Cities represent considerable opportunities for forwarding global biodiversity and sustainability goals. Although the benefits of urban biodiversity and ecosystem services are increasingly being recognized, little is known about how cities plan for biodiversity conservation and how planning differs across the diversity of city types. We identified 34 key attributes for conserving biodiversity and for ecosystem services that should be included in urban planning documents. These attributes were organized into six categories: baseline data, biodiversity goals, biodiversity targets, ecosystem services goals, ecosystem services targets, regulations, and commitment to implementation. We reviewed 135 plans from 40 cities in 25 countries globally for the presence of these attributes. Five categories of urban planning documents were analyzed: wildlife conservation and biodiversity; green infrastructure and open space; ecosystem services and sustainability; climate and energy; and comprehensive master plans.
We found that plans vary in detail, ranging from strategic or vision plans, with few or no specific targets, to tactical plans, with measurable targets and a variety of goals. The most common attributes in city plans were goals for: habitat conservation, air and water quality, cultural ecosystem services, and ecological connectivity. Few plans included quantitative targets. This lack of measureable targets may render plans unsuccessful for an actionable approach to local biodiversity conservation. While most cities included both biodiversity and ecosystem service goals, each city tended to focus on one or the other. Biodiversity and ecosystem services attributes appear in plans across all five planning document types, but the frequency and combination of attributes differed across the types of plans. Even so, there were no patterned associations in the combinations of goals and targets that would indicate that there are distinct typologies of planning. Results indicate a loosely coherent set of measures for biodiversity and ecosystem services conservation that is widespread and becoming mainstreamed but that is not institutionalized or standardized among cities that are already planning for these issues. Comprehensive planning for biodiversity should include the full range of attributes identified, but few cities do this, and the majority that do are mandated by local, regional, or federal governments to plan specifically for biodiversity conservation. Urban planning and policy has the potential to influence how people and communities experience and understand biodiversity as well as to increase support for conservation in the city and beyond. This research provides planning recommendations for protecting urban biodiversity based on ecological knowledge.