World Environment Day 2021: The Role of Cities in Ecosystem Restoration

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The theme of this year’s World Environment Day celebration is ecosystem restoration, and for most people, this will bring to mind images of forests, water and wildlife.

However, in reality, built urban environments such as cities are an integral part of the global ecosystem – and they have the power and the responsibility to protect and restore it.

The UN defines ecosystem restoration as “assisting in the recovery of ecosystems that have been degraded or destroyed, as well as conserving the ecosystems that are still intact.” 

Unsustainable urban development, pollution and accelerated resource depletion have caused severe damage to our ecosystems, putting current and future generations at risk – making ecosystem restoration a matter of critical importance.

Ecosystem restoration is possible – but challenging

The good news is that much of the damage already done to our ecosystems can be offset with ambitious and strong engagement by key stakeholders. For instance, cities can help by prioritizing nature-based solutions, which include measures to protect and enhance “green elements” such as trees, wetlands and floodplains in their infrastructure projects.

The bad news? Cities of all sizes need to overcome significant challenges before they can implement such projects. 

These challenges include:

  • Awareness gaps: as city leaders may not yet fully understand the imminent need for the long-term benefits of sustainable infrastructure projects.
  • Capacity gaps: City leaders may already be convinced of the need to protect and restore the environment, but are unsure how to begin formulating more sustainable projects.
  • Preference for gray infrastructure: Another obstacle is the tendency of cities to prioritize resources for traditional “gray” infrastructure projects over “green-blue infrastructure” that remain relatively novel solutions, presenting some unknowns in terms of their design, operation and maintenance.

These challenges of leveraging infrastructure to protect and restore local ecology are all magnified in secondary cities, as these cities usually have fewer financial and skilled personnel resources – two of the key requirements for infrastructure projects – than their larger counterparts.

Meanwhile, in addition to the challenges of preparing projects that protect the environment, the COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated sustainable infrastructure financing with most governments allocating their resources toward their immediate public health responses.

Signs of progress in the region

Several major Asia Pacific cities and communities have made deliberate efforts to revitalize their local ecosystems in recent years – and they can now give other cities inspiration for restoration projects of their own.

One example is Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which initiated the “River of Life” project in 2011 to revitalize the polluted waters of its Klang and Gombak Rivers.

The project involved removing garbage from river waters and riverbanks to let 110 kilometers of urban watercourse flourish again. The city also installed bike lanes and boardwalks along the water. A decade later, the ambitious project is nearing completion. 

Meanwhile, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is now overseeing an ongoing ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) project in cities in Lao People’s Democratic Republic, to employ nature-based solutions that revitalize urban forestry landscapes and control flooding. 

Besides these initiatives, cities including Bangkok, Thailand and Wuhan, People’s Republic of China have utilized water harvesting structures such as “sponge cities” to mitigate droughts, restore groundwater levels and create green spaces for biodiversity. These projects bring not only the environmental and climate value but also economic value, as certain economic activities were stimulated around the restored areas.  

Finally, smaller communities – even those without the support of development organizations – are also initiating their own environmental protection and restoration initiatives. Over the past decade, Philippine communities such as Iloilo City have replanted mangroves along their coastlines and intertidal zones to form a natural buffer against typhoons and other weather disturbances. 

All of these ecosystem restoration initiatives are crucial not only to climate change adaptation but also to mitigation – as healthy ecosystems store large quantities of carbon emissions that would otherwise go into the atmosphere. 

Examples of CDIA helping secondary cities protect the environment

The CDIA team specializes in sectors critical to ecological restoration efforts – such as flood management, sewage management, water supply management, solid waste management and urban renewal- and have spent the last fourteen years lending their expertise to secondary cities preparing bankable and climate-resilient infrastructure projects.

In 2012, CDIA worked with officials in the fast-growing city of Cagayan de Oro, Philippines, to develop an infrastructure solution for solid waste management. CDIA developed a project preparation study (PPS) that outlined the proposed closure of an open dumpsite in the city and the construction of a new septic treatment plant. 

When the city implemented the project in 2016, it converted the dumpsite into an ecopark and have embarked on a reforestation effort of 3,000 hectares of upland watershed to help decrease erosion and rainwater runoff. These interventions provided an efficient and sustainable waste management solution for Cagayan de Oro – and protected nearby ecosystems from unprocessed waste. 

Also in 2012, CDIA supported the city government of Pu’er, People’s Republic of China to develop a rehabilitation project for the Simao River. The ensuing project included the use of native vegetation to restore the ecosystem along the riverbanks – and now serves as a model for other cities seeking ways to preserve their water resources and enhance their green spaces.

In 2019, CDIA urban development experts provided technical assistance to help prepare an ecological protection project in Huangshan, People’s Republic of China that aimed to reduce polluted water flowing into the city’s Xin’an River – a source of drinking water for 10 million residents in the Zheijang Province.  

Huangshan officials considered CDIA’s inputs regarding upgrades to the city’s drainage systems in the project design. When completed, the project is expected to reduce the effects of flooding along the riverbank and improve the resilience of the Huangshan’s water resources – while also allowing the city to reap the financial benefits of increased ecotourism.

CDIA also works with the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) – an organization that partners with policy makers, non-governmental organizations and local communities worldwide to reduce the ocean’s absorption of discarded plastics. CDIA and AEPW are now exploring collaboration opportunities for future PPS that address environmental protection.

The time to act is now!

Despite the operational and health challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the ecological restoration work cities undertake today will pay much-needed dividends in the future – and help us avoid the devastating consequences of inaction.

This is why CDIA took action this year to create a new way to assist secondary cities prepare infrastructure projects.  

With the majority of in-person field visits with city officials not possible due to travel restrictions, CDIA is taking its consultations virtually with a new series of Virtual Clinics – intensive, one-on-one consultations for Asia Pacific city officials who want to prepare and develop infrastructure project proposals that align with the sustainable development goals and funder’s priorities. 

By the end of their meetings with the CDIA team, cities will have a prioritized list of sectors they need to focus on, and a comprehensive understanding of what makes a bankable and sustainable infrastructure projects.

CDIA believes that their work with secondary cities to realize their infrastructure ambitions will help the region make imminently-needed gains for environmental protection and ecosystem restoration.

We’ve just concluded a successful first clinic session, and there are more seats available at the upcoming sessions.

To learn more about the CDIA Virtual Clinics and register to attend, visit:

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