Author Archives: hollylkirk

About hollylkirk

Scientist and all round nature lover.

Enhancing biodiversity in cities through design

This article is republished from Cities People Love under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

An interview with Professor Sarah Bekessy

Sarah Bekessy is a sustainability and urban planning academic at RMIT University in Melbourne and a leading voice in Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design (BSUD).  We interviewed Sarah to understand more about the importance and benefits of incorporating biodiversity and nature in the design and planning of our cities.

What is your role in protecting and enhancing nature in cities?

I have a background in conservation biology and have been working at the intersection of town planning and urban design, and now architecture and biodiversity conservation for quite some time. Biodiversity in cities is predominantly a human-driven concept. Tackling the issue alongside people who are making decisions about the form, design and construction of cities and how people interact with nature is utterly critical to the debate and discipline. It has been an interesting space to be part of over the last decade as it’s gone from being a peripheral issue of minor interest to people through to a completely mainstream concept that is now core to any discussion about resilience and health in cities.

What is the case for enhancing biodiversity and nature in cities?

The health and wellbeing benefits are the most compelling reason for enhancing nature in cities and a remarkable body of research has emerged in the last decade that policy makers find very compelling. Your whole health and wellbeing is influenced by the amount and quality of interactions with nature in cities and a remarkable array of physical and mental health and wellbeing benefits result from having everyday nature experiences. Further to that we know we can cool cities, reduce the risk of flood events, and generate resilience to climate change through nature in cities. If we do it right, cities can sequester as much carbon per unit area as a tropical rainforest. So we can even be part of the reversing climate change solution.

There’s also a really strong argument that unless we engage people with nature in cities we will gradually become disenchanted and disconnected with nature. There is an important educational and engagement opportunity to re-enchant and reconnect people with nature in the places where they’re living, working and playing. Nature in cities is key to place-making and connecting people with the uniqueness of the place where they’re living. Nature is how we can make cities not such homogenous, globalised places but places with their own unique stories.

Nature is also a really important way to celebrate culture. In Melbourne we have a unique opportunity to celebrate the rich Indigenous cultural heritage of our city through telling stories about nature and having return of species of significance. People want to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, where you’re generating habitat and celebrating cultural stories through your own front or back garden.

What are the key ways practitioners need to think to better manage, incorporate and enhance nature in cities?

Broadly speaking what we’re asking people to do is turn years of training and concepts of cities on their heads.

We have historically seen cities as places to retreat from nature – safe spaces away from the dangers and threats and perils of nature. A lot of our construction and design thinking is based on that philosophy. It’s big shift to think about how we can design to embrace nature and encourage positive human wildlife interactions.

Step one is actually reframing the way that nature is conceptualised in planning and design because, despite the remarkable benefits I described earlier and the policy commitment at all levels of government, we still have planning policy that on the whole treats biodiversity as a problem and a constraint. We need to reframe biodiversity in the planning world so that it’s perceived of as an asset to be maximised, not a problem to get rid of or offset. And we have to start acknowledging that ecological knowledge is key to this. The emerging evidence is that it is biodiversity, not just ‘greening’, that delivers the maximum level of benefit to cities and the people who live in them.

Delivering biodiversity in cities is not going to be a generic box-ticking process. We have to work meaningfully and deeply with the ecological disciplines to understand what species need to persist, what resources they need, what threats they’re going to face and how to better connect the city so that they can move around and be viable. That requires deep ecological understanding. Historically there has been a strong divide between the world of architecture/design/planning and the world of ecology and conservation and I’m passionate about bringing those worlds together to achieve meaningful benefits through having rich biodiversity in cities.

Roof designed to support biodiversity – photo provided by Sarah Bekessy.
Biodiversity driven design as imagined in Fishermans Bend – concept image provided by Sarah Bekessy.

What are some of the tools you’ve been working on that can help practitioners bridge the divide between the built-form disciplines and ecological knowledge?

We have developed a protocol called Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design (BSUD) to help developers to meaningfully build biodiversity into their designs through investigation, objective-setting, design and evaluation processes. We have been working with the development industry to implement and test the BSUD framework and build an evidence-base to support incorporating biodiversity considerations into the planning, design and construction process.

Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design starts with investigating a development site with the mindset to seeing biodiversity as an asset, then thinking carefully about how you can be regenerative in your designs to bring species back and restore natural processes. We encourage developers to ask questions about the history of the site – what ecosystems used to exist and thrive there – then think about how that history could be reflected in designs moving forward.

Engaging with stakeholders and the community is key to determining objectives about the species and ecosystems that you want to allow to flourish or return to the site. They can be really charismatic and enchanting species or keystone species that will help attract and protect other species. When designing for different species, people often instantly think about parks, green spaces and riverside vegetation. While these spaces are critical to biodiversity in cities, BSUD recommends thinking about building requirements of species into the urban fabric itself as this is key to people engaging deeply and frequently with biodiversity and getting the most out of their interactions with nature.

We want to be building houses that both provide resources for species and mitigate threats. We can create nesting, food and water resources in our houses and gardens. And threats can be mitigated through a range of features, including the lighting that you use, the windows that you choose (i.e. bird-friendly glass), and providing nesting boxes and insect hotels. Having a garden with the features of habitat that species are going to enjoy – rocks and logs and water – or incorporating a range of species from big trees through to shrubs to an understory of herb-rich grassland. All these things are totally possible in small city-backyards. Even balconies can be rich places for providing habitat.

The evaluation of proposed designs to ensure biodiversity is meaningfully incorporated, requires more complex and scientific approaches ranging from expert opinion to technical modelling. This process helps to identify the critical components of the proposed design and any aspects that may interact negatively with other development goals. We encourage all practitioners to think through the BSUD process and consider how they could meaningfully engage with every step of the process in their project.

“For practitioners, thinking creatively and in a sophisticated way about how we can build on-site biodiversity into all of our new developments and retrofits is the key challenge.”
Planting for biodiversity in Clowes Street, Melbourne. The biodiversity impacts of urbanization can be mitigated by Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design. A landscape devoid of vegetation other than a strip of lawn provides little habitat or resources for native species living in the grassland, this compared to a space planted with a variety of native species such as trees, shrubs and grasses.Photo credit: City of Melbourne

What can be achieved when you bring together this multi-disciplinary approach and commitment to biodiversity from the outset?

Most practitioners are linked into thinking about some of the barriers to BSUD being a reality – conflicts with fire, risk and safety issues, infrastructure damage from tree roots, and people’s interactions with nature (i.e. leaves clogging gutters, nature is stinky/noisy).

The obstacles to BSUD are numerous, but we have found design solutions to every identified barrier and we just need to test these to demonstrate their effectiveness and build an evidence base of outcomes.

We’re currently trialing the BSUD framework on two development sites with Lend-Lease and Yarra Valley Water and will evaluate the benefit and outcomes of the process. We see this is a key aspect to mainstreaming BSUD so that people aren’t afraid of the potential negatives to embarking on this process.

The economics of the approach are also important to understand to build an economic case for BSUD. How much does it add to the value of a house? Are people prepared to spend the extra amount? Or does it even cost anything extra to think differently in this way?

We also think BSUD can operate at any scale. We’re working with architects on a range of house and street-scale case-studies. Nature based solutions have become a mainstream concept in the architecture world and most state-of-the-art new building will include some sort of greening or biodiversity consideration.

But we’re still not at the point of proving biodiversity benefits and we don’t have an equivalent evaluation framework in place as you would have for carbon or water for a building. This is why we’re working with architects to build ecological thinking and biodiversity metrics into standard architectural process.

The aim is to see biodiversity evaluated in the same way that we evaluate the carbon footprint of developments and to make BSUD a mainstream approach to design to enhance biodiversity in cities for the benefit of individuals, communities and our sense of culture and place.

Find out more about BSUD, including helpful resources by visiting our BUSD webpage!

Feral Cat Control in Australia – 5-year report

Read the full report here.

Since 2015, members of ICON Science have been working with the Office of the Threatened Species Commissioner to assess the national management of feral cats across Australia. This work is part of the wider Threatened Species Strategy, and recognises the significant threat to Australia’s native species that is posed by feral cats.

Taking place across 5 years, this work aimed to document who is engaging in feral cat control, how many cats have been removed and how close Australia is to meeting the ambitious targets set out in the Threatened Species Strategy.

We are pleased to share the final report from this 5-year project, which has involved a cross section of the interdisciplinary team here at ICON Science.

Number of feral cats removed by individual survey respondents in each 2-digit postcode area

Methods
In addition to collated data from government reports and repositories, we undertook strategic online surveys of individuals and organisations who are most likely to be undertaking feral cat control. The 2020 online survey collected raw numbers of feral cats controlled, control area estimates, control methods and information on the type of environment where work has taken place. We also asked participants to indicate the location of their feral cat control activities (see featured map at top of post).

We used the variation in feral cat control numbers collected from the sample of local councils, farmers and shooters/hunters who took part in the survey to project the number of cats controlled on a national scale. This allowed us to provide a bounded estimate for the total number of feral cats removed between 2015 & 2020.

Posterior distributions and 95% credible intervals of a) the mean number of feral cats culled by farmers, and b) the projected total number of feral cats culled by farmers who engage in feral cat control but did not respond to our survey.

Key results
Our final 5-year cumulative estimate for the number of feral cats controlled ranges between 1,493,520 and 1,669,568 cats, with a most likely estimate of 1,581,544 cats having been removed from the environment since 2015.

Other results:
– 2917 individuals completed the online survey, 61% of whom said they were engaged in feral cat management (the survey was targeted at groups likely to be undertaking cat control).
– In our survey sample, feral cat control activities were concentrated in the more populous areas of eastern Australia.
– Non-government organisations engaged in feral cat control activities report most activity taking place in urban areas.
– Individuals are more likely to be operating in farmland or scrubland.

The unique area managed for feral cats as reported by respondents to our surveys, derived from the location data points and area estimates recorded by organisation and individual survey respondents.

Kirk, H., Garrard, GE., Kusmanoff, AM., Gregg, EG., & Bekessy, SA. (2020) Updated assessment of the national effort towards feral cat control. Report for the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. Download pdf

ICON Science does R (and other things)

During the dark times of early 2020, the ICON Science Hacky Hour team decided to take our weekly meetings to the next level!

For those not familiar with the concept, a “hacky hour” is a relaxed opportunity to workshop different problems, share knowledge and ask for help. ICON Science’s Hacky Hour has been running since November 2019, and offers us a regular opportunity to touch base on all things statistics and R (the programming language lots of us use for data analysis).

When the Australian national COVID-19 lockdown hit we moved our weekly meetings to Microsoft Teams and started to run a range of bi-weekly structured workshop/discussion sessions .


The ICON Science Hacky Hour group enjoys a good meme

ICON members took it in turns to lead the sessions, some taking the format of a paper discussion, others a skills-share. Over the last year we covered a heady mix of topics, from data visualisation and creating web-pages in R right through to reproducible research and differences in epistemology. We have even been lucky to snag a few guest-lecture sessions from folks in our wider network!

We kicked our workshop sessions off with an intro to Reproducibility and Open Science (using R), which we built up over a few weeks – you can read a summary of the info & resources we collected here. We were also lucky to hear from Dr Hannah Fraser (University of Melbourne), an expert in how to recognise and avoid Questionable Research Practices!

As an interdisciplinary group, before taking on some topics it was important for us to take a few things back to basics. We started with “why do we even care about statistics and other questions”, presented by Holly and Roshan. This was followed by a great overview of descriptive stats from Katherine.

See Katherine’s slides here!

For those of us raised as “classically-trained ecologists” it was great to have a discussion of different research philosophies, especially as Conservation Science has a strong social component. Emily masterfully introduced different ontologies and epistemologies, helping us to see where our different practices sat and leading us to this excellent “Guide to Understanding Social Science Research for Natural Scientists” from Moon & Blackman (2014). It was only natural to follow this with a comprehensive run-down of qualitative research methods from Matthew and Marco!

You can access Marco and Matthew’s slides here

It wouldn’t be a true Hacky Hour without occasionally dipping into the knitty-gritty of getting things done in R. In 2020 we solved a few problems, wrote some functions, cleaned a lot of data and had some lively discussions about whether “for” loops are the Best Thing Ever. Holly gave a full demonstration of R’s plotting abilities, including where to find a dreamy selection of ready-made colour palettes and a comparison of base R and ggplot2. You can find her slides here and also the R code she used to generate the demo plots.

Hacky Hour is still going strong in 2021, and so far we still haven’t run out of things to talk about yet!