Sustainable, Livable Cities

Supporting resilient, sustainable, and equitable cities through nature-based solutions


THE CHALLENGEThe Challenge:  Around the world, city leaders are turning towards nature-based solutions to build cities that are more livable and resilient to climate and health risks. Globally, we need more practice and research on urban ecosystem services to highlight when and how urban nature can contribute to safer, more equitable cities.      OUR SOLUTIONOur Solution: Our work aims to demonstrate the power and value of nature to manage urban challenges. We review existing knowledge, develop tools to quantify urban ecosystem services, and co-produce information highlighting how natural infrastructure benefits people in complex urban systems.      OUTCOMESOutcomes: Acting locally, regionally, and globally, we are co-developing innovative approaches and policies that explore nature-based urban solutions and promote sustainable, livable cities. We are implementing pilot projects in the U.S. and in China and working with partners to learn about opportunities around the world (in particular in the Global South).

The Challenge

By 2050, there will be 9 billion people on Earth, and a staggering 75 percent of them will live in cities. Ongoing urbanization and rising global prosperity will combine to increase the size and density of the world’s cities, forcing municipal leaders to make hard choices in the funding and management of both built and natural infrastructure.

Climate change and associated risks, together with health threats and economic insecurity, press the urban community to find innovative solutions to build livable and resilient cities. Heat waves are more frequent and intense. Sea levels are rising, and changes in precipitation patterns may increase the risk of coastal and riparian flooding or potentially overwhelm many urban stormwater systems. A changing climate may also alter the spread of mosquito-borne infectious diseases in urban areas, and drier climates may put other cities at risk of catastrophic wildfire.

Humans have already made tremendous investments in the buildings, transportation, water and energy systems that sustain urban communities. However, growing cities need to plan for investing in and maintaining infrastructure at an unprecedented rate, while also meeting the mounting challenge of climate adaptation. NatCap works to fill the gaps in knowledge and contribute tools that leverage the full potential of nature in building resilient cities.

Case Study

San Francisco Resiliency Planning

To increase the resilience of San Francisco Bay Area coastlines and communities to sea-level rise, we include natural infrastructure (native landscape, river systems, etc.) in climate adaptation planning. Working with the Bay Area Regional Council (BARC), Bay Area Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), and San Mateo County, we implemented in-depth scoping with decision-makers to balance research and stakeholder needs, building on other efforts to improve coastal community resilience in the Bay Area. We have found that additional research on the co-benefits of nature-based solutions and specific urban ecosystem services, including but not limited to coastal protection, nature-based recreation, and stormwater management, have the potential to guide ongoing design and policy decisions.

Rob McDonald

“Cities around the world need to know how to quantify the benefits that nature provides, so that they can choose to incorporate nature appropriately into their city, leading to a resilient, healthy, more verdant urban world”.


Rob McDonald

Global Cities Lead, The Nature Conservancy

The Solution

Demonstrating the power—and value—of nature can help cities manage the challenges they face.
Nature offers its own infrastructure and can help cities mitigate these consequences, delivering vital services that are cost-effective and resilient to disruption.

Our work within the Livable Cities program focuses on three areas:

Urban InVEST

We develop methods and software tools that help quantify the supply and value of urban ecosystem services provided by different types of nature-based solutions in cities–including green infrastructure for stormwater, urban parks for recreation, and more.

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Equity issues

We assess the distributional consequences of green infrastructure management (i.e. considering policies, institutions and diverse values) that affect vulnerable populations and marginalized communities.

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We co-produce innovative approaches, policies and financial mechanisms with practitioners across local, regional, and global scales that explore nature-based urban solutions and promote sustainable, livable cities.

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A growing number of influential urban networks and partners—TNC’s Global Cities program, the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities or 100RC, ICLEI, C40, and others—have embraced the protection and restoration benefits of natural infrastructure as a means to promote more sustainable and livable cities. We are establishing partnerships to co-produce innovative approaches, policies and financial mechanisms with practitioners across local, regional, and global scales that explore nature-based urban solutions and promote sustainable, livable cities. Our pilot projects are in the U.S. and in China and we are working with partners to learn from other geographies (in particular in the Global South).

Case Study

Natural Capital of Golf Courses

The US loves golf. There are approximately 16,000 golf courses in the USA, spread across a variety of social and ecological contexts; urban to rural, forest to swamp, grassland to desert. Economically, golf courses contribute billions of dollars to the economy and create jobs for local communities. Environmentally, golf courses require inputs of water, nutrients and pesticides and can be taxing. While these immediate, direct costs and benefits are fairly well-understood, the indirect contribution of golf courses to landscape and the public value is not as well-understood: What are the ecosystem service values of golf courses to their surrounding community? How do the biophysical drivers of ecosystem services affect the golf experience? We launched a collaborative project to explore environmental and public values associated with golf courses in urban areas and explore these important questions further.

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Case Study

Using social media to understand drivers of urban park visitation in the Twin Cities, MN

We developed and tested an approach for using geotagged social media data from the websites Flickr and Twitter to look at park visitation in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, USA. Looking at what characteristics (i.e. water features, trail networks) drive patterns of visitation to a city’s green space can help inform local and regional park planners. We found that Twin Cities parks with nearby water features, more amenities, greater accessibility from trails, and located within more densely populated neighborhoods are associated with higher rates of visitation. This analysis demonstrated that using targeted information about user behavior and preferences available from social media data can rapidly assess park use at a lower cost than traditional surveys. It is a flexible tool and has the potential to inform public green space management in urban areas wherever social media data is widely available.

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Featured News

Weaving an Equitable and Sustainable Urban Fabric

An Update on NatCap’s Livable Cities Program By Marie Donahue | October 2017 Photo credit: Supporting the development of livable cities has been a core component of NatCap’s strategic engagement and research in recent years, and for good reason....

Anything but Par for the Course

Exploring the Natural Capital Value of Golf Courses By Marie Donahue | October 2017 Photo credit: If you randomly ask someone on a city street to describe the game of golf, odds are good that even someone unfamiliar with the nuances of the game...

Please contact Sustainable, Livable Cities Outcome Lead Perrine Hamel ( for more information.
A draft Working Vision for the Sustainable, Livable Cities Program (2017) is available for download.