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Biodiversity Conservation: A Call to Action for Sustainable Urban Development

Poppy Cunningham highlights the UK's biodiversity crisis and the country's new mandate for a 10% Biodiversity Net Gain. Emphasising comprehensive training and intelligent ecology practices, Poppy underscores the opportunity for the industry to make a lasting impact and attract talent committed to sustainability.

In the face of a global decline in biodiversity, the UK stands as one of the most nature-deprived countries on Earth. The recent 'State of Nature' report is a stark reminder, revealing that nearly one in six species in the UK is now threatened with extinction, with the UK drastically at the bottom of the G7 countries’ Biodiversity Intactness Index Urbanisation and land use change, driven by industrial activities, farming, and changing migration patterns, have played a significant role in the rapid degradation and fragmentation of habitats worldwide.

As an industry at the heart of the great transformation of the urban landscape, we need to focus time, budget, and resources on planning and designing schemes that not only arrest, but also reverse the alarming trends in biodiversity loss, thereby ensuring a sustainable future for our urban, suburban, and rural landscapes. The way we achieve this is two-fold – earlier engagement in the project lifecycle, so we can bring the combined heft of our built expertise to the table at the most critical planning stages, and we also need to challenge and refine our own in-house skill set to embrace biodiversity knowledge and expertise.

The proactive stance taken by the UK government by demanding Biodiversity Net Gain within planning conditions of all new developments in response to the Convention on Biological Diversity: The Global Biodiversity Framework is a welcome step forward. Mandating a 10% increase in biodiversity on, or off site, compared to pre-development baselines, with a commitment to maintaining this net gain for at least 30 years, underscores a significant shift towards prioritising maintaining, re-establishing, and increasing biodiversity in development projects.

While the new legislation sets a defined benchmark and reinvigorates the focus on increased biodiversity in projects, it is imperative to cultivate a nuanced understanding of diverse project needs that extends beyond mere legislative compliance, emphasising project-specific requirements. Collaboration among local councils, designers, contractors, and clients is paramount, as organisations share a collective responsibility that hinges on the cooperation and understanding of all stakeholders involved.

Sustainability is not just about construction of course; it requires a holistic approach that includes preserving, protecting, and enhancing the natural environment. As an industry, we must prioritise intelligent ecology practices, with early-stage engagement serving as a crucial foundation. Bringing contractor expertise to the table much earlier in the RIBA lifecycle adds an additional dimension to discussions around habitat preservation and enhancement, with the opportunity to explore and innovate around groundwork solutions that optimise biodiversity gain.  

This approach ensures that biodiversity net gain factors, which main contractors are often less involved with, become integral components of our strategic approach to sustainability. And to effectively adopt this methodology, a well-equipped and up-skilled workforce is crucial.

ISG’s ‘Rethinking the Skills Conundrum' white paper highlighted the aspirations of younger generations to deliver a positive impact on society. The biodiversity theme provides a significant opportunity for the built environment to challenge perceptions and position itself as a desirable career path, attracting talent from diverse backgrounds with new perspectives, ideas and ethics-driven motivations. These individuals will contribute to shaping the future of the UK’s landscapes.

While having the correct Biodiversity Policies in place is critical, knowledge is power, and our teams are already rolling out in-depth introductory training modules on Biodiversity and legislative changes to our stakeholders. Addressing the need to comprehensively equip our business and supply chain with the skills and understanding necessary to navigate the evolving landscape of sustainable practice and regulation is paramount. Moreover, as a sector, we must foster the integration of expertise with diverse skill sets to inspire and deliver enhanced performance outcomes.

The urgency of addressing biodiversity loss and promoting sustainability in all forms of the built environment has never been greater. By prioritising collaboration – especially at an earlier stage in the project development life cycle, built environment professionals can further showcase agency and positive impact beyond the confines of the physical structure. Mandating biodiversity net gain provides yet another opportunity for our industry to make a tangible difference and create a long-lasting legacy, and, if we maximise this opportunity, allows us to open up new conversations about the growing range and diversity of roles within our sector.

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