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The state of the environment: the urban environment

Posted: 20/07/21

Environment Agency, Chief Scientist’s Group. (2021). The state of the environment: the urban environment.

View the full publication here.


This report looks at the state of the urban environment in England. It outlines some of the challenges created by urban areas for managing natural resources and waste, and the links between urban environments and wider environmental issues. The report looks at natural capital in cities, and the benefits of urban green and blue spaces for wildlife and people. It also highlights environmental inequalities in urban areas. Finally the report summarises some of the expected impacts of climate change and population growth on England’s urban environment.



We need to make sure the cities we love are fit for future environmental risks, not those of the past. For every person who suffers flooding, around 16 others are affected by a loss of services such as transport and power. In June, the Committee on Climate Change released its Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk. It said in the last 5 years, “over 570,000 new homes have been built that are not resilient to future high temperatures”. Urban planning must create more resilient infrastructure that can adapt to future needs using, where possible and appropriate, nature-based solutions.

The pandemic has shown that climate risks don’t only come in the form of disasters like floods, there are long term health impacts associated with being cut off from green space. The proportion of England’s urban areas made up of green space has declined – just 35% of households with annual incomes below £10,000 are within a 10-minute walk of a publicly accessible natural green space. In James Bevan’s speech “Clean Up, Green Up and Level Up: how to build a future city”, the Environment Agency Chief Executive says: “the NHS could save over £2 billion in treatment costs if everyone in England had equal access to good quality green space.”

The benefits go beyond health: gardens and public parks create habitats for nature, help urban cooling which could reduce emissions from air conditioning, and slow the flow of surface water. Urban planning must improve access to green and blue spaces for the growing populations of city regions. The pandemic has changed the way we work and many think it will remain changed permanently. This could present opportunities to redevelop urban areas and, with potentially less need for offices and shops, increase the public realm.

When world leaders meet at COP26 this year, they will be looking to create investable propositions for climate resilience and for nature-based solutions. Dame Caroline Mason, Chief Executive of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and a member of the Environment Agency’s board, has said: “If we understand the models that can make money and can be funded through private capital, we can raise additional money for nature and make sure that public and philanthropic funding goes where it’s most needed.”

This year, the government said that nationally significant infrastructure projects will need to ensure biodiversity net gain. The tools to do this are there, but we need to help the world of finance understand how to connect the dots and deliver returns.

The IGNITION project, which the Environment Agency supports alongside the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and others, is one example where we are trying to do just that. IGNITION’s projects in and around Greater Manchester are providing data that will help develop investable propositions for urban resilience, for public goods and for nature-based solutions to the climate emergency.

How we finance urban resilience sounds like an ethereal, academic problem, but really it’s a human one. The urbanist and author Jane Jacobs said: “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

I hope this report will help keep those plans focused on people, nature and climate resilience.

Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency


To view the full publication, visit the GOV.UK website here.