Ramboll’s Samantha Deacon outlines the case for restoring healthy cities.
At COP15 in December, the UK made the commitment to join the Montreal-Kunming Global Biodiversity Framework and pledged to conserve 30% of land and sea by 2030.
The journey to achieving the 30 x 30 target will require significant investment, not in the least because of the UK’s poor track record with climate targets.
In January, a report from the Office of Environmental Protection showed that the UK was set to miss each of its legally binding climate targets.
For example, achieving 30 x 30 will require, amongst other things, a shift in mindset. Conservation is traditionally thought of as Sites of Significant Scientific Interest, or SSSIs.
However, the Framework provides an optimal opportunity for the UK to seize the chance to not only continue efforts maintaining such SSSIs, but to expand conservation efforts to restoring nature across a wider network, including in our towns and cities.
Environmental restoration must be balanced with other pressures of course, including but not limited to: food production; resource management for manufacturing; generating energy; and urban expansion.
In fact, the World Bank estimates that our current urban population – half of the world’s population – will more than double by 2050, when nearly 7 out of 10 of us will live in cities.
With demands on all sides, the challenge to reverse nature loss is a complex one, but not without solutions.
As part of 2021’s Environment Act, this November the UK’s biodiversity net gain requirements become mandatory, requiring all new developments to deliver at least 10% biodiversity net gain.
This should ensure the protection of high-quality habitats, whilst delivering restoration financed through developments.
The government’s recently published Environmental Improvement Plan, or EIP, begins to lay out the roadmap of how developers and private finance will be expected to lead the reversal of biodiversity decline in our urban environment.
The EIP includes a commitment to publishing an updated Green Finance Plan this year, which aims to raise at least £500m per year of private finance for nature recovery by 2027, and more than £1bn by 2030.
However, the EIP falls short though on recognising the role of enforcement and the monitoring of restoration actions to achieve target conditions.
A headline-grabbing part of the EIP is the commitment that everyone will live within a 15-minute walk of green space or a body of water.
The positive impact green space can have on mental health is now well known, but given a recent study in The Lancet laying out the physical health benefits of urban tree cover, the 15-minute access point is particularly welcome.
In a study of heat-related deaths in European cities, the researchers predicted that 40% of deaths associated with the urban heat island effect could have been prevented by increasing tree cover in our cities by at least 30%.
By way of context, the GLA estimates tree canopy covers 21% of the capital’s land area, with the Mayor committing to a further 10% increase by 2050 – is this quick enough given the health benefits of urban trees?
The EIP’s 15-minute accessible sites will be measured by the government’s Green Infrastructure Framework, or GIF.
Launched recently by Natural England, the GIF was devised for Local Authorities and developers by a 70-strong advisory group and seeks to embed five standards for new developments to increase the extent and connectivity of nature-rich habitats: Green Infrastructure Strategy; Accessible Green Space; Urban Nature Recovery; Urban Greening Factor; and Urban Tree Canopy Cover.
These standards offer architects and ecologists the opportunity to work together to make a real difference to our urban spaces and building design.
It should be remembered that the benefits of urban greening are significantly linked to the role sites play in wider nature networks – or, in other terms, the spatial configuration of green infrastructure, which should also connect to rural areas.
The EIP rightly platforms local decision-making and delivery, but the EIP should present, in tandem, a role for strategic national planning that ensures habitats are connected to act as species stepping stones and have representation across habitat types. However, questions remain over what the 30% target will comprise?
Ultimately, ambitious new frameworks, roadmaps and policies like the EIP, Green Finance Strategy and Biodiversity Net Gain are essential and well-intentioned, but urgently require a marketplace to facilitate nature action, effective enforcement and strategic oversight to reverse biodiversity decline and deliver climate resilience.
We must remember that what we build now will last. The question mark just hangs over whether that development is a help or a hindrance.
“Once a city is built, its physical form and land use patterns can be locked in for generations,” as The World Bank rightly points out. So, we must think strategically now, across both urban and rural landscapes, for physical, mental, social and environmental health in our cities.
Samantha Deacon is a principal at Ramboll.