The built environment – biodiversity and ecosystems – A guide for planners, architects and businesses


Biodiversity loss is a greater threat to the world, right now, than climate change. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) claims that the loss and extinction of species is 1,000 times the natural rate. The argument for anthropogenic climate change still has its sceptics but the fact that humans have removed habitats, cut them down, dug them up, poisoned, polluted and hunted animals and caused their decline is not in dispute, which is why 193 signatory countries have been trying to halt biodiversity since 1993.

Ecosystem services are the numerous functions that are provided by the natural environment, free of charge, for human benefit. You may look at an oak tree and see an obstacle but in fact what you would be looking at is an air purifier, carbon store, wind-breaker, a sanctuary from the burning sun, a preventer of floods and much more. These services are provided by plants, animals and all elements of the natural world on a daily basis and until now we have taken them for granted.

In June 2011 the government published an environmental White Paper, ‘The Natural Choice’, and it was no surprise to find that halting biodiversity loss and valuing ecosystem services was at the heart of its objectives.

What does all this mean for planners, developers and architects? How can we continue to build but not lose biodiversity? The answer is that you can, and must. The built environment, and all those involved, has a crucial role to play in preventing further biodiversity loss in the UK and all eyes will be on them over the next few years to watch their progress.

This article explains some of the biodiversity measures that can be incorporated into developments, and outlines a simple five-step process to ensure that biodiversity is fully integrated into a scheme.

Step 1 – Have a policy

If you are going to build on a brownfield site it makes sense to have a biodiversity policy.

Three easy policies to consider:

·         No net loss of biodiversity

·         Biodiversity enhancement

·         Biodiversity off-setting

Once you have agreed a policy you will need to ensure that you measure yourself against your own objectives and be clear about how you’ve arrived at your results.

Step 2 – Understand the biodiversity value and ecosystem services of a site.

It is important that, where possible, sites with low biodiversity value should be chosen. Of course it doesn’t always follow that just because you are willing to make the ‘right decision’ that your competitors or others will follow suit.

Where there is an existing biodiversity value the development should be seeking to ensure there is no net loss of biodiversity value and preferably looking to enhance value.

You should also consider the value of ecosystem services of the site, such as clean water. You might also want to refer to local weather patterns. For example if the site has good drainage soil and the area is known for relatively high rain fall, the site is providing an ecosystem service that is preventing run-off of water and perhaps localised flooding.

There may also be instances where other people are affected by the removal or disturbance of ecosystem services. If there are trees, hedges, or mounds of earth that you intend to remove then consider your neighbours. Will they be exposed to more wind, dust, rain, or mud on their roads?

To guide your biodiversity objectives and site selection, an assessment of biodiversity at the site should be undertaken before any work or disturbance takes place. Ideally this would be part of the site selection process where two or more potential sites are under consideration.

The important aspect here is that you need to understand what biodiversity is present on the site prior to development. This would ideally entail 24 hour monitoring, and if possible, in different seasons.

An area of scrubland may look fairly bleak and deserted in the winter months but during spring the same area might be alive with birds, wildflowers, fruiting shrubs, small mammals and more.

Wildflowermeadow

Step 3 – Design with biodiversity and community in mind

Any development should aim to fit into the landscape and biodiversity value of the local area. This might require some research into the local biodiversity and depending on the results you may want to adapt design to attract or enhance the local flora and fauna.

Once you have gathered local knowledge of the site you can start to plan where ‘green spaces’ and/or ecological networks can be fed into the design process.

The importance of ‘green spaces’ is widely recognised, as are the benefits of providing access to semi-natural green spaces for quality of life and health & wellbeing.

Ecological networks are important for wildlife to move between areas of core habitat.

Step 4 – Understand where biodiversity impacts occur in your supply chain

Any development will have indirect biodiversity impacts through the supply chain.

Responsible development should recognise the biodiversity impact / benefits of the choices made in terms of supply materials for construction. Some obvious examples of supply include:

Timber – Only source timber from well managed renewable timber sources where the forest management plan includes a strong biodiversity element.

Aggregates – Aggregate extraction can cause significant harm to existing habitats, but also mineral extraction sites provide some of the largest opportunities for habitat creation. Obtaining materials sourced from quarries that have not caused biodiversity harm and will be restored to biodiversity habitat, such as wetlands or lakes, will contribute to biodiversity gain and will bring pressure to bear on mineral operators to seek biodiversity restoration.

Peat – A well known and obvious link between the horticultural methods used to grow plants used in landscaping and the use of peat, which is an important habitat in its own right but also major carbon store. By selecting suppliers that guarantee plants are not grown in peat this choice will promote the conservation of peatlands by reducing demand for peat and increasing the demand for peat alternatives.

Step 5 – Plan and design for success

Opportunities for building in biodiversity can broadly be separated into building design and landscaping.

In many urban developments there are opportunities to increase biodiversity value through the inclusion of vegetated architecture in the form of green roofs, brown roofs and green walls.

Brown and green roofs should have clear design objectives and preferably targets set for biodiversity against which success can be measured.

Brown roofs provide the best opportunity for replacing brownfield habitat and have been shown to successfully attract birds and invertebrates that otherwise would not be in the vicinity. Green roofs can be more formal and designed to be visually attractive and even allow public access.

Outside of the buildings the landscape design and planting is very important and can be undertaken in such a way to maximise biodiversity and ecosystem services benefits. Where possible native species of plants should be selected in preference to non-native species. It is now widely accepted that introduced species of plants and animals are a cause for concern and have contributed to the demise of many native species.

Trees and shrubs that provide good fruit crops, nectar, or seeds will attract a variety of species of birds, small mammals and invertebrates.

Finally, think about networks between habitats. We now accept that nature reserves are not the ideal way to conserve because many are simply islands surrounded in such a way that the species within have no way of moving. Therefore you might also consider whether you use the site to link to other sites around yours, thereby providing a network through your site.

There are also numerous opportunities to install and include bat and bird boxes within the fabric of the building.

However it is important that the biodiversity measures included in the design have a high chance of being effective. It should not simply be a question of fitting a certain number of bat or bird boxes. There needs to be evidence that if the design is seeking to attract a species that the site and/or surrounding habitat provides all the resources a species requires.

Case study: Waitrose

Waitrose (part of the John Lewis Partnership) take a ‘whole life’ approach to their built environment.

As a co-owned business, known for their ethical stance on numerous issues, it is not surprising that Waitrose had policies for their corporate and social responsibility long before it was in vogue. But like many bluechip companies it has started to publish targets and their results in a number of areas of business including the built environment.

Since 2007 all major building projects have started with a Sustainability Action Plan. The plan assesses how the key impacts of the build will be addressed and sets performance targets against which the project will be measured.

A major consideration within this Action Plan is ensuring that sustainable development issues are included during the design and development stages. This includes designing with biodiversity in mind.

Head of Construction and Environment for the John Lewis Partnership, Tony Jacob, said: “It is vitally important to ensure that local biodiversity is protected and enhanced by the proposed project.

“This can be accomplished by ensuring that existing natural features can be managed and maintained. We also look to integrate solutions that encourage greater biodiversity, such as sustainable drainage systems, landscaping, planting regimes, and living roofs or green walls.

“We understand the importance of the visibility of our intentions, and that if we are to succeed in maintaining the trust and confidence of our customers and stakeholders then we must be transparent about our performance.”

A recent project has been the development of a new shop in Bracknell, Berkshire. On paper this is an urban development, adjoining a town centre, and surrounded by busy roads so what could Waitrose possibly do for biodiversity?

“The main thing is that we think about biodiversity in our planning” said Jacob, “And for that reason we have invited external expertise and opinion to challenge us, work with our architects and contractors, and help us understand what is possible.”

With some local research Waitrose were able to understand the Bracknell biodiversity action plan, see where initiatives were already taking place and then establish what they could do with their limited footprint to help with local biodiversity objectives.

By engaging with local specialists and communicating clearly to their architects and contractors Waitrose now has a biodiversity plan that they can realistically hope to enhance the biodiversity value of the site. They also have plans in place to include the local community in monitoring their success.

“Ensuring we address the issue of biodiversity is of vital importance. As a responsible business we’re looking across our whole estate for ways to benefit biodiversity and from next year we’ll have targets in place by which we can be measured,” Jacob said.

Biodiversity and ecosystem services are becoming integrated into an already robust environmental commitment for the built environment. Every new build, extension and major refurbishment for Waitrose and John Lewis, follows a defined Responsible Development Framework.

The framework aims to ensure that Waitrose and John Lewis design and construct buildings with the environment at the centre of their plans.

The following are some of the key targets for 2011:

  1. Every new construction site will be registered with the Considerate Constructors’ Scheme and achieve a score of at least 35 out of 40: this exceeds industry best practice.
  2. All new shops will be assessed using the British Research Establishments Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) and achieve an Excellent rating – this is a leading benchmark for sustainable design and construction best practice.
  3. Across the business they aim to achieve a minimum 99% recycling of all construction waste, with only dangerous materials such as asbestos not being recycled.
  4. They aim to use 100% of timber from certified sustainable sources in the construction process.
  5. They will reduce the volume of waste generated to a maximum of 6 tonnes per 100m2 gross internal area.
  6. They will explain to all staff, at the time of handover, how their shop has been designed to minimise its impact on the environment and how they can help to limit its impact day-to-day.
  7. Every new shop opening, extension and major refurbishment will display their Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating – this is a recognised EU standard.

For more information contact Crex on 01256 880028, email think@crexgroup.com or visit www.crexgroup.com.

About the author 

Andrew Cameron is Managing Director of Crex. Andrew works with major businesses to create, communicate, deliver and measure their environmental and sustainable commitments. He is passionate about understanding the value of the natural environment to businesses. Andrew is a strategy advisor to numerous conservation charities and currently sits on the Responsible Development Working Group for the John Lewis Partnership. 

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3 thoughts on “The built environment – biodiversity and ecosystems – A guide for planners, architects and businesses”

  1. As one of the people who originally coined the word brown roof I would like to qualify that this term is badly understood and things have changed from the original idea. A commercial blended substrate seeded and planted iwth natuve wildflowers is the preferred method rather that eco dumping rubble on to roofs. Which I am afriad my architects and contractors are doing.An excellent article and hopefully one designers, planners etc will take to heart.Dusty Gedge – President European Federation of Green Roof Associations

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  2. Many thanks to Kirsty for blogging the article. What a great response you’ve had, which I hope goes to show how seriously we are starting to take biodiversity loss and that we are all looking for ways to integrate biodiversity enhancement initiatives into development plans. I think we’re all on a learning journey so the more we can share, the better chance we have of making a difference.

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