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Updated: Jun 6, 2022

Review of World Economic Forum Insight report ‘BiodiverCities by 2030: Transforming Cities’ Relationship with Nature [1]

The destructive impacts of cities on the natural world is a key issue today. This is particularly vital in Canberra where debate rages based on a clash between a potential ‘Bush’ Capital and an ever-expanding number of suburbs, criticised for poor planning and design, especially in relation to sustainability futures and the natural world.

The Canberra Times of 26th February reported the imminent release of a draft new ACT Planning Act for public comment, and that “developers would be given greater flexibility under the new Act.”. An ‘outcomes-based’ approach will be also included in the proposed new Planning Act according to the article.

The question arises as to whether the proposed Draft ACT Planning Act will actually benefit the residents of the ACT instead of, as in present circumstances, assist narrower financial interests. The ‘outcomes-based’ approach for example, may sound fine, but in reality, it is an approach seriously disputed for its efficacy based on examples of outcomes from elsewhere, such as in Queensland. Clearly, any new draft ACT Planning Act has to be for the benefit of residents, of the natural world and of future generations.

How then might a Draft ACT Government Act be assessed by the ACT community during the period set aside for public consultation? Readers may recall earlier CPAG newsletter articles that are highly critical of current so-called public consultation processes.

An international report of January 2022 is relevant to this current Canberra discussion. It is ‘BiodiverCities by 2030: Transforming Cities’ Transforming Cities’ Relationship with Nature - Insight Report January 2022’, a joint initiative of the World Economic Forum and the Alexander von Humboldt Institute, an independent research institute linked to Colombia’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development. The World Economic Forum was formed in 1971, gained recognition by Switzerland in 2015 as a non-profit international organisation and has a strategic partnership framework agreement with the United Nations.

This report is important reading. It starts by highlighting the significance of cities for humans. From the big picture perspective it points out that: “Cities account for 80% of global GDP and will host 75% of the world’s population by 2050.”[2]. As a consequence of this the report states that “Rapid expansion of the built environment has proven detrimental for cities’ natural ecosystems, denting economic prospects and necessitating a systemic transition in urban development.”[3]

The report looks in detail at what lies behind these circumstances and considers the impact cities have on nature as well as the nature-related socio-economic risks to cities. According to the report “Climate action failure, extreme weather and biodiversity loss have been ranked as the top three risks humanity will face in the next 10 years.”[4].

One has to keep in mind that this report takes an overview of cities across the world. When we look at how these issues might impact upon our own city of Canberra, it might be argued that aspects of climate change policies are in place, for example around energy supply. However, along with the rest of Australia, Canberra is experiencing increasing severe weather events. Additionally, there is little doubt the development of Canberra through its suburban sprawl has led to increasing loss of biodiversity. Note the statement in the 2019 ACT State of Environment report: Chronic degradation of habitat condition, mainly in fragmented landscapes, is a significant PROBLEM in the ACT.”[5]

What to do about this situation in the ACT? The World Economic Forum report begins its story in proposing how to redress the present negative circumstances by setting down a vision for the future as follows: “The vision for BiodiverCities by 2030 is .. a vision of cities as living systems, wherein economic, social and ecological functions are in harmony’[6]. Note that the year of importance is 2030 – not the meaningless 2050 type framework so beloved of our major political parties.

The report offers 5 ways to ensure a balance between cities and nature. These are:

1. Increasing nature in the infrastructure and built environment

2. Improving urban governance models to support nature-based solutions for cities' challenges

3. Forging positive links between urban and rural settings and helping to safeguard global biodiversity

4. Prioritising bio-circular economy and bio-inspired innovations for economic competitiveness

5. Nurturing nature-positive values in citizens for health and wellbeing

Of course, there is much more detail with references in the report in support of such comments. There are also case histories which are excellent to consider.

Some of the more detailed conclusions highlighted in the report include:

· Business as usual is no longer an option

· What the report calls Nature-based city solutions are, on average, 50% more cost-effective than “grey” alternatives and deliver 28% more added value, yet they received just 0.3% of overall spending on urban infrastructure in 2021. (“Nature-based solutions” for infrastructure is an umbrella term referring to actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems that provide the same infrastructure services as human-engineered grey infrastructure. Examples include reforestation of urban watersheds for natural water supply and wastewater and pollution cycling.)

· Restoring nature as the backbone of cities’ development is a foremost priority …. and entails preserving existing natural habitats, re-naturing degraded or sub-optimized land and “growing smart” with new or upgraded infrastructure

· Expanding nature in the built environment creates significant economic and social value

· mainstreaming biodiversity data for investment decision-making, creating an inclusive market for investment and promoting new models to de-risk and crowd-in private and institutional capita.

Australia even rates a mention under the subject heading of ‘Climate change is one of the indirect impacts of urbanization and accounts for 11-16% of global biodiversity loss.’ Thus, “Recent natural calamities, such as the Australian “Black Summer” of 2019-2020, have evidenced the deep link between climate change and nature loss. During the event, an area of the size of Cambodia was ravaged by extreme fires, killing or displacing nearly three billion terrestrial vertebrates and driving endangered species to extinction.[7]

When considering the recent and unprecedented severe weather in March 2022 and its drastic effects on whole communities in NSW and Queensland, it is clear climate change must now be part of any planning process.

Given these research findings, how will the proposed new draft ACT planning policy presently being developed under Minister Gentleman meet not only the above-mentioned principles but actually positively impact on the real circumstance of the ACT? This report from the World Economic forum is surely a minimum standard against which this ACT government draft Act must be judged.

This is not to say that some of the report’s statements are not open to challenge or that other matters might need to be included. An example is the focus just on a city area perspective when really cities have important links to surrounding districts, as with Canberra.

Nonetheless, we should see in this document a crucial test of our local government’s claims to be a highly progressive and environmentally aware jurisdiction. If, for example, the ACT Government’s draft new Planning Act fails to meet standards such as those set by tdocument reviewed here then we will know that it is based just on meaningless rhetoric rather than meaningful action.

[2] BiodiverCities by 2030: Transforming Cities’ Relationship with Nature p6 [3] Ibid p7 [4] Ibid p10 [5] [6] Ibid pa12 [7] Ibid p9


Geoffrey Pryor

Convenor, CPAG

March 2022


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