Restoring past losses: The biodiversity emergency

Restoring past losses: The biodiversity emergency
Joel RobinsonDecember 7, 2020


Australia’s urban areas contain disproportionately more threatened species than non-urban areas. In fact, recent research shows that 30 percent of Australia's EPBC-listed threatened species, or a total of 370 species, come from our cities and towns. These findings highlight and reinforce the global significance of planning, designing, procuring and managing urban landscapes to conserve and enhance biodiversity. 

21st century cities are awe inspiring in their complexity and scale, and in the context of climate change they can appear excessive, overwhelming and unmanageable. Climate change challenges the public’s capacity to make sense of the world, but for landscape architects who work between representation and reality, it’s our responsibility to make sense of the city. 

George Marshall in his 2014 book Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, emphasises the importance of creating proximity to help address this existential threat, “to design for the here and now, not for future threats, far away people and non-humans”.  

But the earth’s ecosystems are declining at rates unprecedented in human history, and species’ extinctions are accelerating, with potentially grave impacts for people around the world. One million of the world’s species are now under threat of extinction, according to the biggest-ever review of the state of nature on Earth - this is no longer a future threat, this is our here and now.  

For Marshall our sense of loss looks backwards not forwards; people are, it seems, more motivated to restore lost environmental quality than they are to improve current environmental quality. Through considered integrated planning and design at a range of scales we can use green or living infrastructure to restore these past losses. Living infrastructure incorporates biological systems to provide environmental, social and economic benefits and reduce harm to natural systems.

By designing living infrastructure, we can create new buildings, landscapes and infrastructure that combine nature and technology to create 21st century cities that capture the public imagination. By incorporating living infrastructure, we can foreground sensation to help people make sense of the world around them, drawing on our shared human affinity with nature not abstraction, and restoring our connection with each other and our environment. We can help to restore temperatures and reduce related morbidity and mortality; restore energy consumption levels and reduce costs; restore physical and mental wellbeing, and community cohesion, productivity and concentration; restore urban ecologies, habitat and hydrological systems and air quality and learn from indigenous culture and “ways of viewing, interacting with and respecting nature.” 

Living infrastructure provides a strategic approach to conserving and enhancing ecological and biological functions across a range of urban scales from a suburb to a metropolitan region.

A living infrastructure strategy for enhancing biodiversity can support planning and land use decision making. Many challenges facing urban environments demand collaborative responses that are cross jurisdictional and cross disciplinary in nature. A strategic living infrastructure approach to evaluating, prioritising and resourcing actions and interventions is essential to conserving and enhancing ecological and biological resources. Living infrastructure helps to regulate and support the flow of water, energy, materials and organisms that maintain urban ecological functions.

Urban development generates high amounts of pollution, and according to Ocean Protect 80 percent of ocean plastic comes from land-based resources, with the lack of stormwater treatment assets and the inadequate maintenance of those assets increasing this prevalence of plastic. By setting tangible targets and improving the design, installation and maintenance of stormwater treatment assets within urban developments, we can reduce the significant detrimental impact of urban development on marine biodiversity.

According to Sarah Bekessy, Professor/ARC Future Fellow at RMIT University, measuring biodiversity is difficult, but “critical to demonstrate value, for transparency and accountability and to monitor and evaluate outcomes”. Similarly Dr Arne Geschke, from the Integrated Sustainability Analysis School of Physics, Faculty of Science at the University of Sydney, recommends that we need to start to understanding the biodiversity footprint of our urban developments by assessing the expenditure of projects, linking those expenditure categories to the biodiversity supply chain framework and plugging that data into supply chain calculations.

Landscapes are an integral part of our networked cities whether for recreation, movement, habitat or a sense of place. The coalescence of private ownership and the existential threat of climate change demand the reconceptualization of urban development to unlock their true public value. Ecological systems don’t discern between public and private and no one government agency, private corporation or professional discipline can deal with this complexity. 

The evolution of planning mechanisms, whether codified or discretionary, incentivised or mandatory, have necessitated rigorous needs assessments across Australia. As we develop massive swathes of Australia we need to utilise these assessments to avoid, minimise and offset, in order to protect, maintain and advance biodiversity. International initiatives like Seattle’s Green Factor, China’s Sponge City and the London Plan illustrate how we can combine the diversification of public space with improvements to landscape character and ecological performance.

AILA is calling on the Australian Government to develop a living infrastructure strategy and strengthen its draft Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2018-2030 to set tangible, measurable targets for the protection and enhancement of Australia’s biodiversity. The Government needs to accelerate its work with state, territory and local governments, non-government organisations, tertiary institutions and community groups to ensure the resilience of our cities and our communities, and to further protect our native species habitat.

We can’t design our way out of massive uncertainty, but we can advocate, innovate and legislate to put the environment not just people, at the centre of place-making. We need to engage Australians in the fundamental decisions being made about our landscapes and in difficult conversations about the future of our cities.

Claire Martin is a Board Director of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, an Associate Director of OCULUS Landscape Architecture and Urban Design, a contributing editor of Landscape Architecture Australia, a member of the Office of the Victorian Government Architect’s Victorian Design Review Panel and RMIT University’s Landscape Architecture Industry Advisory Committee. 


Joel Robinson

Joel Robinson is a property journalist based in Sydney. Joel has been writing about the residential real estate market for the last five years, specializing in market trends and the economics and finance behind buying and selling real estate.

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