Demonstrating innovative nature-based solutions in cities

Specific Challenge

Mass urbanisation presents one of the most urgent challenges of the 21st century. Rapidly developing and changing industrial activities, uncontrolled urban sprawl, large, concentrated and often culturally diverse populations have created numerous complex social and health problems. Cities and urban communities have to cope with challenges related poor air quality, heat island effects, increased flood risks, increased frequency/severity of extreme events (floods, droughts, storms, heat waves, etc.), derelict industrial sites, dis-functioning urban areas, increased criminality, social exclusion, inequalities, marginalisation, poverty and degraded urban environments. These challenges have serious impacts on human health, quality of life, well-being and security of citizens, particularly among the less privileged social classes.

Cities accounting for 72% of the European population are major contributors to climate change consuming 75% of global energy and emitting 80% of greenhouse gas generated by human activity. Growing urban populations, pollution and economic activities also place water resources under severe stress, exacerbating demand whilst affecting the quality and quantity of supply. Climate change mitigation and adaptation and the sustainable management of water resources are therefore key challenges for the cities in Europe and beyond.

There is convincing but fragmented evidence that nature-based solutions can significantly enhance the climate and water resilience of cities. Furthermore nature-based solutions, by reshaping the built environment, can enhance the inclusivity, equitability and liveability of the cities, regenerate deprived districts, improve mental and physical health and quality of life for the citizens, reduce urban violence, and decrease social tensions through better social cohesion particularly for the most vulnerable groups e.g. children, elderly and people of low socioeconomic status.

The challenge is therefore to provide a robust, EU-wide evidence base and develop a European reference framework on nature-based solutions for regional and local city authorities, communities, enterprises and other stakeholders about the benefits, co-benefits, cost-effectiveness and economic viability of these solutions to enhance on the one hand climate and water resilience in cities and on the other hand to address inclusive urban regeneration in cities and thus promote their large scale deployment and the creation of a global market.


Projects should adopt a 'front-runner' and 'follower' cities approach, as described in more detail below, to facilitate the rapid exploitation, replication and up-scaling of the solutions and via large-scale demonstrations should aim to:

  • develop, deploy at an appropriate scale of intervention[[The scale of intervention proposed should be chosen in order to maximize both the size of the impact that it will make with respect to the overall urban context and the potential for up scaling/replicating at larger scales the tested nature-based solutions and the associated context allowing for their systemic, participatory, trans-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder design, development and deployment.]] and demonstrate in 'front-runner' cities as 'living laboratories' innovative, replicable and locally attuned nature-based solutions, with a systemic impact at the scale of intervention, to address the challenges specified below. Solutions should be co-designed, co-developed and co-implemented in a trans-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder and participatory context and systemically embedded in an integrated urban and land use planning;
  • assist 'follower' cities that commit to proactively seek advice, expertise, assistance, capacity building (e.g. through staff exchanges) and mentoring from the 'front-runners' and develop, within the duration of the project, a sustainable urban planning that systemically replicates, embeds and integrates the demonstrated nature-based solutions 'customised' to their particular context to successfully address the challenges specified below. This urban plan is a contractual obligation and should be delivered by the end of the project. 'Followers' should have privileged contacts with the project partners and access to the know-how and outcomes of the project and should participate in the definition of user requirements and the design of the methodology for replicating and transferring solutions, data, etc.;
  • engage the 'front-runner' cities (as 'coaching cities') in further networking and knowledge-sharing efforts with cities beyond those directly involved in the project to maximise the benefits of the project for a broader community beyond the limits of the project;
  • set up a robust monitoring scheme to monitor, for a period of at least 2 years within the life of the project, the performance and assess the impact of the deployed solutions in an as quantifiable way as possible against a well-defined baseline regarding the challenges in the participating cities at the time of the proposal. Longer term commitment to monitoring and systematic documentation beyond the end of the project will give an added value to the proposal; develop methodologies to assess the efficacy, performance and cost-effectiveness of the solutions compared to alternative options, considering benefits, co-benefits (such as carbon sequestration, mitigation of heat island effects, natural cooling and heating, recreation due to dual use spaces, mitigation of soil sealing effects, enhanced soil, reduction of noise and air pollution, flood prevention/protection, enhancement of biodiversity and natural capital, human well-being and health, reduction of noise and air pollution, improvement of water quality etc., where these are not the primary objectives) and negative impacts that their deployment could entail when addressing the challenges specified below;
  • develop methodologies for replication and up-scaling in different contexts of the solutions deployed in the ‘front-runner’ cities, including investment strategies, governance and business models and approaches for their systemic integration in the urban and land use planning;
  • identify and assess potential regulatory, economic, social (such as gender, age, disability and culture) and technical barriers of relevance to these solutions and propose ways to overcome them;
  • establish long-term sustainable data platforms to systematically document information and provide evidence on practices and lessons learnt regarding the deployment, cost-effectiveness (including benefits and co-benefits) and performance of nature-based solutions. deploy appropriate state-of-the-art digital technologies, ICT and innovative communication strategies and tools securing open access and interoperability along data infrastructures and a continuous building up of the 'knowledge portfolio' through future activities under Horizon 2020 and beyond.

Proposals shall address all of the above points. The involvement of social sciences and humanities in the project will be required to properly address these complex challenges.

Consortia should involve competent local, city and regional authorities, community groups, enterprises, academics and local communities in a clear structure with well-defined roles and responsibilities for all involved parties.

To maximise benefits at European level, each project shall involve at least 2 'front-runner' cities and 3 'follower' cities from different Member States and/or Associated Countries.

In addition to the coverage of the points mentioned above, the success potential of the proposal will be assessed according to the innovative character, the replicability and market potential of the nature-based solutions and of the systemic processes envisaged for their co-designing, co-developing and co-implementation, the long-term commitment, both political and financial, of the competent authorities that would guarantee the project implementation independently of possible changes in the urban political context during the project and the sustainability of financing, through mobilisation and leveraging of investments.

In line with the strategy for EU international cooperation in research and innovation (COM(2012)497), international cooperation is encouraged. To this end, participation of 'follower' cities from non-EU countries would enhance the potential for international replication, including in the context of, but not limited to, the EU-China Sustainable Urbanisation Partnership and the EU-China Innovation Dialogue. This would contribute to the creation of a global market for nature-based solutions.

Resources should be envisaged for clustering with other projects financed under the “Nature-based solutions for territorial resilience” part of the call for Societal Challenge 5 ' Climate action, environment, resource efficiency and raw materials', namely topics SC5-08-2017, SC5-09-2016 and SC5-10-2016, to optimise collaboration, synergies, interactions and mutual support to the achievement their corresponding objectives and, if possible, under other relevant parts of Horizon 2020.

Because of the substantial investments that might be necessary for implementing the nature-based solutions, additional and/or follow-up funding (private or public) should be sought, be it private or public, relevant regional/national schemes under the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) and/or the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), or other relevant funds such as the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA II). In these cases, contacts could be established with the funds managing body during the duration of the projects. In case of relevance for the Research and Innovation Smart Specialisation Strategies (RIS3) the project proposals could already indicate which interested regions/countries or other partners have been pre-identified. Please note, however, that reference to such additional or follow-up funding will not lead automatically to a higher score in the evaluation of the proposal.

As illustrated by proposals responding to the call for ideas, the Commission considers that proposals requesting a contribution from the EU of at least EUR 10 million would allow this specific challenge to be addressed appropriately. Nonetheless, this does not preclude submission and selection of proposals requesting other amounts.

Proposals shall address one of the following issues:

a) Demonstrating innovative nature-based solutions for climate and water resilience in cities (2016)

Actions should aim to improve urban resilience to climate change (mitigation and adaptation) and enhance water resources management sustainability through deployment of nature-based solutions, or an optimal combination of nature-based solutions and other technologies. Trans-disciplinary and community-based approaches including social sciences and humanities in the co-designing, co-development and co-implementation of the solutions is considered necessary.

b) Nature-based solutions for inclusive urban regeneration (2017)

Actions should address nature-based solutions for inclusive urban regeneration – including regeneration of deprived districts, or neglected or abandoned areas[[The scale of intervention proposed should be chosen in order to maximize both the size of the impact that it will make with respect to the overall urban context and the potential for up scaling/replicating at larger scales the tested nature-based solutions and the associated context allowing for their systemic, participatory, trans-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder design, development and deployment]]. They should also test to what extent nature-based solutions can reduce crime and security costs, and enhance human health, wellbeing and social cohesion.

The role of social innovation, and hence the participation of social sciences and humanities disciplines such as law, economics, political science, architecture or design studies, is particularly important to properly address these complex challenges.

Expected Impact

Projects are expected to contribute to:

  • in the mid-term, the creation of an European reference framework and the establishment of EU leadership in a new global market (offer and demand) for nature-based solutions, new economic opportunities, new products, services, protocols and standards, leverage of investments, reduced regulative and administrative barriers, and new local green jobs;
  • increased awareness of the benefits of re-naturing cities, creation of 'communities of practice', more effective policy making and better informed decision making across Europe based on an EU-wide evidence base regarding efficacy, efficiency and comparative advantages of a range of tested, well documented, up-scalable and marketable nature-based solutions;
  • enhanced stakeholder and citizen ownership of the solutions through their effective and systematic involvement in participatory, trans-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder consultation processes for co-design, co-development and co-implementation of visionary urban planning;
  • increased international cooperation and global market opportunities through replication of approaches and solutions in non-EU countries, including in the context of the EU-China platform;
  • enhanced implementation of EU environmental policies, such as the EU Water Framework Directive, the 7th Environment Action Programme, the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020, the EU Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, the 'Blueprint to safeguard Europe’s waters' and the 'Communication on Green Infrastructures', and of the Sustainable Development Goals and UN conventions in the fields of biodiversity, soil and land management, disaster risk reduction.

In addition, projects addressing part a) are expected to contribute to:

  • creating by 2020 healthier and greener European cities, with increased resilience to climate change (e.g. reduced flood risks, mitigated heat stress) and water-related challenges thanks to the implementation of nature-based solutions, with better living conditions for all, increased green infrastructure and biodiversity, improved air and water quality, reduced noise and health costs, improved mobility conditions, opportunities for urban farming[[Urban farming is dealt with under the topic “SFS-48-2017: Resource-efficient urban agriculture for multiple benefits – Contribution to the EU-China Urbanisation Partnership”]] and increased social cohesion.

In addition, projects addressing part b) are expected to contribute to:

  • creating by 2020, through the implementation of nature-based solutions, healthier, culturally diverse and greener regenerated (including deprived districts and neglected or abandoned areas) European cities, with better living conditions for all, reduced crime and security costs, increased green infrastructure and biodiversity, improved air and water quality, enhanced human health and wellbeing, reduced health costs, improved mobility conditions, opportunities for urban farming and increased social cohesion.
Application date
Social sciences
Humanities : Anthropology & Ethnology