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Malmi’s green renaissance: A tale of urban sustainability

Explore Malmi's journey towards urban sustainability, where green infrastructure leads the way to a greener, healthier future.

In a recent significant study, experts investigated the connection between green spaces and Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) in Helsinki’s Malmi area, providing insight into the advantages of integrating green infrastructure into urban planning. The research highlights challenges in Malmi and suggests a roadmap for urban development that balances climate resilience, greenery, and ecology.

How can urban planners strategically integrate Nature-Based Solutions for sustainable and resilient cities? Answer: NBS should be seen as a holistic solution, not only for mitigating climate impact but also as one of the main drivers for crafting sustainable, resilient, and enjoyable cities.

Elisa Lähde

Green deserts and development quandaries

The Malmi district stands out for its scarcity of green spaces, with lush areas primarily concentrated around residential areas further away. However, with the region on the brink of heavy infill development, the availability of open plots for additional greenery is becoming increasingly scarce. This equation becomes more pronounced as Helsinki aims for carbon neutrality by 2035, calling for a careful balance between climate mitigation and adaptation in the realm of urban development.

Charting future paths through land-use scenarios and nature-based solutions

To navigate these challenges, the researchers meticulously crafted five distinct land-use scenarios for the central Malmi district. Each scenario illustrated different combinations of NBS solutions, providing a comprehensive evaluation of the variations in NBS selection and their subsequent effects. NBS is an umbrella concept that can be defined as actions, “[…] which are inspired by, supported by or copied from nature […]” (European Commission 2015:4). The study did not merely focus on quantitative NBS changes but also delved into the qualitative transformation of the green structure, encompassing public green areas, private yards, and vegetated roofs.

Figure1. Illustration of two scenarios, business-as-usual and most intense with nature-based-solutions.
Credit. Author

These scenarios were categorised into two groups: two ‘business-as-usual’ models and three nature-based approaches emphasising ecosystem services. The latter set aimed not only to increase the number of green areas but also to elevate their quality by incorporating sustainable drainage systems, vegetated roofs, and biofiltration basins.

Decoding the green area factor analysis and its urban planning ramifications

The Green Area Factor for Districts (GAFD) methodology was used as the linchpin for assessing the impact of NBS on ecosystem services. A holistic approach was adopted, considering factors such as habitat provision, noise reduction, stormwater management, microclimate regulation, pollination, recreational use and health. The results of the GAFD analysis showcased a positive correlation between the increase in NBS surface area and enhanced ecosystem service production.

A pivotal moment in the research arose when the Green Area Factor for Districts (GAFD) findings were juxtaposed with those from the Storm Water Management Model (SWMM). This analysis revealed that the GAFD corresponds more closely with milder rain events, highlighting its usefulness for initial urban planning. The comparison stresses the significance of integrating various Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) in urban planning, showcasing the versatility of green infrastructure.

Urban planning proposals

The research concludes that integrating NBS in urban areas can indeed be transformative, positively impacting both ecosystem services and stormwater management. It advocates for a nuanced understanding of NBS and catchment properties, stressing the importance of integrated planning, particularly in densely populated urban areas.

Despite its myriad advantages, the GAFD has limitations, with challenges ranging from non-standard calculation methods to subjective interpretability. The researchers accentuate the need to address these limitations comprehensively to enhance the reliability and applicability of the GAFD in the dynamic realm of urban planning.

Essentially, this study offers not only insights but also a blueprint for urban planners to reconsider and reshape their strategies. It encourages them to strategically utilise Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) not only for mitigating climate impact but also as drivers for crafting sustainable, resilient, and enjoyable cities.

Looking ahead: A thousand words into urban sustainability

As we look ahead to urban sustainability, the Malmi district study calls us to reflect profoundly on the transformative power of green infrastructure. It unveils a narrative that transcends the immediate challenges faced by the central Malmi area and extends to a broader discourse on the global imperative for sustainable and greener urban development.

The challenges faced by Malmi are not unique; they resonate with the struggles of urban areas worldwide. Rapid urbanisation, dwindling green spaces, and the pressing need for climate resilience are universal themes that demand innovative solutions. Amid this, the Malmi study emerges as a beacon, offering solutions and a framework for reimagining the urban landscape.

Clustering green spaces around residential areas encourages us to imagine urban settings where nature effortlessly blends into everyday life. It prompts us to move past conventional land-use norms and embrace a vision where every part of the city can support biodiversity, improve the microclimate, and provide recreational opportunities.

The land-use scenarios outlined in the research provide valuable insight into the future of cities. The contrast between standard development practices and nature-based approaches presents a symbolic choice for cities worldwide. It prompts planners to choose between traditional urban growth and a more environmentally focused model. These scenarios, emphasising sustainable drainage systems, biofiltration basins, and green roofs, offer a glimpse into a future where cities aim to integrate seamlessly with nature.

The GAFD, a tool for early-stage urban planning, invites urban planners to engage in foresight. It is a call to evaluate not only the immediate impacts of NBS but also their long-term effects. The GAFD, with its holistic perspective, can capture the synergies between water management goals and ecosystem services that underscore its role as a compass for sustainable urban development.

In addition, the comparison between GAFD and SWMM results serves as a reminder of the dynamic interplay between nature and technology. It is a testament that while advanced modelling tools are indispensable for precise measurements, the intuitive and comprehensive understanding offered by tools like GAFD is equally invaluable. The urban planner’s toolkit, as the study suggests, needs a blend of sophistication and simplicity, leveraging the strengths of each to create resilient and sustainable cities.

Policy recommendations

Furthermore, the following policy recommendations can be given based on the research results:

  • Promote Integrated Planning: Encourage local governments to adopt integrated planning approaches, particularly in densely populated urban areas. This involves considering the nuanced understanding of green areas and urban NBS.
  • Invest in Green Infrastructure: Urge local governments to invest in green infrastructure initiatives that promote biodiversity, improve climate adaptation, and provide recreational opportunities. 
  • Engage in Foresighted Urban Planning: Encourage urban planners to engage in foresightedness by evaluating the immediate and long-term impacts of NBS. This involves using tools like the GAFD, which capture synergies between water management goals and ecosystem services, to guide sustainable urban development.
  • Recognize Interdependencies: Understand the complex interactions between different components of urban systems, such as green infrastructure, water management, land use, and socio-economic factors.

In conclusion, the research conducted in the central Malmi district extends beyond its local borders. It presents a narrative that resonates globally, urging urban planners, policymakers, and citizens to reconsider urban development. It prompts us to envision cities thriving as cohesive ecosystems, offering a sustainable future for generations. As we move towards nature-based urban living, the findings of the Malmi study inspire cities worldwide to embrace resilient, livable, and ecologically ambitious landscapes.

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Journal reference

Lähde, E., Dahlberg, N., Piirainen, P., & Rehunen, A. (2023). Ensuring ecosystem service provision of urban water nature-based solutions in infill areas: comparing Green factor for districts and SWMM modeling in scenario assessment. Environmental Processes10(4), 61. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40710-023-00676-1

Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture Elisa Lähde (Aalto University) possesses extensive expertise in the planning and research of urban landscapes and nature-based solutions, with a specific emphasis on co-creative methods. With a strong multidisciplinary background and 20 years of professional experience as a researcher, consultant, and business leader, Elisa stands out for her expertise in crafting vibrant and resilient landscapes. She excels in visualising complex entities and shaping essential questions for resolution, seamlessly combining abstract thinking with practical implementation in an innovative and bold manner.