Melbourne is part of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation
Melbourne Reflections Melbourne is part of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation © Hai Pham


Q&A: Designing Cities with Nature in Mind

Robert McDonald, Senior Scientist, Urban Sustainability for the Nature Conservancy, photographed on the green roof of the ASLA building (American Society of Landscape Architects), Washington, DC.
Rob McDonald Lead Scientist, Global Cities Program © Karine Aigner

Rob McDonald grew up loving “wild nature,” and in graduate school decided to study nature where he lived: in the city. He’s since examined how urban growth impacts biodiversity, taught landscape ecology and published over 50 peer-reviewed publications and a book. He directs the science behind The Nature Conservancy’s urban conservation work.

What’s your favorite thing about your job?

What I love most is connecting all the way from the global science—big-picture questions about how the world can house another 2 billion people by 2050 and what that means for nature—down to a specific project on a specific city block.

About two-thirds of us will live in cities in 2050. What will that look like?

Picture building New York City in six weeks and then doing that over and over again. That’s basically the pace of global urban growth. And that’s why TNC’s Global Cities program exists: to make sure humanity gets those cities right for nature and people.

And that's why TNC's Global Cities program exisits: to make sure humanity gets those cities right for nature and people.

Lead Scientist, Global Cities

What’s the first step?

Even in this urban century, nature is important for our health and well-being—and it’s something we have to plan for, just like we do when deciding where to put sidewalks or schools. It’s critical to get municipal leaders, government officials and community leaders to believe in and be inspired by that vision.

How do you work to make that vision a reality?

Local stakeholders and TNC get together to identify the benefits nature is already providing and to envision what else nature could do for that community. That looks different in each location. In Phoenix, they’re worried about drought and heat, but in a coastal city like Miami, they’re thinking about storms and sea level rise. Once a common plan is in place, it becomes about implementation.

Sunrise aerial overview sunny beach and waves.
South Beach, Miami Coastal cities are looking for ways to alleviate threats from storms and sea level rise. © iStock

Many cities have successfully used natural infrastructure to address problems such as air pollution or flooding. What can urban planning accomplish for nature?

There are many examples of how thoughtful planning can reduce negative environmental impacts. Designing energy-efficient cities mitigates climate change. Adding green spaces like wetlands helps filter out pollution from stormwater before it reaches lakes, rivers and oceans. Planning how cities grow can prevent habitat damage from urban growth, which is one of the main drivers of global biodiversity loss.

What are your thoughts about the future of our urban landscape?

Most of our cities will be built in the next couple of decades, so now’s the time to decide what kind of world we want to create. We can choose a world that’s mostly gray, mostly concrete. To me, that’s a really depressing world. Or we can choose a world where we have nature in our lives, making our cities cooler, safer, less polluted. And that’s the choice that motivates me.


Destination Nature: Soaking Up Stormwater

Rob spoke about using nature to solve cities’ stormwater problems on TNC’s new podcast. Click the green arrow to listen now.

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“Greenprinting” at Work

Distinguished by its vibrant street art, enthusiastic sports culture and abundant waterways, parks and gardens, Melbourne, Australia, is a great place to live for people and wildlife. To ensure it stays that way in the face of increasing temperatures and rapid development, The Nature Conservancy and a diverse mix of partners are strengthening the metropolis’s urban forest by using “greenprinting”—a planning process that helps determine where vegetation will offer the greatest benefits.

Crimson Rosella
Crimson Rosella A native to Melbourne © Jeanette Hazeldine
Melbourne on Port Phillip Bay
Melbourne on Port Phillip Bay Green infrastructure, such as planting trees, can address urban challenges. © Sierra Toomey

“We’re designing a green fabric of a city that is good for the people who live there and allows wildlife to move through it,” says Rob McDonald, TNC’s Global Cities lead scientist. The goal is to strategically increase the abundance of trees, shrubs and grasslands in the metropolitan area to help cool the city and connect remnant patches of natural habitat, providing safe haven for some of Australia’s distinctive animals such as the crimson rosella and the superb fairy-wren.