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New Open-source Software for Designing Sustainable Cities

Busy highway from aerial view. Guangzhou. China

New technology could help cities around the world improve people’s lives while saving billions of dollars. A suite of free, open-source software model creates maps to help understand the links between nature and human wellbeing. Governments, non-profits, international lending institutions, and corporations all manage natural resources for multiple uses so they must evaluate tradeoffs between development and conservation.

The software enables decision-makers to assess quantified tradeoffs associated with alternative management choices and to identify areas where investment in natural capital can enhance human development and conservation.  The toolset includes distinct ecosystem service models designed for terrestrial, freshwater, marine, and coastal ecosystems, as well as several helper tools to assist with locating and processing input data and with understanding and visualising outputs.

The software uses spatially explicit biophysical and socio-economic models so users can quantify and map the way various urban designs can impact multiple urban services, such as water management, heat island mitigation and mental health benefits. By showing the costs and benefits to communities by socioeconomic status and vulnerability, the software helps design cities that are better for both people and nature.

The models are based on production functions that define how changes in an ecosystem’s structure and function are likely to affect the flows and values of ecosystem services across a land- or a seascape. The models account for both service supply and the location and activities of people who benefit from services

By 2050, over 70% of the world’s people are projected to live in cities, in the U.S., more than 80% already do. As the global community becomes increasingly urban, cities are looking for ways to design with sustainability in mind. This software could be a part of the solution as it helps design cities that are better for both people and nature.

Developers and city planners are increasingly interested in green infrastructures, such as tree-lined paths and community gardens, that provide a stream of benefits to people. But if planners don’t have detailed information about where a path might encourage the most people to exercise or how a community garden might buffer a neighbourhood from flood risk while helping people recharge mentally, they cannot strategically invest in nature.

The researchers attempted to answer three crucial questions with this software: where in a city is nature providing what benefits to people, how much of each benefit it is providing and who is receiving those benefits. The software is the first of its kind for cities and allows for the combination of environmental data, like temperature patterns, with social demographics and economic data, like income levels.

Users can input their city’s datasets into the software or access a diversity of open global data sources, from The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellites to local weather stations. The new software joins the existing software suite, a set of tools designed for experts to map and model the benefits that nature provides to people.

To test the efficacy of the software, the team applied the software in multiple cities around the world. In many cases, they worked with local partners to understand priority questions. In Paris, candidates in a municipal election were campaigning on the need for urban greenery, while in Minneapolis, planners were deciding how to repurpose underused golf course land.

Cities, more than any other ecosystems, are designed by people so everyone needs to be more thoughtful about how to design the places where most people spend their time. City governments can bring all of nature’s benefits to residents and visitors. They can address inequities and build more resilient cities, resulting in better long-term outcomes for people and nature.

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