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ZSL touts climate adaptation benefits of rewilding cities

© Shutterstock / TK KurikawaPost Thumbnail

The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has released a report that explores the benefits of urban rewilding and demonstrates how it can be implemented at scale. 

  • The Rewilding our Cities report concludes that large-scale urban rewilding could be a key strategy for climate change adaptation while helping to restore biodiversity in cities. 
  • Urban rewilding offers a range of environmental, social and economic benefits, but projects must be designed with caution to avoid potential trade-offs. 
  • As governments and investors alike are strengthening their commitments to biodiversity, urban rewilding projects could gain traction, but their success will depend on more localised support and collaboration. 

The ZSL’s Rewilding our Cities report finds that urban rewilding could help safeguard cities against extreme climatic events, including storms, floods and heatwaves, while supporting local wildlife and improving community health. 

Rewilding efforts to date, however, have typically focused on rural environments with cities remaining largely overlooked. This comes despite projections that, by 2050, around 68% of the global population will be living in urban settings.  

To address this discrepancy, the ZSL report suggests that spaces such as private gardens, public parks, urban waterways and even railways could play host to large-scale rewilding initiatives that make a substantial difference. 

According to lead author Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, “this is the first report of its kind to lay out a roadmap for rewilding our cities and we believe this is a high-impact solution to jointly address the climate and biodiversity loss crises in a low cost, ‘hands off’ way.” 

Writing in the report’s foreword, ZSL’s director of conservation and policy Dr Andrew Terry adds that, “everywhere we look, we see the impacts of the mass commodification of natural ecosystems and the reduction in the numbers of living creatures.

The implication for humanity is disastrous – the combination of these threats increases pressures on food systems, human health and wellbeing. The recovery of healthy ecosystems and the wildlife they host, is not simply a nice-to-have, but a vital survival strategy for the future.” 

What is urban rewilding?  

Rewilding differs from conventional approaches to restoring natural ecosystems in that it typically requires minimal ongoing management and prioritises present and future ecological functioning rather than a return to historical benchmark conditions.  

It can be achieved through various initiatives, including land abandonment, species translocation or civil engineering. Although these activities require some initial intervention, their ongoing delivery is, by definition, left to nature. 

As such, rewilding typically offers a flexible, low-cost and low-maintenance approach to restoring biodiversity and improving ecological resilience. In doing so, it provides a solution that tackles both the climate and biodiversity crises in unison. 

This holistic approach is crucial in addressing the interconnections between these crises. As rapid changes in the climate threaten the survival of natural ecosystems, their destruction in turn has impacts on the planet’s resilience. 

Biodiversity loss contributes to a reduction in carbon sequestration capacity and greater exposure to extreme weather events, to give just a couple of examples. 

In addition to its benefits for the planet, rewilding can also improve human health, with research from Wildlife and Countryside Link concluding that 70% of people experience improvements in their mental wellbeing when close to nature.

This is further complemented by the economic benefits that can be gained, with ecosystem services providing opportunities for local food production, attractive tourism industries and cost-savings on more expensive climate change adaptation projects. 

The challenges of urban rewilding 

Despite the many benefits of urban rewilding, the ZSL report acknowledges that projects must be set up with extreme care. 

Without caution, urban rewilding initiatives risk the accidental introduction of invasive species that could cause indigenous biodiversity to suffer or allow diseases to spread to humans. The interactions of new ecosystems with local populations must also be considered, as urban settings are more likely to be prone to human-nature conflicts such as property damage or vehicle collisions.

There is also the worry that urban rewilding could contribute to ‘green gentrification’ whereby local projects could cause property prices to rise and see poorer communities displaced from their homes. 

Even with careful planning, the adoption of urban rewilding will rely on supportive policy and dedicated investment. 

Policy and finance for the rewilding of cities 

To enable the wider uptake of the urban rewilding approach, legislative frameworks would have to shift from a focus on maintaining or restoring historic conditions to a broader recognition of ecosystem functionality. Attempts to mobilise capital, meanwhile, will likely rely on the ability of rewilding projects to tap into emerging markets such as nutrient trading or biodiversity credits, which will again require a supportive policy environment. 

There is some evidence to suggest that these shifts may be underway. The second round of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15), taking place in December 2022, is expected to see the finalisation and adoption of a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework

In preparation for this event, a group of 103 financial institutions has called on global finance ministers to integrate nature-related risks and opportunities into national decision-making and commit to reversing nature loss and restoring biodiversity through financial investments.  

The World Wildlife Fund, meanwhile, has been joined by 90 civil society partners in calling on central banks and financial supervisors to include biodiversity in their primary mandates. 

During the Climate Week summit of 2022, global leaders indicated that they are taking notice of these demands and increasingly recognising the importance of addressing biodiversity loss for the benefit of broader social and economic wellbeing.  

Among the commitments made is a 10 Point Plan for financing biodiversity, signed by 16 countries so far. Although it is not legally binding, the plan outlines a clear roadmap for closing the nature finance gap and managing the interconnected risks associated with biodiversity loss. 

What remains to be seen is how these financial commitments will translate into the localised context of urban rewilding projects.  

As Dr Pettorelli points out, “for the rewilding of urban spaces to work, we need the buy-in and support of policy makers, funders, conservation scientists and of course, local communities”. 

Ultimately, urban rewilding holds great promise, but its realisation is dependent on supportive policy, willing investors and dedicated local collaboration. 

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