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New software for designing sustainable cities

By 2050, more than 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities. A group of International researchers has developed software that shows city planners where to invest in nature to improve people’s lives and save billions of dollars.

The free, open-source software developed by Stanford University's Natural Capital Project creates maps to visualise the links between nature and human wellbeing. City planners and developers can use the software to visualise where investments in nature, such as parks and marshlands, can maximise benefits to people. These benefits include protection from flooding and improved health.

Urban nature is good for everyone

‘This software helps design cities that are better for both people and nature,’ said Anne Guerry, Lead Scientist at the Natural Capital Project. ‘Urban nature is a multitasking benefactor – the trees on your street can lower temperatures so your apartment is cooler on hot summer days. At the same time, they’re soaking up the carbon emissions that cause climate change, creating a free, accessible place to stay healthy through physical activity, and just making your city a more pleasant place to be.’

Strategically planning green infrastructure

By 2050, experts expect over 70 per cent of the world’s people to live in cities – in the United States, more than 80 per cent already do. As the global community becomes more urban, developers and city planners are increasingly interested in green infrastructures, such as tree-lined paths and community gardens, that provide a stream of benefits to people.

The software gives planners detailed information about where a path might encourage the most people to exercise. Another example is how a community garden might buffer a neighbourhood from flood risk while helping people recharge mentally. 

New software creates maps to show city planners and developers where investments in nature — such as creating new parks or conserving marshlands — can maximize benefits to people. © onlyyouqj/iStock

Software is first of its kind

‘We’re answering three crucial questions with this software: where in a city is nature providing what benefits to people, how much of each benefit is it providing, and who is receiving those benefits?’ said Perrine Hamel from Nanyang Technological University. She is the lead author on a new paper about the software published in Urban Sustainability.

The software, called Urban InVEST, is the first of its kind for cities around the world. It allows for the combination of environmental data, such as temperature patterns, with social demographics and economic data, such as income levels. Users can input their city’s datasets into the software or access a diversity of open global data sources, from NASA satellites to local weather stations. 

Helpful for Dutch municipalities

Leiden environmental scientist Roy Remme was a postdoc at the Stanford Natural Capital Project at the time of the study. He thinks the software could be very useful for Dutch municipalities and the government. ‘It allows them to calculate the different benefits of urban nature, both the physical and the monetary ones.’ On top of that, the software is easy-to-use according to Remme. ‘Our models also offer the opportunity to predict nature benefits in future scenarios, for instance when constructing a new residential area or redeveloping a business park.’

By 2050, over 70 percent of the world’s people are projected to live in cities. As the global community becomes increasingly urban, cities are looking for ways to design with sustainability in mind. © Zhang Mengyang/iStock

The new software joins the Natural Capital Project’s existing InVEST software suite, a set of tools designed for experts to map and model the benefits that nature provides to people. To test Urban InVEST, the team applied the software in multiple cities around the world: Paris, France; Lausanne, Switzerland; Shenzhen and Guangzhou, China; and several U.S. cities, including San Francisco and Minneapolis.

Avoiding $25 billion in damages

In Shenzhen, China, the researchers used Urban InVEST to calculate how natural infrastructure –such as parks, grassland, and forest – would reduce damages in the event of a severe, once-in-one-hundred years storm. They found that the city’s nature would help avoid $25 billion in damages by soaking up rain and diverting floodwaters. They also showed that natural infrastructure was reducing the daily air temperature in Shenzhen by 3 degrees Celsius during hot summer days, providing a value of $71,000 per day in benefits to the city.

‘Why not be more thoughtful about how we design the places where most of us spend our time?’

Healthy city ecosystems

Urban InVEST is already seeing use outside of a research setting – it recently helped inform an assessment of how nature might help store carbon and lower temperatures in 775 European cities.

‘Cities, more than any other ecosystems, are designed by people. Why not be more thoughtful about how we design the places where most of us spend our time?’ said Guerry, also an author on the paper. ‘With Urban InVEST, city governments can bring all of nature’s benefits to residents and visitors. They can address inequities and build more resilient cities, resulting in better long-term outcomes for people and nature.’

Targeting inequities

Nature is often distributed unevenly across cities. Data show that lower-income and marginalised communities often have less access to nature in cities. This means that they are unable to reap the benefits that nature provides to wealthier populations, such as improved mental and physical health.

In Paris, the researchers looked at neighbourhoods without access to natural areas and overlaid income and economic data to understand who was receiving benefits from nature. The software helped determine where investments in more greenspace – such as parks and bike paths – could be most effective at equitably boosting health and wellbeing.

This article is based on a press release by Sarah Cafasso/Stanford Natural Capital Project

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