Looking to nature to design climate-resilient cities

Aotearoa New Zealand and other Pacific Islands are at the forefront of climate change impacts affecting ecosystems and human wellbeing, so how do we adapt our cities to be more resilient and more liveable? Dr Maibritt Pedersen Zari is leading an interdisciplinary team of researchers developing an Oceania-specific form of urban design that explores how Indigenous knowledge can better prepare us for the future.

architectural render of people walking alond a boardwalk next to streams

Imagine walking to work down Wellington’s Cambridge Terrace alongside an open stream, fish and eel visible in the water from the native tree-lined path. The stream spreads into small wetlands in Waitangi Park as you continue on around the waterfront.

This vision of a city that is more ecologically diverse, more beautiful, and much better adapted to inevitable increases in extreme climate events is one example of how Pedersen Zari and her team could apply the nature-based urban design practices they are exploring.

“We can't just keep relying on concrete, there has to be a place for ecology and biodiversity as part of solutions to climate change adaptation,” says Pedersen Zari. “And in order for it to be more relevant for our region, it needs to be driven by Indigenous knowledge. You can't just transplant ideas about nature-based solutions from Europe or America into the Pacific context.”

Planting mangroves instead of building a seawall is a common example of an effective nature-based solution to climate change in Oceania, but is only appropriate in cities where they naturally occur. A unique facet of the team’s approach is the idea of what is also culturally appropriate to a specific location, and they are conducting case studies around the Pacific to explore this idea: in Port Vila, Vanuatu; Apia, Samoa; South Tarawa, Kiribati; and in Aotearoa’s Awakairangi (Lower Hutt) and Makaawhio (South Westland).

"The idea of what is culturally appropriate is a really worthwhile question to ask when it comes to climate change adaptation, because otherwise we may end up living in cities surrounded by high seawalls, and have our buildings up on stilts. And does that suit our values, does it suit our lifestyle?” says Pedersen Zari.

Urbanisation is increasing across Oceania, and these areas are most vulnerable to sea level rise. This means the question of how we adapt in a way that preserves social and cultural identities, and ensures the wellbeing of populations is pressing. Relationships between urban design and human health and wellbeing are well documented, and positive impacts are most often linked to the presence and creation of urban green and blue spaces — a critical part of urban climate change adaptation.

Comprised of researchers Luke Kiddle, Rebecca Kiddle, Victoria Chanse, and Paul Blaschke, Pedersen Zari’s multidisciplinary team have already begun applying their ideas. In Port Vila, Vanuatu they have helped residents plan for a re-greening of areas of the capital with native species.

“We looked at what the most important native species are relative to Indigenous knowledge. What are the food species? What trees do people build houses from?” says Pedersen Zari.

There was also a need identified for a repository of traditional knowledge, which was incorporated into the plan to “make a living library in the middle of the city to help preserve and pass on this knowledge”.

“This is about co-creation and participatory design and enabling Indigenous peoples to forge their own path and figure out what is culturally right for them,” says Pedersen Zari.

There are broad implications for the research, which has already informed a policy document for the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and their regional Ocean Cities’ agenda. The focus of this initiative is on generating innovative adaptation responses to climate change in the region.

“Although it’s considered to be innovative and advanced in terms of urban infrastructure design, working closely with nature to design resilient human settlements, while maintaining healthy ecosystems, has always been a cornerstone of Te Ao Māori and traditional Pasifika societies,” says Pedersen Zari.

“What we're doing is really strategically and purposefully looking at how to make Indigenous ecological knowledge the central pillar of climate change adaptation work in Oceania.”