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Future cities must be designed to protect biodiverse habitats

Over the next 30 years, the world’s urban population is expected to increase by 2.5 billion people. This urban expansion is projected to take place in some of the world’s most biodiverse regions where many species are already under threat of extinction

A new study led by Yale University has revealed that urban expansion of up to 1.53 million square kilometers over the next 30 years will threaten the survival of up to 855 species. 

The study identified “hotspot cities” where urban growth coincides with biodiverse habitats. The cities that pose the greatest threat to wildlife due to urban expansion are located in central Mexico, the Caribbean, Haiti, Nigeria, Cameroon, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

The study also highlights how cities can balance urban expansion while proactively protecting biodiverse habitats to avoid the potential loss of species. 

“We can build cities differently than we have in the past. They can be good for the planet; they can save species; they can be biodiversity hubs and save land for nature.’’ said study co-author Karen Seto, a professor in the Yale School of the Environment (YSE).

Containing urban sprawl to avoid habitat destruction will be a challenge, especially due to growing economic demands. This will require strong governance structures, awareness of habitats and persevering biodiversity. 

The research comes at an important time when the international community is preparing for the 15th Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in April. The goal of the conference is to develop a renewed biodiversity conservation framework. 

The Yale researchers point to the critical need for global conservation efforts to include policies that preserve species in urban lands.

“We are at a critical moment when the world’s governments are renegotiating their commitments to the Convention on Biological Diversity. This study is important since it lets us quantify, for the first time, which specific species are most threatened by urban growth and where urban protected areas are needed to safeguard them,’’ said Robert McDonald, who is the lead scientist for nature-based solutions at The Nature Conservancy.

The researchers are hopeful that this study will help inform decision makers in key regions to plan for urban growth that minimizes biodiversity loss. 

“The majority of these places have yet to be built,’’ noted Professor Seto. “Science-driven policies that guide how the cities of tomorrow get built will have a tremendous effect.”

International agreements on biodiversity and conservation, investments that protect the habitat of vulnerable species and targeted local action are proven solutions that can help reduce impacts. 

The results of the study and projected urban expansion and biodiversity impact can be found here. The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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