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What drives the move towards more integrated city strategies for water?

As the citizens' perception of urban rivers and lakes returns to one that acknowledges them as key historic elements of local identity and associates them with accessible refuge from the high pace of modern life in urban centres, the political narrative around urban water bodies is necessarily following course. The recognition of the multiple benefits that revitalising our urban water environments and reconnecting with them can bring to society has in numerous cases fuelled the political will necessary to transit from small scale, isolated actions to more integrated strategies based on long-term visions of better organized, more resilient cities. For instance, in the aforementioned case of Oslo, the political determination to back the city’s de-culverting strategy emerged as public and political awareness of the value of natural streams in the cityscape arose. This perception of value that was increasingly associated with the urban water ecosystems stemmed not only from recognizing that they could be used for recreational purposes, but, in the face of climate change, they also provided an increased sense of safety and resilience related to stormwater retention and cleansing capacity.

In addition to changes in local public and political awareness, policy and regulation at higher administrative scales can also be responsible for the transition towards more integrated urban development strategies, as outlined in the previous section in terms of European policy impetus (section 2.4). At the European level there is an explicit agreement on the principles upon which an ideal European city should be based as part of an EU Urban Agenda (Urban Agenda for the EU, Pact of Amsterdam, 2016). One of the characteristics put forward for the European city of tomorrow is to be “a place of green, ecological or environmental regeneration”. At EU level, it is also argued that urban territorial development should “enjoy a high level of environmental protection and quality in and around cities” (European Commission, 2011).

Finally, the environmental objectives and requirements set in place by pieces of legislation like the EU Water Framework Directive have locked in further support for integrated action, both in terms of funding and acceptability. In this specific case, the WFD’s aim for incorporating externalities by reconnecting the urban water cycle to the natural water cycle has a strong influence on policy- and decision-making at the local level. Furthermore, the Directive has provided a strategic frame that allows linking individual restoration efforts within River Basin Management Plans, facilitating communication and buy-in of stakeholders. The case of the Stockholm City Water Programme is a good portrayal of how the intrinsic relationship of a city with its water environment can converge with policy frameworks at higher scales to result in enduring commitment to water protection.

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