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How to protect and restore ecosystems

Ecology & Biodiversity

One of the ‘core four’ goals at the heart of COP26 last year was to adapt to protect communities and natural habitats’. Now is the time for both governments and businesses – as well as those of us who advise and partner with them – to take meaningful steps to protect and restore ecosystems while investing in resilient infrastructure.

According to the 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, around 1 million animal and plant species are currently threatened with extinction. A recent Sweco Urban Insight report shows that the health of the ecosystems we depend on is deteriorating more rapidly than ever, in turn posing a direct threat to our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life.

Protecting and restoring our ecosystems and promoting ‘built-in’ biodiversity in urban areas is therefore vital for sustaining life and plays a major role in the fight against climate change.

Healthy ecosystems provide us with ecosystem services that give us oxygen to breathe, provide us with food and medicine, clean our water, regulate our climate, provide recreational benefits and inspire cultures around the world. We need to protect ecosystems to ensure those services continue and ensure our continued survival and wellbeing.

Leonora Hunt Ecologist at Sweco

The importance of nurturing nature

In order to conserve our habitats and species, everyone in society has a role to play in protecting ecosystems – though at Sweco we understand that we and our peers have a heightened responsibility to lead the way in sustainability by supporting (and challenging) our customers in every project undertaken.

But whether individually or through our professional endeavours, we all need to reduce our effect on ecosystems by considering how our actions affect the environment and change our behaviour to minimise our impact. There are many ways to do this, from minimising our disturbance to habitats and wildlife, to reducing our carbon footprint and getting actively involved in conservation. Here are just some of the reasons why nurturing nature – and prioritising nature-based solutions – should be at the top of our list.

  • Forests remove around 430 million tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide and store 13% of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions
  • Trees properly placed around buildings can reduce air conditioning needs by 30% and save energy used for heating by 20–50%
  • Trees and vegetation reduce stormwater runoff by capturing and storing rainfall in the canopy and releasing water into the atmosphere through evapotranspiration
  • One third of a tree’s biomass is below ground in the roots
  • Carbon is stored in the soil, which can in turn offset 5–15% of global emissions
  • Parks and urban forests maintain and increase biodiversity in cities
  • The diversity of tree species and presence of dead wood are the
  • key elements for diversified flora and fauna
  • There are 454 native tree species in Europe, of which over 58% are native to continental Europe, and of these 42% of the species are threatened by extinction
  • Almost a fifth (18%) of European dead wood beetle species assessed so far are at risk of extinction due to the ongoing decline in large old-growth trees across Europe
  • Spending time near trees and nature improves physical and mental health by increasing energy levels and speed of recovery, while decreasing blood pressure and stress
  • A mature leafy tree produces as much oxygen in a season as 10 people inhale in a year
  • Conifers are more efficient at capturing small particles from the air than deciduous trees
  • The strategic placement of trees in urban areas can cool the air 2–8°C, reducing the urban heat island effect

Download Sweco’s FREE Urban Insight report on Building for Biodiversity

How climate collaboration can rescue – and reimagine – our ecosystems

The planning and construction industry has a particularly important role to play in helping to protect and restore ecosystems, by ensuring that ecosystems are considered throughout the entire design and build process, end-to-end. This includes ensuring that new developments protect existing ecosystems, creating new habitats and enhancing or restoring existing habitats within their site boundaries.

Drawing on combined influence, insight and resources, urban consultants and stakeholders can:

  • Shift the focus from extracting benefits of natural world to integrating them
  • Plant trees and shrubs to provide sources of food and shelter, and sequester carbon
  • Integrate bioliphic design such as ‘living’ walls and roofs
  • Introduce ‘placemaking’ elements like water features, parks and gardens
  • Mimic ecosystems and natural processes in the urban landscape
  • Eradicate invasive species and cultivate those native to the area
  • Commit larger areas to ‘wilding’ or re-wilding
  • Explore and advance ‘Circularity’ as a default methodology in urban development
  • Prioritise traffic-calming and active travel initiatives
  • Balance green/blue infrastructure design for optimum climate resilience
  • Promote and advocate for initiatives such as the Nature Recovery Network

Sustainability at Sweco

At Sweco our ecology team works with our clients to protect and restore ecosystems through ensuring that developments minimise their effect on biodiversity. Ways in which the ecology team do this include:

  • Undertaking biodiversity net gain and environmental impact assessments to ensure developments result in a net gain for biodiversity
  • Advising on the design of schemes to ensure that sensitive and valuable habitats are retained and enhanced, that habitat connectivity in the area is retained and that new areas of habitat can be incorporated
  • Recommending and ensuring appropriate mitigation measures are put in place during site clearance and construction to minimise disturbance and effects on habitats and species
  • Producing habitat creation and management plans to detail how habitats can be created successfully and how they can be managed in the long term to result in the best outcome for nature.

Three priorities for eco-centric urban design

1. Shifting the focus from merely extracting benefits from the natural world to addressing how we can enhance our surrounding environment based on human needs for interaction with nature.

2. Incorporating local and native biodiversity as natural elements that promote well-being to include trees, shrubs and other vegetation, water features, parks and gardens. Vegetation provides nesting and resting places for animals, buffers noise, offers shade, reduces the effect of heat islands, traps particulates and other airborne pollutants, captures carbon dioxide and mitigates global warming. In addition, parks and other natural areas filter groundwater and reduce stormwater runoff and therefore support public safety.

3. Mimicking natural processes and favouring species that are native to a biogeographical area. This can create more diverse habitats for animal and plant species and create places for recreation. Most cities also have local nature conservation associations where citizens can do voluntary work to preserve an area’s natural values.

Read our 5 seeds for green living blog

Featured Sweco Eco-projects

Pinebanks and Griffin Lane – residential developments adjacent to sensitive habitats and wildlife sites including wetlands and ancient woodland. Sweco worked with the design team and the local Wildlife Trust to ensure that sensitive and valuable habitats were retained and enhanced through the addition of appropriate habitat creation adjacent to these areas, that management measures were put in place to improve the condition of these retained habitats and that effects due to the housing were reduced through creation of green spaces including dog waking routes and excluding access to the most sensitive areas.

Highways Improvement Schemes – Sweco has successfully used the UK’s biodiversity net gain toolkit on National Highways projects in England, providing the contractors with valuable information on habitats of significant or high ecological value, so that designs, access, storage etc can be adjusted to minimise the scheme’s impact on biodiversity, and ensure that the client meets their contractual obligations for biodiversity.

International net gain assessments – Sweco has been consulting internationally with businesses to support biodiversity net gain as a driver for more sustainable development within the international market. The primary purpose of applying biodiversity net gain is to drive forward its principles, such as following the hierarchy of mitigation, replacing habitats on a like for like basis, and avoiding unacceptable losses to biodiversity through the removal of ancient or irreplaceable habitats. When employed early within a scheme’s design, the most valuable habitats can be highlighted and avoided within design, thereby reducing overall biodiversity loss through design change and minimal expense.