Global South Urbanization Does Not Have to Harm Biodiversity

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


How to balance fragile ecosystems with rapid urbanization will be the challenge for planners and governments across the global South in the coming years. The urbanization trend is clear: the world’s total urban area is expected to triple between 2000 and 2030, with urban populations set to double to around 4.9 billion in the same period (UNEP). This urban expansion will draw heavily on water and other natural resources and will consume prime agricultural land.

Global urbanization will have significant implications for biodiversity and ecosystems if current trends continue, with knock-on effects for human health and development, according to a new assessment by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

Cities and Biodiversity Outlook – the first global analysis of how projected patterns of urban land expansion will affect biodiversity and crucial ecosystems – argues that promoting low-carbon, resource-efficient urban development can counter urbanization’s adverse effects on biodiversity while improving quality of life.

“The way our cities are designed, the way people live in them and the policy decisions of local authorities, will define, to a large extent, future global sustainability,” said Braulio Dias, Executive Secretary of the CBD.

“The innovation lies not so much in developing new infrastructural technologies and approaches but to work with what we already have. The results often require fewer economic resources and are more sustainable,” he added.

The report says urban expansion is occurring fast in areas close to biodiversity ‘hotspots’ and coastal zones. And rapidly urbanizing regions, such as large and mid-size settlements in sub-Saharan Africa, India and China, often lack resources to implement sustainable urban planning.

But the study found that cities do not need to be in conflict with plant and animal species and ecosystems. They can, in fact, protect species, as is the case with Belgium, where 50 per cent of the country’s floral species are found in Brussels, or Poland, where 65 per cent of the country’s bird species occur in Warsaw.

At the Alexander von Humboldt Research Institute in Bogota, Colombia ( researchers have been thinking about how to get this balance right and make sure the growing cities of the future are not ecological disasters.

According to Juana Marino and Maria Angélica Mejia at the Institute’s Biological Resources Policy Program – which investigates “Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services and Urban-Regional Environments” – how cities grow and develop must change.

They believe cities need to take into account the resources they require to function and the impact this has on biodiversity and ecosystems.

“The more people who arrive in cities, the more they demand goods and services (in a massive way!): roads, housing, infrastructure, food, water – (creating) an impressive amount of waste, challenging traditional waste management and sanitation policies,” said Marino.

In short, “Cities enhance consumption.”

The Humboldt researchers believe common patterns can be seen across the global South, where ecosystems “surrounding urban areas are deforested and have significant levels of water and air pollution; they also become deeply transformed by informal settlements.”

This process means cities “lose their ability to be resilient, they become highly vulnerable to global change and they decrease their production of ecosystem services to maintain human well-being in cities.”

They argue that human settlements must be sustainably planned for, with ecological resilience and human well-being. If this is not done, areas suitable for agricultural production and biodiversity preservation will be harmed.

While better planning is needed there also needs to be long-term thinking.

But planning and managing are not the only things required: “it is a matter of design” if new “resilient” urban-rural landscapes are to be created.

And what can be done? They believe better analysis is required and it needs to take on social and cultural knowledge, and take in the border regions around cities, the “suburban, peri-urban and other ‘transition’ landscapes should become main actors in these relationships, not mere by-products; (they are) compromise territories between a lack of definition and low governance.”

These complex relationships with the border ecosystems of cities need to be communicated to the general public in simple, user-friendly ways so they can understand how important these areas are to the overall health of the city.

In Latin America, the cities of Curitiba (Brazil) and Bogotá and Medellin (Colombia) have made great strides in managing and planning for biodiversity and ecosystem services, they say. But it is not just as simple as recording the number of native species and the percentage of protected areas in urban places. Links need to be created between “social, scientific and political” elements to create “socio-ecological indicators” that can be developed and turned into “easy-to-adopt mechanisms” for people to use.

And they see innovation as the way to do this. Innovation is critical if cities and urban areas are to avoid widespread destruction of biodiversity as urbanization increases.

“Innovation is not just an option – it is a ‘must’,” said Marino. “Not just the technical innovation already being carried on by infrastructure, transport and building sectors that are rapidly changing their patterns based on mitigation technologies.

“Innovation is also needed in terms of biodiversity, biotechnology, information and knowledge production; appropriation, use and management. Knowledge turns into innovation when appropriated by social spheres; when it enters the social and political arenas.”

Environmental governance can be strengthened “when promoting top-down and bottom-up innovations.”

Published: December 2012


1) Environmental Public Awareness Handbook: Case Studies and Lessons Learned in Mongolia. Website:

2) Hyderabad Case Study: During the recent UN biodiversity talks in Hyderabad, the International Union for Conservation of Nature gave journalists the opportunity to see how biodiversity can thrive in the middle of a bustling metropolis. Website:

3) UNEP: A Global Partnership on Cities and Biodiversity was launched by UNEP, the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), UN-HABITAT, ICLEI, IUCN Countdown 2010, UNITAR, UNESCO and a Steering Group of Mayors from Curitiba, Montreal, Bonn, Nagoya and Johannesburg to bring together existing initiatives on cities and biodiversity. Website:

4) Nature in the City: Nature in the City, a project of Earth Island Institute, is San Francisco’s first organization wholly dedicated to ecological conservation, restoration and stewardship of the Franciscan bioregion. Website:

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

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© David South Consulting 2022

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