With so many of us living, working and visiting Scotland’s towns and cities, there is often a lot strain on services and a concentration of issues. Nature offers multiple ways in which we can improve the quality of life in urban environments.

We have collated a number of examples, case studies and useful resources for urban nature-based solutions, demonstrating the challenges we face that can be helped by nature-based solutions in our towns and cities.

Despite the number of examples and evidence of the benefits, nature-based solutions they are not yet widely used. We looked at the research and asked people involved about the barriers and opportunities for nature-based solutions in our towns and cities.

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Urban nature-based solutions in action

Reduce air pollution

An increasing urban population across Scotland is causing an ongoing, worrying rise in air pollution. Within Edinburgh the air quality fails to meet air quality standards multiple times a year. There are several nature-based solutions that can help improve air quality in the urban environment, improving the health and well-being of residents and visitors as a result.  

Green or living walls are where plants are grown vertically up a wall. This intervention can have multiple benefits for climate, biodiversity and health and wellbeing in the urban environment. Green walls are a way to improve the environment in a dense urban area where space available for other green interventions is scarce. 

In London over 1000sq meters of wall was planted up to reduce the impact of air and noise pollution outside a shopping centre. This made the centre a more pleasant place to visit and gave people a place to rest and socialise outside.  

Improve water quality

The level of pollution in water courses in Scotland is an ongoing concern. In urban environments there are multiple possible sources of pollution. Nature-based solutions offer a way for us to reduce pollution reaching water sources.  

An example of a nature-based solution in Scotland can be found in Cumbernauld sustainable urban drainage ponds. This was a project developed through collaboration between the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Scottish Water to improve water quality of the Red Burn. The ponds help reduce flooding, while also filtering the water of pollutants before it reaches the burn and improving the biodiversity and space for the local community to enjoy.  

Reduce noise pollution

Towns and cities are very noisy places. Noise can impact a person’s quality of life and lead to health issues. Road traffic noise has been associated with increased likelihood of hypertension, coronary heart disease and strokes as a result of impaired sleep and increased stress. Noise is also a threat to wildlife, having a physiological and behavioural impact. 

Nature can be used to buffer the noise of the urban environment. Planting trees and shrubs can reduce the noise by 5 – 10 decibels for every 30m width of woodland. This reduces the noise reaching to our ears by 50%. 

Cool the environment and reduce heat waves

Scotland will continue to experience hotter, drier summers, with greater extremes. This will be particularly damaging and uncomfortable in the urban environment where hard surfaces and all the activity exacerbates the problem via what is known as the urban heat island effect. There are multiple options where nature can reduce this heating and these nature-based solutions will also help reduce further warming by insulating buildings and absorbing carbon.  

The plants in a green wall help to reduce the urban heat island effect – with studies showing that green walls can reduce the ambient temperature of the environment both inside and outside the building. 

Trees reduce the urban heat island effect helping keep dense urban areas cool, with one study demonstrating that urban areas with trees in Central Europe are on average 8-12 degrees cooler than those with no green space.   

Improve food security

Community gardens and urban farming offer a way to provide healthy fresh food to local residents, while also improving biodiversity and absorbing carbon among many other benefits.  

Lauriston farm is a new initiative led by Edinburgh Agroecology Co-operative. The vision is for a large-scale urban food growing project, which improves biodiversity and benefits local communities, as well as the wider city.  

A further example in Edinburgh is Edible Estates. This initiative works with local housing estate communities to make better use of poor-quality green space or vacant and derelict land in the area. This project helps residents create a functional green space for them to grow vegetables and fruit and create a sense of community. This project educates people about the food they eat, provides them with skills and knowledge to grow and create things themselves and instils a sense of stewardship and pride for the space. People have greater opportunity to meet their neighbours and develop relationships which can have a positive impact on their mental health. 

Reduce flood risk and drought

Flooding is a major concern in the majority of Scotland’s urban areas and flooding events are getting more severe and more frequent every year. In Edinburgh, as of December 2015, 6,600 residential and non-residential properties were at risk of flooding, with annual average damages of £8.5 million, these number will have increased in the years since.  

Nature-based solutions offer a means to help adapt to flooding in urban areas. An example can be seen in Glasgow Ruchill SuDS Ponds where three attenuation ponds were created in Ruchill Park to reduce the flood risk and reduce the risk of pollution entering the water course. Glasgow’s urban forest intercepts 400 Olympic swimming pools of rainfall each year, reducing runoff and saving an estimated £1.1 million in sewerage cost. 

The Royal Botanical Gardens Edinburgh have developed demonstration raingardens to help deal with flooding issues in the gardens. Together with Heriot Watt University, RBGE are monitoring the impact of the gardens and benefits provided.  

With an increasing threat of drought throughout Scotland adapting our urban environment in ways which store water will help reduce the impact of prolonged dry weather.

Improve our health and wellbeing

In Scotland there is inequality in our health and wellbeing. People in areas of multiple deprivation have poor access to good quality green space compared to residents in more affluent areas. Access to nature is an important part of ensuring our mental and physical health and making this access available to all will help reduce inequality. Living in greener urban areas is associated with lower chance of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, severe asthma attacks, mental illness and ultimately mortality. 

Street trees have been shown to have a positive effect on the mental health of people who use the space. Being within sight of trees and spending time in the natural environment has been connected with lower blood pressure and lower stress levels. A study demonstrated that each additional tree per kilometre of street was associated with 1.18 fewer antidepressant prescriptions per thousand of the population, suggesting street trees have a positive impact on people’s mental health. Higher biodiversity (or perceived higher biodiversity) is also shown to have a greater positive effect on people’s moods than areas with lower biodiversity. 

Increase biodiversity and pollination

The increasing spread of urban areas has led to extreme biodiversity loss. We have pushed nature out of the vast majority of urban spaces, but this does not have to be the way. There is space for both people and wildlife in our towns and cities.  

Pollination is essential to ensure our long-term food production. In Scotland wild pollinators are in decline. We need to use all the space we can to improve biodiversity and pollinator populations. Nature-based solutions in the urban environment can provide small havens for pollinators allowing them to move through a wider area and pollinate more plants and improve our food security.  

As part of Edinburgh’s Living Landscape, the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh and Butterfly Conservation developed a square metre for butterflies project, working with businesses and organisations across the city to create a square metre for butterflies on roof gardens and green roofs. This helped to create a network of habitat for butterflies and other pollinators in Edinburgh, giving them space to thrive in the city. Increasing the green space in this way also had multiple other benefits for people, for instance improving air quality, cooling buildings and giving people space to enjoy nature. 

Further information

High-level information

Urban GreenUp is a EU-funded project which aims at developing, applying and validating a methodology for Renaturing Urban Plans to mitigate the effects of climate change, improve air quality and water management and increase the sustainability of our cities through innovative nature-based solutions. Download the good practice book for advice on how to implement nature-based solutions in towns and cities.

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Naturvation is a 4-year project that completed in 2021 and has a great number of resources. The project sought to develop understanding of what nature-based solutions can achieve in cities, examine how innovation can be fostered in this domain, and contribute to realising the potential of nature-based solutions for responding to urban sustainability challenges by working with communities and stakeholders. 

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The Connecting Nature project formed a community of cities to share learning and capacity building among cities who are experienced in delivering large scale nature-based solutions, and cities who have the desire to implement large scale nature-based solutions but lack the expertise. 
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Long-term and effective governance is necessary for successful nature-based solutions project. The coordination of the organisations and people on the ground is a key component of the governance structure. Connecting Nature have created a governance guidebook to assist the development of nature-based solutions.  

The Value of Urban Nature-based Solutions 

The value of nature-based solutions is often not realised directly due to them providing money saving benefits in the long-term or indirect returns, rather than profit in the short term. This can make investment in nature-based solutions less appealing, but there is a lot of evidence to demonstrate the value of nature-based solutions in the urban environment.  

The UK Green Building Council report on the value of urban nature-based solutions and aims to help users to define the benefits and value they can draw from NBS, supporting them to develop their own business cases for investment, delivery, and maintenance of NBS, to further mainstream its consideration across industry. 

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Case studies  

Scientific evidence – work in progress

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