The protection of nature is well established within our planning system and, over recent years, has been shifting towards a culture of ‘net gain’ rather than ‘no net loss’. Incorporating biodiversity as a core requirement for new developments has the potential to transform how we interact with nature in our urban areas, as well as allowing nature to permeate throughout our cities.
Covering old ground?
The principle of protecting and restoring our natural environment, however, is not particularly revolutionary. The Lawton Report ‘Making Space for Nature’, now 10 years old, recognised the importance of coherent and resilient ecological networks, and the need to rebuild nature ‘more, bigger, better and joined’. Are we, therefore, still playing catch up in policy terms to old ideas?
Experience indicates that the change in policy largely reflects the direction a proportion of developers are moving in. We have worked with a number of clients over the years that have seen value in incorporating biodiversity within developments and the benefits they bring to people, as well as biodiversity as a whole. Consequently, the change in policy largely acts to level the playing field across the industry, establishing a level of enhancement expected from developments, which will be legislated through the forthcoming Environment Bill.
Co-ordination is key
What is important moving forward is ensuring biodiversity enhancements are managed in a co-ordinated way. This includes establishing networks of green infrastructure that enable the permeation of wildlife through our urban environment, while linking existing areas of high nature conservation value.
Care will, however, be needed to ensure delivering improved connectivity is the right thing and happens at an appropriate rate to ensure it does not result in future species decline. Resident species in currently isolated ‘pockets’ in our urban environments will have often adapted to differing pressures and the removal of these can result in a ‘watering down’ of site specific adaptations that subsequently influence their survival ability. Menno Schilthuizen examines this in the case of mice in New York in his book ‘Darwin Comes to Town’.
The ambition of the Government in the latest proposals for tree planting is commendable. I remain apprehensive, however, about the deliverability of the scale proposed. In June 2020, Defra reported an increase in tree planting in England of 2,330 ha in 2019/2020, and whilst the UK as a whole saw 13,460 ha increase in the same period, it should be noted that Forestry is a devolved matter. Although having targets is important, the driver behind this increase appears to be principally related to carbon sequestration. The need for a co-ordinated delivery of enhancements, as discussed previously, is in evidence.
The introduction of trees into the urban environment has the potential to deliver enhancements not only for biodiversity (in linking habitats through busy urban streets) but for a number of ecosystem services, including regulation of the heat island effect and management of surface water. We need to ensure, therefore, that the benefits of schemes looking at increasing urban tree coverage are not overlooked in favour of delivering large scale woodland provision in more remote areas, which rely on larger scale delivery to meet the stated targets.