THE BLOG

Transforming Cities for Sustainability: Q&A With Urban Expert Pascal Mittermaier

05/18/2015 02:38 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

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Making cities more sustainable isn't just good for nature -- it's good for people, too, of course.

That's a concept Pascal Mittermaier, the Nature Conservancy's new Global Managing Director of Cities, believes can transform how leaders incorporate nature into urban planning.

Pascal brings to TNC many years of sustainability experience, most recently leading efforts to integrate innovative environmental and social approaches into all businesses operating under Lend Lease, a global property and construction company.

I am delighted to welcome Pascal to TNC. He and I recently discussed his views on the world's urban future, green cities and the role of environmentalists in helping cities and nature thrive together.

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Tercek: Why turn our attention to cities?

Mittermaier: Cities are having an ever-increasing impact on the natural world. We are in the midst of the greatest human migration ever, with 50 percent of all people already living in cities. By 2050, three-quarters of humanity - almost 7 billion people - will live in cities. Many of these cities will be bigger than entire nations. Cities already emit 75 percent of the world's carbon and consume 80 percent of all resources. How these cities manage their natural resources will have implications far beyond the actual boundaries of the cities themselves.

Tercek: What are environmentalists' biggest opportunities for urban impact?

Mittermaier: We can help cities better use nature to become more resilient and livable. By deploying green infrastructure, such as sustainable urban drainage or coastal wetlands, we can help cities more cost-effectively protect themselves against storms and floods. We can use our science to find new solutions for air pollution or excessive urban heat and thus help manage major public health issues.

And we can help cities flourish by reimagining their role as places to grow food on a major scale and exploring the human benefits of increased nature in schools or workplaces. And we can envision cities as places of thriving biodiversity - places in which wildlife thrives and birds stay over - rather than hostile and damaging toward the natural world.

Tercek: What will the green city of the future look like?

Mittermaier: This is my favorite question because it gives us the chance to articulate future urban life in a positive way, rather than the usual "doing less harm" approach. Cities can be incredibly creative, dynamic places, attracting the best and most diverse people to solve these daunting issues.

The green city of the future has moved away from cars to excellent public transport and cycling/walking infrastructure. Homes are energy efficient, and neighborhoods are connected. And, very importantly, nature is ever-present and provides people, planet and profit outcomes: Green roofs manage water and allow for food growing, parks anchor neighborhoods and double as water attenuation tanks, green walls clean the air and attract new biodiversity, trees shield from heat and make streets more valuable to homeowners. In summary, nature will help cities be resilient, livable and flourishing, benefiting traditional conservation as well as city dwellers themselves.

Tercek: You worked on a London city sustainability project. What did you accomplish?

Mittermaier: I spent several years working on a major regeneration project in central London. I found that nature and sustainability almost always created better value for all parties involved without compromising quality, cost or profit. My project became a world leader in city sustainability. Leaders from 60 global cities visited to see what we did on energy, water, transport and nature. When you change one city, others are right there to copy the success! I also studied best practices all over the world searching for better ways to do things.

My biggest lesson learned came from assembling a diverse, atypical group of experts who could solve old problems in new ways. To the traditional groups of architects, engineers and landscapers we added ecologists, wildlife NGOs, cycling groups, experts in new materials, sociologists and public health experts. The result was lots of innovation and sustainability. I hope TNC can play a similar role going forward.

Tercek: What collaborations are important for designing the green city of the future?

Mittermaier: City mayors are incredibly connected. They proactively share and copy best practices and are part of some very effective global networks. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities program are great examples of these networks, and TNC is working closely with them to ensure that the best science and policy is employed.

We will use our strength as a convener to work with cities, corporations, academics and others to drive the best sustainable outcomes. We have the unique chance to confirm natural solutions as the most ecologically sound, cost-effective and people-inclusive ways to help cities deal with challenges.

We hope to use our work in cities to engage a broader audience in protecting nature. We want to work with community stakeholders to demonstrate the value of nature, empower youth through service learning and green job opportunities, and improve the quality of life for all city dwellers.

Tercek: Tell me more about yourself.

Mittermaier: I'm originally from Germany and grew up in Portugal and Switzerland. I then came to the U.S. for the first time when I studied at University of Pennsylvania. I subsequently lived and worked in Asia, Australia, Europe and North America. I now consider myself a citizen of the world - I speak four languages and get my energy from diversity. In my immediate family alone, we hold eight passports!

My earliest recollection of nature is of water: lakes and the sea. I am a fanatical wind and kite surfer and get my connection with nature by being out in the wind and water. The wilder and more remote, the better! I'm looking for ways to bring that sense of wonder and connection with wild places right into cities.

Images, top to bottom: Brooklyn Bridge Park integrates nature into urban planning, providing nature's benefits to city dwellers. © Jonathan Grassi; Pascal Mittermaier © Devan King