Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

Imagination and Creativity for Cities and Nature I

The Paris Forum on NBS [Nature-Based Solutions] turned out to be more of a pleasure than I expected.

I attended the Paris Forum on NBS on the 7 April. NBS is jargon for nature-based solutions to buiding climate change adaptation and mitigation, resilience, and sustainability in cities. Some of NBS is about biomimicry in design, architecture and engineering, using nature-inspired technologies to find clever solutions to keep cities working in the fact of risk. But there is also an element of integrating habitat for plants, animals, and other species into the urban matrix—a “low tech” way to try to ensure the continuity of ecosystem services.

The plenary session was led by Sébastien Maire, General Delegate for Ecological Transition and Resilience of Paris; Gilles Boeuf, Professor at Université Pierre et Marie Curie and former scientific advisor to the French Ministry of Environment, Energy and the Sea; Sandra Naumann, Senior Fellow at the Ecologic Institute and researcher on many European NBS projects; and Chris Younès, professor of uban philosophy at the École Spécial d’Architecture in Paris.

The speakers agreed on the importance of integration to implementation of NBS—integration across decision-makers, between cities and suburbs, between economic sectors, and between green and blue infrastructures. Dividing up city management into specialized and independent spheres of control and influence creates economic non-alignment and conflicts over different forms of expertise. (This is also something that happens in conservation management in rural and anthropogenic nature areas, as I have seen in my own research.)

The speakers also called for the integration of new forms of imagination and creativity to complement technical knowledge about NBS. It was nice to hear this message. The imagination and creativity of citizens was particularly called on. Cities, they suggested, were “middle grounds” where citizen mobilizations, decision makers and economic actors, and scientists could come together to spontaneously form new ways of working together, outside the technical constraints of “governance”.

“+2ºC… Paris s’invente” is an example of a creative campaign to provide Paris residents with optimistic, or at least not dystopic, scenarios of adaptation to climate change: http://crdp.ac-paris.fr/E3D-paris-en-action/index.php?q=2°cparis-sinvente/paris-sinvente-03-15. For a more apocalyptic take, this magazine article argues for a creative approach to imagining climate adaptation: http://nautil.us/issue/70/variables/how-imagination-will-save-our-cities.

At the same time, the speakers and some commentators from the audience pointed out, very diplomatically, that some experts and also some citizens can, at times, display a certain rigidity or lack of creativity and imagination, and that this can act as a break on innovation and implementation where democratic decisions and cross-sectoral collaboration are needed for legitimacy. Policy makers, for their part, may often prefer to implement a project that worked elsewhere, rather than carrying out original research to develop a site-based solution (which again, is very often the case in nature conservation as well). This was phrased as a conflict between “experience-based” vs. “evidence-based” knowledge by Professor García Mira, psychologist and member of the Spanish Parliament. It seems fairly obvious that experience with a base in local evidence, as well as local evidence without the benefit of experience, are both inadequate as forms of knowledge, and lead to stunted imaginations.

Another barrier to knowledge and imagination around NBS was mentioned by Gilles Boeuf, who suggested that it is very difficult for young researchers to do well under different forms of evaluation—paper publishing, ranking of journals they publish in, obtaining grants, and recruitment— if they focus on interdisciplinary problems like this one. He suggested that they also suffer from lack of respect—this, however, is not my experience. I think that young and older colleagues alike respect interdisciplinary research, but have few formal mechanisms to act on this—barriers differ between countries but are always present. Interdisicplinary NBS projects, he suggests, are thus something that old, established researchers need to be doing. One might hope that by doing so, established scientists would also open new spaces of evaluation for the young, who are eager to do exactly the kind of work called for by the panel, and may be risking their careers to do it—though new employment opportunites may also evolve for them in civil society and government as NBS are broadly adopted.

As I write this, a large fly is zooming around my living room, making invisible rollercoaster tracks through the empty space. I feel very fraternal towards him, in our epistemological divergences, our attempts to live together, to breach barriers, and to imagine new solutions to our problems. My fly book suggests it’s a Calliphora vomitoria. I let him out when he scrambles against the window.

--Meredith Root-Bernstein, 7/4/2019