Unlocking the potential of nature-based solutions with smart city tools

Unlocking the potential of nature-based solutions with smart city tools

3 March 2020

Cities throughout Europe and beyond are increasingly integrating natural elements within the design of urban spaces to make them greener, safer and more climate-friendly. These so-called nature-based solutions come in all shapes and forms, for example as green roofs or walls to improve building insulation and filter pollutants, or as pollinator-friendly gardens to bring neighbours together and welcome more butterflies and bees to our urban areas. Simultaneously, cities are increasingly turning to smart city technology to enhance citizens’ quality of life and improve sustainability.

With the opportunity and potential of nature-based solutions, and smart city tools being so interlinked, local governments are interested in identifying ways to integrate the two fields of work. But how exactly can cities use smart city technologies to enhance the potential of nature-based solutions? This was the basis for discussion at a session held within the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona on 19 November 2019. The session brought together key stakeholders of urban transformation, including panellists from Horizon 2020 nature-based solutions pilot projects CLEVER Cities and proGIreg.

While participants recognised the potential for bridging the gap between green and digital infrastructures, they also acknowledged that little integration has so far taken place in practice. To address this gap, speakers were invited to present some of the tools that do exist and explain how they are being used within the pilot projects. The smart technologies and applications presented contribute to the projects from three angles:  by informing the planning of nature-based solutions, facilitating public participation, and monitoring and measuring impact.

Peter Massini, Greater London Authority/CLEVER Cities, presented how smart technologies, tools and data can support the design and planning of nature-based solutions. For example, London’s Green Infrastructure Focus Map is a tool that identifies where green infrastructure improvements and investments might be best targeted, and what kind of interventions might be best suited to the needs of a certain area, by mapping the presence of green space (or the lack of it) and data related to flood risk, air quality or public health. The Greenkeeper tool helps planners identify how green space is used by local citizens, by calculating the environmental, economic and social ‘value’ of green infrastructure and then assessing the impact an intervention may have on this value.  Another example is the Greenpass tool, presented by Bernhardt Scharf, Green4Cities/CLEVER Cities. This tool enables developers to find the design with the highest climate resilience by optimizing design for a given site.

In additional to analysing and identifying the ecological benefits of nature-based solutions, smart tools can also play a role in addressing the social challenges of urban planning; a common obstacle is about how to ensure locals embrace their newly redeveloped areas and actually dig in the new vegetable gardens or walk through the new park. Moderator of the session and nature-based solutions expert, Bettina Wilk, ICLEI Europe, says “Involving citizens right from the beginning is central to creating ownership of the nature-based solutions. From pilot projects we can derive that nature-based solutions that are co-created have a higher chance of being maintained into the future, after the termination of a project.” The use of digital tools can also facilitate citizen engagement, by, for example, assessing the public perception towards a particular area or enabling the public to suggest where new trees should be planted and provide real-time feedback on suggested locations based on open urban data, as in the Smarticipate project. As presented by Bianca Lüders, City of Hamburg/CLEVER Cities, the Hamburg public participation system, DIPAS, combines both online and on-site participation, using digital planning tables. Also used in Hamburg (and available globally), the Sensafety app asks residents how they feel in public spaces; by assessing public emotion towards an area, the app can identify to what extent citizens feel safe in green public spaces and how such factors can be considered in urban design, in addition to ecological aspects.

Elena Deambrogio, City of Turin/proGIreg, presented how her team is using smart sensor tools, combined with ‘citizen science’ to monitor outdoor air quality within the living labs of the project, where nature-based solutions are being rolled out. Elena highlighted how the knowledge stemming from this data will not only improve the quality of air in the district but also the quality of life. The Turin team has started working with the high school communities - training pupils to build sensors, to understand how they work and how they produce data – and plans to deliver more training to other groups within the community. The aim is to improve awareness of nature-based solutions and build digital skills in the area, involve more people in the co-design and co-monitoring, and increase a sense of ownership of the project within the community.

These examples show the potential of bringing smart city technology and nature-based solutions together; despite different origins, the two streams of work may be able to move faster if they merge their paths and work together towards the common goal of sustainable urban development. As concluded in Barcelona, there is a need for more collaboration and opportunities for those working in both streams – whether from local governments, businesses, civil society or academia - to learn from each other, exchange ideas and move forward together.


An upcoming opportunity for nature-based solutions and smart city stakeholders to get together, is at the Connecting Nature Enterprise Summit in Poznań on 8-9 July 2020.

Image: Smart City Expo/ Alis-Daniela Torres, ICLEI

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 innovation action programme under grant agreement no. 776528. The sole responsibility for the content of this website lies with the proGIreg project and in no way reflects the views of the European Union.