[WATCH] Renaturing: Why bringing back the green can solve urban problems

Mario Balzan, a senior lecturer at the Institute of Applied Sciences of the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST) is the coordinator of the ‘ReNature’ – a EU Horizon 2020 funded project to promote research in nature-based solutions aimed at improving human well-being while tackling environmental challenges

Renaturing: Why bringing back the green can solve urban problems

Bringing nature back to our towns through innovative infrastructure like green walls, green roofs, water retention ponds and the planting of trees can help us solve everyday problems ranging from heavy flooding to high temperatures, while also restoring community ties and mental well-being.

Mario Balzan, a senior lecturer at the Institute of Applied Sciences of the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST) is the coordinator of the ‘ReNature’ – a EU Horizon 2020 funded project to promote research in nature-based solutions aimed at improving human well-being while tackling environmental challenges.

“Restoring nature in the urban environment is not just good for ecological reasons but it helps address everyday human problems. Green walls, green roofs and planting trees in urban areas can be effective ways in improving our daily lives and making cities more liveable,” says Balzan.

The first ‘ReNaturing cities: Interdisciplinary Summer School’ organised by MCAST brought together around 40 doctoral students and international experts from different backgrounds to discuss and outline innovative ideas for nature-based solutions in Malta.

The Summer School exercises carried out by the students were focused on local problems such as flooding and tourism pressure.

Within the Summer School, participants investigated two challenging case studies: the densely populated town of Birkirkara and Comino. In Birkirkara, which regularly experiences heavy flooding, students identified nature-based solutions for reducing surface run-off whilst at the same time increasing green spaces.  In contrast Comino, which is sparsely populated, is faced with a problem of high tourist numbers and soil erosion. Guided by local experts, students inspected the issues faced by these two localities and developed prototypes of nature-based solutions.

Mario Balzan
Mario Balzan

The students hailed from different backgrounds, ranging from forestry to architecture, landscaping and environmental science to health.
“We asked these students how we can provide nature-based solutions to our problems,” Balzan says.

One of the ideas floated for Birkirkara was the creation of ponds, serving a water retention purpose, or for providing educational and recreational spaces for children and a way for them to reconnect with nature.  Another idea was to introduce green walls in Gnien l-Istazzjon – something which would also reduce run-off reduction. Other ideas included water filtration systems and underground water tanks for fountains and hydroponic gardening systems. The use of different measures is likely to be more effective in providing flood protection and other benefits.

MCAST is currently collaborating with five foreign universities in the ReNature project. “This is not simply an exercise in suggesting ideas but a process in which we all learn together by co-creating knowledge and sharing experiences,” Balzan said.

The focus of the project is on nature-based solutions to human problems. “For example, planting trees helps in reducing surface run-off by replacing impermeable surfaces with permeable ones from which the aquifers can re-charge. But they also provide shade and contribute to mental well-being.”

Green roofs help in restoring biodiversity in cities but also help in cooling down temperatures in buildings and provide much needed recreational space. “While green roofs and green walls have entered popular parlance and are sometimes considered in development projects, a lot of research still needs to be done to establish which kind of green infrastructure offers the best solutions in the Maltese contexts. Moreover architects and planners need clearer guidelines on what actually constitutes a green wall or roof and how it is best adopted in the Maltese context.”

This also requires more intelligent urban planning based around these local solutions.

“Trees can serve an important role in tackling air-quality. But even tree planting requires planning as the effectiveness of such measures is likely to depend on the tree species and the surrounding environment.”

The development of nature-based solutions is also linked to road infrastructure which is traditionally car-centred. On the other hand putting  nature and trees at the centre of infrastructure comes with several benefits for residents, ranging from more shaded areas  to  water retention, in short making “our cities more liveable.”

But the first step required is to recognise renaturing is based on science and “requires the input of professionals in different fields,” Balzan says such as scientific modelling in different areas ranging from air quality to hydrology. Ultimately the aim will be that of coming up with different solutions in the context of Malta’s limited space.

“The idea is to use nature-based solutions to address a wide variety of issues rather than one particular issue like flooding. One should structure nature-based solutions to provide multiple benefits.”

For example, recent studies have shown that urban green spaces can provide a habitat to pollinators like wild bees, of which Malta has 101 species, and may also have an important role in the conservation of biodiversity. But it also comes with an educational benefit. The installation of bee hotels, offering nesting sites to wild solitary bees in public gardens also helps to instil curiosity in children and thus, perform an important educational function.

“Our children have a lack of contact with nature. How can we speak about the protection of our countryside if our children lack any contact with nature in their daily life?  Children should not have to go to Buskett or Comino to observe nature. They should be able to do so in their hometowns,” Balzan says.

But this also requires a qualitative leap in how we plan our urban open spaces and gardens.

“It is good that we invest in outdoor furniture and paving for our gardens but it is also very important that we bring nature closer to our children.”

Nature-based solutions also contribute to mental health to the extent that professionals in the medical field in other countries are prescribing more time in nature apart from medicines. Moreover, having more green public areas also contributes to strengthening community ties.

But while the future for nature-based solutions is promising and is now recognised by international institutions like the European Union, the focus of this project at present is on research capacity building.

“We are building the networks. In the future there is a lot of opportunity for practical projects involving nature-based solutions. We need to put our ideas to the test. We have to build the evidence to show this is the way forward through tangible deliverables not just in terms of addressing problems like flooding and air pollution but also in terms of human health and well being.”