March 18, 2020

How can urban planners help accomplish the UN’s sustainability goals?

Resilient Communities

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Many of us started the new decade setting up some personal goals like where we want to be or what we want to accomplish in the next decade.

However, what about our shared goals? As a community, city, generation of people who share this planet, what are we planning for the next 10 years to minimize the effects of climate change and improve the quality of life?

As a planner, I look to some of the targets already set up by The United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which guide our practice in creating resilient and sustainable spaces that integrate seamlessly with the urban and natural landscapes.

Even though 10 years is not a lot of time to resolve the most significant concerns in the cities. We can still work on strategies to create more comprehensive plans to help reverse the effects of climate change.

This will include providing policies for affordable housing in smart communities that allow residents to work and live in the same place. But also, to refine plans that include a better symbiosis between the natural and built environments by incorporating Ecosystem services in the land planning processes.

So, what are Ecosystem services?

According to the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), "Ecosystem services are the direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems to human well-being (TEEB D0). They support directly or indirectly, our survival and quality of life." Therefore, the benefits and costs associated with the conservation of our natural resources will be reflected in most development sectors in the long term.

Some of the benefits that Ecosystem services provide range from:

  • production of food and raw materials;
  • regulation of erosion, pollination or air quality;
  • prevention and management of wildlife and natural habitats;
  • provision of cultural and recreational spaces that create a sense of place.

Current practices of planning still follow the functionality of the industrial era, when cities were transformed into a chain of production to work, live and entertain. While it fulfilled its purpose of improving the living conditions at the time and organized the land into different activity hubs, it also established a disconnection with the natural environment, which was made more evident due to the rapid deterioration of our natural resources.

So, we should introduce Ecosystem services into the process of urban planning can help create integrated land use management by recognizing and redefining the relationship between healthy ecosystems and human well-being.

American Professors Sierra C. Woodruff and Todd K. BenDor, conclude in their 2016 research that "including an Ecosystem lens could help advance sustainability goals and elevate the importance of environmental protection". They can provide an opportunity to improve spatial planning and understand the effects of urban development on the natural surroundings.

Moreover, it can address the challenges that cities currently face related to climate change, such as air quality, waste and environmental management, which are essential assets to equitable and sustainable growth and development.

The following examples in different parts of the world show the benefits of introducing Ecosystem Services into the planning processes:


The Climate Protection Program in the Mexican Urban Policy "CiClim" provides technical advice and strategic support for sustainable urban development, integrating the social and economic value of green spaces and biodiversity into urban planning.

Among the program, activities include the identification of housing areas with the potential to increase their density for a more compact growth; support for the development of integrated sustainable mobility plans; promotion of active mobility and quality public transport; as well as the incorporation of the economic and social value of green areas into urban planning.



The Department of Urban Systems for the municipality of Duque de Caixas, Brazil, in collaboration with the German agency for International relationships GIZ, applied mapping to the Ecosystem services and updated the land use plan within the urban space and the landscapes.

It helped manage land-use conflicts and discuss different scenarios for resilient and sustainable urban developments. The research work "Future Innovation Project Biodiversity and ecosystem Services" concluded that the integration of ES will enhance productive activities while preserving the natural capital.



In 2010, the City of Damascus, Oregon, adopted its first comprehensive plan, Envision Damascus (Damascus, 2010), which include policies for the protection of ecosystem services and their use in infrastructure planning and development decisions.
These measures were aligned with the state requirements and goals for protection of natural resources, limiting development in hazard areas, encouraging economic growth and adopting solutions for housing needs, among others.

Although it was not implemented, Damascus comprehensive plan provided an example of how the use of Ecosystem services in planning helps connect the vision with the broader community outcomes. 

What is next for us?

In February 2020, the 10th session of the World urban forum organized by UN-Habitat gathered urban planners from around the world to discuss and exchange views and experiences on sustainable urbanization in all its ramifications.

Afterwards, the participants and representatives released a declaration of commitments and actions to take part in the next few years, working towards acceleration and implementation of the New Urban Agenda to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

As part of these actions, one crucial statement aims to preserve the cultural, urban and natural heritage as an asset that enables sustainable urban development. Strategic integrated urban planning provides the tools to ensure the integration of urban heritage, culture, local economic needs, environmental considerations, biodiversity, low carbon development and climate resilience to ensure the creation of sustainable, prosperous, liveable communities.

So, from a planning perspective, achieving the UN's sustainability goals in the coming decade represents also a change in focus to our policies. This includes the elements of Ecosystem services, which will help us understand how urban planning affects the natural surrounding and vice versa.

Municipalities will benefit from a better database of the pre-existent conditions and natural resources. Stakeholders will profit from the information related to the best suitable place for development and cost-effective scenarios. And the community will enjoy more beautiful landscapes and environments preserved for the generations to come.

At Nadi Design, we are sensitive to the environmental challenges we face today and acknowledge the importance of bringing comprehensive and innovative solutions into every project.

Together with our collaborators in Canada, the USA and Latin America, we will reassure our commitment to creating more sustainable, resilient communities and landscapes, and in turn continue to honour our vision: to design for a better world.