Colombian urban-regional environments: Emerging ecosystems, emerging logics

Colombia is an emerging economy, with an increasing shift towards urbanisation: it is estimated that by 2020, more than the 80% of Colombian population will live in urban areas.Even though these statistics define Colombia as an urban country, this definition minimises the complex urbanrural interactions in one of the world’s megadiverse countries which hosts close to 14% of the planet’s biodiversity. Thought our cities occupy about 2.5% of the national territory , they have a profound impact on wide territories beyond their boundaries. These small dots , home to so many people, depend directly on the biodiversity and ecosystem services provided by the metropolitan and regional environments, which are dramatically transformed by urban dynamics.

However, these impacts and interactions are not well known because, as in many other countries, the urban system in Colombia has been traditionally approached, defined and managed from economic, social and political motivations, but not in its ecological dimension. Therefore, it’s relevant to promote an ecological reading of the urban phenomena that acknowledges the different typologies of urban systems that exists in a “megadiverse” country.

In this context, Colombia’s urban and rural management present an impressive challenge: on one hand, its natural and cultural diversity across its 1,141,748 square kilometres of continental land and 988,000 square kilometres of marine territories. On the other hand, its complex settlement history that consolidated in a wide and varied system of cities, along diverse ecosystems and not always functional to them.

A national diagnosis found dramatic rates of biodiversity loss in the country and particularly in the regions where cities have developed, mainly in the Caribbean and Andean region, whose ecosystems have been transformed by 72.4% and 62.1% on average respectively. From 2005 to 2010, the Andean Region presented the highest national deforestation rate at 37% (87,090 hectares/year). Ecosystem fragmentation and expansion of the agricultural frontier, two of the main biodiversity loss causes, are directly connected to human settlement pressures, including, urban expansion.

Despite the drastic ecosystem transformation and degradation, Colombian regions still host rich biodiversity, giving place for new socio-ecological characterisations, determined by the constant dialogue between natural and social dynamics. Cities are probably the most important of these emerging socioecosytems, that still have much to be researched and learned of. Therefore, cities have to be visible and interesting for biologist and ecologist, while biodiversity and ecosystem services have to be appealing for urban planners and architects.

In 2012, Colombia adopted its National Policy for the Comprehensive Management of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The Policy, a result of a wide consultation process, is innovative in several ways and gives hope for biodiversity in future urban planning. It highlights approaches towards resilience, uncertainty, changing scenarios, and multi-scale analysis, addressing how crucial it is to promote biodiversity management not only within protected areas but especially within social-ecological intense interactions.

Taking into consideration the global and national goals, the Alexander von Humboldt Research Institute of Biodiversity designed and has been developing a research line in order to strengthen institutional capability to manage biodiversity and ecosystem services in urban-regional environments in three levels:
• National level: System of cities
• Regional level: Urban-regional context
• Local level: Urban fabric itself
The research line was conceived as a science-policy-society interface project, where the research was meant to generate information and knowledge useful for decision making both for the public and the social sector. The main objective: to promote biodiversity and its ecosystem services management as an innovative way for cities to redefine and re-build their relationship with nature.

In order to achieve this interface goal, the project considers three complementary systems of knowledge:
• Scientific Information and knowledge on biodiversity and ecosystem services
• Public policy analysis
• Social appropriation strategies in order to identify priorities and define collective follow-up mechanisms to biodiversity management.
The first phase of the project focused on the local level, where we found the main challenges and opportunities.

Local authorities have traditionally managed “green and gray” agendas to achieve sustainability within cities. Green initiatives are focused on promoting protected urban areas, generating data on urban flora and fauna, implementing green open spaces and lately, adopting sustainable building outlines and the city’s main ecological structure. Meanwhile, gray plans mainly promote measures related to basic sanitation, pollution mitigation and energy consumption rationalisation.

This research proposes the following criteria in order to achieve real sustainability “in” and “of” cities (meaning by this last term the city and its nearby ecosystems exchanges):
• Throughout all levels of intervention, management of urban natural areas should be based on biodiversity and ecosystem services preservation criteria. Biodiversity and ecosystems services occur everywhere, not just in protected areas; therefore all green spaces should meet both ecological and social functions.
• In urban and suburban areas, biodiversity and ecosystem services are important both in public and in private spaces; management strategies, such as preservation and restoration, applied in rural areas, should be adopted and adapted for urban areas
• Throughout its different degrees of intensity – infrastructure, roads, sidewalks- hard areas must (i) meet sustainable building criteria, (ii) promote urban inhabitants wellbeing and, (iii) ensure biodiversity and ecosystem services preservation “in” and “beyond” urban spots.

In this regard, the institute is developing working plans with environmental authorities, academic centers/research institutes and local governments. The way that alliances are established, ensures the pertinence and level of commitment required to implement this project: an institutional base to start with. Currently, two case studies, Bogotá Distrito Capital and Medellín, have been carried out and were selected as examples of Colombia’s diverse urban systems and ways to adapt, respond and mitigate both anthropic and natural changes.

This article is from issue


2014 Mar