Vision / Sustainable futures / Look to the river

Sustainable futures

Look to the river

To the delegates at COP26 I offer this advice: If you want to make effective change, take a moment to watch the waters of the River Clyde as they flow past the conference venue in Glasgow this November.

Why spend precious time conversing with nature at the very time when the fate of nature - and humanity itself - is being urgently debated? COP26 declares it will ‘accelerate action’, not idly sit by and do nothing. It is easy to see why COPs are intensive events; the magnitude of addressing climate change demands fast, effective multilateral responses. It is not easy negotiating solutions amid such a complex and overwhelming challenge. The risk of metaphorically drowning in indecision, disagreements, deadlocks and despair is all too real. To stay intellectually and emotionally afloat, remain mentally resilient, and be inspired and informed by the planet you seek to save, the river offers solutions.

The presence of nature in cities, including the world’s urban waterways, provide multiple benefits that contribute to climate change resilience, and their example can help you put these into policy wisely:

First, there are the practical lessons that nature-based solutions provide in terms of urban flood resilience. Instead of investing in carbon-hungry grey infrastructure to cope with increased extreme weather events (more pipes, more concrete), applying ‘WSUD’ (water sensitive urban design) principles, such as linking rivers with green space and reducing hard surfaces to ‘slow the flow’ of stormwater, can reduce flood risk and reduce Co2 emissions. The Clyde Gateway Green Network – a spatial planning initiative in place for over a decade - shows this happening across Glasgow.

Second, integrating blue-green infrastructure into cities can reduce Co2 emissions by reducing car dependence. Planning and designing cities with a connected network of rivers and green spaces, lined with attractive cycle and walking trails, promotes a car-free urban lifestyle. This has the additional benefit of improving human health too. The Clyde Walkway, a 40-mile route stretching from the centre of Glasgow through country parks and the UNESCO World Heritage site of New Lanark, starts right outside the conference venue.

Third, increasing nature in cities has the benefit of fostering greater human-nature connections as part of everyday urban life, which can help build a healthier and happier population in the face of the climate change threat. Policy makers and the wider public became more aware of the importance of experiencing nature during the Covid-19 pandemic, but research has long documented the innate human need for nature in our lives, known as ‘biophilia’. Waterways like the Clyde, even in the city centre, provide you with opportunities to experience the natural process of water flow, its sounds and patterns and light, and the mental restoration and joy this brings.

"Do not drown in fear by lamenting what may be lost, but value and appreciate the wonderful nature you are fighting to sustain."
Dr Nicole Porter

Such an approach was pioneered by University of Nottingham colleagues such as Professor Colin Thorne, who introduced the concept of blue-green cities, recognising that sustainably managing flood risk was an opportunity to green our cities and increase wellbeing. At our local level, I work with research colleagues across disciplines – landscape design and planning, engineering, geography, health – and with stakeholders across charities, professional representatives, interest groups and the public sector to explore how Nottingham can be a blue-green city. Sharing best practice and working in partnership is key.

This brings us back to perhaps the most important reason for COP26 delegates to consult the waters of the Clyde; to rejuvenate and restore your own the energy and resilience. Spending a moment or two just contemplating nature and being mindful of its presence can assist with focus, cognitive ability, stress reduction and mood. Such experiences are not merely nice to have. Ongoing research at Lund University in the ‘Contemplative Sustainable Futures’ programme illuminates how the urgently needed ‘outer transformation’ of our socio-economic structures is linked to the ‘inner transformation’ of individual and collective mindsets, values, and decision-making.

Contemplating the Clyde opens up the possibility of connecting to a deeper set of values, something beyond human time, stretching back before the industrial revolution, before the rise and fall of kingdoms and empires, before Paleolithic era settlements… before all this the river etched its way through this landscape, and it is still here. Amid so much scientific evidence, lobbying and politics, when there is not be enough time for every delegate to take in even a fraction of all the informative events scheduled at COP26, an alternative source of wisdom and strength can be tapped into by ‘connecting’ with nature, by remembering it is there.

Finally, this river manifests a collaboration between natural processes and human agency – it is both natural and modified by people’s actions – so it serves as a reminder of the planetary partnership we are all a part of. Do not drown in fear by lamenting what may be lost, but value and appreciate the wonderful nature you are fighting to sustain… and may the presence of the River Clyde sustain you over the important weeks ahead.

Dr Nicole Porter

Nicole Porter is Director of Postgraduate Research and Researcher Academy Faculty Lead for the Faculty of Engineering, University of Nottingham.

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