How the EU is Legislating for Nature Restoration in Cities?

In the last couple of years, increased attention has been paid to environmental challenges in the European Union’s agenda. Part of this is an increased focus on biodiversity and related issues, such as nature restoration. For example, the European Green Deal aims to utilise natural solutions to fight climate change and societal challenges.

In this context, the most important initiative is the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030. Ennek célja egy uniós hálózat kialakítása a természetvédelmi területeknek és a Természethelyreállítási Terv végrehajtása Its key targets include for protected areas, habitat restoration, improved biodiversity in farming, and, most importantly, a net 10% canopy cover for European cities.

Part of the Biodiversity Strategy is to legislate for biodiversity. The Nature Restoration Law will ensure that the decline in natural, biodiverse habitats is reversed, which will mandate that Member States submit Nature Restoration Plans. European cities of at least 20 thousand inhabitants should create their Urban Greening Plans, that will support the legislation’s targets of net 10% canopy coverage in cities, and reversing the loss of urban green areas.

Supplementing this, a Green City Accord was devised. This focuses on air quality, water, nature and biodiversity, waste and circular economy, and noise as the main foci of urban greening policies. Signatories of the Accord are expected to improve in all these areas by fulfilling mandatory indicators.

At this point, we should zoom out and ask just how important cities are to achieve these goals? While urban areas are, by their nature, built up to a large extent, it is important to highlight how green areas in cities can bridge natural areas outside them. However, urban green areas, especially smaller parks and on-street green areas, are often not set up with biodiversity in mind. Quite the opposite, we often expect these to have well-kept lawns or feature the same tree species. Smaller potential green areas on streets are often not utilised at all.

Urban greening has its challenges, especially in terms of ensuring that plants survive in harsh environments characterised by pollution and the relative lack of space. However, changing the mindsets of citizens and administrators to appreciate better, more biodiverse and environmentally conscious green areas is necessary to prepare for the green transition and mitigate climate change.

But the tasks ahead go way beyond what is green in colour. We need to, for example, rethink how we build, how we treat our waste, how we use our water. These tasks should be planned and legislated.

In this context, the European Commission is calling for Urban Greening Plans that plan for biodiverse urban green areas (from parks to forests) as well as improving practices around their maintenance (e.g., by reducing the use of pesticides or mowing). These plans should serve as comprehensive frameworks for committing European cities to the green transition.

While so far we have emphasised the compulsory elements of the EU’s green policies when it comes to municipalities, it is crucial that these initiatives are embraced by both political leaders and the local public. The Green City Accord, for example, is voluntary, but participation in it can have tangible effects on local ecosystems and demonstrates the political commitment of a municipality to the green transition.

To support the creation of Urban Greening Plans, the Commission will release a Guidance (a draft version being already published) and soon also a Toolkit. Urban Greening Plans should start with preparations, including the creation of political consensus around the issues.This is followed by the action planning phase. Finally, the plans should be implemented and monitored. Action plans should focus not only on concrete goals and KPIs, but also on creating and communicating a long-term vision.

So you start with preparation. This means creating political and institutional prerequisites to your Urban Greening Plan, i.e., a political consensus as well as effective working structures and co-creation processes. These will then be the foundations of your Urban Greening Plan.

With all the foundations in place, you should co-create your action plans in an interactive manner, starting from long-term vision and arriving, through surveying the status-quo, at concrete targets. This is also the phase when communication should be planned. Finally, of course, the action plan should be implemented and monitored.

The Urban Greening Toolkit that could inspire these initiatives is not yet published. However, municipalities can take inspiration from their peers in how to make their cities greener.

First, greening should not only be about planting trees and shrubs – although of course that,is important, too. The focus should be on restoring nature as much as possible in built-up areas, in a manner that serves the recreational needs of local residents. This goes beyond what is green in the literal sense: urban greening efforts, for example, should also focus on water management and riverbank restoration.

Green areas – renovated or newly established – should also be designed to be resilient, diverse and sustainable. For example, municipalities might adopt the Stockholm model of planting urban trees in structured soil. This will ensure that urban trees have a place to grow. Similarly, green areas should be made diverse and mowing should be minimised as much as feasible, in order to protect pollinating insects.

Greening urban areas should also be utilised to improve a city’s resilience to the climate crisis. By creating green areas that cool our streets, or constructed wetlands to reuse greywater in a climate where extreme weather events (droughts and short periods of heavy rain) lead to both water shortage and flash floods. For this reason, water retention, too, should become a priority.

In order to understand how these challenges are to be met, cities should utilise opportunities – EU funding through programmes like Urbact, as well as through their existing networks via study trips for municipal employees. Additionally, municipalities should cooperate with academic institutions and horticulture experts.

Cities have a great responsibility in fighting the climate emergency and their duties are increasingly recognised by EU law. However, in order to create lasting, politically viable solutions to these challenges, European urban developers and local decision makers alike should recognise that greening is not an external requirement, but a vehicle of making our cities more liveable and equitable.