Opinion – Claudio Bernardes: Living urban laboratories developing solutions based on nature


Objectively involve citizens in the development of cities, and make urban areas more adapted to people’s needs. This is the function of living urban laboratories, which are places of experimentation, always in a real-life scenario, where eventual solutions are tested in the everyday urban environment, exactly as planned for their implementation.

This process must be orchestrated and implemented by different actors, bringing together the public sector, economic sectors, research institutions and citizens in general, within a model of joint creation.

This creation model involves different phases of development to reach the final solution. The first phase is a joint exploration to identify challenges and different needs from the perspective of all stakeholders.

The second phase is experimentation, which includes building a prototype of the proposed solution, testing it in live labs, and improving it based on the feedback obtained in the previous steps. The third and last phase of the creation process would be the evaluation and implementation of the studied solution. At this stage, the solution is approved, and its final version can be consummated for use in other parts of the city.

When addressing the consequences of climate change and urbanization on cities, such as air pollution, flooding and heat stress, it is important to think about the future while at the same time considering the social implications of any solutions that are introduced in our cities. Addressing complex, environment-related problems can best be addressed by combining living urban laboratories and nature-based solution (SBN) concepts.

SBNs can be defined as actions that are inspired, supported or copied from nature. Many of these solutions result in multiple benefits for health, the economy, society and the environment and therefore may represent more efficient and cost-effective solutions than traditional approaches.

Furthermore, more recently, there has been widespread recognition that biodiversity and ecosystems, including cities, can provide or even enhance ecosystem services, which we know are necessary for a high quality of life, and the creation of sustainable and resilient environments. .

An interesting project in this sense was carried out in Turin, Italy, and provided for the regeneration of old industrial districts through solutions (SBN). From aquaponics to green roofs, seven SBNs were tried out in Turin, with the aim of using natural systems to address social problems and environmental challenges efficiently and sustainably.

Among the solutions tested, the most promising is related to the production and testing of a ‘new soil’, obtained by mixing earth with materials from construction sites, which can be used for public green areas.

In general, this project was also interesting to analyze the multisectoral management of the environment used, where public institutions, private companies, research institutions, citizens and associations collaborated in the co-creation and testing phase of SBNs. Observation allowed researchers to describe the dynamics of multiple stakeholders, and how they work.

This experience shows that cities can guarantee public and democratic participation of a wide range of societal interests, and living urban laboratories are consolidated as a fundamental tool to achieve urban development goals, especially those related to nature-based solutions.

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