This was the question posed by Dr Bob Bloomfield, Head of Innovation at the Natural History Museum, whilst chairing a discussion at the IHDC 2012 conference, on designing ecosystem services into the built environment.
Our connection with nature is at times, and certain locations, tenuous to say the least. The National Trust has documented the children of Britain’s declining connection with nature and the external environment. Stephen Moss, who reviewed the findings, diagnosed a “Nature Deficit Disorder”. This report, “Natural Childhood”, marked the National Trust’s launching of an inquiry to determine the barriers and the solutions for children’s connection with nature. The inquiry found that children’s love of nature is best started in the home. If we are to avoid creating a generation cut off from the natural world, we need to look not only at the role of parents and authorities, as recommended in the findings, but also at that the built environment practitioners can play by designing in nature to the places we call home. This call for greater practitioner attention to nature-based assets within metropolitan boundaries is mirrored in the recently published UNEP “Cities and Biodiversity Outlook” report and in research by Luca Salvati and colleagues on the link between urban planning and land degradation.
Our connectivity with nature is not just a childhood concern. Some may recall the 2009 flood of Victoria Station that brought transport chaos to London and the greater South East. Well it also served as a spark to rethink growth plans in the Victoria Business Improvement District (BID). The event served as a stark reminder that economic growth of an area is vulnerable to nature, that there is work needed to improve the climatic reliance of local businesses and that nature can play a vital role in doing so. The Landscape Institute case study explains the actions of the Victoria BID, including conducting a green infrastructure audit which identified a phenomenal 25ha suitable for green roofs capable of intercepting 80,000m3 of rain water each year. This now ties in with the new London Plan and its All London Green Grid Supplementary Planning Guidance, which formalises consideration of design and management of green infrastructure within London. The Mayor of London has recently teamed up with the Landscape Institute and the Garden Museum to run a High Line for London competition, which made for some interesting visions of London, and commentary in the London Evening Standard.
Whilst the rhetoric; urban greening, green infrastructure, ecosystem services make nature seem like a distant planet, manageable only by institutions and an abundance of bureaucratic processes, this is not the case. Any patch of ground, free of tarmac, even that hidden under decking/concrete slabs, has the potential to help intercept heavy rainfall. The Guerrilla Gardening movement is hot on the case with their ‘pimp your pavement’ campaign and a number of water companies have teamed up with the Environment Agency and other organisations to produce a free ‘UK Rain Garden Guide’ for household action.
If we are to manipulate ecosystems to provide enhanced service to our cities, then we perhaps need to ponder the “banal violence of configuring spaces exclusively around human proclivities” (p. 580) as highlighted by Kathryn Yusoff in her paper on the “Aesthetics of loss”. Perhaps, before we get carried away with the services and quantification rhetoric, we should ask ourselves does nature have to have a function for us to have it in our urban areas? How depressing if the answer is yes.
Whilst some would argue that there’s an inherent tension between the built environment and nature, others might argue that urban ecosystems themselves show the wonderment of nature, its adaptability, and how many other species put us to shame. You can make your own judgement at the Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum –there’s a category for urban wildlife, defined as images that focus on nature’s occupation of the man-made environment.
Ecosystem Services Come to Town; Adapting to climate change by working with Nature, IHDC 2012 Conference, 15 October 2012, Natural History Museum, London.
We’ll take the high road: off the streets and into the sky could be the future for London bikes, London Evening Standard, 11 October 2012
Case Study: Greening for Growth in Victoria, Landscape Institute 2012
Natural Childhood, National Trust, London
Reconnecting children with nature, National Trust, London
Pimp your Pavement, campaign from GuerrillaGardening.org
Luca Salvati, Roberta Gemmiti and Luigi Perini, Land degradation in Mediterranean urban areas: an unexplored link with planning?, Area 44, 317-325.
Cities and Biodiversity Outlook, UNEP
Victoria Business Improvement District (2012)
KathrynYusoff, Aesthetics of loss: biodiversity, banal violence and biotic subjects, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 37, 578-592.