What is the Urban Biosphere Initiative?

The concept of urban biosphere (URBIS) emerged amidst increasing awareness that cities are not discrete, self-contained entities, but rather are dynamic nodes of activity, absorbing vast quantities of natural resources, producing massive amounts of waste, interacting profoundly with their encompassing bioregions, and substantially altering both near and distant ecosystems. At the same time, modern cities offer unprecedented and often untapped opportunities for innovation, efficiency-gains, leadership and social organization.

The imperative for action to harness such opportunities and render extractive cities more ecologically restorative spurred the birth of an international initiative to address the design and governance of urban regions and surrounding ecosystems. Today, the URBIS initiative comprises a global alliance of partners aspiring to reconcile urban development with the conservation of biodiversity and the sustainable use of natural resources – a quest to engender cities with greater social-ecological resilience in the context of global environmental change. The initiative aligns with broader international efforts to implement the ecosystem approach and build inclusive green urban economies.

Who is involved?

The Cities Biodiversity Center of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability hosts the URBIS Secretariat, a role which is executed in close partnership with the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) as Scientific Coordinator and the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (SCBD) as a facilitator between local, sub-national and national governments. Partners include local and sub-national governments, ministries, international organisations, non-governmental organisations, research institutions and individuals.

At the 10th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP10), in Nagoya, Japan, 2010, at which a Plan of Action was adopted for the engagement of local authorities in the Convention, a number of partners formalised their support for the URBIS initiative by way of a declaration. In addition to ICLEI, SCBD and SRC, the signatories include Cornell University, the United Nations University (UNU), the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation as well as a number of founding cities. More recently, The New School of New York has become an active URBIS partner and several cities including Jerusalem, Sao Paulo, Montreal and Stockholm, have taken a leading role in developing and promoting the initiative.

What binds URBIS partners?

All are concerned with the loss of biodiversity, the plight of natural capital and the degradation of ecosystem services that underpin human wellbeing; all share a common recognition of the pivotal role that cities play in the pursuit of a greener, safer and more prosperous future; and all are committed to paving pathways to that future through the collaborative design and implementation of participatory, integrated and sustainable urban development solutions, diverging from historical extractive approaches that undervalue ecosystem goods and services.

What do URBIS partners do?

The URBIS initiative enables partners to address the challenges and opportunities entailed with governing and managing urban biospheres, in a concerted, synergistic manner. It connects acclaimed scientific researchers, foresighted policy-makers, visionary planners and environmental practitioners from across the world. It transcends the science-policy interface; accelerates the exchange of knowledge, ideas, and good practices; galvanises collaborative action; and ultimately forges harmony between cities and the ecosystems of which they are part. The URBIS initiative comprises several components:

i. Learning Community. An online resource hub provides access to guidelines, publications, and tools, as well as case studies and research papers prepared by the URBIS partners. A dedicated newsletter showcasing partners’ achievements is issued on a biannual basis.

ii. URBIS Dialogues. The partners meet periodically at international conferences, dedicated workshops and in webinars. At these gatherings, known as the URBIS Dialogues, partners share experiences, address specific urban challenges, consider new developments, explore collaborative opportunities and strategise on ways forward, with a special focus on city-regions. URBIS Dialogues are facilitated in a highly interactive and participatory manner conducive to constructive discourse and candid debate. Activities undertaken include long-term visioning exercises, ecosystem service mapping and appraisal, needs assessments, strategic regional planning, and the development of demand-driven project proposals.  The URBIS Dialogues also present an opportunity for cities to engage in the CBD, in coordination with their national governments.

iii. Recognition Process. The international partners of URBIS will formally recognise and promote the achievements of local and sub-national governments that follow a stepwise procedure entailing participatory, inclusive and comprehensive approaches to planning for urban sustainability. The recognition process is designed to: consolidate political commitment to sustainable development and in particular, the ecosystem approach to planning; improve understanding of local ecosystems through assessment and ongoing monitoring and evaluation; and essentially enhance the governance and management of cities as urban biospheres. Through this process, good practices will be developed and catalogued for sharing amongst the learning community. The process can also support the establishment and maintenance of Biosphere Reserves under the auspices of the UNESCO Man and Biosphere (MAB) Programme.

iv. Aperture to Excellence. The URBIS initiative is a gateway to numerous other programmes, projects and networks to which ambitious partners can additionally subscribe. These include ICLEI’s flagship biodiversity initiative, Local Action for Biodiversity (LAB) Pioneer Project, which elevates local governments to become international leaders in the field of biodiversity and ecosystem management. The initiative also facilitates access and contributions to groundbreaking research undertaken by leading universities.


Want to join?

The principle of inclusiveness is embedded in the URBIS initiative and all actors interested in the governance and management of cities as urban biospheres are invited to participate. Local and sub-national governments are especially welcome. To become an URBIS partner, applicants must undertake to:

i. Submit at least one case study demonstrating good practice in the urban biosphere;

ii. Endeavour to participate in, and provide technical contributions to, the periodic URBIS Dialogues; and

iii. Consent to being profiled on the dedicated URBIS website.

To join the movement and contribute to building a more environmentally sustainable, socially responsible, and economically productive future, please sign the URBIS registry, complete registration form and return to

URBIS Registry

Signatories to the URBIS Initiative are listed below:

Vacoas Phoenix, Mauritius

Kaohsiung, Taiwan

Jerusalem, Israel

São Paulo, Brazil

Instituto Sustentar, Belo Horizonte, Brazil

Municipality of Walvis Bay, Namibia

City of Auckland, New Zealand

The Nature of Cities, Sound Science LLC, New York, USA

Hyderabad Municipal Corporation, India

City of Mandurah, Australia

New York Sea Grant, USA

Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, Stockholm, Sweden

Tishman Environment and Design Centre, The New School, USA

Cornell University

Windhoek, Namibia

AMA Pangea, Brazil

Cape Town, SA

Inverde, Brazil

Petaling Jaya City Council, Malaysia

Lake Victoria Region Local Authorities Cooperation (Entebbe), Uganda

University of Tunku, Abdul Rahman, Malaysia

Fortaleza, Brazil

Ekurhuleni, South Africa


Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Brasilia (SRNU - MMA), Brazil

Sol Plaatje, South Africa

City of Nioro du Rip, Senegal

City of Manaus, Brazil

City of Cascais, Portugal