Can Development Really Go Hand In Hand With Nature?

Development versus nature.  Construction versus conservation.  Economic progress versus fluffy bunnies and tree huggers.  These are the traditional conflicts that come to mind when considering construction projects and how they impact on the natural world around them, particularly when large projects are proposed that could destroy huge areas of natural landscape and habitat.  I remember some of the major infrastructure development projects of the 1980’s & 1990’s which had colossal stand-offs between construction companies and environmental protesters (anyone else remember Swampy and the Newbury Bypass?)

Newbury Bypass Protestors 1996
Newbury Bypass Protestors 1996

The Development Paradox?

That the UK needs more new homes and other infrastructure is beyond doubt: for example, the Government has a target to build 300,000 new homes a year.  Also beyond doubt is the need to protect our environmental infrastructure because nature is in trouble: in 2014 it was estimated that over 10% of local wildlife sites had been lost or damaged in the previous five years and, once lost, these areas are incredibly difficult to re-establish.

I think it is fair to say that, in the past, neither side has covered itself in glory at times, with often entrenched “us & them” views.  But does it really have to be this way?  Can we really only provide development and progress at the expense of the environment?  Can we really only protect our valuable habitats by preventing development?

A New Way To Build

Not everybody thinks so.  The Wildlife Trusts have recently published new guidelines on how to build in a way that is also friendly to nature.  Although focussed on housing, the principles contained in these guidance notes can be extended to many other forms of development.

WWT Image Green Infrastructure
Green Infrastructure – Image courtesy of the Wildlife Trusts

This bold vision shows that development doesn’t have to squeeze out nature.  It can be done sympathetically, retaining and even enhancing many features of the natural environment.  Yes, there is a cost to providing such measures, but the benefits they provide can be enormous, to wildlife, to the local community, to the economy and to the developers.  For example:

  • Important wildlife sites are retained not lost, new habitats can be created, buildings can be made more wildlife-friendly, habitats can be connected with wildlife corridors, all of which gives wildlife more space to thrive;
  • People can enjoy nature as part of their daily lives, they feel more connected, with improved physical & mental health, children grow up with wildlife integral to their surroundings rather than something separate;
  • Green spaces can provide safer transport routes, space to grow local food and community areas to be shared;
  • The local environment can be protected in a cost-effective way, such as by reducing surface water run-off to surrounding areas;
  • Green developments are more desirable places to work & live, attracting higher market prices and enhancing developers’ environmental credentials.
WWT Image Nature-Rich Development
Benefits of a Nature-Rich Development – Image courtesy of the Wildlife Trusts

According to the Wildlife Trusts’ guidelines, these benefits can be achieved as long as the development follows two overarching guiding principles:

  • It must result in a measurable improvement for wild species & habitats – for example, designing around existing habitats to avoid losing or damaging them, creating new habitats and ensuring that any habitat that is lost is more than compensated for;
  • Residents must have lasting access to nearby nature – with wildlife “on the doorstep”, well-managed green spaces and local communities encouraged to get involved.

Building With Wildlife In Mind

The overall masterplanning of a development should be done with regard to the existing ecological networks on the site, understanding the limits of the environment’s ability to cope with the development.  This is best done by using local knowledge and expertise.  Many of the 47 local Wildlife Trusts in the UK have their own Wildlife Consultancies who can advise on all ecological issues relating to developments.

When looking at the detailed design of a site, there are lots of measures that can be put in place to help follow the guiding principles above.  Just some simple features that developments can include are:

  • Sustainable drainage features such as permeable paving, swales and ponds to reduce flood risk;
  • Open green spaces, trees, hedgerows, water features and wildflower verges, especially when inter-connected to form wildlife corridors. Such corridors can also provide safe, pleasant transport routes for pedestrians & cyclists;
  • Bat roosts, bird boxes, etc. built into buildings (for example, here in Cornwall, Green & Blue produce a range of bee bricks that can be built into walls, as well as a range of other products);
  • Wildlife-friendly green roofs and walls;
  • Wildlife-friendly plants in gardens and open spaces, with more permeable boundaries to encourage wildlife to migrate (more hedges, fewer walls);
  • Renewable energy & water-efficiency measures, such as solar panels, wind turbines, heat pumps, greywater recycling, etc.;
  • Street lighting that doesn’t disrupt wildlife;
  • Allotments & communal orchards to encourage local food production.

 

There is no doubt that the Wildlife Trusts’ vision for the future is challenging, but many believe (me included) that it is a challenge that must be embraced if we are to meet the needs of our modern & growing society without destroying more of the natural environment as we have done in the past.

 

SP Civil Design’s specialism is water and environmental civil engineering, with a focus on sustainability.  If you would like to discuss a potential project with us, or have any comments or questions about this article, then please get in touch via our Contact section or email steve@spcivildesign.co.uk.

Thanks go to the Wildlife Trusts’ Living Landscape Development Manager Rachell Hackett for her kind permission to use the images and links to the Wildlife Trusts’ material in this article.  Disclaimer: All view & opinions expressed herein are my own.  My wife & I are members of Cornwall Wildlife Trust and keen supporters of their work.  Although I have no commercial connection with Green & Blue and do not endorse their products, I think they have some excellent products that can really help our beleaguered urban wildlife.

What Does A Civil Engineer Actually Do?

As a civil engineer with my own small consultancy, I’m often at networking events or business fairs with people outside my industry.  I’ll introduce myself and the conversation will often follow a similar path to this:

“What do you do?”

“I’m a civil engineer” I reply.

“Oh.  {{{BLANK EXPRESSION!}}}  So… what do you actually do?!?”

 

Working in an industry, it is easy to assume that everyone knows what you do.  If someone tells me they are a solicitor, accountant or web developer, I reckon I have a fairly good (if simplistic) idea of what their job entails, but it always amazes me that doesn’t follow through to civil engineering.  So I want to explain what civil engineering is and what we as civil engineers do.  Apologies to those readers in the industry who already know what they do, you won’t have to read on!

 

History of Civil Engineering

 

Civil Engineering History Aztec Pyramid
Aztec Pyramid

Civil engineering has been around as long as humankind itself, since we started constructing shelters instead of living as nomads.  Think about the great structures from ancient civilisations.  In medieval times, most construction of notable buildings was done by craftsmen such as masons and carpenters.  The grand design work was done by architects, although this would have encompassed much of what we understand civil engineers to do today. Indeed, until relatively modern times, there was little distinction between civil engineers and architects.

In the 18th century, the term civil engineering was born, differentiating engineering works for the civilian population from military engineering.  John Smeaton, who designed the Eddystone Lighthouse among many other things, is generally credited as the first to call himself a civil engineer.  In 1771, he formed the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers.  Over the next few decades, this evolved into the Institution of Civil Engineers which was formed in 1818 with Thomas Telford as its first President.

The Institution received its Royal Charter in 1828, which finally established the first definition of civil engineering.  The Charter stated that “civil engineering is the application of physical and scientific principles, and its history is intricately linked to advances in understanding of physics and mathematics throughout history. …Civil engineering is a wide ranging profession, …its history is linked to knowledge of structures, material science, geography, geology, soil, hydrology, environment, mechanics and other fields.”  Finally civil engineers had a public definition of what it was that they did.

The late 18th and 19th centuries spawned many of the figures we recognise today as iconic civil engineers.  Smeaton & Telford, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, George Stephenson, Robert Stephenson, Joseph Bazalgette, Benjamin Wright, among many others.

 

Civil Engineering History IKB Brunel
Isambard Kingdom Brunel

But ask someone to name a modern civil engineer and you will probably meet a blank expression.  This is largely because major projects are now delivered by large teams, so we don’t have the great iconic figures we once had.  Sir John Armitt is arguably the most famous civil engineer of today, having led the team that delivered the London 2012 Olympic Games infrastructure.

 

Civil Engineering Today

Today, we can say that civil engineering deals with the design, construction and maintenance of the built and natural environment.  It includes roads, bridges, canals, dams, buildings, harbours, railways and airports.  It also includes producing, treating and distributing all the modern utilities that we take for granted such as water, electricity, gas, broadband and sewage.

 

Civil Engineering Modern Falkirk Boat Wheel
Falkirk Boat Wheel

With such a wide-reaching remit, today’s civil engineer tends to be a specialist, not the Jack (or rather Master) of All Trades we saw with the likes of Brunel.  Although having a good general grounding in many of the areas mentioned above, he or she will tend to specialise in a few select areas.

 

“So What Do You Do?”

I have more than 20 years’ experience as a civil engineer, but that is not to say I know it all, I certainly don’t.  Ask me to design a bridge or a multi-storey car park and I wouldn’t know where to begin, although I have a reasonably good idea about how they work and what would be involved.  My specialisms are in water and environmental engineering.  Those who know me will know that I design, amongst other things:

  • sewers and pipe networks;
  • sewage treatment plant;
  • roads and site layouts;
  • drainage and flooding solutions;
  • sustainable drainage systems;
  • erosion protection systems.

 

Civil Engineering Sustainable SUDS Infiltration Basin
Stormwater Pond

But even these seemingly simple titles are catch-all terms that include a whole range of other things.  To take an example from above: sewer network.  It’s just two words – sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?  But a sewer network can contain a whole host of different elements: pipes, manholes, control structures to hold back flows, storage tanks to contain those flows, overflow structures to relieve the system & prevent flooding, pumping stations to make water flow uphill, river outfalls, the list goes on.  Drill into each of those other simple terms above and you will find they too are far more involved than they first seem.

Perhaps it is the fact that civil engineering covers such a huge remit that we should not be surprised that the general public don’t know what we do.  Perhaps that is why I find “what do you do?” to be such a difficult question to answer when talking to non-engineers.  However, hopefully these few words have gone some way to spreading the word.

 

SP Civil Design’s specialism is water and environmental civil engineering, with a focus on sustainability.  If you would like to discuss a potential project with us, or have any comments or questions about this article, then please get in touch via our Contact section or email steve@spcivildesign.co.uk.