Socioeconomic and historical factors shape nature in cities

This study investigates how socio-economic and historical factors shape urban nature, highlighting the 'luxury' and 'legacy' effects on biodiversity, vegetation and ecosystem services. The results emphasize the need for equitable access to these benefits and strategies to enhance urban nature.
Published in Earth & Environment
Socioeconomic and historical factors shape nature in cities

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Urban green spaces play a vital role in preserving biodiversity, adapting to climate change, and providing a range of benefits for both nature and people. The way cities expand and communities interact with their natural components creates diverse cityscapes, making nature and its benefits increasingly central to urban life. Yet, the impact of urban nature on our well-being depends on their spatial distribution, accessibility, and quality. Socio-economic factors, particularly related to wealth and urban development, are increasingly being recognised as key-drivers of biodiversity in our cities, contributing to diverse distributions of environmental quality.

 Spatial heterogeneity in urban development. Rio das Pedras, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. Source: Google Earth Pro

This diversity is influenced by socio-economic and historical factors. The 'luxury effect', shows how urban residents' socio-economic status affects the investment in green spaces, such as urban parks and gardens, attracting more biodiversity. On the other hand, the 'legacy effect' refers to how past management practices shape the current urban landscape, including green spaces. Both effects contribute to uneven distribution of urban nature's benefits. Addressing these issues from an environmental justice perspective becomes key to ensure that everyone has fair access to the advantages of urban green spaces.

Location of Vitoria-Gasteiz city, neighbourhood delimitation and main land uses cover within urban boundaries defined by urban fabric, forests, water bodies and herbaceous cover. Own elaboration based on GEE random forest classifier and Sentinel -2 imagery (see Section 4.2. for methodology details). Background from © MapTiler ( and © OpenStreetMap (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Our study examined how luxury and legacy effects shape the biodiversity, vegetation cover and provision of ecosystem services of urban nature, thus influencing human well-being. We focused on Vitoria-Gasteiz, a mid-sized city designated as a European Green Capital in 2012. Our findings reveal associations between wealth, neighborhood age  and urban biodiversity, vegetation cover, and ecosystem services. We found that higher educational attainment, as a proxy of socio-economic status, was correlated to increased urban biodiversity, particularly in neighbourhoods with higher habitat quality, highlighting a luxury effect.  Conversely, our findings suggest an inverse legacy effect, with green areas' quantity (vegetation cover) and quality (biodiversity) decreased with neighborhood age, especially in densely populated areas. Interestingly, the supply of ecosystem services increased with neighborhood age, especially in neighborhoods with higher vegetation cover.

 Urban biodiversity responses to proxies of luxury and legacy effect

These findings emphasize the relevance of socio-economic factors and historical development strategies in shaping urban greening patterns, impacting the benefits nature provides in cities. Greening without prioritising access to their benefits for vulnerable groups can worsen environmental injustices and trigger luxury effects. It is therefore key to promote access for those who need them the most, particularly for residents that are most exposed to hostile environmental conditions.


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Earth and Environmental Sciences
Physical Sciences > Earth and Environmental Sciences

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