Urban wetlands: Now coming to a city near you

Cities rethink their marshes as natural assets, not obstacles

Amiens, France, has been named a Ramsar Wetland Cities for its commitment to protecting the waterways that have earned it the nickname "Venice of the North." Rien Honnef, Flickr
17 September 2019

Wetlands will be discussed at the Global Landscapes Forum New York 2019. Learn more about how to join here.

For centuries, town and city dwellers have been at odds with their wetlands. Draining them was considered a sign of progress, with marshy areas converted into land for growing food and building houses and estuaries channeled for more efficient transportation. 

But that view has come to be seen as short-sighted.

Take, for instance, a Communist-era artificial reservoir built as part of an ambitious infrastructure project in Bucharest, Romania. Sitting on what had once been wetlands, the entire project was shelved in 1989. Its original plants, birds, and animals returned. Three years ago, the government turned it into a thriving urban sanctuary, home again to its original plants, animals and birds. A mere 30-minute walk from the city center, “it is now seen by the people living around it as an interesting recreation ground, which also cools the city down during the hot summer days,” says Tobias Salathé, a senior adviser at the Ramsar Convention Secretariat.

Văcărești lake in Bucharest is one of the city’s restored water areas. Georgemoga, Flickr

Bucharest is one of a growing number of cities reclaiming the wetlands they once had, reframing them as beautiful assets that rather than swampy liabilities.

This trend began 50 years ago, when several non-governmental organizations and 18 countries concerned about the impact of habitat loss on migratory birds signed a treaty pledging to conserve wetlands in the Iranian city of Ramsar. Since then, a further 152 countries have signed on and pledged to conserve over 2,000 wetlands, peatlands, marshes, fens and estuaries, designated as Ramsar Convention sites.

Last year, marking a milestone in the urban wetland rethink, the Convention applauded 18 cities that have done an exceptional job with the conservation and wise use of their wetlands. Named as Ramsar Wetland Cities, they serve as “shining examples of how one could do sustainable development at a local scale,” says Salathé.

“The mayors or representatives of city councils who were there to receive their diplomas were very proud and happy that they were selected,” he adds. “So it’s clearly considered a policy label, and we want to maintain that quality aspect of the label.” Incentivizing city authorities to keep on track with their conservation and management policies, Ramsar Wetland Cities must be reaccredited every six years.

The London Wetland Centre in Richmond upon Thames. Mike McBey, Flickr

The candidates had to meet a set of criteria, he explains, “showing that they have policies where they take into account those wetlands close [to], or inside, or at the edge of cities, and recognize the positive services and functions they provide.”

Those functions are numerous and vital. Wetlands act as natural reservoirs that can be used to supply drinking and household water. In coastal cities, they can prevent flood damage by diverting water inflows from either the sea or inland areas. In a heating world, they can lower temperatures, absorb rainfall, and enrich biodiversity by being safe havens for endemic flora and fauna. And that’s not to mention  their storage facilities – different types of wetlands, such as peatlands, mangroves and seagrass beds, are among the world’s most efficient carbon sinks.

In addition to their ecological value, urban wetlands are proving to carry market value as well. The creation of a 40-hectare urban wetland from four disused reservoirs in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames resulted in nearby commercial and residential property prices going up, Salathé says.

Another example is the Tunisian city of Garh el Melh, a former fishing village on the shores of a lagoon near the delta of the Mejerda River. Working with the World Wildlife Fund, various government bodies carried out a series of enhancement and conservation efforts including collecting and treating polluted water, attracting ecotourism to the area, and training and educating locals about how to care for their wetlands.

“The idea came to life by recognizing that this wetland area is not only important for the fishers’ livelihoods but also intrinsically linked to the history of the city,” says Salathé. “The city was originally established there because the wetland was there.”


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