April 18th, 2023
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Australia must seek innovative ways to bring nature back into urban environments and use nature-based solutions to deliver important urban outcomes, a new paper has found.

Released last month at the organisation’s Transform conference, the Building With Nature 2.0 report published by the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) outlines GBCA’s current thinking regarding strategies which are needed to bring nature back into the built environment.

GBCA Chief Impact Officer, Jorge Chapa, said that the built environment sector is at a turning point when it comes to protecting and enhancing nature and biodiversity.

“Nature and biodiversity can no longer be an add-on to projects,” Chapa said.

“When we incorporate it into our early planning for building projects, we can enhance biodiversity, reduce emissions and create a healthier environment for people and our planet.”

The paper’s release comes at a time when nature and biodiversity is under threat.

Worldwide, the Living Planet Report published by the World Wildlife Fund last year found that wildlife populations declined by an average of 69 percent between 1970 and 2018.

According to that report, land clearing and land-use change is currently the most significant cause of nature and biodiversity loss. However, climate change also looms as a growing concern.

In Australia, the 2021 edition of the five-yearly State of the Environment Report indicates that almost 2,000 (1,918 to exact) plant and animal species were listed as threatened in June 2021. This represents an increase of eight percent from 1,774 in June 2016.

Turning to the built environment, the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark reports that buildings and infrastructure accounts for around 35 percent of all biodiversity loss worldwide (refer article).

In particular, urban, city and regional development can impact nature and biodiversity in several ways.

These include biodiversity losses associated with the clearing of land to make way for development; pollution of air and soil associated with congestion and waste production; greater demands on water and energy sources for growing cities and towns and the trapping of heat associated with the expansion of sealed surfaces.

On top of this, additional impacts during construction can include erosion and habitat destruction through unsustainable sourcing of materials; spread of plant disease through vehicle movements; impact on species in surrounding areas associated with heavy noise (machinery operation etc.); and pollution to surrounding area and waterways associated with the spill of materials, paint, petrol and other chemicals.

Given the importance of nature to human life, all of this is important.

Clean water and healthy soil are essential for food and water supplies. Pollination is essential for food supply.

Turning to cities and towns, natural or planted vegetation can provide improved air quality, more comfortable temperatures and protection from flooding or stormwater. In coastal cities, mangroves and sand dunes can provide protection from hazards such as flooding and coastal erosion during storms.

Finally, connection with nature and natural systems delivers important benefits regarding physical and mental health as well as quality of life.

Going forward, the paper argues that six pillars are needed to deliver better outcomes.

These are that:

The built environment sector must rapidly move toward nature positive outcomes. This involves moving beyond (but including) harm/loss reduction strategies toward an industry wide approach to maximise the value of nature through all possible opportunities and to integrate nature into all facets of building from corporate strategies through to project planning and delivery.
Collaborative action is needed across all parts of the built environment sector including government (all levels), private and non-for-profit entities. Such collaboration will help to inform minimum performance requirements for new developments regarding nature along with opportunities to develop biodiversity corridors as land boundaries.
Nature must be viewed not as a separate and siloed issue but rather as being interconnected with other environmental sustainability related issues such as responding to climate change.
Nature must be considered throughout the built environment value chain. This includes not only site-specific issues such as project specific biodiversity management plans or incorporating biophilic design elements but also considering opportunities to maximise nature outcomes from a strategic viewpoint across individual sites, surrounding areas and in supply chains.
Aboriginal and indigenous knowledge and ownership should be prioritised as First Nations people have around 60,000 years of intimate knowledge and connection between people and ecosystems. This involves the inclusion of First Nations peoples in project planning, development and operation.
All stakeholders must have an opportunity to create positive nature impacts. Since communities often have a deep understanding of their local environment, stakeholder engagement should include residents, occupant communities within and surrounding buildings and those required to services and support buildings.

The report highlights several examples where nature has been effectively embedded into urban developments.

One is the landmark Barangaroo development which saw the transformation of a disused container terminal on the edge of the Sydney CBD into a spectacular 22-hectare waterfront precinct. The transformation was undertaken by the NSW Government in association with Lendlease, Aqualand, Sydney Metro and Crown Resorts.

From a nature viewpoint, a key feature of this development is Barangaroo Reserve – a six-hectare area which is one of three development areas within the precinct and includes the foreshore, a swimming cove, lookouts, walking and cycling trails and picnic spots.

Designed by Peter Walker, FASLA, of PWP Landscape Architecture in association with the Australian design practice Johnson Pilton Walker (JPW), this aimed to recreate a headland that existed before European arrival in Sydney and was used by First Nations people for thousands of years.

Initiatives included plantation of 75,000 native trees and shrubs, plants which are native and endemic species to enhance local area biodiversity, 50 percent public space across the entire Barangaroo development, an on-site water treatment plant for construction, community gardens, rainwater capture and enhancement of marine habitat.

One initiative was a Living Seawalls program.

This involved an improvement to seawall design to protect and enhance marine habitat through 384 habitat tiles that were designed and installed on lightweight frames at varying levels under Barangaroo’s wharves.

Each of the tiles are 3D printed tiles and used oyster shells and crushed sandstone. Each featured crevices and niches that mimic the surfaces that marine organisms need to thrive in underwater habitat.

Brown kelp was transplanted onto the tiles in order to attract marine species.

The project was performed by Lendlease in conjunction with Reef Design Lab, the Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS) and Infrastructure NSW.

In another example, the paper’s sponsor in GPT has developed an app called the Biodiversity Assessment Matrix to help it measure, manage and improve the biodiversity value of its assets.

The app facilitates data collection, cataloguing and analysis with regard to biodiversity impacts and outcomes.

In one of its earliest applications, the tool was applied by Greenfleet to evaluate 144 blocks of green space at its Highpoint Shopping Centre in Melbourne’s inner northwest.

Whilst the site scored highly in terms of its understory, overstorey and vegetative connectivity, the process uncovered opportunities for improvement in terms of groundcover, non-living habitat and vegetative composition.

Using this analysis, the company is implementing a range of measures. These include revegetating green spaces with species and are native to Australia and indigenous to local areas; reassessing its invasive species management and choice of herbicide; increasing non-living habitat such as rock features, ornamental boulders and hollowed tree trucks that create ‘lizard lounges’ and ‘bee hotels’; and compensating for residual impacts with nature-based offsets.

Living Seawall at Barangaroo Reserve (image source: Reef Design Lab)

As part of preparation for its paper, GBCA engaged feedback about current industry attitudes through surveys and in-depth interviews.

This indicated that whilst there was a desire to improve nature and biodiversity outcomes, barriers to achieving better results are evident in several areas.

These include:

Competing priorities for organisational resources.
A disconnect between corporate ambition and development project planning and delivery with many organisations now having teams, goals and targets for sustainability but not always communicating these across different areas of the business.
A lack of data and consistent metrics and frameworks for measuring nature-based outcomes in the built environment; and
Challenges in identifying natural impacts which occur beyond project boundaries and a project owners’ immediate area of control.

The latest paper follows GBCA’s first published paper on the topic which was released in 2018.

That paper established principles around the protection of nature, restoration activities and nature connectivity.

At its launch, GBCA Head of Green Star Strategic Delivery Elham Monavari said the paper represents part of an ongoing shift in GBCA’s approach toward nature through its Green Star ratings system.

In previous years, Monavari said Green Star’s focus had been to minimise harm by refusing to reward projects that damage sensitive ecosystems and sites.

Nowadays, the rating system aims to also reward projects that embrace a proactive approach to bring nature back into the urban environment.

The paper represents a first step for GBCA in developing a roadmap for nature which will be released in the next twelve months.

Chapa says the importance of a strategic approach should not be underestimated.

“While many in industry are already leading the way in this space, we don’t yet have a consistent global approach to measuring nature impacts so that we can accurately assess outcomes,” he said.

“We want to ensure that industry is supported in making good choices for nature management so that we can work together to restore and regenerate nature and biodiversity and reduce our future impacts.”

Andrew is an established writer in the building and construction industry. After graduating wit…..

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