The urban quality in the city of Nicosia is deeply marked by the division of the island of Cyprus and faces at least two related challenges: (i) the performance of its mobility system, which is heavily biased towards the use of individual cars, and (ii) the lack of adequate and environmentally rich public spaces in the proximity of the densely built urban core.
Nature-based solutions (NBS) could operate a convergence of the solutions to both of these challenges. The planning milieu in Nicosia, supported and partially led by the Nicosia Development Agency (ANEL), has started to explore mobility solutions based on connecting, densifying, and developing an urban network of green and open spaces. One example of such solutions is in the form of bicycle and pedestrian paths that take advantage of the calmer and safer surrounding of parks and gardens. These networks could serve as a tool for developing relationships between high-quality community life and other benefits, such as urban heat island (UHI) regulation, water management and anti-desertification.
NBS are defined by the European Commission as: “Solutions that are inspired and supported by nature, which are cost-effective, simultaneously provide environmental, social and economic benefits and help build resilience. Such solutions bring more, and more diverse, nature and natural features and processes into cities, landscapes and seascapes, through locally adapted, resource-efficient and systemic interventions.”
However, the term NBS is not so widely known or used in the urban planning context of Nicosia. Although NBS have been and are being implemented in efforts towards improving living standards and quality of life, they are not labelled or titled as such. This new definition/term has not been incorporated into development plans or adopted to the extent where planners, designers, policymakers, urbanists, and other experts in the field can easily comprehend its meaning and impact. Since there is no familiarity with the term 'nature-based solutions’, projects and examples that fall under the NBS umbrella are often not acknowledged or considered as such solutions. Consequently, information, best practices and expertise surrounding NBS projects tend to be ‘lost’ or ‘overlooked’.
However, implementing such ideas and solutions in Nicosia is not an easy task. Many of the planning tools at the disposal of the central and local levels of government and administrations are outdated, and there is an absence of participatory culture in urban planning in the city.
The Connecting Nature project can include NBS as policy theme in national and local strategies in a significant way, which in turn would prepare and facilitate projects on the ground. In addition, there is a need for better knowledge and understanding of how NBS can be adopted in Nicosia. This creates a demand for knowledge-sharing around good practices from other cities, for instance on how to guarantee the (environmental, social and economic) sustainability of projects or how to identify appropriate funding mechanisms. Ultimately, the goal should be to help delivering NBS as part of a strategic plan that places environmental objectives and healthy, attractive, and natural surroundings for the local population higher on development agendas.
The urban planning and development context in the area of Nicosia is facing a series of challenges.
Nicosia is the capital city of the Republic of Cyprus. It lies roughly in the centre of the island in the Mesaoria Plain, flanked by the northern range of Kyrenia Mountains with its distinctive ‘Pentadaktylos’ – the five-finger mountain.
The capital has two distinct faces: the old, original part of the city, surrounded by sturdy Venetian walls over 400 years old, and a busy modern metropolis, which has a population of 200,452 inhabitants (≈16.6% of the country’s total population) together with the suburbs.
As the country's capital, Nicosia is the financial and business center of Cyprus. Besides the abundance of financial services within the city, Nicosia relies primarily on the tourism and shipping Industries. Though Nicosia is not a port (the closest port is Limassol), plenty of shipping companies have offices in the capital. Since Cyprus is at a strategic location for commerce between Europe and the Middle East, shipping is a major focus in the capital.
Regarding the urban quality of the city, it is deeply marked by the division of the island of Cyprus and faces at least two related challenges: (i) the performance of its mobility system, which is heavily biased towards the use of individual cars, and (ii) the lack of adequate and environmentally rich public spaces in the proximity of the densely built urban core.
Nature-based solutions (NbS) could operate a convergence of the solutions to both of these challenges. The term NbS is not so widely known or used in the urban planning context of Nicosia. Although NbS have been and are being implemented in efforts towards improving living standards and quality of life, they are not labelled as such. This new term has not been incorporated into development plans or adopted to the extent where planners, designers, policymakers, urbanists, and other experts in the field can easily comprehend its meaning and impact.
Through Connecting Nature Framework, Nicosia Development Agency team aims to help delivering NbS as part of a strategic plan that places environmental objectives and healthy, attractive, and natural surroundings for the local population higher on development agendas. More specifically, Connecting Nature Framework of Nicosia has been approached as a tool that aims to include NbS as policy theme in national and local strategies, which in turn would prepare and facilitate projects on the ground.
The Agency, as part of the CN project, decided to work further on the implementation of a very ambitious large-scale project: a Network of open and green spaces that will cover the district of Nicosia, which will promote the health and wellbeing of people, improve their quality of life, and enhance the environmental quality of the area of intervention (air quality management actions to reduce air pollution and its associated health impacts).
During the application of the Connecting Nature Framework a number of challenges addressed such as: Limited understanding of NbS and related concepts; Limited knowledge on the NbS implementation process; Lack of clear policies and legislation on co-production; Lack of a “common language” that caused troubles in communication between the involved actors, especially at the very early stages of the project; Limited funding for this scale of projects etc. All these challenges were identified throughout the process and additional actions were taken in order to overcome them.
It is worth mentioning, that Nicosia Development Agency has worked closely with the Directorate General for European Programmes, Coordination and Development of the Ministry of Economy as well as with its member municipalities to find the best possible way to achieve that. After several discussions, brainstorming sessions and meetings with several key people (policymakers), Nicosia Development Agency has managed to include the majority of the projects (parks) developed in the context of the Connecting Nature Framework, in the Integrated Spatial Development Strategy (OXA) plan for Nicosia. The OXA plan was submitted in February 2021 and was approved for funding in September 2021.
Concluding, Nicosia Development Agency approach the Connecting Nature Framework as a living document that will be continually updated and revised according to the city’s and people’s changing needs.
Nicosia’s Exemplar deals with the implementation of a very ambitious large-scale project entitled: “Network of Linked Open and Green Spaces”, that will cover the district of Nicosia, which will promote the health and wellbeing of people, improve their quality of life, and enhance the environmental quality of the area of intervention (air quality management actions to reduce air pollution and its associated health impacts). The core of this network will be the National Forest Park of Athalassa.
The creation of a better park network will involve different work streams. Firstly, there are the physical interventions in the parks themselves. Some of the larger parks with poor landscaping or equipment need upgrades; this is also the case for some smaller green spaces, but a series of smaller parks does not yet exist and needs to be developed. In other locations the parks will be extended, or their function will be redefined.
A second work stream is to develop the active mobility connections between the parks. These will take the form of interconnected trails, greenways‚ and paths that support bicycling, running, walking, skating, skiing‚ wheelchairs etc., reaching all the way from home to work for some users.
Complementary to the “Network of Linked Open and Green Spaces”, which is Nicosia’s main Exemplar, the Team of Nicosia Development Agency also proposes the “Adopt a Park” Scheme. The Scheme is being developed to promote long term partnerships between Local Businesses/Enterprises and Local Government, in order to maintain and beautify the neighbourhood (small/ medium size) parks of the area of intervention.
The idea for the Network was based on the need expressed by all the Municipalities which are members of the Nicosia Development Agency to create new open and green spaces for their citizens in order to improve their quality of life and the available options provided in their area for physical activity, fun etc.
The first stage that took place was to map several big and small green and open spaces that can be used for the enrichment of the existing (poor) urban network of open and green spaces and the exploration of mobility solutions based on connecting, densifying and developing this urban network (e.g. in the form of bicycle and pedestrian paths). The parks were classified into two categories: a) District and Municipal parks and b) Neighbourhood/Pocket parks.
The idea for the “Adopt a Park” Scheme was born due to the main challenge that Nicosia faces to involve the private sector in these kind of initiatives, as larger parks in Cyprus are all financed and operated by the Government (Ministry of Agriculture, Rural Development, and Environment – Department of Forest and Department of Environment). The identified opportunity was the existence of lots of small green spaces, most of them underused or abounded, in the neighbourhoods, which had the potential for pocket parks. These spaces are owned and supposed to be designed and maintained by Local Authorities (Municipalities) which are more open to private sector involvement in investing and developing these smaller green spaces.
In the context of the Connecting Nature project, the aims and goals to be achieved by the proposed NBS are to:
- Engage all interest groups and involved actors (stakeholders), as a response to Nicosia’s weak participatory culture in city-making
- Improve the performance of Nicosia’s mobility system, responding to the challenge of Nicosia being a car city
- Enrich the existing (poor) network of public open and green spaces, addressing the current lack of such spaces in the city and resolving urgent accessibility issues
- Deliver NBS as part of Nicosia’s strategic and operational plans (under implementation)
The project’s vision is to create, on a district level, an urban network of Linked Open and Green spaces (connecting them with an integrated bicycle and pedestrian network) using as a core the National Forest Park of Athalassa.
Connecting Nature in Nicosia aims to create a thriving urban network of high-quality green spaces. The different parks will be linked with each other, but also provide new mobility options to get around in the city, from residential areas to business districts and university centres. The network will also be open for different users and uses, and offer a series of environmental, social and economic benefits. The benefits derived from the project are analysed below.
A better network of green spaces will address several related challenges faced by Nicosia today. Regarding environmental benefits, the active mobility connections between green spaces will be a crucial step towards providing an alternative to the omnipresent car as means of transportation. This will improve air quality as more people use bikes and walking to get around the city. The landscaping interventions in the parks and along the mobility axes will also deliver other environmental advantages such as heat mitigation, better water management and increased biodiversity, notably by paying close attention to selecting appropriate species of plants and trees that are adapted to local conditions.
The social benefits include positive impacts on health and well-being that are commonly associated with more frequent contact with nature. The network of parks will stimulate physical activity by fostering active modes of transport and recreation (walking, cycling, skating, etc). The Urban Green network will also offer an attractive way for families, students, dog owners and other members of the community to experience the city and pristine weather of Nicosia, creating occasions for meeting and interacting with members of the community, as well as spending time in the natural environment, and increasing the social cohesion of the surrounding areas.
The economic benefits include an overall improvement of the image of Nicosia as a city to work and live in. The objective is to move from a congested, car-dominated agglomeration to a city dotted with high-quality green spaces within walking or cycling distance from residential areas. This improvement will positively affect Cypriot enterprises; they could see their economic activity increase, especially if they are located in the vicinity of parks. Companies could promote healthier and environmentally friendly commutes to their employees and embrace a greener city among other values of their corporate responsibility. Moreover, the upgrade and maintenance of parks and green mobility connections will create sustainable local jobs in gardening and landscaping, but also other activities benefitting from a thriving park network such as kiosks/cafes in or around green spaces, or the production of park equipment.
- Increase Biodiversity
- Enhancing sustainable urbanisation
Transferability of the result
Implementation of NBS in Nicosia has not been an easy task, and there have been various barriers hindering the process. Some of the most important barriers regard governance structures, the planning process itself, as well as community participation. Despite these barriers, Nicosia’s Exemplar could be seen as a best practice, replicated in other cities or countries, after being tailored to the local needs.
The proposed NBS could be financed through National Resources, Municipal Funds, European Funds or Private Funds. It is worth mentioning that each NBS in Nicosia is seen as a single project which will seek different funding sources. Opportunities and examples of different funding streams are presented below.
The most accessible source of funding for urban projects in the Municipalities of Greater Nicosia is and will be EU funding. According to Charis Sotiriou, who is responsible for EU funding at the financial administration of Central Government, priorities for EU funding in Cyprus will continue to include Environment and Climate-Change Adaptation. Additionally, a horizontal priority will include the sectors of the Smart Specialization Strategy of Cyprus. EU investments in Cyprus in these areas include Research & Innovation/ Research & Development, but also Business Development. The upcoming action plan has a budget of €100 million.
The timeframe of the Connecting Nature Project fits well with the timing of EU funding, as it could help proposing new actions, also for residual funds related to pilot projects. The new ERDF period starts in 2021 and will feature thematic focus on Business Development and SMEs (45%) as well as on the Environment (30%).
Technical studies can also be financed by the EU but only for selected projects. The most relevant EU funds for projects conceived in the framework of Connecting Nature seem to be funds for Research & Development, pilot project based on the priorities of the Development Strategy of Cyprus and the LIFE+ Programme.
Municipalities in Cyprus are funded from a variety of sources. The main sources of revenue are taxes, fees and duties (professional tax, immovable property tax, hotel accommodation tax, fees from issuing permits and licences, fees for refuse collection, fines etc).
Additionally, the revenue of each Municipal Council is subsidised annually by a grant of the Republic proposed by the Council of Ministers and approved by the House of Representatives. Although the amount of the grant paid annually to Municipalities is not prescribed in the Municipalities Law, the Government has committed itself to a stable level of funding now fixed at 1% of the total of Government revenues. The Union of Cyprus Municipalities has requested that the 1% commitment should be endorsed by statute.
The distribution of the total amount of grant between Municipalities has become, as a practical matter, a task undertaken by the Union of Cyprus Municipalities which proposes the rules for distribution between its members. These are based largely on population figures. A third of the aggregate grant is divided equally between all Municipalities, thus providing an important equalising effect. The division of the remaining two thirds is (pro rata) according to the total number of inhabitants.
The Government also contributes towards the cost of urban development projects (usually road construction projects) which fulfil certain criteria and are approved by the Ministry of the Interior. In order a Municipality to be qualified for this government contribution, such projects must be significant in terms of the main road network or in terms of traffic management. Usually, the Government covers two thirds of the cost (by means of a variety of funding mechanisms) and the Municipality covers the remaining one third. From the point of view of the Municipalities, such shared funding of infrastructural projects is often seen not as a government grant to them, but as municipal contributions to central projects.
Another important feature of the financial regime of Municipalities is the obligation to prepare an annual estimate of revenue and expenditure. The Municipalities Law requires each Municipality to submit its estimate for the approval of the Council of Ministers. The estimate must be submitted to the Minister of the Interior in duplicate by way of the District Officer and the Minister is then required to submit the estimates together with any suggestions and observations of his own to the Council of Ministers for approval. Further provision is made for the revision of estimates and to ensure compliance by Municipalities with the estimates, subject to permitted degrees of variation. On the face of it, these sections of the Municipalities Law impose a severe form of central control (and one not confined merely to questions of legality) over the budgeting procedures of Municipalities. However, the Government regards compliance with the statutory rules as a mere formality since the Council of Ministers has not refused approval of any Municipality’s estimates (nor of a transfer between accounts) in recent years. On the other hand, there is a shared understanding that the rules are usefully retained as a protection against possible abuse at a future date. Negotiations are held between the officials of the Ministry of the Interior and the concerned Municipality before the draft budget is submitted to the Council of Ministers for approval.
A potentially important source of funding for parks and gardens are the funds constituted by development fees that are earmarked for new parks.
In Latsia, the fund contains 2 million euros from development that have been collected since 1989. Only a small amount of the money was spent to plant new trees, while the rest still awaits a specific purpose. The money was not spent because there was no policy for developing new parks.
In Lakatamia, the fund contains 1 million euros. In this Municipality, all subdivisions must devote at least 15% to green space, but the owners can pay into the fund for the creation of green space elsewhere, hence the money in the fund.