Development needs to focus on biodiversity to help people and nature

Last week, the world’s leading politicians, top policy wonks and the most decorated climate scientists are gathering in Katowice in Poland for COP24, the UN’s climate change conference. As with most of the climate change conferences in recent history, the backdrop is grim.

The latest special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) set out in clear terms what is required from society to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees, avoiding the disastrous impacts that we would see at just 2 degrees of warming. A 50% reduction in carbon emissions is needed by 2030 and reaching net-zero by mid-century. The current pledges of national governments see us land somewhere between 3 and 5 degrees of warming by 2100.

To coincide with the start of COP24, the Secretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, has announced a consultation on mandating a “biodiversity net gain” in the development process. Such a law would require developers to assess the impacts and implications of their development on local ecosystems, ensuring that biodiversity stands to gain from any development, rather than suffer. In the words of Mr Gove, he believes that his government’s “commitment to protecting and enhancing our natural world can go hand in hand with our ambition to build more high quality homes.”

Well, can it? Yes, of course it can. And it must. The biodiversity of the UK is vital for sustaining and protecting a healthy environment. Our agriculture sector, our air quality and the health of the population are all interlinked with the strength and complexion of nature’s biodiversity. And as the built environment has such a hefty carbon footprint – with some estimates suggesting the sector is responsible for nearly half of the UK’s carbon emissions – we have a duty to deliver buildings that serve both the environment and communities.

In practice, mandating a ‘biodiversity net gain’ within the development process will require a step change in how we approach, design and deliver built assets. Architects and landscape architects will need to be involved from the nascent stages of the development process, working alongside planners and developers to understand the existing ecosystems and how the project can add to it. Factors such as the public realm and the green infrastructure will need to be reimagined to serve all the communities that occupy the site, human and non-human.

But it can – and is – starting to be done both at scale but also increasingly on a development by development approach. Mitch Cooke, director of sustainability at Greengage, who work closely with Assael on a variety of schemes, notes that “we are already seeing the adoption of Urban Greening Factors within planning policy, and developments being rejected at planning because they are haven’t integrated enough biodiversity and green infrastructure.”

In terms of delivery, development is hugely disruptive to local biodiversity. The preparation of a Biodiversity Impact Assessment before breaking ground on a project could, in some ways, opens up the possibilities for integrating new methods of procurement and construction. For instance, pre-manufacturing aspects of the development offsite can limit disruption to the local environment, as well reducing the carbon-intensity of the build process.

This consultation is necessary, but not groundbreaking. The impacts of climate change require us to reimagine all aspects of our lives; the development process included. What’s needed is more life-cycle thinking in development, which sees the built environment a series of interconnected entities that serve a common, unified purpose. The ‘biodiversity net gain’ consultation, and last month’s Raynsford Review, hint towards this common purpose: creating sustainable, lasting communities that serve the health and wellbeing of those that live there. We’d do better to extend this purpose to the other species we share our land with.

This column, written by Director Félicie Krikler, was published in Building Magazine on 11 December 2018.


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