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The sun, oceans and nature provide a welcome respite to all of us, especially those living in cities without regular access to such resources. However, as urbanization continues to increase, how do we ensure that we collectively continue to enjoy nature and live in harmony with the environment?

Unplanned urbanization combined with limited land has created over-crowding, degradation of natural environments, rising service delivery challenges, and increased vulnerability of both urban and rural communities. Simply stated, development to meet the social and economic needs of many Asia Pacific countries has failed to adequately address environmental impacts.

Part of the solution lies with the city itself. Nature-based solutions refer to living solutions supported using natural processes and structures, and are critical to advancing resilience strategies in Asia and the Pacific--the most disaster-prone region in the world. They also represent a critical link connecting the Sustainable Development Goals to strengthen disaster preparedness, address climate change and promote sustainable urban settlements.

Nature-based solutions are designed using characteristics and functions of natural ecosystems. They often employ ecological engineering investments in “green infrastructure” to predict, design, construct, restore and manage ecosystems to address climate change and various environmental challenges in an efficient and adaptable manner. Applying this type of approach for coastal protection, for example, by establishing or restoring mangroves, has been proven to be more effective than hard engineering options at stopping coastal erosion in many circumstances, without the negative impacts of seawalls. Restoring and managing wetlands and rivers by using these techniques can also boost local livelihoods to increase fish populations, reduce flooding risks in low elevation coastal zones and provide recreational benefits to communities. The core idea behind nature-based solutions is to deploy the properties of natural ecosystems and the services they provide to address challenges and create additional benefits within and beyond the system.

Why is this important? In Asia and the Pacific, unplanned urban expansion into marine and coastal ecosystems is a real development challenge that countries cannot afford to ignore. Coastal marine habitats have always been essential for human life. They provide food, building materials for urban livelihoods, and less-known services such as coastal protection, nutrient cycling and pollution filtration that need to be protected because of their ecological, economic and social value.

Nature-based solutions address the complexities of the marine and coastal environment in urban planning and development through initiatives that provide co-benefits for sustainable development in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

In the Philippines, for example, mangroves mitigate the impact of flooding for more than half a million people per year – many of whom are living in poverty – and avert more than $1 billion in damages. In China, the air purification and temperature regulating services of Beijing’s forest ecosystems have been valued at $1.2 billion annually based primarily on avoided air pollution charges and electricity savings. Globally, coral reefs are often much cheaper than breakwaters, can reduce waves by 92 per cent and offer large potential for tourism income, livelihoods for local fisheries, as well as important biodiversity benefits. Nature-based solutions such as these, founded on ecological principles, can reduce the impacts of rapid unplanned coastal development on natural habitats. The Solomon Islands has been an early leader in contingent valuation methods of these solutions, which have been used in its capital city Honiara to protect upstream forests.

In addition, incorporating technology and innovation through new designs, building strategies and spatial planning that integrate seascapes and landscapes are an opportunity for both ocean-friendly cities and experimentation for the development of successful blue-green technologies. However, eco-engineering remains under-utilized in the management of marine urban sprawl in the Pacific partly due to the fragmentation of policies and incentives driving ecologically sustainable development below the waterline. In response to these issues during the launch of the Ocean Pathway championed by Fiji at COP23, ESCAP is embarking on a new initiative with multiple partners in the Pacific to strengthen the capacity of member states to develop and apply an integrated policy approach for ocean-friendly and climate-responsive urban development adapted and applicable to our island systems.

Action at the city level provides us with a powerful opportunity to address multiple issues for both life on land and in the ocean, with nature based solutions critical to improve resilience.

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Omar Siddique
Economic Affairs Officer
Environment and Development +66 2 288-1234 [email protected]