discussion was perfectly summarized by Ephrat Yovel, Principal of CounterPoint: “There’s too much focus on soft approaches and not enough focus on hard, long-term, systemic interventions. There is almost no focus on long-term resilient post-disaster recovery. We don’t put enough attention into thinking about what the rebuilding needs to look like, and too often we end up rebuilding with the same flaws and same weaknesses as the original area or location that was destroyed. Post-disaster recovery needs to be better integrated into preparedness, and this is where local governments have a very strong position. This needs to be a part of our awareness thinking: if a disaster happens, we should already know what our next steps will be, not missing the opportunity to improve the long-term resilience of local communities.”

Thinking ahead, planning for sustainable nature-based solutions to ensure that we live in cities with healthy environments where no one is left behind – this is a fascinating endeavour, and the forum is already proving to be a fantastic opportunity to share knowledge and discuss cases. After the first day of our work in Malmo, Sweden, we’re looking forward to continuing the discussions tomorrow, and hope to gather more insights and solutions to bring to our work back in Ukraine.

Day 2

Day two at #EURESFO21 was fantastic, as the majority of the topics that discussed were really close to some of UNDP in Ukraine’s own activities within the scope of Nature-based solutions for sustainable cities in Ukraine.

As many of you know, nature-based solutions (NBS) for development is one of UNDP’s six Signature Solutions, which entails strengthening resilience to climate shocks by promoting nature-based climate change adaptation and mitigation solutions. Our efforts to implement nature-based solutions in Ukrainian cities is aimed at resolving three urgent crises in our cities: climate (e.g., urban heat reduction, reducing buildings’ energy consumption, CO2 absorption), biodiversity loss, and social wellbeing – which is tightly linked to the rapidly deteriorating health situation in urban environment (e.g., air quality).

Hence, we were very excited to participate in the sessions at day two of the forum, as the topics for discussion included nature-based solutions for resilient and healthy cities, with two EU-funded projects – Connecting Nature and CLEVER cities – showcasing the amazing work that they are doing and the innovative tools and methodologies they apply to deliver and track the performance of impactful NBSs.

A word on the performance tracking of NBSs before we move on with the overview of the sessions: Tracking the impact of NBSs in cities is by far one of the most important subjects: As described in one session, a specific taskforce was set up to evaluate the impact of NBSs, comprising of 17 EU-funded Horizon 2020 NBS projects, along with collaborating institutions such as the European Environment Agency (EEA) and the Joint Research Centre (JRC). The taskforce took inputs from more than 150 European researchers and over 60 European cities and regions where NBS projects were implemented.

This tremendous work has produced one of the most comprehensive publications on the subject, which was published by the European Commission in May 2021  – Evaluating the impact of Nature-based Solutions: a handbook for practitioners. The document provides practitioners with a comprehensive NBS impact assessment framework, and a robust set of indicators and methodologies to assess the impacts of NBSs across 12 societal challenges: Climate Resilience; Water Management; Natural and Climate Hazards; Green Space Management; Biodiversity; Air Quality; Place Regeneration; Knowledge and Social Capacity Building for Sustainable Urban Transformation; Participatory Planning and Governance; Social Justice and Social Cohesion; Health and Well-being; New Economic Opportunities, and Green Jobs.

The handbook’s accompanying Appendix of Methods provides a brief description of each indicator and recommends appropriate methods for measuring specific impacts, along with guidance for end-users about the appropriateness, advantages and drawbacks of each method in different local contexts. Even though the document is intended to serve as a reference for relevant EU policies and activities, we believe it will be of use to NBS practitioners in Ukraine as well.

As rightly noted by Nicola Murphy-Evans from the Clever Cities project in London: “The success of NBS implementation in the cities lies in effective cooperation with communities, and working with people who are really passionate about their community and the environment they live in. It’s really about engaging with community members to identify the key issues in their lives, to see how the NBS approach can help resolve these issues.”

The project’s approach was to set up a community researchers team helped to identify spots where street flooding occurred as a result of heavy rain, and then do the nature audit and engage the team in the solutions design. Data collection following the implementation of the NBS was a major task, and it was interesting to see how the project applied the use of a specifically designed app to conduct surveys, providing relevant training and engaging a local secondary school as a part of their science programme to test eDNA methods. The approaches used here may also be of benefit to our activities in Ukraine.

The Sarajevo Process project also prompted a lot of discussion. It has a unique design, and a process that can be replicated in other cities – similar to the approach we took in designing and implementing the Community Safari. One key message from the team of this wonderful project that we would like to highlight, and which really chimes well with our vision of engaging the community, concerns the sustainability of the activity and engaging the community in monitoring: “To involve citizens in monitoring we first involve them in the design process. We bring all the stakeholders and citizens together in the designing of the solutions. We’re creating ownership at the designing stage.”

Indeed, we can also see this in our own experience – engagement with the community at an early stage really helps provide a sense of ownership and accountability to the people and other stakeholders, which in many respects lays the foundation for the success of an NBS, and its future replication in other areas.

Though we can’t quite remember who said it, this quote was really memorable, as really reflects our vision for deployment nature-based solutions in the cities: “We have to raise awareness of what NBS is. To show that it’s not just a park or community garden. We have to view NBS as a holistic, systemized approach to improving the lives of people in cities, and ensuring that their environments are safe and healthy.”

In this context it was really inspiring for us to see an example from Madrid, Spain, where Luis Tejero, a coordinator of climate change programmes and a member of Madrid City Council, is also working on the Clever Cities project. His project – a 2.5 kilometre Green Corridor – brought together representatives of different city departments, including the parks and gardens department, environmental education department, and the energy and climate change department, to trigger the improvement of the wellbeing of an entire neighbourhood in the south of the city. The project will address the issues of health, mobility, climate comfort, economy, gender and inclusion, and also ensure the revival of business activity and social activities. That scale of thinking really shows the impact that nature-based solutions in cities can have on people’s lives.  

One of the most interesting discussions of the day was dedicated to data collection. The discussion started with the acknowledgement that without proper data collection, we have been climate blind and environmentally blind in many of our actions. Holger Robrecht, Deputy Regional Director – Sustainable Resources, Climate & Resilience, ICLEI European Secretariat, highlighting the need for tools and solutions to collect and analyse data that would inform and help urban and nature-based solutions – tools and solutions equal to the power and level of detail offered by the Environmental Insights Explorer (EIE) from Google.

There’s no space in this small article to go through all the options and details that the data the EIE platform can provide, but put briefly, it provides the means “to help cities measure emission sources, run analyses, and identify strategies to reduce emissions — creating a foundation for effective action.”

We enjoyed every moment of the amazing demonstration delivered by Christopher Bian, Senior Software Engineer - Google, Environmental Insights Explorer team, and we believe that if you can find a minute to explore the platform, you won’t regret it, and might even come up with ideas for applying the data in your own projects.

Our story could go on and on, as the topic of climate adaptation and urban resilience has really taken off in the last decade, bringing together international organizations, communities and local governments, and the amount of great examples, points and discussions presented at the event was overwhelming. However, there’s not enough space here to go into it all.

So as a closing note, we would like to share our main impression: the European Urban Resilience Forum did an amazing job of bringing together policy makers, businesses, community leaders and local authorities, facilitating a dialogue that will help accelerate action for climate resilience through networking, knowledge sharing and showcasing results, to a pace which even ten years ago would have been hard to imagine.

We’re confident that with all our mutual efforts and dedication, at the European Urban Resilience Forum held in ten years’ time we will be able to discuss the tremendous progress made in finding sustainable, green and resilient solutions to the problems of the planet’s urban areas.

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