A City of Life: Medellín’s Plan to Protect and Promote Urban Biodiversity
By Maria Mejia and Juliana Echeverri
Three years ago, the city of Medellín adopted a novel approach to manage and conserve biodiversity, launching Colombia’s first local action plan on urban biodiversity: “Medellín, a city of life.” Maria Mejia and Juliana Echeverri argue that this effort should inspire other cities to explore new methods and concepts that link biodiversity to human well-being, resilience, and economic development.
Three years ago, the city of Medellín adopted a novel approach to manage and conserve biodiversity, leading to the first local action plan on urban biodiversity in Colombia, called “Medellín, a city of life.” By linking biodiversity and human wellbeing through ecosystem services, the city developed a conceptual framework in which biodiversity is much more than the management of strategic ecosystems; it is a multi-scale and cross-sector strategy to enhance the quality of life for Medellin’s inhabitants. Today, a think tank on biodiversity – the “Mesa de Biodiversidad”—leads the implementation of the city’s action plan for integrated management of biodiversity and its ecosystem services.
Urban biodiversity in the 21st century
Urban biodiversity encompasses a wide range of gray-to-green arrangements, from private gardens to urban forests. Since conservation encompasses not only preservation but also restoration, sustainable use, and knowledge management, managing urban biodiversity requires working in new fields of action. In urban settings, education, awareness, and entertainment are as relevant as preservation. The conceptual framework and Action Plan proposed a wide range of strategic activities that incorporate different sectors and stakeholders, such as entrepreneurship, innovation, social inclusion, equity, health, transportation, and housing, among others.
Seeking to adopt a broader approach towards biodiversity management, from 2012 to 2014 the city government led a collective process to produce the “Proposal for Integrated Management of Biodiversity and its Ecosystem Services for Medellín,” later named “Medellín, a city of life,” with an estimated investment of US$250,000 in city funds and US$200,000 in in-kind contributions from partner institutions.
An inclusive and thorough process
Overall, the process had four components:
- Information baseline: From species to ecosystem services
Based on data provided by scientific research groups, local databases, and national and international museums, the baseline survey identified a total of 4,478 species in Medellín. Inspired by a relatively new approach in ecology known as functional diversity, the survey identified all the ecological functions of these taxonomic groups, including their uses as sources of food, trade, and medicine. For example, the rural inhabitants of Medellín use 302 different species of plants for 255 medicinal purposes. According to The Guardian, Medellín is one of the most biodiverse cities in the world, along with Singapore, Cape Town, Barcelona, Curitiba, Mumbai, and Mexico City, among others.
- Exploratory roadmap on ecosystem services: Making benefits visible
How is Medellín’s diversity linked to human basic needs, climate change adaptation, or economic development? A three-fold methodology identified the most crucial ecosystem services for Medellin’s inhabitants: mitigating extreme events; providing and regulating water supplies; pollinating plants; supporting cognitive development and spiritual well-being through leisure and recreation; producing food; and controlling pollution control. The project developed a research agenda indicating where and how to improve knowledge on certain ecosystem services for the city and its metropolitan area—the first assessment of knowledge gaps on urban ecosystem services in Colombia.
- Knowledge co-creation processes with different stakeholders
The project assessed stakeholders based on their perceptions of ecosystem services and to what extent they were familiar with the biodiversity that supports such ecosystem services. They were grouped based on the domain of their institutions public policy, planning, research and knowledge, social awareness, and law and enforcement. Such assessment was systematized and it was included in the three-fold methodology used to identify the key urban ecosystem services for Medellin.
- Institutional analysis
The analysis found 180 constraints limiting effective and integrated biodiversity management, of which the most challenging were: Technical and scientific reports don’t impact the decision-making processes; citizens have low levels of confidence in government action; practices for sustainable use and preservation are inadequate; and social cohesion, solidarity, and citizen participation are lacking.
While the territory of Medellín is not fragmented from an ecosystem perspective, the multiple environmental authorities operating in the city have overlapping jurisdictions. An additional challenge is that, for the last 30 years, Colombia has viewed protected areas as its flagship strategy for biodiversity management, which overlooks the fact that biodiversity is scattered across the country, including its urban areas of course.
However, the greatest challenge in implementing this kind of integrated approach is that biodiversity conservation it is not a political priority. When primary human needs like water and sanitation are lacking, taking care of native butterflies might not seem like a major concern. But biodiversity is much more than charismatic species living in the wilderness.
A local action plan for the comprehensive management of urban biodiversity and ecosystem services
The resulting action plan on urban biodiversity has four strategic lines: biodiversity conservation, comprehensive valuation of ecosystem services, knowledge management, and education and public awareness. To support the implementation of the action plan, the final report was adopted as a public policy through a city commissioner’s agreement in 2014, which commits the city to invest each year in the comprehensive management of biodiversity and its ecosystem services. In addition, the technical inputs from “Medellín, a city for life” supported the formulation of Medellin’s Land Management Plan, which is the main planning instrument in Colombian cities.
The 2014 city commissioner’s agreement on “Medellín, a city of life” is an indispensable policy instrument for achieving continuity across all four strategic lines and engage different sectors and stakeholders in a wide range of fields. For the municipality of Medellín, this process provides an opportunity to pursue regional planning in a way that recognises the difficult but necessary task of integrating knowledge and actions to improve the welfare of both people and ecosystems. Medellín’s success should inspire other cities to explore new methods and concepts that link biodiversity to human wellbeing, resilience, and economic development – with a great sense of innovation, creativity, and experimentation.