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.
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.”
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!