An increasingly urbanised world places higher demands on how we build our cities, including how green areas are planned and integrated effectively into physical urban planning. In an interdisciplinary research project, researchers from the University of Gothenburg and other higher education institutions have analysed ways of evaluating what are known as “ecosystem services of urban greenery”.
More than half of the world’s population currently lives in cities and urban areas, and the figure is rising every day. In Sweden 80 per cent of the population lives in urban areas.
“That figure largely reflects the situation in the Western World, but today the largest percentage increases are occurring in developing countries,” says Sofia Thorsson, professor and leader of the Urban Climate Group at the Department of Earth Sciences.
Along with Bengt Gunnarsson, professor in the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Sofia is leading a research project where they are teaming up with scientists from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Chalmers University of Technology to analyse how to evaluate ecosystem services of urban greenery in Gothenburg.
“Ecosystem services” refers to products and services provided by natural ecosystems that contribute to people’s well-being. This can involve anything from food and the purification of water to birdsongs and the pollination of plants. The concept took hold after a United Nations report issued in 2005, and today extensive research on ecosystem services is ongoing. When it comes to assessing the various services, however, much work remains to be done.
“I usually use the example of someone who has a potato patch in the inner city,” says Bengt Gunnarsson. “What is the value of that? The simplest answer is the market value of the potatoes, but of course, it’s not as easy as that. There are values in the form of recreation and relaxation linked to the potato patch.”
Evaluation of greenery in urban environments has historically been associated with protection of various kinds. For example, it might be a matter of a reserve or an area where an endangered species is to be preserved. In this project researchers from various higher education institutions have worked with six different kinds of analyses to evaluate the greenery in different areas. These analyses include what biodiversity looks like, how the greenery serves to cleanse the air and how those using the areas experience them as areas for recreation and well-being.
Seven different green areas in Gothenburg have been analysed. The aim has been to include areas that encompass a range of seven different types of greenery – from an area with a lot of greenery and few buildings to one that is exactly the opposite. Among the areas analysed are a city park, a centrally located allotment-garden area and the area surrounding Skansen Lejonet in the middle of one of Gothenburg’s most heavily trafficked areas. The work has resulted in a manual that shows how the different services can be evaluated.
“It provides a consolidated rating of greenery and is intended to serve as a tool when urban environments are being planned,” says Sofia Thorsson. “Urban greenery has a low value today – a car park is worth more. It’s about developing the city in an ecologically, environmentally and economically sustainable way. For example, if we build housing, what are the results of that?”
In a survey, residents of the various areas answered questions about how they use the areas and what they value in a green area. Areas regarded as unstructured, informal greenery have been valued higher than pure park areas by those who responded. Areas that the residents considered to have a high degree of “naturalness” and also a high level of biodiversity have been valued more highly than other areas.
Researchers have noted a lot of interest in their project, which may partly be due to the fact that a government resolution calls on public authorities to take ecosystem services into account no later than 2018 when they make changes in cities. This could impact housing and road construction, for example.
“There’s a need to build housing in our cities, but it is difficult to repair the neglect of construction that has prevailed for 30-40 years,” says Bengt Gunnarsson. “A ‘quick fix’ is likely to create new problems.”
He believes that the project has a high educational value because it can provide both the public and decision-makers with a broader picture of urban greenery.
“We can show that nature gives us these benefits. At the same time, we shouldn’t think that everything is resolved. There are many challenges related to values, and one of the big ones is getting them into the decision-making processes in a good way. If we implement this successfully, we have a lot to gain.”
About the project “Evaluation of ecosystem services”
The project has been ongoing since 2013. In addition to Sofia Thorsson, Bengt Gunnarsson and researchers from the University of Gothenburg, participants have included researchers from Chalmers, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and the University of Gävle.
The researchers have worked on six different analyses of urban greenery: biodiversity, climate control, air purification, noise reduction, storm water management and recreation/wellness. The weight-of-evidence analyses consist of five steps: mapping of the various ecosystem services with the help of indicators; functioning and its effectiveness; calculation of results; evaluation of benefits; and a summation of the benefits of all ecosystem services in an area.
About ecosystem services
Ecosystem services are all the products and services that natural ecosystems provide people and that contribute to our welfare and quality of life. Pollination, natural water control and nature experiences are a few examples. (Source: Swedish Environmental Protection Agency)
The Sustainable Development Goals
Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and quality
education for all and promote lifelong learning Obtaining a quality education is the foundation to improving people’s lives and sustainable development. Major progress has been made towards increasing access to education
at all levels and increasing enrolment rates in schools particularly for women and girls. Basic literacy skills have improved tremendously, yet bolder efforts are needed to make even greater strides for achieving universal education goals. For example,
the world has achieved equality in primary education between girls and boys, but few countries have achieved that target at all levels of education.
On 25 September 2015, UN member countries adopted Agenda 2030, a universal agenda that encompasses the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The global goals and Agenda 2030 are the most ambitious agreement for sustainable development that world leaders have ever adopted. The SDGs consist of 17 goals, and in this issue we have chosen to focus on three of them and our research and education connected with them.