Biodiversity; the missing urban link

Introduction

The ‘deep dive’ programme instigated by Julie James MS, Minister for Climate Change in Wales has generated considerable energy and enthusiasm for a range of environment-related topics since being kicked off last year. The renewable energy deep dive was followed by one on timber and trees. The idea of intense, topic-related areas of focus has demonstrated the potential to bring together a range of stakeholders from public, private and third sector, to work collaboratively to solve problems for that sector.

The resulting actions can help shape sectoral priorities and work programmes for years to come, and align them with the goals of the Future Generations Act, as well as the socio-economic duty and the Nature and Climate Emergencies.

The results of the third deep dive, into biodiversity, have recently been announced by the Minister for Climate Change. The remit of the group was to make recommendations on accelerating actions to achieve managing at least 30% of Wales’ land, freshwater and sea for nature by 2030.

NICW’S remit

Our remit as the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales (NICW) is to provide advice to the Welsh Government on the long-term needs of infrastructure in Wales. The development of infrastructure in Wales is tied to biodiversity because new or existing infrastructure development has the potential to improve or worsen biodiversity. An increase in biodiversity is beneficial to humans and other species, and our view on the outcome of the biodiversity deep dive is shaped by the Nature Emergency and the long-term requirements of the people of Wales from 2030 to 2100 and beyond.

We welcome the recommendations as an important step in protecting habitat and biodiversity across large areas of rural Wales. However we would like to highlight the opportunity that exists within our urban environment to contribute to Wales’ sustainable development and biodiversity. The 65% of the population of Wales living within urban areas (1) is an important cohort to involve in the future of biodiversity and infrastructure in Wales.

The importance of urban nature

Urban nature is very important for four principal reasons:

  1. The act of seeing or participating in nature in the urban environment is important for mental and physical health and well being (2).
  2. Urban ‘green’ or ‘blue’ areas can play an important role in linking different habitats, enabling species to find new habitats. 
  3. Incorporating nature within urban infrastructure can reduce pollution, flooding, overheating and improve resilience to the impacts of climate change (3).
  4. If people in Wales encounter less nature in their everyday lives, they are likely to value nature less (4), potentially leading to a long-term decline in society’s support for policies or programmes designed to improve our ecosystems and protect our natural environments for the benefit of future generations

Our view on urban nature

Our framework of assessment suggests that all new infrastructure developments be delivered as nature-positive infrastructure. Whether roads and energy generation, or hospitals and housing estates, they must be built with the intention to improve wildlife habitat and increase the quantity and quality of our green and blue corridors. Our view on this is entirely consistent with current policy in Wales that encompasses a systems approach that takes into consideration wider green or blue infrastructure (5)

The omission of the built environment in discussions around biodiversity potentially perpetuates the ‘siloing’ of nature and ecosystems. In acknowledging good practice in the recent Wales Infrastructure Investment Strategy that explicitly mentions green infrastructure (6), and the personal commitment of the Minister for Climate Change to the issue, the final link to urban biodiversity seems not to have been made between the infrastructure and biodiversity policy areas.

To deliver an environment for 2100 that allows nature to flourish, and our communities to thrive, we must harness the ingenuity, enthusiasm and skills of the engineers and construction companies on whom we depend to maintain and improve our infrastructure. If the goal of the Welsh Government to protect and effectively manage at least 30% of our land, freshwater and sea for nature by 2030 is to be met, society must use all levers at its disposal.

The way we design and build our infrastructure in the future will be critical for Wales’ biodiversity which is acknowledged as being under severe pressure (7). There is an urgent need to reduce the disconnect between our built and natural environments. They can and should exist together. Clear guidance from the Welsh Government, alongside a suitable regulatory framework, will be key in reversing the current damage suffered by our ecosystems.

There are numerous approaches to supporting nature within urban areas. One is the National Park City movement, which provides a ten-step approach to support towns and cities to make urban spaces greener, fairer, wilder and healthier. This could provide an enabling function to existing social and environmental projects or organisations in Wales’ cities.

Another practical way to support urban habitats is the ‘Building with Nature’ approach to development, that aims to maximise environmental net gains, brings nature and water closer to people, and supports equitable and inclusive places.

Advances in digital technologies could provide the opportunity to use ‘digital twins’ to help plan and monitor changes. We also see the opportunity to encourage and empower citizen science within the monitoring, cascading the biodiversity benefits outwards into community engagement and STEM development.

Academic research suggests a policy approach should include sustained investment in urban natural spaces; equity for people from ethnic minority communities or with health problems; the use of green space to alleviate illness; and supporting a network of community-based organisations that link people, places and well-being (8). These ideas would help connect health, place and community in practical ways that support Wales’ Well-being Goals. 

As David Attenborough says (9):

 “Create the space, and the animals will come….it could be possible to see wildlife thriving within our cities across the planet. We, after all, are the architects of the urban world.”

Welsh Government has a key role to play in encouraging, or requiring, the integration of nature within our built environment, and we hope that the good work on the biodiversity deep dive can be augmented by consideration of the role for urban habitats and wildlife. 

  • Note: This is a Commission opinion piece, not a recommendation to Welsh Government. As such, it does not require a formal response (9)
  • Disclosure: David Clubb is a Management Committee Member of Cardiff National Park City

References

  1. ‘A rural vision for Wales’, Aberystwyth University 2021
  2. ‘A room with a green view: the importance of nearby nature for mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic’; Journal of Applied Ecology, March 2021
  3. Citizens’ preferences and valuation of urban nature’, SSRN, August 2022
  4. ‘How modern life became disconnected from nature’, Greater Good magazine, Berkeley University 2017
  5. CIEEM briefing: Welsh Government’s approach to net benefits for biodiversity, September 2022
  6. Wales Infrastructure Investment Strategy, Welsh Government, December 2021
  7. Biodiversity research briefing, Senedd Research, August 2021
  8. Magic of the mundane; the vulnerable web of connections between urban nature and well-being”, The international journal of urban policy and planning, January 2021
  9. “Cities that are saving the planet”, Planet Earth II, BBC Earth

Photo: Annie Spratt

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