Denser AND Greener: How to reconcile growing cities with the needs of nature

Researchers challenge assumptions about nature-positive urban planning and highlight global cities that are getting it right

Cityscape of downtown Berlin, Germany, showing the competition between green space and built environment
Berlin The city is bringing together key stakeholders to build a shared vision of how to protect biodiversity and use nature-based solutions to improve human well-being. © Adam Vradenburg/Unsplash

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As humans become an increasingly urban species, a new study offers compelling insights into how we can make our growing cities work better for people and wildlife, exploring trade-offs and challenging longstanding assumptions in the process.

Planners have long debated the merits of building more green spaces like parks into city plans – amenities that benefit both humans and wildlife – versus encouraging denser urban development that reduces the pressure on natural habitat beyond the city limits.

By analysing both approaches and highlighting ‘brightspot’ cities that are managing to get the balance right, this study – published in the open-access journal People and Nature ­– points towards a third way, whereby urban neighbourhoods can be designed to accommodate denser human populations while also meeting the needs of the natural world more effectively.

Commenting on the team’s findings, senior author Rob McDonald – Lead Scientist for Nature-Based Solutions at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) – said: “We reviewed everything scientists and planners currently know about the relationship between urban density, nature and sustainability. What we found is that this needn’t be a zero-sum game – that having denser cities doesn’t automatically mean dramatically less space for nature, and that by deploying some simple green interventions, cities everywhere can become more sustainable, even as more and more people flock to urban areas.”

Even established assumptions, like the percentage of tree cover declining as cities become more densely populated, were found by the study to be less pronounced than previously thought - again underlining the potential to make our urban neighbourhoods work better for both humans and the many other species that live alongside us.

Elaborating on the study’s recommendations, senior co-author Erica Spotswood from Second Nature Ecology and Design said: “We wanted this paper to be practical, not just theoretical – hence we drew inspiration from cities like Singapore and Curitiba (Brazil) to include a set of nine ‘green’ interventions urban planners across the globe can use to balance denser development with the needs of nature. Encompassing everything from urban parks to ‘green’ roofs, we hope our paper’s findings will challenge assumptions while also showing that it’s possible to have cities that are both more space-efficient and more welcoming for nature.”

To read more about TNC’s work to promote greener and more sustainable cities worldwide as part of our 2030 Goals, visit this link.   For more detail on our global science work, click here.

Google provided funding and support for the working group.

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Notes for Editors

McDonald R., Aronson M., Beatley T., Beller E., Bazo M., Grossinger R., Jessup K., Mansur A., de Oliveira J., Panlasigui S., Burg J., Pevzner N., Shanahan D., Stoneburner L., Rudd A., Spotswood E. Denser and greener cities: The pathways to achieve both urban density and nature. People and Nature.


The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in more than 70 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit or follow @nature_press on Twitter.