The insurance value of urban ecosystem services

Note: This is a guest post by Henrik von Wehrden. It was originally published as part of a broader discussion on the nature of cities blog. There, you will find additional interesting posts on the insurance value of urban ecosystem services.

What is the optimal sustainable size and management strategy of a city? Adding to the rising debate on optimal city sizes, the ecosystem service concept is increasingly recognized in urban planning. However, much of the literature to date focuses on biophysical entities of ecosystem services. Of course, planning of biophysical aspects of ecosystem services such as climate regulation or flood protection are surely necessary and helpful, but recognition of the perceptions and needs of citizens is also important. More research is needed that considers both normative perceptions and engages in transformation towards a more sustainable state of the given system.

Normative perceptions demand recognition of stakeholders, a labor intensive and often context-dependent task. However, recognition of stakeholders and their perception is crucial when it comes to recognition of the insurance risk, as it is stakeholders who will ultimately endure potential risks and claim compensation. Many urban settings are designed for the people, when they should be designed by the people. When cities started to grow massively, urban planners attempted to separate living from working, and commuting drastically increased. This potentially also led to higher disparities of risks between different neighborhoods, where some areas are at higher risk of catastrophic events than others. This concept was dramatically illustrated by the effects of Hurricane Katrina, where some neighborhoods suffered higher impacts than others.

Today, there is a global trend towards a recognition of functional diversity within cities, meaning that separation of different functions in urban settings often decreases. Neighborhoods with a higher diversity in function and ecosystem services may support a higher quality of life for citizens and a better resilience against drastic changes or catastrophes we face today. The concept of ecosystem services should therefore enable a diverse and resilient setting of services.

Urban planners should, in my opinion, not make the mistake of focusing on short-term optimization by using the ecosystem service approach. In contrast, planners need to include long-term effects of different ecosystem services signatures into their planning process. Costs that protect urban setting from rare catastrophes, especially, may only pay off on a long-term perspective. Planners and citizens need to recognize the value of these long-term services, where settings that are tightly planned may not allow for systems to tackle extremes, and may fail to deliver a just urban setting. Many stressors of urban environments are extreme by nature. Calculation of average system entities is relevant, but current challenges also demand the integration of extremes, including the interplay of extremes. For example, if heatwaves alter soil infiltration capacities, torrential rainfalls later in the year then create devastating floods. Recognizing trade-offs is, in my opinion, one strongpoint of the ecosystem service concept. Understanding the interplay between a variety of services and their temporal long-term dynamics can help us to build a better system understanding. While this is, in part, context dependent, many solutions are also transferable across different neighborhoods and economies.

Disparities are not only found within cities, but also between different economies. While insurance risks are comparably well accounted for in parts of Europe and North America, urban environments in most of the world are not covered by insurance, but are often threatened by risks. Insurance often focusses on individuals, but risks can threaten whole neighborhoods or even cities. Insurance can thus increase injustice within cities, where only those people that can afford insurance are protected. The costs of long term planning endeavors need to be added to the costs of urban settings, both for urban planners and citizens. While urban living would thus become more expensive, it may create a more just setting for all citizens. This may enable more sustainable planning for future cities by increasing equity and justice in cost calculation of urban areas. If this price is too high for citizens and planners, then we will continue to rely on insurances and tackling catastrophes only after they hit us.

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