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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!

Turning suburbs into mini office hubs as an opportunity to cut commute times post-COVID

Cities around the world are planning for more people to be walking and cycling to work instead of catching public transport, once lockdown restrictions are lifted. Measures that are being implemented in cities like New York, Paris and Milan include closing streets to cars and putting more bike lanes in their streets.

Thami Croeser (ICON Science) suggests another alternative for widely spread cities like Melbourne, where people travel longer distances to get to their workplaces. His idea is to turn suburbs into mini office hubs, with vacant offices and shopfronts used as co-working spaces or satellite offices for large companies. This approach would allow more people to walk or cycle to work while cutting long commute times and continuing to practice social distancing if needed.

1024px-Brunswick_Street,_Fitzroy,_Victoria,_Australia
Image: Mat Connolley / CC BY-SA

In an analysis using census and Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning data, Thami mapped the areas where potential office hubs could be located and identified homes in a 5-minute walking distance from those places. He found that up to 97 per cent Melburnians live within walking or cycling distance of a shopping strip and potential office hub.

The analysis and potential benefits of Thami’s suggestion are discussed this week at Domain.

Where the wild things are: how nature might respond as coronavirus keeps humans indoors

AP News

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Intriguing things sometimes happen in places deserted by people. Plants creep back, animals return and, slowly, birdsong fills the air.

The coronavirus pandemic means public spaces the world over have been temporarily abandoned. Major roads are all but empty and public squares are eerily quiet.

In response, nature is in some cases “taking over towns”. Some reports – such as dolphins spotted in Venice – are fake news. But others are legitimate.

A puma has been spotted roaming the streets of Santiago and wild turkeys are gallivanting in Oakland, California. Monkeys have reclaimed city streets in Thailand and deer are wandering through train stations and down roads in Japan.

Of course, COVID-19 has taken a devastating toll on humanity, and this is nothing to be celebrated. But as Australians stay at home and our streets fall quiet, let’s consider how wildlife might respond.

Animals the world over are creeping back into cities deserted due to COVID-19.
SOHAIL SHAHZAD/EPA

The resilience of nature

Throughout history, nature has shown a propensity for reclaiming land once humans have departed.

At Chernobyl, for instance, radiation has not been enough to suppress populations of gray wolves, raccoon dogs, Eurasian boar and red fox.

Likewise the Korean demilitarised zone has become a refugia for numerous threatened species, including red-crowned cranes.

Ecological succession can occur when humans abandon cities. This is where short-lived “pioneer” species initially occupy sites and are replaced over time by shrubs and trees, ultimately supporting more diverse wildlife.

It’s hard to predict exactly how healthy and biodiverse these systems can become, but they will almost certainly be examples of “novel ecosystems”, having crossed irreversible thresholds due to human impact, such as vegetation reclaiming an abandoned building.

A butterfly on a floor in front of visitors in protective shoes at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 2018. SERGEY DOLZHENKO/EPA

Quieter, darker, greener cities

Cities can be hostile places for urban wildlife due to fragmented habitat, pollution, road collisions and disturbance from and conflict with people. But under a coronavirus lockdown, these threats are greatly reduced.

For example, decreases in economic activity in Europe and China have led to improvements in air pollution, which is known to badly affect urban birds. However, this effect might not last long enough to allow for recovery of sensitive bird species; emissions in China are already rising again.

Light pollution may also fall in cities as a result of coronavirus – such as if office buildings turn off overnight lighting and sportsgrounds are empty.

This would benefit nocturnal species such as moths and bats. Artificial light can interfere with reproduction, predator and prey interactions, and migration.

At the end of March, traffic congestion in Sydney and Melbourne was reportedly down more than 30% on last year. Fewer cars and trams would benefit species that communicate acoustically (such as frogs and birds).

Empty roads near Circular Quay in Sydney on March 27 this year. JAMES GOURLEY/AAP

Fewer people actively using city spaces may mean less disturbance of urban bird nesting sites, especially those that are routinely removed from commercial properties.

Depending on whether authorities see weed control as an “essential service”, streets may soon look a bit greener.

Weeds often get a bad rap for taking over gardens and roadsides. However, some, such as dandelions, provide excellent flowering resources for native bees, butterflies and birds.

Deserted roads could potentially add to existing wildlife “corridors” or strips of vegetation along rivers and streams. This would allow species to move from one place to another – potentially recolonising areas.

What next?

Once traffic returns to levels observed before the pandemic, we should preserve observed animal movements using safe passage strategies such as vegetated overpasses that connect bisected habitat or adequately sized underpasses to allow wildlife to safely cross under large, busy roads.

Nature can reclaim places that have been totally abandoned for years, creating novel ecosystems.
Pixabay, CC BY

In the longer term, this crisis may bring innovation in business communication and human behavioural change – including reduced work travel. This could influence land-use changes in cities, potentially giving space back to nature.

The current need for people to stay at home might be triggering a human disconnection from nature. In some cases, this can lead people to become emotionally distanced from what happens to their natural environment. This could be ameliorated by exercising in local parks or other natural environments.

You can also use your time at home to positively contribute to wildlife in your urban area. If you’re looking to keep kids entertained, try developing a “renaturing” plan that aims to care for, or bring back, a species or ecosystems.

There are also many ways to retrofit your home, garden or balcony to help plants and animals.

Or discover the incredible species living alongside us by simply paying attention to nature near your home.


Sarah Bekessy, Professor in Sustainability and Urban Planning, Leader, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group (ICON Science), RMIT University; Alex Kusmanoff, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Inter-disciplinary Conservation (ICON) Science Research Group, RMIT University; Brendan Wintle, Professor in Conservation Ecology, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne; Casey Visintin, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne; Freya Thomas, Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University; Georgia Garrard, Senior Research Fellow, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group, RMIT University; Katherine Berthon, PhD Candidate, RMIT University; Lee Harrison, Honorary Associate, University of Melbourne; Matthew Selinske, Postdoctoral research associate conservation science, RMIT University, and Thami Croeser, Research Officer, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.