Enhancing urban life and heritage: Nature-based solutions in the city

Enhancing urban life and heritage: Nature-based solutions in the city

‘Nature’ is currently widely considered a threat to built heritage. But a new paper from Oxford, by renowned heritage expert Professor Heather Viles and colleague Dr Martin Coombes, maintains that both the real and perceived risks can be overcome and nature-based solutions (NbS) adapted to bring the benefits of nature into urban heritage environments.

Professor Viles won the highly-prestigious Royal Geographical Society’s Royal Medal last year in recognition of her work in establishing the field of biogeomorphology and the development of nature-based approaches to built heritage conservation. This new research comes from the Oxford Resilient Buildings and Landscapes Lab (OxRBL) she leads.

Published in the Journal of Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, the OxRBL research highlights the need to consider both the risks and opportunities of implementing NbS in a range of built heritage contexts. And they suggest an appropriate balance must be struck between the desire to 'green' our cities and the long-term conservation of valued heritage for future generations. 

According to the paper, greening might not always be appropriate and could cause damage to vulnerable historic stone and masonry, if left unmanaged. Adding plants or allowing ‘weeds’ to grow on and around heritage buildings also goes against many of the long-held assumptions about how built heritage should be managed, although the OxRBL team suggest that attitudes are changing.

Dr Coombes, the paper’s lead author, says, ‘Whilst we should acknowledge the challenges and risks of deploying NbS on and around heritage building and sites in certain contexts, built heritage conservation can also benefit from and support urban NbS. Heritage sites offer more opportunities and space for bringing nature into cities, they provide inspiration for closer relationships between nature and society, and they can enrich other NbS benefits by adding a cultural element.’

The paper suggests that novel forms of NbS can be used to help conserve and enhance urban heritage, including using soil and turf to physically consolidate vulnerable walls and ruins (termed 'soft capping') as well as enhancing the visitor experience by bringing nature and all its associated benefits into otherwise 'sterile' heritage spaces.

Other opportunities include enhancing biodiversity by managing the lawns of historic buildings differently, improving air quality and contributing to climate change mitigation by allowing pollution- and carbon-trapping plants to grow around heritage sites, and boosting visitors’ well-being by increasing opportunities to engage with urban wildlife.

By drawing on different examples from research teams around the world, the paper illustrates the potential of urban NbS to support the conservation of both modern and historic heritage buildings and sites.

Professor Viles says, ‘Deploying creative NbS to support heritage conservation and enabling a positive dialogue between built heritage asset owners, urban greening practitioners, and policymakers offers exciting potential win-win solutions to many of the challenges facing our cities today.’

The paper concludes, ‘Flexibility is needed to link built heritage and NbS, yet the opportunities are great. Cultural and natural heritage are vital components of resilient and sustainable urban communities, fostering shared values by connecting people with the past and with nature. Better integrating built heritage into the wider NbS paradigm shows great promise for strengthening and broadening these linkages.’

Currently, the OxRBL group is involved in advocacy work for the international Climate Heritage Network about NbS and cultural heritage, in an effort to draw attention to this at COP26.