Design Thinking: What we can learn from the evolution of urban development

Here at BehaviorSMART, we talk a lot about design thinking. Design thinking can be powerful in accelerating sustainable development; it gathers insights on human behavior to synthesize more human-centered design ideas that can change the collective behavioral response of populations and societies as a whole. It is the ultimate power tool in the climate challenge; harnessing human ingenuity to find the sweet spot between climate mitigation and the wellbeing of our societies, to change the way people live, for the better. 

While our focus is on developing experience design solutions for destinations and the tourism economy, there are brilliant and inspirational examples of design thinking everywhere you look. If you’re tuned in to the many themes of sustainable development, it will be impossible to ignore the images of emerging green urban utopias — lush landscapes with buildings draped in vegetation. This obsession with biophilia, as it’s called, is not only aesthetically pleasing, but revolutionary; experts in urban planning and development now see the greening of cities as an essential adaptation for their future livability. According to SUGi, a project creating urban pocket forests around the world, the mass of concrete used to create our cities now outweighs all the trees and biomass on the planet. This ‘greyification’ as they call it has a high price, with urban temperatures in built-up areas 53.6 (12℃) higher than surrounding rural areas. This ‘heat island effect’, as it’s referred to, causes dangerously high temperatures in record-breaking heat waves, threatening the lives and livelihoods of residents.

In just a few short years, cities across the globe have experienced the spectrum of the threats posed to civilisations living in urban centers in a warming world. While many have suffered from droughts and extreme heats, at the other end of the spectrum, coastal or riverside cities are exceptionally vulnerable to sea level rise and heavy rainfall events causing catastrophic flooding. A recent study by Arup revealed 44% of global ‘disaster events’ are flood-related – spurring planners to explore nature-based solutions that use nature’s methods of water management to redesign – and re-green – the urban landscape. Replacing hard landscaping with vegetation not only has a cooling effect, but increases a city’s sponginess — a term used to describe how much rainfall it can absorb. 

From rain gardens to urban forests, in this article we’re spotlighting some fresh approaches to urban and nature-based design in destinations around the world, to show just how design thinking can have a positive impact on urban environments and the people who call them home.

Medellín’s Cooling Green Corridors

In 2016, Colombia’s second largest city began to develop 30 ‘green corridors’ in an ambitious step to tackle rising air pollution and temperatures; the result of increased private transport and the urban heat island effect. Using marginal areas in cities such as verges, walls and fringes the city created green spaces that cut across the built environment to connect to parks, waterways and natural landscapes in the hills around Medellín. The development involved planting over 880 ‘000 new trees and some 2.5 million smaller plants, creating 65 hectares of green space in total. Not only have these leafy corridors reduced pollution, they are 8.1 (4.5) cooler than the surrounding area and have had a dramatic cooling effect on the city as a whole, bringing down the average temperature by 3.6(2℃). What’s more, the investment in green infrastructure in Medellín has transformed the lives of residents; increasing cycle journeys by 65%, providing maintenance jobs to vulnerable people in the community.

Photo by Mike Swigunski on Unsplash

London’s Community-led Rain Gardens 

Impervious surfaces like pavements and roads increase water run-off into drainage systems, overwhelming them and causing flash flooding, and in the UK, untreated sewage discharged into waterways. Meristem Design is an urban greening and consultancy working with local councils and communities to develop SuDS (Sustainable Drainage Systems) or rain gardens, across the capital. These rain gardens often reclaim road space from cars and are planted with resilient plant and tree species that can cope with both short-term flooding and extended periods of dry weather. They are not only aesthetically pleasing, bringing nature and all the benefits it brings to the community’s front doors, but absorb and retain water during heavy rainfall to slow the flow down to the drain system. Effective community engagement and participation are central to the rain garden’s success – there is an enormous sense of pride and appreciation for these green interventions, and the shared effort to plant them as a community has connected neighbors, while simultaneously improving biodiversity and reducing pollution. A brilliant example of how small-scale interventions can have an enormous impact on urban wellbeing and influence social dynamics and the behavior of local residents.

Photo by Meristem Design

Creating Room for the River in the Netherlands

For centuries, the Dutch have shaped their country’s waterways. But as the risk of catastrophic flooding increased, posing a severe threat to the one third of the population who live below sea level, it became clear they could not simply keep building higher and stronger defenses at even higher costs. A different approach, one that worked with nature’s original designs, was needed. In 2007, the ‘Room for the River’ project was launched to make space for the water to be retained on the land in high rainfall events. Since then, projects across the country have reopened tributaries that were closed off, re-establishing flood plains, meanders and lakes to create space for water to be retained on land safely. The project to future proof Nijmegen, the Netherland’s oldest settlement, on the Waal River, simultaneously opened up the flood plain and revitalized the city for residents by creating new parks and public spaces. In its first year, the water level was 14-inches lower, beating the 11-inch target, and even had a knock on effect, lowering water levels further up the river in Germany. What’s more, water sports such as rowing have exploded in popularity, with many residents enjoying the health and wellbeing benefits of the new landscape.

Photo by Luca Cavallin on Unsplash

São Paulo’s Urban Forest Gardens

Planting trees is often seen as the quick fix solution to greening urban spaces, but lonely and stressed by heat and soil compaction, they rarely thrive and bring benefits on their own. SUGi is a biodiversity building and urban greening not-for-profit creating pocket forests around the world, using a technique called the Miyawaki method. Developed by Japanese botanist Dr Akira Miyawaki, this method of forest creation involves careful soil preparation and the selection of native species, densely planted together to create a nurturing microclimate for the saplings. Their projects in São Paulo are reconnecting children with Brazil’s native Atlantic forests, and nourishing communities through the creation of three food forests at Unified Education Centres (CEUs) — key educational and support hubs for low-income black and brown populations. These projects have been developed with education programmes, fostering biodiversity conservation and environmental stewardship through outdoor classrooms that boost nature connection in the heart of the city. 

School Forest Gardens courtesy of SUGi

As we think about climate adaptation, nature-based infrastructure is essential in establishing the resilience our cities need to withstand the threat of climate-exacerbated disaster events. But at the same time, by using design thinking to shape these solutions, planners, developers and communities are creating environments for new behaviors to flourish; more walking, cycling and time spent outside, and more nature and community connection. The benefits of these behavioral shifts are innumerable; cultivating happier, healthier urban lifestyles and creating more sustainable societies as a result.

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