Nature-based solutions are said to hold a strong potential to drive the urban sustainability agenda and meet societal challenges like climate change, food and water security, disaster risk reduction, socio-economic development and healthy lives. A key concern for social scholars and environmental justice activists is how the benefits of new urban nature are to be distributed and through what means - questions that are even more pertinent in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

With the Lab on Urban Environmental Justice Barcelona at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona we have been exploring how diverse nature-based solutions in 18 cities globally are distributed. The findings are disturbing – we see that these interventions are increasingly taking place in privileged urban areas, with benefits that accrue mostly to those in higher socio-economic and majority ethnic groups. Further, of the 54 projects we studied, only 9 had justice and equity considerations integrated into their deployment and design and, of these, 7 were small-scale community gardens that struggle to remain alive.

Our work suggests then that planning for new, large-scale nature-based solutions frequently overlooks issues of social justice and that newly-developed greening projects could end up deepening existing inequalities. Take a small, seemingly innocuous and very positive intervention such as the conversion of a boulevard into a green avenue, as in the case of Passeig St Joan in Barcelona. It is a wonderful project where sidewalks were expanded, allowing for more pedestrian, rest and child-play areas; new heat-resistant vegetation and semi-permeable pavement were installed, allowing for more cooling and water run-off.

Yet, looking at the neighbourhood before and after this intervention we find a few puzzles: the number of expensive food and drink venues increased, chasing cheaper Chinese outlets away; flats in the area were profiled as located upon a green-street and sold as upper-end living spaces, pushing up the housing market. In terms of the process of decision-making, we find that local neighbourhood organisations had a different proposal that could have led to different outcomes. Groups were advocating for an avenue with a broad central walking alley in the middle, free of bars and other commerce, high trees and smaller car-lanes on both sides. The proposal was not adopted by the planners as it did not align with local commercial interests: larger sidewalks provide for more retail, restaurant and bars space than a central alley. As this example shows, often it is the voices of long-term or socially vulnerable residents that remain silenced in urban remodeling and refurbishing, particularly when they do not fit with the political needs of the day.

Through our work at the Lab, we have found that nature-based solutions are often implemented in wealthier parts of the city, or push up the housing prices and eventually, the cost of living, in their surroundings. Furthermore, nature-based solutions tend to be treated as decorative, ornamental, non-intrusive, orchestrated forms of nature, ones that easily align with the need to promote economic development. Such forms of urban greening, however, are hardly able to achieve their sustainability promises. To highlight these issues, our blog on urban green inequalities where members of the Lab share thoughts, experiences and research around questions of equity and greening provides a number of reflections and ideas on how to make our cities more just and ecologically grounded.

Filka Sekulova is a researcher for the Naturvation project