Greening Europe’s urban spaces

Europe is an urban and increasingly urban continent with the percentage of the population living in urban centers expected to increase from over 70% in 2015 to more than 80% in 2050. This will pose challenges to natural resources and ecosystems within urban areas including rivers, streams and lakes that are part of the landscape of European cities.

Impacts of urbanization

Some of the key impacts of urbanization include:

  • Water quantity impacts with decreased flow and reduced groundwater levels as well as increased flow from surface runoff
  • Water quality impacts with increased surface runoff from impervious areas (roads, roofs, gardens etc.) along with stormwater overflows contaminating waterways
  • Increased flooding risks from waterways being straightened
  • Decreased habitats for wildlife

Greening Europe’s urban spaces

To reverse the impacts of urbanization, many cities in Europe have developed broad visions and strategies to promote a more integrated approach to managing their urban spaces and waterways that include the use of green infrastructure. Green infrastructure uses vegetation, soils and natural processes to manage excess water and create healthier environments for both humans and nature. In urban areas, green infrastructure ranges in size from permeable pavements, rain gardens and green spaces in neighborhoods all the way up to restored riverways at the city-level.


Europe’s urban waterways at threat from urbanization


London’s river restoration

The restoration of the River Mayesbrook and its adjacent park in east London is a flagship project of the London Rivers Action Plan, which is the city’s first-ever plan for restoring all of London’s rivers. Prior to its restoration, the area had run-down sports facilities, two polluted artificial lakes and a straightened, realigned and fenced river sunk into a deep concrete channel. In the Thames River Basin Management Plan 2009-2015 it was described as one of the worst water bodies in the area, failing to achieve good ecological potential because of its hydromorphological modifications, poor water quality and low ecology.

A sunset over Mayesbrook

A sunset over Mayesbrook


A river restoration brings multiple benefits

The restoration focused on enhancing the community space in the area and creating a more natural landscape that at the same time could be a model for climate change adaptation in a city environment. The restoration measures included creating a new flood plain (1.5 ha) and establishing a river wetland as well as woodland planting. The project also created new sinuous water channels and regraded the riverbanks. In addition to the ecological benefits, the restoration of the river and surrounding area provides the community with multiple health and recreational benefits including increased quality of life, improved safety through greater park usage and a living lab for local schools. Overall, it is estimated that the benefit-to-cost ratio of the river restoration is GBP 7 of benefits for every GBP 1 of investment.

The take-out

To reverse the impacts of urbanization, cities can implement green infrastructure projects that not only restore the health of ecosystems but also provide numerous social benefits.

*Robert C. Brears is the author of Urban Water Security (Wiley) and founder of Mitidaption, which consults on climate change risks to business, governance and society.

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Author: Robert C. Brears

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