Nurturing nature in Espoo

The wings of the European Peacock Butterfly are spectacular. The upper side of the wings is a bright, iridescent blue with eye-shaped spots, while the underside is a mottled orange and brown. You have to be lucky to spot them, but the city of Espoo has taken one simple step to shifting the odds in your favour: stopped mowing.

“Everybody loves butterflies,” says Tarja Söderman, Espoo’s Director of Environmental Affairs, “so the city’s Public Works Department don’t do many lawns anymore, but meadows.” This hands-off approach is less expensive, as well as being better for biodiversity, and gives people the opportunity to enjoy a new and lush landscape, even in the heart of a very modern city.

These meadows aren’t just a hotspot for butterflies, but also the birds that see them as a tasty snack, along with many species of insects and wildflowers. Espoo is growing at a rate of 1.5% per year, which puts a lot of pressure on land use. However, local politicians are very ambitious, and have settled on a target of no net loss of biodiversity by 2035, even as the city continues to grow.

The downturn in biodiversity is an effect both of climate change and of the patterns of human behaviour and development that bring climate change about. At the same time, interventions that encourage biodiversity can help cities to mitigate climate change and adapt to its consequences. Hence, biodiversity will be one of the key topics that Espoo and other cities address at the Eurocities Environment Forum 2023, ‘Powering our Cities,’ to be held in Ghent from 26-28 April.

Mapping biodiversity

The first part of ensuring that biodiversity can thrive is understanding the level that it is at today. “Our new biodiversity programme, started in 2021, is based on survey data collected by the city and its partners, which helped us determine the most important sites and connections,” says Söderman.

For plant and animal species, connections are as vital as space. While for us it seems like ancient history, the Earth being an open and opulent terrain is still embedded in the genetic memory of plants and animals, and obstacles like blocks of flats and multi-lane highways can make the urban environment a perilous place for them.

Almost all people have green space close to their homes
— Paula Kuusisto-Hjort

“We are establishing three new conservation areas per year, so that we can ensure that there are areas and corridors for plant and animal life,” Söderman explains. Espoo is already a city with plenty of green areas and tree-lined streets. “Almost all people have green space close to their homes, and there is a lot of tree coverage,” elaborates Paula Kuusisto-Hjort, Planning Manager at Espoo’s City Planning Department.

A unique situation

With its wealth of nature, one might suppose that Espoo would welcome the EU’s new Nature Restoration Law. However, the local cornucopia actually means that the law will be particularly difficult to implement. “The targets are good, but they are not adapted for Finnish cities like Espoo,” Kuusisto-Hjort says, “It’s different from central European cities that are older.”

Finnish municipalities have several features that make it very difficult for them to comply with the proposed legislation. Söderman explains: “We don’t have many brownfields or industrial areas; we don’t have blocks which can be demolished and repurposed because the city is very new.”

We try to enhance biodiversity, rather than green space as such
— Tarja Söderman

Given the plenitude of existing green spaces, it’s hard for the city to increase the amount of green area in the way that the planned European legislation mandates in its current form. That doesn’t mean that the city is content to (literally) rest on its laurels. “We try to enhance biodiversity, rather than green space as such,” Söderman emphasises.

Heather Brooks, Policy and Project Officer at Eurocities, says that this illustrates a core issue with the new Nature Restoration Law. “Not only does the proposed Nature Restoration Law favour targets for increasing green space over improving their ecological value, but it will actually lead to a declining status in biodiversity in cities with an existing high percentage of green space, such as Espoo”, explains Brooks.

“We should set a common minimum level of urban greening, above which the proposed targets would be voluntary,” says Brooks. “In addition, we need to see targets focused on the connectivity and ecological value of green spaces, allowing member states and cities flexibility to determine at which administrative level it would be most appropriate to implement such targets according to local conditions.”

We need to see targets focused on the connectivity and ecological value of green spaces
— Heather Brooks

Quality over quantity

A focus on the quantity, rather than the quality of green space can create perverse results that work against the ambition of creating a rich natural ecosystem across Europe. For example, on a national level in Finland there is a huge amount of forest cover, but these forests are often monocultures, grown industrially for timber.

Because the trees are mostly the same, these coniferous forests are at greater risk from disease and do not provide the variety needed by birds and other animal life. In the past, forests bereft of birdsong would have been an anathema, but thanks to modern industrial practices, they are a sad fact of life. Such forests would satisfy the EU’s Nature Restoration Law, but do little to enrich the natural world, or the human soul.

Conversely, says Söderman, “Forests of the city of Espoo are managed in a biodiversity-friendly way.” The city also fears that mandating too many new green zones will lead to urban sprawl, pushing the local urban growth pressures to the neighbouring municipalities. Instead, says Söderman, Espoo has “identified the most valuable parts of the city for biodiversity and we are trying to save and enhance them. We are also looking for natural habitats which are not in perfect conditions and restore them.”

There are many beetles and small insects that love these stumps
— Tarja Söderman

A simple trick for making forests more biodiverse is leaving in place those stumps of trees that fall or are felled. “There are many beetles and small insects that love these stumps,” Söderman says. As in the case of their urban meadows, this also means reduced costs for running forests: “we have put up signs explaining that its good for biodiversity and that it hasn’t been left because we are not doing our jobs!” The city uses a tool called the Green Area Factor, which quantifies the qualitative improvements in the natural world, to better understand the impact of such measures.

Allies abound

The city realises that in order to have a successful biodiversity strategy, it must gather diverse allies. “We’re working with local businesses and construction companies,” Söderman says. The city explains local targets to them and opens the door for ideas about how organisational practices could evolve to meet them. They bring these companies into dialogue with researchers and lawmakers, both so that they can prepare for future tightening of the laws, and suggest improvements or innovations.

Some place a deep value on the tree that they see from their living room window
— Tarja Söderman

The residents of Espoo are also major allies of biodiversity. A survey launched by the city yielded tens of thousands of responses in which people professed their attachment to the local green spaces. “Some of them love jogging in nature,” says Söderman, “while some place a deep value on the tree that they see from their living room window.”

Espoo wants to capitalise on this public feeling, bringing more people in with information campaigns, engaging schools and civil society to enhance the natural realm while learning more about local flora and fauna.

Like Espoo’s other residents, Söderman and Kuusisto-Hjort are captivated by the city’s natural landscape. For Söderman, it’s the forest mushrooms that hold the greatest fascination, hidden gems of aesthetic and culinary wonder. For Kuusisto-Hjort, it’s the vast undulating swathes of forest and sea. “These places are very important to me,” she confesses, “the city’s central park starts from my backyard, and almost every day I wonder into it to relax.”

These places are very important to me
— Paula Kuusisto-Hjort

In its unique courtship dance, the European Peacock Butterfly flaps its wings and shows off its ultramarine eye-like spots, until its entranced partner follows it to a quiet spot. Nature may not always be so beautiful as this, but with a little encouragement, its vitality is something that can lend our own species purpose and perspective, to appreciate life and all its wonders.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer