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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!

Haptic pathways: co-designing inclusive, civil and sensorial moments in the city

by Freya Thomas

A few members of ICON Science recently collaborated with Dr Zoe Myers from the Australian Urban Design Research Centre in the School of Design at the University of Western Australia by entering a design challenge set by The City of Melbourne.

Our design was titled:

Haptic pathways: co-designing inclusive, civil and sensorial moments in the city

Our winning design sought to create a design for new and improved opportunities for immersive nature experiences that focus on the use of native vegetation to provide a sensory connection to nature in cities. Our design specifically focused on producing diverse sensory experiences, including previously under-emphasised and under-explored facets of sensory connection, such as touch and smell.

Our Haptic Pathway imagined urban greening along an inner-city residential street in Melbourne that was:

  • Inclusive – space and pathways to empower all residents, although particularly those who struggle to move through standard urban spaces and have reduced capacity to engage through sight and sound, to feel comfortable moving through a public space through everyday routines and through all seasons.
  • Civic – a design on a ‘regular’ urban street to invite people of all abilities, perceptions and ages to engage with biodiversity through incidental experiences.
  • Sensorial – a space with diverse and layered multi-sensory natural elements. A design that actively works with senses of touch and smell instead of just sight.
  • Ecological – we incorporated indigenous and native plants to provide sensorial experience but also biodiversity benefits by encouraging ecological interactions with birds and insects, highlighting the local ecology of the area.

Design elements we incorporated into Haptic Pathways include:

  • Colour blocking in central road verges specifically aimed at being striking to visually impaired people. The ecological value of this intervention is through mass plantings of floral resources for pollinators. Plants such as Wahlengergia species could be used which provide resources for native bees, butterflies and hoverflies.
  • Small aromatic, colour and sound blocks along footpath verges were designed particularly to smell and touch on rainy days. Aromatic plant species chosen, like Prostanthera species, also provide habitat for bird species.
  • Accessible sensory spaces designed to be used by wheelchairs, walking frames and prams, where people would be surrounded by colourful, textual and aromatic plants such as Chocolate lillies and fluffy Ptilotus species flowers.
  • Braille graffiti walls highlighting amazing local biodiversity where the ecological information about species is written in braille at an accessible height.

We included a comprehensive plant list of indigenous and Australian species using categories such as colour, trees and shrubs for rainy days, other aromatic species, small shrubs and ground cover textual plants to touch, plant for aural experiences, plants for temporally changing plantings.

Screen Shot 2020-04-29 at 3.04.07 pm

Image: Zoe Myers

It was an excellent collaborative and creative experience and we hope our design will inspire creative, accessible and ecologically minded plantings in urban areas.

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.

Reflections on the 1st Congress of the Society for Urban Ecology, Berlin

The 1st Congress of the Society for Urban Ecology took place in Berlin, Germany, from 25th-28th July 2013.  Urban ecology researchers and students from all five continents came together to share their research and ideas through presentations, symposia and valuable discussions. It was evident from the academic and professional breadth of delegates and the topics discussed that urban ecology has a vital role to play in meeting the sustainability challenges of the future.

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Mark McDonnell, Tanja Straka and Chris Ives

Chris Ives met up in Berlin with Mark McDonnell, the Director of the Australian Research Centre for Urban Ecology (ARCUE) and Tanja Straka, PhD student at ARCUE, to attend this conference. In the symposium on urban biodiversity, management and governance, Chris, gave a presentation entitled ‘Bio-amenity: The convergence of biodiversity conservation and amenity provision in urban landscapes’. He outlined that the traditional focus of city planners on the provision of amenity oftentimes conflicts with the more recent goal of conserving biodiversity. The central message of the presentation was that overlaps between amenity and biodiversity need to be identified and promoted in the cities of the future.

Tanja Straka spoke in the Symposium of Young Researchers about her social research on attitudes towards urban wetlands and the evidence of biased processing of ecological information. Her presentation entitled ‘Urban Wetlands for Wildlife and People’ was awarded the Best Oral Presentation Award.

Renowned urban ecologists gave keynote lectures which provided inspiration to the audience on the past and future of urban ecology. Prof. Ingo Kowarik (pictured to the left, with Mark McDonnell), from the Technische Universität Berlin, Germany, started the Congress with an overview of the early days of urban ecology in Berlin until today and reminded the delegates of the importance of rigorous science and experimental methods in answering important questions on urban ecology.

Prof. Karen Seto, from Yale University, USA, followed on the second day and encouraged the audience to think about new paradigms and the necessity to transfer knowledge to planners.  Prof. Wei-Ning Xiang, from the East China Normal University, Shanghai, China (and co-editor of Landscape and Urban Planning) motivated the listeners to develop ‘ecological wisdom’ by turning towards historical examples for inspiration on how to work with nature to find solutions to tomorrow’s problems – such as of that of Li Bing (3rd century BC governor in China, creator of a major irrigation system that prevented devastating floods but allowed continued flow of water and fish, an ecological engineering feat and still in use today) and the landscape architect Prof. Ian McHarg (renowned early contributor to the field of ecological planning and to the early development of what was to become Geographical Information Systems, GIS). Prof. Xiang argued that bringing together the creativity of as yet validated ideas and principles, whether from the East or West, from ancient times or contemporary, is beneficial to inform the research and practice of urban sustainability planning. In his summary of the conference proceedings, Dr. Steward T.A. Pickett from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, New York, USA and Director of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study encouraged urban ecologists to be mindful of how individual research projects might fit within broader theoretical frameworks. Dr Pickett proposed a new ‘continuum of urbanity’ theory, which is grounded in four essential components of human-ecological systems: livelihood, lifestyle, linkages, and the role of place. This framework provides a useful and realistic context for urban ecological research in the future.

All in all, it was an encouraging Congress which showed that although there are still many unanswered questions in the research field of urban ecology, many distinguished researchers and enthusiastic young researchers worldwide are taking up the challenge to address both basic and applied questions about the structure and function of urban ecosystems. It was evident that the discipline of urban ecology is broad and heterogeneous and requires interdisciplinary studies. The mixture of social and biophysical research, along with more applied aspects such as policy analysis and practical know-how, makes it a unique and exciting field of study. However, in this context, we were struck by the pressing need to ground this work in strong theory and to conduct high-quality science. This approach is necessary to ensure that urban ecology has the strength and depth of understanding to address some of the most pressing challenges facing the planet in the coming decades.

Elsevier has bought Mendeley!

Elsevier has bought Mendeley! Just when Menedely had ironed out most bugs and was getting really useful. This is possibly sad news. See their blog entry here and the public reaction in the comments!

There is more info in this blog post

I’m going to be investigating moving to Zotero as my main reference manager. It’s open source and unlikely to ever be purchased by a large multi-national. I’ve also heard good things about it.