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?)
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.
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.
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 [email protected].
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.