Protecting the nature beneath each new development

The construction industry has the responsibility to provide sustainable, future-proof places to live and work and make positive contributions to the natural world, says Stantec’s Georgina Knibbs

Recent extreme weather headlines highlight the climate emergency more and more often. We have no time to waste but how do we know what exact actions to take? Climate change is intrinsically linked to biodiversity. By looking after and restoring biodiversity, habitats can provide important ecosystem service functions to help stabilise the climate.

Meanwhile, the UK government aims to solve the UK housing shortage by providing 300,000 new homes annually and the associated land use change is likely to be significant. Developers and professionals involved in projects need to protect the nature beneath and around every proposed development. 

Legally binding commitments to biodiversity

Changes to the planning process have recently been set in motion and many new standards will be relevant to ongoing and future development projects. Legally binding targets have been set against four priority areas within the Environment Act – one being biodiversity, with a 10% biodiversity net gain (BNG) mandate on all major development projects. 

Similarly with carbon emissions, we need to end emissions and invest in carbon capture. Land will be required to act as carbon ‘sinks’, through tree planting, habitat restoration or other technologies.

The Ministry for Housing, Communities and local government white paper set out proposals to reform the UK planning system. The proposed new planning bill seeks to simplify the planning process whilst creating great places for current and future generations. How this planning reform will align with BNG and net zero targets and contribute to the climate change agenda isn’t clear yet. 

Considering the legal challenges 

The Environment Act also adds a challenging dimension to the development process. This is particularly true for greenfield sites which have a relatively high baseline biodiversity value. Biodiversity offsetting, where land outside development site boundaries is used to compensate for unavoidable net losses within development sites, will be key to achieving a quantitative BNG. Identifying and acquiring such land in the long-term may continue to be ever-more demanding as land use change pressures develop over time. 

Development projects also face the task of securing the long-term resources and funding so that habitat management plans are meaningful, with monitoring and measurement against pre-development objectives. Luckily, these habitats created to achieve BNG will in most cases act as carbon sinks and therefore contribute to the net national zero strategy.

Stick to six principles as a guide

The pressing climate and biodiversity emergency - confounded with policy changes, targets, legislation and assessment methods - can appear overwhelming. But designing with biodiversity and climate change in mind can be simplified irrespective of requirements, by following six principles. 

1. Keep it locally relevant 

By considering a project’s geographical location, local biodiversity targets (e.g., Biodiversity Action Plans) and native species, a design can bring meaningful biodiversity improvements. One example is house sparrows, who thrive in dense hedges, shrub planting and bird boxes that can be fixed onto the eaves of new buildings. Designs for developments in urban centres may be best focussed on such bird species.

2. Consider ecological functionality

Wildlife requires a range of physical and environmental conditions to thrive. Incorporating features useful for shelter, breeding, feeding and travelling, can sustain wildlife within a development site. Positioning bug hotels in sunny aspects close to water sources and flower-rich planting is the best way to encourage pollinators to colonise the site.

3. Connect habitats 

New developments should connect green infrastructure next to the site and in the local vicinity to extend existing habitats and provide a resilient network for biodiversity intertwined with the built environment. One example is a green corridor of hedgerows and tree planting within a site masterplan to connect two offsite wooded areas. Without this, these two areas would be isolated from each other. 

4. Design multifunctioning spaces 

In urban centres, new developments can jostle for space so other features must be as multifunctioning as possible. Green infrastructure needs to deliver biodiversity value whilst contributing to other ecosystem services. For example, sustainable urban drainage features can be designed to support aquatic wildlife, channel and filter surface water run-off, capture carbon and even act as play spaces for children.

5. Get the community involved 

Studies have linked nature to reduced depression and blood pressure, lower stress and other benefits. When residents feel good in their green surroundings, it should encourage stewardship to protect the local environment into the future. By consulting local people on priorities during the design stages, developers can build up a sense of community legacy.  

6. Future proof for climate change 

Places must be designed to last and function well into the future, in the face of predicted local climate change, not only in the materials used, but the green spaces planted. In some cases, a planting mix incorporating Mediterranean species, rather than UK native plants, will help the area deal with future possible drought conditions. 

Connecting biodiversity and ecosystem services allows developers to design multifunctional new places with positive influence on the local environment. By designing with a few fundamental principles in mind, biodiversity gains on a site can be secured well into the future and not just on completion of a project. If we take the right steps now, we contribute to the long-term climate change targets being set at COP26 and in the future. 

Georgina Knibbs is a principal ecologist at Stantec.