Saving nature starts in the city

By Rachel Brown

Our civilisation will only be sustainable in harmony with nature, writes Rachel Brown. We must dispel the myth that the environment starts beyond the streetlights.

I founded the Sustainable Business Network (SBN) in 2002. Before that I was CEO of the Auckland Environmental Business Network. And I was a project manager with the late Waitakere City Council. I guess this gives me something of a record for urban environmentalism.

This work is more relevant than ever. But it still needs explaining and defending.

Our industrialised culture has seen centuries of disconnection from nature. Many of us act as if ‘nature’ or ‘the environment’ were somewhere over there in the wild. That nature is about the bush or the beach, not about our very lives. This attitude may be especially pronounced here, since New Zealand has a lot of ‘over there’ to go round. But it’s odd in a civilisation that prides itself on science.

Because it’s not true. And it leads to all sorts of dodgy thinking and bad decisions. Some subtle and small, some much less so. The idea that nature is only about certain special areas soothes us as we send rubbish to be buried, burned or dumped. The idea that rural and urban are not interconnected fuels the debate on who’s responsible for New Zealand’s waterways, when it is all of us.

These are ways of pushing away our challenges, instead of dealing with them. But away is going away. Other countries don’t want so much of our rubbish anymore. We have to reduce it and deal with it here. And pointing fingers at others won’t cut water pollution or greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s why SBN is about collaboration and facilitation.

Since 2014 SBN’s Million Metres Streams Project has been on a mission to restore Aotearoa’s rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands. The project enables landowners and local volunteers to set up and run crowdfunding campaigns. It connects them with advice, expertise, resources and funds to plan and carry-out their waterway restoration projects.

Through Million Metres SBN directs 5% of all SBN Impact Investor annual payments to locally-led waterway restoration projects. The rest of the project’s funding is secured through an innovative mix of crowd funding, philanthropy, government funding and business partnerships.

It’s one of the many ways in we challenge the notion that environmentalism is not about business, or that business can’t be about environmentalism. We’re here to re-establish and revitalise connections between people and nature, urban and rural.

Through our experience with the Million Metres Project, we’ve begun to develop nature regeneration work of national significance. We’re currently administering $2.5 million from the Government’s Jobs for Nature Fund. The fund targets pandemic-driven regional unemployment and our country’s failing ecological health. We’ve used it to provide employment for more than 100 people over a 12 month period, ending in June 2021. It’s supported jobs to plant trees, deal with noxious weeds and pests and fence waterways in rural and urban areas. It’s enabled us to scale our support to our Million Metres’ community partners. It’s also helped us forge new partnerships with Te Orewai o Ngāti Hine, Nga Uri o Hau Native Nursery and Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei. We’re proud to be part of the movement to act in support of tangata whenua ecological initiatives. They channel living traditions that do not recognise disconnection between people and place.

But these are still drops in the ocean. We must rebuild the links between our economy and nature. Funds like these must be enlarged and become part of business as usual. They can’t just be a short-term response to a particular crisis.

That’s why we’re now proposing to expand our initiatives even further. We aim to take on more urban nature regeneration, with a wider range of nature-based jobs. Because all jobs should be jobs for nature.

We’re putting this into practice. We’re working with partners to envisage a large-scale pilot project across the Puhinui Stream catchment in South Auckland. We’re exploring opportunities with Kāinga Ora to restore urban ngahere (tree cover) in the Māngere area, where it has been badly lacking for decades. This will help cool the streets, making this a more liveable place as global warming intensifies. It will provide all the well-documented health benefits of improved air quality and direct access to nature.

Environmental issues like this cannot be solved without establishing and maintaining a fair society. That’s why these initiatives have been designed to create hundreds of nature-based jobs in socially challenged areas worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. They include community-based sustainable food production and distribution. They take in waste remanufacturing. They encompass diverse roles, appealing to a range of demographics and skills. These are just the sort of skills and capabilities we need to create a circular economy, tackle climate change and regenerate nature.

In future, tertiary institutions may offer micro-accreditations for this work. This will help to establish long term careers, centred on nature restoration. This will stimulate much wider environmental, health, societal and economic benefits.

It’s not going to be easy, but it will be exciting and fulfilling work for everyone involved.

The immediate challenge is that the $1.3 billion Jobs for Nature Fund is already allocated. Most of it has gone to rural settings. Only limited amounts have been spent in urban areas so far. Through our current work we’ve established amazing collaborations and partnerships. But we’re still working to overcome siloed ways of thinking, which simply don’t allow for the holistic approaches required.

And they must be overcome. Because to restore the living interface between New Zealand’s people and the natural world we must take action where the majority of New Zealanders live and work.

Since nature isn’t a park we visit, it’s the context in which we live.