6 January 2021

Rooting for regrowth: looking back at 2020

The past year was tumultuous to say the least, posing challenges to on-site sustainability activities worldwide. Cities have, however, seized this challenge as an opportunity to root their work locally, and re-evaluate efforts. Throughout 2020, so-called 'Living Labs' have bolstered these efforts by turning to virtual exchange, meeting in online spaces to highlight and learn from one another.

The proGIreg project, which uses nature for urban regeneration, facilitated this exchange via 'Living Lab Lounges'. The first lounge was hosted by Turin (Italy), and provided their local Mirafiori Syd Living Lab the chance to reflect on their success centering activities around urban gardening, and redistributing unsold food from outdoor markets, shops and supermarkets to avoid food waste. This food distribution initiative also engaged citizen participation, and facilitated education for beneficiaries on how to produce their own food in urban gardens. These activities, which flourished in 2019, could be kept up throughout 2020 with appropriate distancing measures, and making use of online engagement opportunities, such as a pollinator competition and participation in a Climathon.

Next, ICLEI Member Zagreb (Croatia) hosted a lounge, which provided the opportunity to reflect on the lasting impacts of a powerful earthquake that the district had just faced alongside being strained by early pandemic response. Local partners demonstrated resilience and were optimistic about rebuilding efforts, including the introduction of urban gardens. The area is well-versed in urban gardening, with 2100 gardening plots around Zagreb. To build resilience, technological innovations will be integrated into public facilities; one such example is the green corner in the Rijeka City Library, where plants are grown and harvested for use in the library. Further plans include integrating aquaponics, green roofs, and green walls in the abandoned Sljeme factory area of Sesvete.

In May, Zenica (Bosnia & Herzegovina) used the lounge to get input on their progress improving wellbeing in the city at large. The city still struggles with air and soil quality, and related problems such as respiratory illnesses. To address these issues, structural changes like updating heating systems is a priority. Concurrently, the city found that the pandemic people has led more and more people to make use of the city's green spaces. Small-scale urban greening projects and initiatives have been assets for citizen engagement, and will be replicated and built upon. Zenica will increase green spaces in the city by engaging investors to implement new buildings with green roofs and walls, using these collaborations to overcome challenges of limited resources.

ICLEI Member Cascais (Portugal) used a lounge in June to delve into the progress and challenges faced in their urban gardening activities. The city has a dedicated programme for urban agriculture called Terras de Cascais, for which demand is high; they have over 450 allotments, and a waiting list of over 1500 people. The programme establishes urban gardens, school gardens, associative gardens, community gardens, orchards and vineyards. Training and capacity building has been key to making the gardens sustainable. Furthermore, Terras de Cascais has an innovative ‘Land Bank’ - an online platform where landowners loan their lands to those wishing to develop an agricultural project or initiative. A Living Lab in the neighbouring village of Tirés will establish green areas featuring non-profit horticulture, training in organic farming, plots for local families, shared tool sheds and compost bins, irrigation water and recreational areas. Unfortunately, the pandemic has exasperated challenges in the area, with low funding for new construction and added difficulties reaching locals. Despite this, a meeting in May present the planned activities to local inhabiting an informal settlement in the area, which was followed-up with training.

As 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic continued through the year, Living Lab work and exchange became even increasingly important. Cluj-Napoca (Romania) made use of a lounge in September to present their ambitious 2030 vision, which aims to increase green spaces, improve air- water- and soil-quality management systems, and introduce green corridors for urban mobility along the streams and rivers of the Metropolitan area. Within the scope of a Living Lab, the city will focus on three nature-based solutions: community urban farms and gardens; green walls and roofs; and accessible green corridors. Activities will centre on the Morii Canal, which flows from the SomeČ™ river and includes 2.5 hectares of undeveloped land. The canal should transform into a lovely path, granting locals access to the river. Plans include adding observation points, playgrounds, community gardens, and stairs to the waterfront.

It was Piraeus (Greece)'s turn to host a lounge in October. The pandemic had, unfortunately, severely disrupted plans to implement community-based urban farms and gardens in the city. Locals – inspired by Turin's success introducing accessible green corridors and pollinator biodiversity – decided to change course. A one-kilometre stretch of road, which had been abandoned since 1977 and reclaimed by nature, is being explored as a potential site for a flourishing pollinator habitat. Vertical gardens would be planted, introducing plant species attractive for pollinators. Additionally, the Kifissos river, which runs by and under a highway, was identified as another potential location in which to introduce green walls with climbing plants to diffuse pollution and to create green corridors. Recreational areas could be introduced along riverside walkways to allow access to locals.

With the year’s invariable theme being isolation, in November the Dortmund (Germany) Living Lab briefed peers on their take on citizen engagement. They co-designed nature-based solutions with citizens, experts, and locals, leading 35 fruit bushes and 20 wild fruit trees to be planted with locals (limited to 10 participants with appropriate distancing measures). Schools and daycare centers will be engaged in future planting activities. Throughout 2020, a citizen-led non-profit association (‘Naturfelder’) was founded, including farmers, the municipality, private property owners and environmental groups. The association aims to find suitable spaces and financing to create habitats for pollinators. The pandemic impacted some co-design activities like workshops; to address this, Dortmund turned to digital engagement to present the project and maintain contact with citizens. When co-designing nature-based solutions, Dortmund found an interdisciplinary approach to be crucial, and saw that involving marginalised groups and providing incentives for citizens was key to longevity.

Last but not least, Ningbo (China) used a lounge to discuss business models for nature-based solutions in the Moon Lake Park area. Despite a stringent lockdown in the spring, the Living Lab had been able to continue for most of the year. They collected quantitative datasets in support of nature-based solutions, stressing that the social and health benefits need to be monitored. They looked to successful initiatives nearby, such as Meishan island, which created wetlands, parks and introduced educational tourism. The key take-aways from Meishan Island were to integrate policy guidelines and business models with technical measures, involving stakeholders such as public authorities, research institutions, private sector and other organisations to co-design, co-implement and co-manage nature-based solutions. This process resulted in common protocols and business models for integrating, implementing, and managing nature-based solutions for the restructuring of the island. The plans for Moon Lake Park entail collecting integrated datasets of meteorological, hydrological, chemical, and ecological parameters to develop robust quantitative protocols and procedures to implement the nature-based solution local environmental compensation procedures. Further, the Living Lab will aim to quantify the environmental, economic, and social benefits as return for investment for the public-private partnership behind the activities.

All of the above work has been done in the context of the proGIreg project, in which ICLEI Europe is a partner.

Throughout 2020, Living Labs proved their ability to adapt and experiment accordingly to changing environments. Through collaboration, whether virtual or on site, they managed to implement and plan nature-based solutions that build resilience for 2021.

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