• Krea & Guest Author

Why we need nature-inclusive urban development in Curaçao

By Stacey Mac Donald and Krea

(Image by Booking.com, edited by Krea, 2020)


Introduction

Various development plans in Bandabou, discussions about infrastructural and resort developments in conservation areas, and the last waterfront sites in Punda, Pietermaai, and Scharloo are ready for construction. Curaçao's rural areas are becoming less and less rural, while greenery and water in urban areas are becoming more and more limited [1]. Both urban and rural areas continue to make room to meet our needs; to live, entertain, work, educate, shop, and so on. As more land is being developed for these activities, less room is left behind for nature and biodiversity. This process, whereby green areas are lost, results in a lower quality of life and enhances climate change, species extinction, and threatens ecosystems. When we talk about sustainability, we think about energy efficiency, renewable energy, or CO2 emissions. Another way to make an impact is to stimulate nature-inclusive urban development. By bridging the gap between buildings and nature, we ultimately create healthy and livable places with multiple ecological, economic, and psychological benefits. Being an island, Curaçao's limited area makes it even more challenging to choose between developing land or preserving nature. That is why it is important to consciously choose which areas remain reserved for wildlife and ensure that the sites we develop are executed in a nature-inclusive manner.


How did we get here?

Like many places in the world, Curaçao has often allowed for urban development to take place with little to no consideration of the surrounding natural environment.


Many projects have faced criticism in the past years due to disagreement between environmental groups, the government, and private parties. Whereas one group sees land as an asset to protect and preserve, the other sees opportunities for economic gain. The neighborhood development of Wechi is one example where one can argue if the clearance of 135 hectares of natural habitat was necessary to build 4,000 houses to meet the social housing demand [2][3].


Coastal developments for hotels, recreation, and residential areas are also widely discussed. These developments have caused high pollution levels in the surrounding waters due to a lack of adequate wastewater facilities. One recent example is the all-inclusive Corendon Mangrove Resort in Otrobanda, for which 1.900 m² of mangrove forest was cut down [4][5].


Besides the (increased) risks of damage caused to the environment, coastal developments and suburbanization in Curaçao are happening at the cost of nature. There is less access to the beach or coast, and more 'mondi' land is being used for residential and commercial purposes. These developments go hand in hand with the so-called claim that we do not have enough land anymore.


Instead of integrating green spaces with human-made structures, there has been a tendency in the past two centuries to separate the two from each other through exclusion or limited access (e.g., the National Parks, internationally protected RAMSAR areas). This division in how we design urban areas has negatively impacted our health and climate and has led us to disconnect from nature [6].


Luckily, we can learn from our past mistakes and realize that urban development and healthy green spaces can intertwine. In the past years, a shift has taken place in creating a more nature-inclusive built environment that causes minimal damage to our natural ecosystem and carries societal and economic benefits for people.


In the following parts, this study describes the meaning of nature-inclusive urban development, highlights the environmental, economic, and societal benefits of a balanced approach, shares some examples of nature-inclusive urban areas, and proposes ways to achieve a better balance between nature and urban developments.


What do we mean with nature-inclusive developments?

Pavan Sukhdev, project leader at The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), stated: 'We use nature because it is valuable, but we lose it because it is free.' This statement has been widely used to shed light on the value of nature and its sustainable use [7]. Cities are often referred to as the biotope of people, with their own ecosystem that provides us with shelter and (social) activities. Yet, it is nature that gives us clean water, air, food, and energy. Therefore, if we want future-proof cities that improve our quality of life, we must find ways to integrate nature into our urban developments.


Nature-inclusive developments mean we design and build (in harmony) with nature by integrating the elements of the built environment and wildlife [8]. This holistic approach aims to balance the ecological, social, and economic impacts in an urban area by addressing trade-offs and creating a win-win situation. Ultimately, a nature-inclusive way of building has a significant effect on the well-being of people, plants, and animals in an urban area.


The advantages of nature-inclusive urban areas

There are many benefits to nature-inclusive urban developments and the greening of urban spaces. Although they are interlinked, these benefits can be categorized into three main groups: ecological benefits, psychological and health benefits, and economic benefits.


Environmental benefits

The removal of green spaces can have detrimental effects on biodiversity as the urban environment removes vegetation and the habitat of plants, insects, and small animals such as birds, bats, and reptiles. Various studies concluded that the effects of declining biodiversity, which has implications on our climate and the planet's overall health, can be mitigated when greenery is included in urban areas. Below we highlight the main environmental benefits of creating nature inclusive urban spaces.


Maintaining and restoring habitat for animals and plants

When creating urban spaces and thus removing the natural environment, this means the habitat of many plants, animals, and insects is removed. However, by incorporating greenery in various ways, the habitat of these species can remain, thus creating more inclusive environments for both people and nature. This measure is of high importance to prevent the loss of biodiversity. For example, creating green or brown rooftops [9], increasing green surface area along patios to retain water, and introducing green vertical walls. Moreover, we can develop systems that properly dispose of and recycle wastewater to prevent soil pollution.


Vacant lots can also be redesigned and reserved for nature. One study found that these lots can function as important reservoirs of bird diversity despite the high levels of urbanization and the presence of people [10].


From a purely ecological perspective, the argument for leaving the environment untouched will always win. However, this is not always realistic and universally applicable as people are part of the environment and need structures to function. Green- and brown rooftops and wilderness walls recreate and replace greenery that would otherwise be lost entirely. The built environment can even be organized in such a way that it creates a sanctuary for endangered or threatened species.


These are just a few examples that highlight the central objective: to be mindful of how we adjust the environment to meet people's needs. The critical thing to consider is how to create minimal to no loss of important or fragile ecosystems and how damage can be mitigated.


Mitigating the effects of climate change and rising sea-level

Designing and building urban environments with nature in mind will help mitigate climate change effects such as extreme weather conditions and rising sea levels that are already noticeable in Curacao. Extreme weather conditions that occur most are prolonged periods of drought and heat. The so-called urban heat island effect (UHI) means that temperatures are significantly higher in urban, built areas than forested, green spaces. Have you ever noticed how people gather under the shade of trees in the afternoon? Often this creates sightings where many people are bunched underneath a single tree, as little other (mature) trees are present. Thus, the presence of greenery in urban areas can help reduce the experience of rising temperatures. Moreover, during heavy rainfall, the roots of trees and plants help drain and retain excess water in the soil and prevent streets from flooding. This retention of water also helps to cool off the city as it strengthens nature's ability to balance temperatures and avoid extreme spikes in temperature [11][12][13].


Trees are known for absorbing carbon dioxide, which is a significant contributor to rising temperatures. Thus, in addition to improving air quality, trees are vital to help mitigate climate change [14].


The threat of rising sea levels is mainly present in urban coastal areas. Here too, greenery is of vital importance to help prevent and reduce the risk of flooding. Trees and mangroves, in particular, safeguard coastal environments from storms and are crucial as fish nurseries. Both mangroves and coral reefs are vital in protecting coastal communities from storms and hurricanes. Moreover, the rooting system of trees, which assists with the retention of water during periods of heavy rainfall, keeps the soil together, and prevents erosion and loss of topsoil. This is especially important in urban areas as erosion can cause the collapse of buildings and land loss in extreme cases. Moreover, on islands like Curacao, prevention of erosion and minimizing the amount of sediment and waste in water run-off is essential for protecting coral reefs.


Psychological and health benefits

Leading a modern urban lifestyle often consists of unhealthy eating, the pressure to perform, and fast communication and information-processing. In turn, this contemporary way of living is associated with reduced contact with nature, chronic stress, loneliness, lack of physical activity, and poor health. Studies that compared the presence of green and nature in urban areas with areas lacking a natural connection have shown that access to nature and parks tend to have various positive effects on people's health and well-being [14]. People in Curacao generally live close to and are surrounded by nature. Most of us have a garden or take time to enjoy the beach from time to time. However, there are still risks for residents to refrain from 'wilderness'. Many people do not always make the conscious decision to get back to and reconnect with nature. Also, not all gardens are lush and well-kept and are at times littered with car wrecks or other bulky waste items, creating breeding nests for mosquitoes and other pests. There are also few qualitative public parks or waterfront boulevards incorporated in the city center, urban areas, and neighborhoods, limiting exposure to the natural environment to the moments where people decide to go out on a hike or to the beach. Yet, both conscious and unconscious exposure to nature are important for people's (mental) well-being. Below we highlight the benefits on well-being, health, and quality of life.


Stimulate well-being and mindfulness

Urban environments in which you can experience natural elements have been connected to better sleep and reduced stress levels. This particularly applies to the inner city neighborhoods of Willemstad where housing is, in general, denser and with less outdoor space. Better sleep and less stress are essential for good mental health as sleep problems and stress can be significant contributors to mental illness and depression. Many other studies have also shown increased levels of happiness and well-being. The results of nature-inclusive urban area studies have shown positive effects on the restoration of energy and attention, memory, performance levels, imagination, and creativity [9]. One study even demonstrated that visiting a park was considered the most restorative activity compared to other urban leisure activities such as sitting at a café, going to a shopping mall, or strolling around a busy street [15].


These positive effects on people are related to the visible presence of plants and trees and can also be achieved through various forms of sensory contact (like touch, smell, and sounds) [16].


A healthier lifestyle

Living and working in a nature-inclusive built environment has been shown to directly affect our physical health in positive ways. For example, just the presence of trees in our built environment reduces the urban heat island effect and improves air, water, and soil quality by removing pollutants and toxins [17]. Also, they help create a stimulating setting for walking, outdoor exercise, and social contact [11]. We spend most of our time indoors to sleep, work, eat, or relax, which is why healthy buildings designed with green and natural elements positively impact our sleep quality, productivity, immune system, well-being, and indoor thermal comfort [18]. In addition, rooftops or green spaces used for urban agriculture contribute to local food production and healthier eating habits.


Better quality of life

Next to enhancing well-being and health, cities with rich biodiverse ecosystems lead to a better quality of life for its residents. For example, natural sounds of birds singing and the dampening effect of vegetation on noise result in more relaxed inhabitants [19].


Aside from relaxed citizens, nature-inclusive developments have many societal benefits. Engaging neighborhood spaces with green stimulate social cohesion as they attract residents to make use of the public spaces together and thus create a sense to move around safely. This increase in social ties leads to strengthened community networks with meaningful interactions [20]. Ultimately, people want to feel part of an active community, and qualitative green spaces facilitate this with safe and inclusive spaces. Another way to improve quality of life with nature-based elements is to develop houses on waterfronts and nearby green areas, so residents have easy access to nature. Yet, these developments should be done carefully to not result in socio-spatial inequalities, where only higher-income groups have access to qualitative nature-inclusive housing, as is often the case [21].


Economic benefits

Developers also acknowledge the added-value of nature in projects, but often have doubts about the financial implications [22]. Yet, there are also economic advantages when greenery is included in projects.


Increase in real estate value

In studies where the effect of cars and trees affected people's perception of house values, researchers found trees led to an increased positive valuation (including the perceived monetary value) of houses. In contrast, the presence of cars led to a more negative house valuation [23]. These findings suggest that greenery in neighborhoods improves the quality of life, is beneficial for the environment, and leads to financial benefits for homeowners, developers, and investors. Besides vegetation, the presence of water is also known to result in higher real estate values.


More efficient use of space

Like growing cities seeking additional space to accommodate more and more people, a small island area like Curaçao also has its physical limitations. That is why the limited space destined for building should be used as efficiently as possible. Unused surfaces like rooftops can function as urban gardens, pocket parks, or terraces to relax and meet others. Aside from rooftops, empty street corners can be turned into shaded green public spaces for the community [24]. Thus, giving nature a function in unused space leads to more efficient land use and increased economic value of the space.


Cost savings during the operational phase

A nature-inclusive approach also leads to a sustainable design of buildings. Buildings with green rooftops or in tree-covered urban environments generally require less artificial cooling and indirectly help reduce air conditioning's energy consumption and, therefore, lead to substantial savings in energy bills [25]. Moreover, water retention makes it possible to reuse water for gardening, outdoor cleaning, car-washing, and flushing toilets to save costs on the water bill. Natural building materials add quality to the building and typically have a longer lifespan than artificial materials. When materials have reached the end of their lifespan, they can be repurposed or recycled for other functions.


Talent attraction and retention

There are also benefits for companies with nature-inclusive office buildings. Employees today seek companies that share their environmental and sustainable views. An indirect economic benefit of having offices with a biophilic (i.e., retaining the connection with nature) design is to help companies attract talent and keep them [26]. Employee recruitment and turnover form a large part of human resources costs in organizations. Thus, having attractive buildings integrated with nature helps reduce these costs and make your company stand out.


Leading the way

Designing nature-inclusive buildings and urban areas is still relatively new to the built environment industry. Yet, some countries are already leading the way in creating nature-inclusive spaces to increase the quality of life for all. For example, Singapore aims to become the first city in nature and serves as an inspiration for how to blend buildings with nature. In the region, Costa Rica and its pura vida lifestyle centers around their appreciation for nature. Also, sister-island Bonaire strives to become a blue destination where there is a balance between nature, culture, and people.


In Curaçao, too, we have examples of projects which bring the built and natural environment together. One of the oldest examples is the kunuku houses. After the abolition of slavery in 1863, former slaves often built their homes on the plantation to have easy access to their work on the plantation. With limited resources and modern technology or materials, these kunuku houses were designed to be in harmony with nature. Building materials were found in nature, the walls were thick to keep heat out as much as possible, and the house was strategically placed in the direction of the wind for fresh air to flow. High and open ceilings helped hot air rise and leave the living area cool, people used cacti to build fences, rainwater was collected, and produce was grown on the soil near the house [27]. Because people were dependent on nature to provide these elements, they showed respect for nature and worked to restore what they took from it.


More recently, we see this attention to nature also in other functions. An example in the hospitality sector is the eco-resort Mondi Lodge. Mondi Lodge was built with nature in mind, maintaining as much of the natural vegetation. No trees were removed; only a few were relocated during the building of the lodges. The lodges are isolated and situated in the direction of the wind [28]. This eco-friendly philosophy gives visitors a sense of being fully immersed in the local environment of Curaçao.


In the healthcare sector, Curaçao Medical Center has recently achieved the LEED Gold certification. The first hospital in the Caribbean to achieve this [29]. This certification is proof that the hospital's design was made with sustainability and the natural environment in mind. The main eco-friendly measures are the use of natural daylight in the layout, green rooftops, solar collectors, and rain collectors.


Other recent examples include the urban community gardens in Otrobanda and the building of eco-friendly tiny homes [30][31]. Thus, also in Curaçao, we slowly see a shift towards building with nature in mind, and local and global examples can inspire us to make our urban areas more nature-inclusive.


Conclusion

In Curaçao's residential areas, most households are fortunate enough to have spacious gardens allowing them to connect with the outdoors. The call for more nature-inclusive urban developments is mainly directed towards the city center, waterfront areas, and other urban centers that either lack nature and parks or offer the public limited or no access to it. Including nature in our urban environment is not a new phenomenon, but it has lost and now regained our attention. As we have shown in this study, there are only benefits when nature receives a central focus in any design process. In the illustration below we present measures to integrate nature into our urban environments.


With so many proven benefits for everyone, how come nature-inclusive building is not yet standard practice? It often comes down to the business case. Including biodiversity in developments should not be seen as an additional cost item but rather as an element to enhance the long-term value. For example, adding trees requires little capital, but the returns in quality are high. Developers can also use green and eco-friendly measures as place-making to make buildings and areas more attractive.


We can find inspiration for nature-inclusive building by looking at our surroundings and existing projects. Yet, what we are still missing is a clear vision to facilitate these developments. We must also give attention to nature in every project and not be carried away by other pressing developments for housing, tourism, and infrastructure.


Successful nature-inclusive projects require a multidisciplinary collaboration between designers, developers, ecologists, psychologists, and the government. Therefore, we hope that this study encourages and inspires these different parties to come together and work on new approaches and models to design and develop Curaçao in ways that preserve our ecosystems. To find ways to include the natural environment in existing urban areas and ensure all layers of our community can thrive.

Now, and in the future.


Measures for nature-inclusive urban developments (Krea, 2020)


References

[1] UNOPS. 2019. Transforming Urban Curaçao

[2] http://www.researchstationcarmabi.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Amigoe-22-aug_-2014-Wechi-l.pdf

[3] https://caribischnetwerk.ntr.nl/2015/10/13/ontwikkeling-wechi-nog-steeds-onder-vuur/

https://caribischnetwerk.ntr.nl/2015/02/11/wechi-al-25-jaar-onderwerp-van-controverse/

[4] Mangroves are a critical coastal ecosystem: they serve as nurseries for fish, they protect shorelines from damaging storms and floods, they maintain water quality and clarity by filtering pollutants and trapping sediments from land thus ensuring healthier oceans. They can even help protect erosion with their complex and tangled rooting systems. Once mangroves are gone, they cannot simply be replanted as the coastline rapidly transforms and erodes which makes it near to impossible for mangroves to root. Even if plans are made to restore damaged mangroves,it takes many years for mangrove ecosystems to restore themselves to their full potential.

[5] https://caribischnetwerk.ntr.nl/2019/09/15/1900-vierkante-meter-beschermd-mangrovebos-op-curacao-moet-weg/

[6] https://www.smartcitiesdive.com/ex/sustainablecitiescollective/nature-view-nature-design-reconnecting-people-nature-through-design/1069371/

[7] https://themasites.pbl.nl/natuurlijk-kapitaal-nederland/wp-content/uploads/2014/pbl-2016-natural-capital-in-the-netherlands-2406-1.pdf

[8] https://scialert.net/fulltext/?doi=jas.2006.958.963#:~:text=Designing%20and%20building%20with%20or,an%20Ecosystem%2C%20called%20the%20Biosphere.

[9] A green roof or living roof is a roof of a building that is partially or completely covered with vegetation and a growing medium, planted over a waterproofing membrane (also known as eco-roofs or vegetative roofs). A brown roof is where the soil surface is left to self-vegetate from windblown and bird seed dispersal.

[10] Jesús Zuñiga-Palacios, Iriana Zuria, Claudia E. Moreno, R.Carlos Almazán-Núñez, Manuel González-Ledesma, Can small vacant lots become important reservoirs for birds in urban areas? A case study for a Latin American city, Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, Volume 47, 2020.

[11] https://innovationorigins.com/nl/polderdak-op-hva-gebouw-als-innovatielab-voor-klimaatbestendige-stad/

[12] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10630732.2019.1637694?casa_token=2IMp65S9TsUAAAAA%3AnwDIlP9UBDVWzKtk-2KCMhWucn4JrbjXkLx_r_RxVnVekFiZNEBdqJw2R5SyGZwZjpvP1RrW7ufggQ

[13] http://www.moss.amsterdam/2020/03/02/a-way-for-nature-in-the-built-environment/

[14] Sandhya, G & Garge, Sandhya & Kinnary, Shah. (2011). Carbon sequestration by urban trees on roadsides of Vadodara city. International Journal of Engineering Science and Technology. 3.

[15] Weber, Anke & Trojan, Jörg. (2018). The Restorative Value of the Urban Environment: A Systematic Review of the Existing Literature. Environmental Health Insights. 12. 1–13. 10.1177/1178630218812805.

[16] https://gresb.com/human-nature-health-well-being-benefits-nature-built-environmen

[17] https://www.euro2021.eu/wiki/518130/ecological-and-nature-inclusive-design-of-climate-resilient-city

[18] Palacios, J., Eichholtz P., Kok, N. (2020). Moving to productivity: The benefits of healthy buildings.

[19] DS Landscape -architects (May 21, 2019). First Guide to Nature Inclusive Design.

[20] Bauduceau, N., Berry, P., Cecchi, C., Elmqvist, T., Fernandez, M., Hartig, T., Krull, W., Mayerhofer, E., N, S., Noring, L., Raskin-Delisle, K., Roozen, E., Sutherland, W., & Tack, J. (2015). Towards an EU Research and Innovation Policy Agenda for Nature-based Solutions & Re-naturing Cities: Final Report of the Horizon 2020 Expert Group on 'Nature-based Solutions and Re-naturing Cities'. Publications Office of the European Union. https://doi.org/10.2777/765301

[21] Haase A. (2017) The Contribution of Nature-Based Solutions to Socially Inclusive Urban Development– Some Reflections from a Social-environmental Perspective. In: Kabisch N., Korn H., Stadler J., Bonn A. (eds) Nature-Based Solutions to Climate Change Adaptation in Urban Areas. Theory and Practice of Urban Sustainability Transitions. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-56091-5_13

[22] Zonneveld, J. (2020). Neem biodiversiteit als uitgangspunt in gebiedsontwikkeling. Gebiedsontwikkeling.nu

[23] Henk Staats, Ritwik Swain, Cars, trees, and house prices: Evaluation of the residential environment as a function of numbers of cars and trees in the street, Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, Volume 47, 2020.

[24] Sinninghe, H. (2020). A way for nature in the built environment. Retrieved from: http://www.moss.amsterdam/2020/03/02/a-way-for-nature-in-the-built-environment/

[25] K.R. Gunawardena, M.J. Wells, T. Kershaw, Utilising green and bluespace to mitigate urban heat island intensity, Science of The Total Environment, Volumes 584–585, 2017.

[26] McCormick, Kathleen. The Business Case for Healthy Buildings: Insights from Early Adopters. Washington, DC: Urban Land Institute, 2018.

[27] Kas di Kunuku: Een blik op Curaçaos cultureel erfgoed. 2015.

[28] https://www.mondilodge.com/en/1880805/eco-friendly

[29] https://www.curacaochronicle.com/post/local/cmc-is-the-first-leed-gold-certified-hospital-in-the-caribbean/

[30] https://caribbeannetwork.ntr.nl/2020/08/04/community-gardens-in-willemstad-we-cant-keep-on-handing-out-food-packages/

[31] https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHVm6Ubsc01RBQ_poUtGgwA











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