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Enlivening our cities: Towards urban sustainability and resilience

This article belongs to Ambio's 50th Anniversary Collection. Theme: Urbanization

Humanity is facing a broad range of sustainability challenges, degradation and loss of natural capital and ecosystem services, climate change and associated increases in the risk of ecological, meteorological, social, political and economic crisis and disasters (EU 2017)—all of them in different ways connected to cities and the current global urbanization (Pan et al. 2019). Cities world-wide are attracting more and more people and, as a result, urban studies is a rapidly growing and increasingly urgent field. Ambio has had a role in promoting insights broadly relevant for urban sustainability and resilience—and bringing them to policy and practice—by publishing and thus making visible some of the scientific discoveries that now provide part of the foundation for transformational urban research and practice. Over the years, many Ambio studies such as Folke et al. (1997), Ernstson et al. (2010) and Andersson et al. (2014) have taken extra steps to present not just study results but also new ways of understanding urban systems. By raising new questions as well as answering ‘old’ ones, these papers have engendered new research angles and more systemic understandings of cities and their multiple ties to sustainability—at scales from the very local to the global.

Chronologically first of the anniversary collection papers, Folke et al. (1997) took a regional-global approach to urbanization and demonstrated how cities are part of the global biosphere and dependent upon the life-supporting functions and services generated by ecosystems. This was one of the first papers to strongly position cities as drivers (and potential victims) of global changes to the biosphere, thus also connecting the human sphere to the nature/ecosphere. Ernstson and co-authors (2010) provide a, relative to its predecessors, more nuanced lens for urban resilience studies. Instead of the global support systems discussed in Folke et al. (1997) it discusses the importance of regionally generated ecosystem services for providing resources to support urban living and human wellbeing in cities. These local ecosystem services include the benefits that urban inhabitants and cities receive from ecosystem structures and processes present in cities, e.g. air quality regulation, stormwater protection, flood mitigation, water pollution control, local climate regulation, recreation, and opportunities to promote mental and physical health.

Synthesizing and expanding on earlier work by the authors, Andersson et al. (2014) posit that nature and active stewardship of nature are critical for urban resilience through, for example, the many connections to climate change adaptation, recreation and health. Following the framing offered by another Ambio paper led by Carl Folke (Folke et al. 2011), Andersson and colleagues explored ways of understanding what “reconnecting [cities] to the biosphere” may actually mean. The landmark Ambio papers are followed by the United Nations declaring 2021–2030 a "Decade of Ecosystem Restoration", a statement partly based on five years of extensive studies of urban green infrastructure and ‘nature based solutions’ (NBS)Footnote 1 following the publication of Andersson et al. in 2014. The growing understanding of the role of urban ecosystem services and how these could be managed fed into a research, implementation and, as often argued by the first two, transformation agenda centred around urban green and blue infrastructure and NBS Positioning green and blue infrastructure and NBS as part of a larger social-ecological-technological system has helped researchers and policy makers alike bring together environmental, social, and economic objectives (Kalantari et al. 2019; Frantzeskaki et al. 2021).

The system perspective proposed and used by Folke, Ernstson and Andersson (with co-authors) has thus continued to inform how we think about urban sustainability. Changes in environmental quality, climate, land use, demography, entitlements, urban morphology and green infrastructure have direct relevance for human well-being as well as ecosystem health. For example, in regions where increased population density places people in escalating conflict with nature, water-related stresses tied directly to disasters can be traced across economic, environmental, and societal impacts of droughts and floods. Continuing the line from Folke et al. (1997) human-induced factors (many of them urban) are also key drivers of climate change (IPCC 2020). Continuing to build our understanding cross scale dynamics, from the local decisions made by urban residents to global drivers of change, will, argues Haase and Frantzeskaki et al. (Haase 2021; Frantzeskaki et al. 2021) be essential for designing multi-level effective, efficient and resilient strategies and transition pathways for shifting the urban footprint into a positive force—for the climate as well as biodiversity and local communities. Acting on this growing understanding is, as argued already by Ernstson et al. (2010) and Andersson et al. (2014) a shared responsibility for us all.

Sustainable urbanization will require better understanding of complex interactions, their effects and feedbacks in the context of multidimensional urbanization, and associated complex governance structures, land use changes, climate change, shifting ecological baselines, socio-economic factors, emergent risks like pandemics, diverse uses of urban space and resources, and new ways of taking on stewardship (Andersson 2021; Ernstson 2021; Folke et al. 2021). As repeatedly argued in the three original Ambio papers, future development of inclusive, productive, and resilient cities will require interactive collaborative learning by scientists, regional and local planners, designers, civil society and various decision-makers.



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Correspondence to Zahra Kalantari.

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Kalantari, Z. Enlivening our cities: Towards urban sustainability and resilience. Ambio 50, 1629–1633 (2021).

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