- December 1, 2022
How designers and urban planners are part of the biodiversity crisis—and what we can do to reverse it
Humans are at the center of built environments’ designs, and while there is an increased focus on reducing carbon emissions and footprints, the ecosystems surrounding them continue to be left by the wayside. Cities around the world are facing a collective biodiversity crisis, and protecting the nature that remains in cities is no longer enough.
The state of our ecosystems reflects the health of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life, and they are in decline. To address this, a combination of conservation, preservation, regreening strategies and a drastic turn back to the aesthetics of a raw and wilder world are now of the utmost importance for designers and urban planners.
Green reconnectivity: Conservation and preservation comes first
If we’re to have biodiverse cities, there needs to be biodiversity to begin with.
For decades, cities have collectively sprawling outwards, spreading out into natural land and encouraging a carbon-dependant modes of living. While regreening strategies have been impactful at mitigating this trend, designers’ and planners’ first reflex should be to protect and conserve the environment as much as we can. Finding sustainable ways to accommodate more people in our cities must either maintain green corridors and connectivity between greenspaces, or create the ones that either don’t exist or have been neglected.
Oftentimes the green space created in new parks or around city infrastructure isn’t designed to act as habitats to support local wildlife and insects; when it comes to birds alone, cities’ bright lights draw them in, but cities are ill-equipped to make space for them. Instead, glass superstructures act as reflective obstacles that result in massive amounts of collision deaths. As biodiversity loss stems from how habitats are used and fragmented, the integration of ecological corridors is at the heart of cities’ connectivity to the natural world. Reintegration of the natural has historically proven vital in many ways, from the well-known health and wellness benefits of being connected to nature and cleaner air to natural flood management, improving traffic and increasing safety by reducing crime rates.
This has given rise to movements like new perennialism, which presents new ways to encourage the development of biodiversity in urban environments. It posits that we must shift the way we look at gardens and greenery in cities by creating immersively natural environments that users can enjoy, and not like they were put there by design. Lines between the cities we live in and the greater ecosystems around them can be blurred, where all land—not only demarcated forests on cities’ outskirts—can act as better homes for fauna and flora: Living green walls and rooftops form the green infrastructure our cities not only need for climate resiliency, pollination hubs and biodiversity survival, but actively benefit them with long-term environmental assets.
Whatever we reinstall into our urban environments, it must be done in deeper ways that can create wild cities, which protect and nurture both the world we live in and the one we share with other species. Our cities’ centres and public squares require room for resilient and self-sufficient urban forests instead of only tree-lined pathways, and green applications of walls and rooftops have to be inserted with less of a utilitarian point of view and more from a restorative one that seeks to benefit biodiversity before our own needs.
Incorporating nature in, on and around built environments
As the reintegration of biodiversity in our expanding cities begins with natural materiality, designs must take transdisciplinary approaches that combine the efforts of each design stage to achieve restorative results. If our built environments draw inspiration from the robust, diverse and visually harmonious behaviours and characteristics of the natural world, their designs can in turn help the natural world.
Improving city planning and intelligently re-densifying means looking to their composite parts; if we’re not building wider and spreading out further, then we’re building up. On the scale of individual projects, hive-like communities such as Humaniti and Maestria—dubbed ‘vertical villages’—are beginning to flourish across cities everywhere in the world. These community hubs host a mix of uses to reduce detrimental sprawl, intermingling public and private domains while putting sustainability first in ways that range from green roofs, green walls and greenhouses to smart water reuse and retention strategies.
Changes to individual projects approaches in turn extend out into urban planning, leading by example where new and revisited developments both re-densify cities and green them. Expanding out to a neighbourhood scale, sensitivity to environmental contexts can be combined with socially inclusive and accessible design, forming reinvigorated urban plans that show how nature and humans can coexist in living environments that rewild urban landscapes, protect shorelines, and ensure the existence of biodiverse connections between urban and green areas.
There are solutions: As urban planning can focus on preservation and connectivity to nature, architecture can design space that integrates the environment and fosters whole ecosystems, and urban design and landscape architecture can opt for ground-up approaches beginning with vegetation selections that are not only sustainable but functional and beautiful as well. There are opportunities in responsible materials as well—how they’re sourced, what they’re made of and how they’re used, such as recycled and reclaimed materials alongside options like wood sourced from sustainable forestry that is certified by organizations such as the Forest Stewardship Council or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.
Each of these design choices and methods represent pathways that positively reshape our built environments’ relationships to the biosphere around them as ones of balance and benefit.
See how these approaches to our relationships with the environment are shaping our thinking as designers and thinkers with the Net Positive round table discussion on Reintegrating Biodiversity in Cities (in French).