We are traditionally taught that our landscape designations are a binary choice: we have the grey-brown smudge of our urban-industrial cityscapes, or the green pastels of our countryside.  Two sides at perpetual ambient and visual odds.

And yet, what if the urban-rural partition wasn’t such a zero-sum game?  What if a middle way – some urban-wild hybrid – was not only within the realms of our ingenuity, but already flourishing in pilot projects internationally?

It turns out that such concepts do indeed exist.  All around the world, nature is being allowed to reclaim swathes of empty lots, facades are being devoted to foliage, native species are being reintroduced, and new biophilic building designs are incorporating natural light and landscape features.

The rising prominence of so-called ‘urban rewilding’ is a win not only for the environment, but also for the 55% of the global population living in one of our society’s many ‘concrete jungles’.[1]

Green Building envelope

Urgent correction to rampant overdevelopment

Transforming our urban areas into something more ecologically harmonious is vital for reversing biodiversity loss, for improving human health, and for tackling the meta-threat of climate change.  Why is this so pressing?

  • More than 80% of people who live in cities where air quality is monitored are exposed to pollution levels exceeding World Health Organization (WHO) limits.[2]
  • By restoring just 30% of ecosystems to their natural state, it’s estimated that around 465 billion tons of CO2 could be sequestered, and 70% of projected plant and animal extinctions could be avoided.[3]
  • Cities exhibit their own microclimates, several degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside. A single healthy tree can equal the cooling capacity of 10 air-conditioning units, reducing drains on energy grids reliant on fossil fuels.[4]

Benefits of Urban Rewilding

Reasserting the influence of nature over towns and cities can reduce CO2 levels and lower localized temperatures.  This is laudable in itself and a sufficient spur to action.  However, research also shows that urban rewilding helps improve the mental health and physical wellbeing of the city-dwelling population.  One research project revealed that 92% of studies confirmed post-rewilding improvements across the health spectrum, rising to 98% when examining mental health specifically.[5]

The idea of rededicating swathes of our cities to Mother Nature is manifestly overdue.  For too long, momentum has swung in the other direction.

The USA surrendered 24 million acres of wilderness between 2001 and 2017 to housing, industry and energy.[6]  The great concrete encroachment continues still, with a further 6,000 acres of parks, forests, grasslands and waterways lost to development every day.  A concerted focus on rewilding has the potential to make meaningful impacts on global habitats.  In addition, urban rewilding can also contribute to the delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, 14: Life below Water and 15: Life on Land.








In the face of such incontrovertible evidence, how are urban decision-makers experimenting with this bold vision of rewilded towns and cities?

Rewilding boosts nature and job creation

Urban rewilding can take one of four forms, depending on the topography and scale of the landscape in question.[7]

  • Urban greening: The standard form of rewilding in which native plants and natural processes are gradually reintroduced into an urban environment where degradation has already taken place, to begin the process of restoring biodiversity.
  • Green and blue links: Protected passageways connecting towns and cities, often traversing open spaces. These links – countryside corridors, rivers and streams – allow flora and fauna to thrive and disperse across areas typically monopolized by urban sprawl.
  • Small scale: Projects of 50 hectares or less, often involving restoring specific sites such as parks, gardens, verges, woodlands or wildflower meadows and returning them to nature’s purview.
  • Large scale: Projects of 50+ hectares, restoring entire landscapes to become self-sustaining reservoirs of interdependent plants and animals: Think river systems, green belt land, national parks and protected marine areas.

As an example of local action by local people, the London Rewilding Taskforce, charged with establishing best practice principles for urban greening projects in London, released a report in 2023 on supporting nature recovery and enhancing biodiversity.[8]  It outlined five core principles for successful rewilding projects:

  1. Letting nature lead: Reinstating natural processes, such as habitat succession and ecological disturbance, perhaps by reintroducing native animal species or removing manmade river channels.
  2. Working at an appropriate scale: Restoring ecosystems with enough space and time to allow nature to dictate the evolution of the changes.
  3. Creating resilient landscapes: Accepting that nature is constantly evolving and that historic processes helped generate biodiversity. We need a dynamic new ecosystem driven by nature itself, taking into account future variables such as climate change and population growth.
  4. Ensuring all can benefit: Providing nature-rich experiences for a large and diverse urban population. The question of access should be central to the development process, while respecting those parts of a rewilding zone that might need protection from human disturbance.
  5. Supporting local economies: Rewilding can support nature-based economies through the prism of leisure and education. Sustainable business opportunities can help fund ecosystem projects such as flood management schemes, air purification, water quality, carbon storage, soil restoration, and nature-friendly food production.

Indeed, the idea that rewilding can have a negative impact on the economy – that prioritizing nature over more commercial applications will cause inevitable job losses – is an outdated misreading.  An analysis from Rewilding Britain, covering 33 projects across more than 50,000 hectares of land, revealed a 54% increase in jobs over a ten-year period post-rewilding.[9]Rewilding Britain

Armed with these findings, the UK capital has as of April this year ploughed almost £30 million (nearly US$ 40 million) into green spaces and tree planting via its Rewild London Fund.  Current mayor Sadiq Khan plans to establish London as the world’s first ‘National Park City’ by 2050.[10]

With that in mind, let’s take a look at several other urban hotspots around the world at the vanguard of the rewilding movement.

Arcadian visions for living in tune with nature

Whether restoring developed land to its original, uncultivated state, or introducing a sliver of green into the lives of urban communities, we can gain much inspiration from these rewilding pioneers.

Haerbin, China, has responded to increased instances of flooding in the rainy season by nurturing a revitalized wetland in the center of the city.  Architects devised a scheme to restore the city’s original wetland – which had long been separated from its natural water sources by development – into the 34-acre Qunli National Urban Wetland, an urban stormwater park.  The park benefits the ecosystem by filtering stormwater into the aquifer, providing a natural habitat for wildlife, and offering a recreation area for the city’s 10 million inhabitants.

Elsewhere in China, Liuzhou is aiming to serve as an exemplar of nature-based building.  Liuzhou, which began construction in 2020, will be the world’s first ‘forest city’, with 40,000 trees and a million plants adorning the facades of all infrastructure, absorbing some 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide and 57 tons of pollutants annually.

Liuzho Forest City
Liuzho Forest City (Architectural concept rendering). Photo Credit © Stefan Boeri Archutetti

Also in Asia, Singapore’s ‘City in a Garden’ ethos has led to the installation of 18 ‘supertrees’ – 50-meter-high artificial trees.  These dramatic structures host more than 150,000 plants and help filter rainwater, generate solar power, and provide much needed shade for residents.  The city’s 150-kilometer Nature Ways, inspired by the ecosystem of rainforests with shrubs, understories and canopies, serve as green corridors to boost biodiversity.

biodiversity parks

A series of seven biodiversity parks have been designated in Delhi, India, to improve water and air quality, to aid floodwater management and carbon sequestration, and to reduce dangerous urban temperature levels.  The Yamuna Biodiversity Park (YBP), on the banks of Yamuna River, encompasses 457 acres of forest and wetlands.  It has been credited with revitalizing the fortunes of native plants in decline and providing a home for migrating birds in winter.

Saudi Green InitiativeHere in the Middle East, Neom, the mega smart-city under development in northwest Saudi Arabia on the Red Sea, will plant a million trees and restore at least 1.5 million hectares of land as part of a regreening initiative.  This sustainable city is a key element of the Saudi Green Initiative and Saudi Vision 2030.

The densely-populated community of Yoruba, in Lagos, Nigeria, has funded a network of community-led vertical gardens – upright structures embedded with a growth medium such as soil or hydroculture felt and dedicated to natural vegetation.  The project aims to reduce temperature levels and foster biodiversity while generating alternative food sources for the low-income residents.

Meanwhile in New South Wales, Australia, the government is focusing on climate resilience by creating more green infrastructure via its Greener Places framework.  Sydney’s biophilic One Central Park is replete with hanging gardens comprising 35,200 plants from 383 species across more than 1,100 square meters of surface, fed by a ‘drip irrigation’ system.

Elsewhere in Australia, Melbourne has its own Green Our City strategy.  Construction began in 2023 on the Green Spine skyscraper complex on the city’s Southbank.  With 6,000 square meters of vegetation and a roof garden, Green Spine is set to not only be the country’s tallest building, but also the world’s tallest vertical garden.

New York’s High Line gardens, occupying the site of a disused railroad, wind a 1.5-mile route through Manhattan along the Hudson River.  Nature is allowed to dictate its own vision of rewilding, with species competing and evolving as they would in the most remote countryside.  The project benefits plants, butterflies and birds – and, of course, the lucky humans enjoying the fresher air and escaping to the scenic footpaths.

Similarly, a disused shopping center in Nottingham, UK, has been converted into an urban hub of wetlands, woodlands, and wildflowers.  The six-acre Broadmarsh development, giving a new lease of life to this longstanding blot on the landscape, will lure native species back to the city and provide a green link to the famous Sherwood Forest nearby.

Urban rewilding projects such as these acknowledge that overdevelopment of the landscape has played a pivotal role in nature’s decline.  As we have seen, it also questions our preconceptions about precisely where restoration and conservation can thrive.

A green light – against the odds

Whatever the scope of the project, whatever the motivations and parameters at play, urban rewilding arrives with certain inherent, albeit not insurmountable, challenges.

Urban rewilding deserves to become more than just an economic bargaining tool, a number on a balance sheet weighed against more profitable alternatives.  Some of its value defies quantification, particularly those factors affecting quality of life.  What price a more peaceful and fulfilling existence?  These debates, which are really about society’s priorities, are ongoing and the full picture has yet to take shape.

Rewilding means not just plants and trees, but animals and insects, too.  If we are encouraging more wildlife into our towns and cities, how can we ensure a safe coexistence with humans?  The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 60% of infectious diseases in people can be spread from animals, and that three-quarters of newly-emerging infectious diseases in people originate from animals.  These ‘zoonotic diseases’, like COVID-19, Ebola, MERS and SARS, have together claimed millions of lives.  In preparation for these, and future, outbreaks, we must invest more heavily in vaccine research, and harness the growing power of artificial intelligence to help us stay one step ahead of emergent pathogens.

Urban rewilding, if not carefully integrated into an overarching socioeconomic strategy, can have unintended consequences in these times of financial hardship.  Gentrification can subsume newly-designated green areas, pushing up house prices in the locale and widening the rich-poor divide.

Most rewilding schemes require an initial outlay of funds, often beyond the scope of urban authorities.  Government grants are generally limited and complex to apply for, which can leave many schemes stalled on the starting grid.  Ideally, legislators need to find a way of fast-tracking rewilding proposals and accommodating them within their budgets.

Inevitably, more investment must somehow be sourced from the private sector.

Natural Environment Investment and Readiness Fund The UK’s Natural Environment Investment and Readiness Fund (NEIRF) aims to do just this, offering hundreds of thousands of pounds to local authorities, businesses and voluntary groups for developing nature projects to a point where they can become self-sustaining via private investment.[11]

More than 50 schemes will benefit from the fund initially, including plans to restore peatlands, improve flood resilience and create new green urban spaces.  The UK Government aims to stimulate £500 million of private investment per year by 2027 to support nature recovery, rising to at least £1 billion annually by 2030.

Private sector players are already entwined in the narrative of urban rewilding via their role as landowners.  In the USA, for example, private individuals and corporations own about 60% of all land.[12]  In many cases, it is the public sector which will determine whether a piece of land can be rewilded to become not just vibrant, but verdant.  With the public relations benefits of the eco movement self-evident, it is to be hoped more private sector powerbrokers will decide to take part in the inspirational story of rewilding.

Humble steps can make a mighty difference

It is easy to see why the concept of urban rewilding is gaining so much traction.  Proponents argue we end up with cleaner, more sustainable and visually-appealing living spaces, beneficial to both the local microclimate and the health of the wider biosphere.  For city-dwellers at risk of becoming permanently estranged from the rhythms of nature, green oases help develop deeper connections to the outside world and encourage a sense of stewardship.  There is even data suggesting that children growing up in greener areas have higher IQs and exhibit less antisocial and criminal behavior.[13]

Urban rewilding is for everyone.  Its principles are not restricted to vast city-scale projects sporting budgets in the multi-millions.  No matter how humble one’s property it is always possible to make a start and join the revolution.  We could all erect creature-friendly habitats in our outdoor spaces, such as bird boxes and insect houses.  We can plant hedges or window boxes.  And we can grow pollinator-friendly flowers in any slice of green space available.

David Attenborough
Naturalist Sir David Attenborough (and friend), host of BBC TV documentary ‘Life in Cold Blood’ Photo Credit: © BBC

The movement has even gained the backing of Sir David Attenborough, the UK’s foremost biologist and natural historian, who in 2020 called on us all to “rewild the world”.[14]

What chance do we have of greening our planet if we overlook the evidence from our own windows?

Where we see concrete, asphalt and steel, it takes only a modicum of imagination to see a canvas positively crying out for extravagant splashes of green.

If we are indeed in the foothills of the Sixth Mass Extinction,[15] and the dawn of the Anthropocene era, then urban rewilding represents a promising template for human-nature coexistence – the perfect conceptual tool for shattering the longstanding city/country dichotomy.  It is one way of compensating the biosphere for the hardships we have inflicted upon it; one way of promising future generations that we cared about the world we left behind.



[1] https://www.citizenzoo.org/CZ/urbanrewilding/

[2] https://www.who.int/news/item/12-05-2016-air-pollution-levels-rising-in-many-of-the-world-s-poorest-cities

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/rewilding-extinction-climate-change-biodversity-summit-co2-b1050021.html

[4] https://theconversation.com/urban-greening-can-save-species-cool-warming-cities-and-make-us-happy-116000

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9754067/

[6] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/06/8-cities-rewilding-their-urban-spaces/

[7] https://www.c40knowledgehub.org/s/article/Urban-rewilding-the-value-and-co-benefits-of-nature-in-urban-spaces?language=en_US

[8] https://www.london.gov.uk/media/100509/download

[9] www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/why-rewild/benefits-of-rewilding/nature-based-economies

[10] https://www.london.gov.uk/programmes-strategies/environment-and-climate-change/parks-green-spaces-and-biodiversity/green-space-funding/greener-city-fund

[11] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/50-projects-receive-up-to-100000-each-to-boost-investment-in-nature

[12] https://naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/CAT87209991/PDF

[13] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/aug/24/children-raised-greener-areas-higher-iq-study

[14] https://blog.sciencemuseum.org.uk/rewilding-the-world/

[15] https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/what-is-the-sixth-mass-extinction-and-what-can-we-do-about-it