The UN identified 2020 as a year of reflection and opportunity for us all to ‘build back better’ by using this moment to increase the resilience of nations and communities as we recover from the pandemic.
With over ten years’ of placemaking experience, both in the UK and internationally, Laura Stafford has worked across the scales of urban design and architecture and is a keen advocate for the natural environment with a particular interest in how the built environment can support nature’s recovery.
Nature is vital for society, food security, clean water, fresh air, and the enrichment of our health. This need has been pronounced by the lockdown, which has emphasised the importance of nature and the positive impact it can have on our physical and mental wellbeing. Despite improved air quality and increased birdsong, we must not forget that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.
The cost of nature’s decline
Nature’s decline has been caused by us, through centuries of habitat loss and degradation. Since 1970, this decline has accelerated due to intensive agricultural practices, climate change, urbanisation, pollution, hydrological change, invasive non-native species and woodland management. 70% of England’s land is used for farming, 11% for urban development and only 10% is forested. In the past 50 years, Britain has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows and 75% of all flying insects. 15% of all species are at risk of extinction.
Alongside nature’s decline, we are experiencing negative impact on our health. 26% of the UK population are obese, costing society £27 billion per year. There are 64,000 deaths due to air pollution per year, and care costs of air pollution could reach £5.1billion per year by 2035. Mental illness affects 25% of adults and 10% of children, and treatment, support and loss of productivity due to mental illness costs the UK economy £94 billion every year.
Our acts of environmental harm put our economic future, prosperity and health at risk.
In the past 50 years Britain has lost 75% of all flying insects. © Martin Sepion
What does nature need?
Studies have proven that nature can bounce back if we provide the support it needs, but this will require a step change in how we develop and manage our environment.
This can be achieved, in part, through addressing the way we produce food and develop settlements. But we need to make bolder moves to give nature the space it needs to recover.
The Lawton Review (2010) revealed that wildlife sites, despite their diversity, did not comprise a coherent and resilient ecological network, and would not be able to cope with climate change. The review called for the creation of natural networks that are bigger, better, and more joined up. This preceded the government’s Environmental Bill, which mandates biodiversity net gains in new developments, and the Agriculture Bill, which will reward farmers for improving soil quality and biodiversity.
The Wildlife Trusts have taken this one step further and proposed the creation of Nature Recovery Networks (NRNs), which would reconnect habitats and provide space for wildlife to move and flourish.
NRNs adopt a 4-stage process to create a system for nature’s recovery:
- Protect the wildest places
- Connect them with natural corridors
- Enhance and increase the overall area for wildlife recovery, with a recovery zone
- Find space for wildlife in the wider landscape
JTP project, Radio Station Rugby, utilises large green and blue corridors to support the movement of species and provide natural recreation space. © Urban&Civic
Placemaking for nature
JTP has, for many years, been working with the Wildlife Trusts and other charities across the UK to create places that support and encourage nature. The London Wetland Centre in Barnes was one of JTP’s earliest nature conservation and restoration projects. Sir David Attenborough praised the scheme as ‘the ideal model for how humankind and the natural world may live side by side in the 21st century’.
At RadioStation Rugby, large green and blue corridors were used to support movement of Great Crested Newts and provide natural play and recreation space for the community. In 2019 we collaborated with the Wildlife Trusts to create a nature-led vision for the OxCam Arc – 100 Miles Wilder. The government’s 2020 Budget declared plans to develop a long-term Spatial Framework to support strategic planning in the OxCam Arc. Their focus is on supporting the areas future economic success and the delivery of new homes required by this growth up to 2050. However, there is no mention of natural capital or wildlife in these proposals.
100 Miles Wilder is a vision for nature-led development across the OxCamArc, which will ultimately lead to a more prosperous economy and sustainable growth. Taking this approach will allow for the most valuable habitats to be protected, increase natural capital through connecting and enhancing ecological networks, and improve everyone’s access to nature. Coupled with a strategic environmental assessment and a sustainable travel index, this could inform the best places to build new communities.
A vision map was created as part of this environmental advocacy, with 10 principles for Building Nature’s Way.
Our solutions are in nature, but we need to act upon them. © Henry Be
Investment in infrastructure is usually based on a cost-benefit comparison. Recent advances in evaluating social and environmental value mean we can better understand the benefits of natural capital. These include the mental and physical health benefits that contact with nature can provide, increasing natural carbon sinks, reduced flood risk and improved pollinator services. For every £1 invested in natural capital, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates a £70 social and environmental benefit.
Our solutions are in nature, but we need to act upon them. From policy makers to placemakers, we all share responsibility to create natural places that support biodiversity and wildlife, and connect people with nature.