During the tenure of former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon the UN General Assembly declared the period between 2011 and 2020 to be the UN Decade on Biodiversity. By 2020, biodiversity would be valued, conserved, restored and wisely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people, it said.
The loss of biodiversity is a critical global environmental threat, and in order to counter it Egypt’s government is moving towards promoting sustainable urban development in the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with a view to confronting the urban sprawl that threatens biodiversity and the functioning of ecosystems. While urbanised areas constitute only around four per cent of the Earth’s surface, their impact has been global. Urban sprawl, while it serves society, decreases natural biodiversity.
Political economy can play a major role in meeting such threats by raising public awareness at the national and international levels and boosting the engagement of stakeholders in reducing the loss of biodiversity and bringing about sustainable urban development. People bear much of the responsibility for the loss of biodiversity, and hence their awareness and engagement, as well as their participation in policies regarding biodiversity conservation, urban ecology and sustainability, are vital to guaranteeing the success of policy responses so that the environment can be protected and preserved.
Urban development corresponds to higher levels of economic and social development at national and regional levels, and urban inhabitants have higher levels of demand, exploiting to some extent irrationally the natural resources around them, than the inhabitants of rural areas. As a result, urban development adversely affects natural ecosystems, including the quality of the air, water resources and the soil biology of the ground where new buildings are built, and so on.
The conservation of biodiversity emerged as a field of international policies in the second half of the 20th century, culminating in the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which entered into force in 1992. The United Nations Decade on Biodiversity (UNDB) was then launched in Kanazawa, Japan, on 17 December 2011, having been formally declared by the UN General Assembly at its 65th session in December 2010. It aims at implementing the first Aichi Biodiversity Target of the Strategic Plan on Biodiversity 2011-2020, ensuring that by 2020 all the people of the world will be aware of biodiversity and its value.
Biodiversity and natural ecosystems are closely related, as biodiversity is essential for the functioning and sustainability of any ecosystem. Biodiversity may be defined as variability among living organisms from all sources and the ecological complexes of which they are part. It includes all populations, organisms and genetic resources, or “any other biotic component of ecosystems with actual or potential use or value for humanity.” Ecosystem services may be defined as the benefits that humans obtain from ecosystems that support, directly or indirectly, their survival and quality of life. They are distinguished into 12 types that include urban ecosystems, which are open and dynamic systems that behave like any other ecosystem, consuming/releasing and transforming materials and energy and interacting with others.
Changes in the drivers that indirectly affect biodiversity include population and technology and lifestyles. Drivers that directly affect biodiversity include land reclamation, fisheries and the use of fertilisers to increase food production, all of which may adversely affect an ecosystem’s functioning.
Urban ecosystems are artificial and are made by humans who have reclaimed natural land to build settlements and implement activities. Such structures and growth affect the natural ecosystem’s functions, and as a result sustainable urban ecosystems have to find a balance between artificial and natural ecological systems.
High rates of population growth accompanied by migration from rural to urban areas have led to uncontrolled and inefficient urban dispersion accompanied by low building and population densities over rural or semi-rural areas. This expansion has not always been followed by a corresponding population growth rate, but in the process land is often taken over at the expense of surrounding agricultural areas. This is an unaffordable growth pattern in the long term due to its higher consumption of resources and energy, leading to the loss and fragmentation of habitats and thus the loss of biodiversity
In the light of the above, it is important to differentiate between urban development and sustainable urban development. The latter promotes urban ecosystems through considering the economic, social and environmental impacts of cities on themselves and other ecosystems. Both sustainable planning and green infrastructure are catalysts for maintaining well-functioning ecosystems, and green infrastructure can reconnect fragmented natural areas and improve functional connectivity, enhancing the quality of life and human well-being.
As a result, encouraging development and investment in green infrastructure can greatly help in supporting biodiversity and ecosystems. Greening cities through the restoration or creation of green spaces is critical for sustainability and for protecting and maintaining biodiversity. A main objective of any sustainability plan and for the promotion of the livability of modern cities could be summarised in the adequate management and protection of green urban spaces.
The government has embarked on building new cities to meet the needs of population growth, and it has considered the well-managed distribution of green urban areas, preserving biodiversity and ecosystems services through promoting sustainable urban development and rationalising land use. It is combating the takeover of agricultural land, the irrational planning of buildings and the phenomenon of urban sprawl. Individuals at both the local and national levels must be aware of the dangers threatening the environment, which could lead to further natural disasters.
It should also be born in mind that this is not just a matter of building new settlements and new commercial activities to achieve short-term economic gains, but also of the design of buildings and urbanised areas and how urban development can lead to sustainable economic, social and environmental development.
It is essential to underline the importance of policies aiming at sustainable urban development for the sake of protecting the environment and human well-being, as well as at halting the loss of biodiversity and the unwise use of land. The government’s present policy of reconciliation regarding prior building violations is an example of one such solution, and it shows an understanding of citizens’ earlier lack of awareness and the prevailing corruption in local communities in Egypt over previous decades
Moreover, since 2014 the Egyptian government has been exerting every effort to guarantee an adequate standard of living for every individual through promoting development economically, socially and environmentally. Given the accelerating rate of population growth, reaping the fruits of sustainable development for the current and future generations will be seen in the longer term.
Looking ahead, more effective communication strategies are needed to promote citizen awareness of the environment and to improve education and training. These strategies would help to guide society towards sustainability and highlight the importance of biodiversity and the proper functioning of ecosystems in urban environments. Bolstering individuals’ participation and involvement in sustainability policies and policies intended to promote biodiversity would also assist in ensuring the effectiveness of such policies.
The continued coordination between local and regional stakeholders and greater investments in green infrastructure would also boost sustainable urban policies.
The writer is a member of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.