Socio-Ecological Reshaping of European Cities and Metropolitan Areas

Researchers from the Constructive Advanced Thinking Initivative (CAT) worked at ZiF

In February ZiF hosted a special group of young researchers: Maria Manso from Lusófona University, Lisbon, Portugal, Rieke Hansen from Geisenheim University, Germany, Andrea Nóblega Carriquiry from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain, and Manuel Beißler from Leibniz University Hannover, Germany, worked at ZiF on “Socio-ecological reshaping of European Cities and Metropolitan Areas”. The group is founded by a special initiative of 12 European Institutes for Advanced Study, called CAT: Constructive Advanced Thinking. The initiative aims to foster networks of excellent early career researchers committed to developing new ideas in order to understand and tackle current or emerging societal challenges. The program funds short stays and research visits of international and interdisciplinary teams of three to five early career researchers at the participating IAS. 

The CAT-group “Socio-ecological reshaping of European Cities and Metropolitan Areas” has been working together since 2021. The researchers have been meeting twice a year in one of the participating institutes and holding monthly online-meetings to keep in contact about the progress of their project to address socio-ecological challenges in urban areas. 

The CAT-Group: Manuel Beißler, Rieke Hansen, Maria Manso and Andrea Nóblega Carriquiry
(C) Universität Bielefeld/P. Ottendörfer

European cities are faced with environmental problems related to the quality of air and water, biodiversity loss, and advancing climate change, the researchers explain. This implies that municipalities are being pressured to tackle social-economic issues such as social cohesion and justice or the need to develop sustainable economic and mobility systems, in order to provide social well-being to inhabitants. The CAT-group analyses the ways in which Nature-based Solutions (NbS), such as green infrastructures, can play a major role in solving these issues. “The green wall has become a placative example”, explains Manuel Beißler. The group is analyzing large scale systems like a public park as well as pocket gardens and other forms of urban greening.

All members of the group, although working on similar topics, have different perspectives on NbS. “As a group we are interested in the socio-ecological perspective, in how we can integrate the social and the ecological concerns to successfully implement NbS in an urban setting”, explains Maria Manso, who is the PI of the group. “We speak the same language and we are aware of the same problem, but we have different perspectives, that is very enriching.”

Maria Manso is an architect interested in Nature-based Solutions as applied to buildings, including the use of sustainable materials and systems design. Her research interests are the design and analysis of NbS, with a special interest in green roofs and green walls, their benefits and costs. She is also looking to find alternative ways to create more sustainable solutions.

Rieke Hansen is a landscape architect working on NbS from a strategic city-wide perspective. Her research is concerned with questions of planning and designing multifunctional and resilient urban green infrastructure that provides multiple social and ecological benefits.

Andrea Nóblega Carriquiry has a background in architecture, sustainable development and international cooperation. Her research focuses on the eco-social and eco-political facets of NbS and how they can contribute to more just and sustainable development strategies.

Manuel Beißler has a background in environmental engineering. In his research on complex societal challenges such as flooding and biodiversity loss he is combining Geographic Information Systems and modeling. He tries to answer these challenges with the planning and implementation of multifunctional NbS.

Joana Guerrin, who is a researcher in Political Science at the French National Research Institute for Food, Agriculture and Environment (INRAE), is also part of the group but could not take part in the stay at ZiF.

The term “Nature-based Solution” is not without problems, as the researchers explain. “Politics of course want quick and simple solutions, but for us the question is, how we can use the term in a meaningful way”, explains Maria Manso. “Sometime the problem is that you do something good like planting a tree, but you do not deal with the root of the problem, i.e. carbon emission”, adds Rieke Hansen. “And it is important to be aware of what people expect from NbS and if and how they are willing to accept changes in their environment.”

So, the group collects and analyses examples of nature-based solutions to find common problems and also, common solutions among different cities. “It is important to communicate with everyone affected by and involved in a NbS-project, with practitioners, scientist, and inhabitants. You have to find a common language. Otherwise, you will not come to solutions that result just enough for everyone”, says Andrea Nóblega Carriquiry.

“And one has to be aware of the different perspectives: On the one hand there is the engineering approach that you just need the right technology and a lot of power to intervene, to solve all the problems, on the other hand you have the more critical approach, you see that a lot of systemic features are out of your reach. But a too critical approach may even hinder you to have ideas. Our position is somewhat in the middle”, adds Manuel Beißler.

When meeting at the different IAS the group contacted other researchers from related fields and met people from the municipalities and visited diverse urban and peri-urban projects. The group also collected examples of what has already been implemented, and analysed the social and the ecological impact of these projects and the gains and the losses the inhabitants perceive when NbS were realized. In Bielefeld they visited the Lutter, a small stream which was covered in the town center for over a century but was daylighted following the work of a citizens’ initiative.

The project is considered a success but there are also trade-offs. For the daylighting of the Lutter several trees had to be cut. The water can now contribute to the cooling of the street in summer, but the trees and their shadow are missing. Most NbS require a careful balancing of different interests.

“We will never have one solution that works for every place”, explains Andrea Nóblega Carriquiry. “NbS have to be adapted to the local context, to places and cultures, the climate and lots of other factors. Therefore, it is important to meet stakeholders involved in these projects within different cities to understand how their problems differ from place to place. We are looking for ways how to think about NbS in a more integrative way. How can they be planned from a bottom-up approach? How can we integrate technical possibilities and the perspective of the local communities? And maybe we will be able to give some advice or to incorporate local knowledge.”

During their stays in Montpellier, Turin, Uppsala, Paris, Budapest and Bielefeld the group experienced open mindedness but also some restraint: “Practitioners including municipal staff are not always interested in research and prefer other means to access new knowledge. However, for us this exchange is paramount because we can only assess the potential of NbS when we aware of the practical challenges as well as supporting factors needed to implement them”, explains Rieke Hansen. “Research findings thus need to be shared in different ways. We publish in academic journals, but we also work with professional associations, or we publish documents which are accessible in the local language and tailored for practitioners.” For the CAT-project the group also developed a Blog. In this Blog they reflect on their research stays and findings with a focus is on the visited projects. “In this way we can draw some attention to the smaller projects and show that everyone can make a difference”, reports Maria Manso.

The stay at ZiF was the last of the CAT-group. The researchers are now preparing a paper with the results of the project.

Cite this blog post
Manuela Lenzen (2024, February 26). Socio-Ecological Reshaping of European Cities and Metropolitan Areas. Interdisciplinarity. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from

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