Heather Brooks

Heather Brooks is an urban enthusiast focused on all things related to urban nature, climate, and city soundscapes. She is policy advisor in the environment and climate team at Eurocities. On the recently adopted Nature Restoration Law, she worked with cities, national ministries, MEPs, and NGOs.

The adoption of the Nature Restoration Law represents a momentous milestone for combating biodiversity loss, climate change impacts, and ecosystem degradation across Europe, including in cities. What do you think are some of the main opportunities and challenges for cities when it comes to local implementation? 

The adoption of the Nature Restoration Law (NRL) is brilliant news for cities, which were very vocal in their support of the urban ecosystem restoration targets. The targets for urban ecosystem restoration include no net loss of urban green space or tree canopy cover by 2030, and thereafter an increasing trend in both until ‘satisfactory levels’ are reached – a level that will need to be defined by national governments with the support of the European Commission. And this is crucial as cities face increasing pressure in terms of how to use land with growing demand for housing, and for transport and energy infrastructure. Land take – by this we mean the conversion of land cover from natural to agricultural and urban use – is a key driver of biodiversity loss, while sealing our soils with concrete increases urban heating as well as surface water runoff and flooding. Cities know this, and that’s why they wanted support to protect existing urban green space.

But there are barriers to implementation. First, in terms of technical expertise both within municipalities when it comes to designing effective nature-based solution projects, and within the construction sector in the implementation of such projects. Take the example of biosolar roofs which combine green and solar roofs to the benefit of both – green roofs cool the solar panels increasing their efficiency, while the solar panels provide shade to the green roof allowing for a wider range of flora. But the type and proportion of green roof to solar panel requires specific knowledge that is often lacking, and within the construction sector can be a challenge in terms of the profitability of solar panel installation compared to green roof. Another challenge comes with the question of who owns the land. In Brussels, for example, over 55% of green space is privately owned, be it by individual citizens or business. This means cities will need to work with communities to encourage less soil sealing and limit the cutting down of trees. Finally, financing is another key concern for cities.

Cities will need support to effectively implement these restoration targets, but their establishment is key to securing livable cities and boosting biodiversity. One risk of the no net loss targets is that, depending on where you draw the boundary for the target, you can encourage housing development outside of your target area, resulting in urban sprawl. But thanks to the flexibility provided within the law, national governments and cities can work together to prevent this. Protecting and further greening our cities also means they can better fulfill a crucial role as connecting corridors for nature between larger areas of protected natural land. Establishing connected healthy urban habitats is vital for allowing birds, insects and everything in between to move more safely between areas within the city and between cities. Such connecting corridors can also connect different areas within the city for residents, creating new cycle and pedestrian highways. Ultimately, the targets encourage cities to think about how they can use their limited urban space for multiple purposes, now with the provision that there must be greater focus on green space and tree canopy cover.

How do you think the NRL will help to shape the future of cities (in the short and long term)?

In the short-term, it means further building coalitions with citizens, businesses, and other cities to discuss the implications and opportunities for urban planning in light of this new regulation. It means exploring existing policy regulations and building codes that can support greener developments, practices for the protection of mature and healthy trees, and partnerships with businesses that encourage de-sealing of small portions of their car parks, for example, or tree planting schemes.

Of course, the proposal for the Nature Restoration Law was published at a time when Europe was still dealing with the fallout of COVID and experiencing a reflection on changing needs and in the way people want to live their lives, including a growing desire for teleworking. Accessible urban green space was finally highlighted as essential for the health and wellbeing of citizens, with a much greater recognition of mental health benefits. As such, it is within this broader context, and in combination with all related European Green Deal legislation, the NRL will act as a key lever for cities to rethink urban planning to adapt to climate change, creating healthier, more livable and desirable cities.

The NRL provides a framework to guide cities towards more sustainable developments. The targets for ‘no net loss’ do not mean ‘no development,’ they rather acknowledge the crucial benefits of urban green space and tree cover for the health and wellbeing of citizens, and the fight against the triple crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

 

 

In the longer term, the NRL provides a framework to guide cities towards more sustainable developments. The targets for ‘no net loss’ do not mean ‘no development,’ they rather acknowledge the crucial benefits of urban green space and tree cover for the health and wellbeing of citizens, and the fight against the triple crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. Today, cities cover only 4% of the EU’s land but they are already home to 75% of the European population. Compact cities reduce the environmental impact of residents, are more energy efficient, and provide shorter commuting times, as well as greater access to services compared to less densely populated cities and towns. However, there needs to be a balance between density and livability. The NRL puts a renewed spotlight on this balance, and crucially acknowledges the importance of nature for human health and wellbeing, and for achieving our EU climate targets.

Indeed, as our cities increasingly face the challenge of limited land availability, we’ll need to be more innovative in the multifunctional use of this space. The Urban Agenda Partnership on Greening Cities – a collaboration that brings together representatives from the European Commission, national ministries, and local level, as well as civil society – will support cities in the implementation of the urban restoration targets with a manual covering these policy areas including land use, citizen engagement, and funding. The Partnership will also offer an opportunity for cities to get involved in the shaping of the European Commission’s guidance on the definition of the ‘satisfactory level’ of urban green space and tree canopy cover, as described in the NRL.

Will this differ based on city size (small, medium or large) and capacities? If so, how? 

Yes and no. Firstly, the targets for no net loss of urban green space or tree canopy cover applies to those cities with less than 45% and 10% of green space and tree canopy cover respectively. In addition, the overall no net loss target applies at the national level, meaning there is flexibility in terms of how these targets are applied within a country – there can still be loss so long as it’s compensated for. This aggregated implementation of the target at national level should encourage better coordination between the local, regional, and national level in terms of spatial planning. Of course, we’ll need to make sure this is a reality.

That said, the biggest difference between larger and smaller cities in this regard will likely be the available human and financial resources which, as mentioned above, has a great impact on the available technical expertise within the city to design and implement projects, but also to research and apply for funding, and to get involved in discussions with other cities, and regional / national level dialogues (all of which can be time consuming). But these differences vary, and support is crucial for all cities, regardless of size, especially as they are required to implement an increasing number of regulations.

Can you share some of your key reflections from the last year as part of Eurocities’ involvement in the negotiation of the NRL?

The political landscape is changing and with it the usual political norms. The negotiations surrounding the Nature Restoration Law were highly politicised in the run up to the EU elections, which threatened time and again its adoption. Cities are responsible for the implementation of over 70% of European legislation; they are fundamental to securing effective and successful implementation so their involvement in the drafting of legislation is crucial right from the beginning. In the case of the NRL, while supportive, cities were clear that the original proposal from the European Commission was not consistent with the reality on the ground. In our discussions with the European Parliament and the Council we were pleased with regards to the receptiveness of both to those concerns, and we were able to collaborate to deliver an effective alternative.

Looking to the future, we are seeing a shift in focus towards the implementation of the European Green Deal and a key role for industry. Localising the Green Deal, providing training in skills, jobs and opportunities for all is vital to securing a just and inclusive transition. Cities are the closest level of government to people. As such, we have a key responsibility to set a future-orientated narrative that successfully anchors a social, green, and industrial deal in Europe, and to ensure that this works for all people.