A church in Detroit is surrounded by stormwater flooding.
Detroit A church is surrounded by stormwater flooding. © Michael D-L Jordan/dlp

Stories in Illinois

Making the Case for Sustainable Cities

Nature can help our cities thrive.

Headshot of Michelle Carr.
Michelle Carr State Director, Illinois


China’s Guangdong province and my hometown of Chicago may be separated by an ocean, but they face many of the same environmental challenges, from property damage caused by flooding, to a loss of urban biodiversity, to degraded water quality. And we are not alone. As urban populations grow and the climate changes, cities around the world will be faced these issues—and more. At The Nature Conservancy, we know there’s a sustainable answer that can help our urban areas thrive and be more resilient: nature.  

This September, TNC experts joined other environmental colleagues, mayors, and city officials for a Mayors Training Program that focused on sustainable urbanization, economic growth and how nature can play a key role in both. The program is led by the Paulson Institute in partnership with the China Association of Mayors and it empowers local policymakers to implement sustainable practices in urban centers across China. Since it was launched in 2012, the program has trained 68 mayors and city leaders from Beijing, Guangdong, Zhejiang, and Tianjin.

The 2018 program included participants from Guangdong province, which is located in one of the most biodiverse regions of China. As nearby cities grow, the plants and wildlife that rely on the area for survival are at increasing risk from urbanization. A changing climate is also bringing serious threats to coastal areas, as the Pearl River Delta is one of the most at-risk places in the world in terms of losses from storms and flooding. Water quality is another problem: 40 million people in Guangdong rely on the East River for their potable water, water that is degraded each step of the way down from the headwaters. Local governments have to spend billions to make it clean enough to drink.

These are the very same challenges TNC is working to address through natural solutions in cities across the country and even the world. For example, like Guangdong, Washington D.C. is facing flooding and water quality issues: Each year, more than three billion gallons of stormwater run-off and sewage flow into D.C.’s local rivers, making it the fastest growing source of water pollution both in the Chesapeake Bay and worldwide. To solve this problem, the Maryland and D.C. Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington have embarked upon a green infrastructure project aimed at capturing stormwater runoff with natural elements: grass, flower beds, shrubs, and trees. The project could potentially prevent millions of gallons of polluted stormwater from flowing into the Anacostia River.

Similarly, in Shenzhen, TNC is working with officials to implement a “Sponge City” at a scale that will make a tangible impact for the city and the ecosystem. The project includes planting more vegetation all around the city—on roofs, along sidewalks and in parks—to help it become a sponge that retains and filters rainwater. The project also focuses on communicating the value of urban nature in people’s lives and their well-being.

To share the knowledge gained through these urban projects, TNC experts joined the mayors and city officials during the three-week training program. After a week of study at Tsinghua University in Beijing, program participants traveled to the U.S. city of New Orleans to learn how coastal risk reduction strategies utilize green infrastructure, such as oyster reefs, to protect eroding shorelines and mitigate the impacts of intense storm events in the Gulf of Mexico. Next, they traveled to Chicago for a week of training at the University of Chicago, including additional seminars, panel discussions, site visits, and lectures.

I joined Jerry Adelmann of Openlands and Andrew Wetzler of the National Resources Defense Council  during one of these training days for a panel discussion entitled “Making the Case for Sustainability.” Through our work to ensure that both people and nature thrive in the Windy City, each of us has seen the many ways nature can make urban areas healthier and more sustainable, from mitigating flooding and combined sewer overflows to providing essential pollinator and migratory bird habitat. Of the many lessons learned, I stressed one: that natural solutions will not only help solve the problems our cities are facing, but can often do so at a lower cost than traditional approaches.  

This one-two punch that nature provides—performance and value—can help keep our urban areas from becoming deeply unlivable places. But for them to make an impact beyond our own backyards, natural infrastructure must be adopted at a global scale. Through initiatives like the Mayors Training Program, we can work together to inspire the spread of natural solutions, and set strong climate, energy, environment and sustainable development goals that can move the needle on the biggest environmental challenges of our time. 

Headshot of Michelle Carr.

Michelle Carr is the state director for The Nature Conservancy in Illinois.

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