Can building projects lead the way towards ecological restoration?

This spring, the United Nations has announced that between 2021 -2030, it will be the ‘Decade of Ecological Restoration’.

Bluebell wood, South Downs (R. Callway)

Globally, the progress towards protecting and improving our natural world has been poor. There are reports of a sixth mass extinction for wildlife species – where rates of extinction are thought to be 100 times higher than normal levels (Kolbert, 2014). This scale of loss is shocking in itself but we cannot ignore that the species and ecosystems being lost are also humanity’s life support system. They provide essential services for us, such as clean air, soil and water, atmospheric and urban cooling, pollination, and vital resources, including food, fuels, textiles and construction materials and supporting both our physical and mental health and wellbeing.

The UN estimates that degradation of land and marine ecosystems resulting in loss of species and ecosystems services has undermined the well-being of 3.2 billion people and costs about 10% of the annual global gross domestic product. Investing in restoring 350 million hectares of degraded land between now and 2030 could generate US$9 trillion in ecosystem services and take an additional 13 to 26 gigatons of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.

Living roof on home (Architect: Erick van Egeraat)

In the UK, the government has recognised that our progress on habitat loss and wildlife protection has been slow and even backwards, as a result of human activities, including intensive agriculture and urban growth. There are various ecological restoration and ‘rewilding’ initiatives happening across the country, including programmes to restore freshwater, peat bogs and woodland habitats, as well as species recovery and reintroduction programmes, such as for the Hazel Dormice and River Otter. The Back from the Brink project is targeting 20 of the UK’s most endangered species to save them from extinction and seeking to benefit a further 200 threatened species through habitat protection and restoration. This is being delivered in 19 projects across England that are enhancing a range of habitats vital to these species.

In the construction sector, the government is proposing to make it mandatory for developers to deliver a ‘Net Gain’ for biodiversity in construction projects. Biodiversity Net Gain means that the level of wildlife and habitats should be not only be maintained but actually enhanced in a particular project. The finer details of how this will be measured is still to be confirmed, including whether it will reflect losses to local wildlife communities and the wider territories of impacted species. It is also still to be decided whether individual householders and smaller developers will be expected to comply with the biodiversity net gain requirement, along-side larger developers. Nevertheless, it is clear that everyone needs to act now, to try and respond to this national and global threat.

Our case study, the ‘ Woodland Retreat in Hampshire, highlights that even individuals can make a difference, adding to the wildlife and habitats in and around their homes. And, with the Wildlife Assessment Check tool we are trying to help householders and smaller developers to think about the potential ecological impact of a project at the design stage of a project. This is to help people think about ecology before proposals get too far down the line when it becomes harder to incorporate wildlife into plans. As the Woodland Retreat example indicates, adopting a proactive approach to wildlife can also help improve the likelihood of a successful planning application, since local planning authorities have a ‘biodiversity duty’ to ensure wildlife protection in new developments.

The 2021-2030 Decade for Ecological Restoration is an urgent call to action for all of us – we must act now and invest in wildlife for our benefit, as well as for the benefit of our natural home.

“What would the world be once bereft of wet and wildness? Let them be left, oh let them be left, wildness and wet, long live the weeds and wilderness yet” Gerard Manley Hopkins


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