Accelerating action for biodiversity: what the built environment sector needs to do

Our industry is engaged in an important dialogue to improve sustainability through ESG transparency and industry collaboration. This article is a contribution to this larger conversation and does not necessarily reflect GRESB’s position. Please refer to official GRESB documents for assessment related guidance.

The built environment sector needs to protect biodiversity. Why? Because the sector not only depends on the raw materials provided by the natural environment, but it indirectly depends on the regulation of ecosystems, and the health and aesthetical benefits of the natural environment.

If you can protect biodiversity, you can attract buyers and tenants. You will have seen that advertisements for residential properties in particular commonly feature green spaces and nature areas as an attraction point or an amenity (think “surrounded by lush greenery” or “just a few minutes away from the sea”). 

However, despite depending so heavily on nature, the sector is one of the top-three sectors threatening global biodiversity, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF). As one of the top three sectors, the built environment contributes significantly to depleted food and raw material supplies, incidences of extreme weather events and the collapse of ecosystems.   

WEF’s The Future of Nature and Business report provides 5 key reminders on what we, the built environment sector, need to do to protect biodiversity. 

What do we need to do to protect biodiversity, and why?

By compacting, not sprawling

We need to make cities and developments compact so that we avoid encroaching on natural areas at all. The rapid expansion of cities and urban areas, made worse by poor land planning and lack of biodiversity/environmental impact assessments, often leads to the loss of biodiverse natural areas and in extreme cases, the extinction of species and collapse of an ecosystem. As a result, the built environment sector is responsible for nearly 30% of biodiversity loss globally (World Economic Forum, 2020).

Compacting our cities and developments helps to make space for biodiverse natural areas that would otherwise have to be converted into other land use types. Globally, 60% of all urban space is sparsely populated (World Economic Forum, 2020). We can obtain inspiration from cities like Hong Kong and Singapore which have efficient planning of dense urban areas and allocated spaces for nature areas despite limited land areas. Denser areas can bring workplaces and services closer to homes which in turn reduce the cost, time and pollution associated with transportation.

By considering impacts to biodiversity before development

Before locating an infrastructure or building, we should consider our impact on surrounding biodiversity from the construction to management stage. Developers can include biodivrsity considerations in impact assessments to find out whether a site provides habitats for important or threatened species. This helps to facilitate the process of sustainable site selection and the evaluation of alternative options (such as brownfield sites). A biodiversity or ecosystem impact assessment should be a standard procedure for developers to establish a baseline to identify the extent of impact and avoid and mitigate damage to areas with high biodiversity value.

We can also be more innovative in leveraging nature in our planning, design and retrofitting of buildings and infrastructure. These includes designing spaces that benefit both humans and biodiversity – for example, setting aside green spaces that provide restorative benefits to people but are also habitats for vulnerable species of animals. City Development Limited’s      The Rainforest in Singapore was conceptualised as a “nature reserve” for threatened plant species, with nearly 50 native species of trees, palms, shrubs and groundcover (Lim, 2017). This particular example also reminds us to use native species and to consider the “diversity” in “biodiversity” – using native instead of exotic species and having a variety of species are key to recreating or restoring a healthy local ecosystem.

By preventing pollution and providing clean energy alternatives

We should not forget that preventing pollution and providing clean energy is just as important for biodiversity protection. As urban areas expand, utilities will also need to keep up. Sanitation, waste disposal and clean energy are essential services that need to be scaled up in many parts of the world to meet growing demands. Over 80% of global wastewater is discharged into biodiversity-rich freshwater and coastal ecosystems without proper treatment (World Economic Forum, 2020). The built environment sector can help to prevent these by setting up effective management systems for solid waste and wastewater. For example, we can reuse wastewater onsite, such as graywater and condensate water, with existing water treatment solutions. We can also provide clean energy solutions such as solar lamps to replace kerosene, candles and firewood to reduce carbon emissions and deforestation. This not only protects biodiversity but also improves the standard of living of the community.

By harnessing natural ecosystems as infrastructure

We can harness nature’s benefits by incorporating naturally functioning ecosystems into the planning and design of the built environment. This is increasingly important for climate change and disaster adaptation. A commonly used example is mangrove forests. Mangroves are important and diverse ecosystems that effectively sequester carbon and protect coastal areas from storms. They also support livelihoods for coastal communities and framing natural ecosystems such as mangroves as assets, incentivises broader interest in protecting and cultivating them. There is growing consensus that incorporating natural ecosystems can be cost-effective in the long run, especially when combined with human-engineered solutions (Seddon, 2000). Furthermore, the natural ecosystem’s ability to regenerate means      lower maintenance costs compared to man-made structures. Another example is to maintain or restore healthy vegetation to prevent land erosion and/or improve water drainage. With climate change, these ecosystem services are becoming more important, especially when more intense storms due to climate change increases the risks of landslides and flash floods inland.

By planning infrastructure networks with biodiversity in mind

We should also plan for the wider infrastructure network, such as roads, railroads and pipelines, with biodiversity in mind. Such infrastructure can have as much, or even bigger, impact on biodiversity as the main infrastructure. Time and distance may be compromised, but it could be crucial in preventing habitat fragmentation and protecting vulnerable species which has more dire consequences.

Why haven’t we been doing enough for biodiversity?

We haven’t been doing enough for biodiversity, because the indirect benefits of biodiversity are often not captured by the sector’s financial accounting in a way which influences management decisions. The complexity of quantifying the risks and opportunities of biodiversity impacts means that financing projects with the aim of protecting biodiversity is currently not mainstream. As a result, we are currently not doing enough for biodiversity. However, this is about to change, with increasing expectations by investors and regulators on nature-related financial disclosures and action.

We should not wait to comply with regulations. Being responsible for nearly 30% of biodiversity loss globally, the built environment sector needs to urgently become more biodiversity-conscious in the way we develop, construct and operate. We need to prevent the catastrophic impact of ecosystem collapse – before it is too late.  

References

Lim, Y. (2017, May 14). Property: Natural landscaping an important aspect for new condo buyers. Retrieved from News: https://www.homeanddecor.com.sg/gallery/property-natural-landscaping-an-important-aspect-for-new-condo-buyers/
Seddon, N. C. (2000). Understanding the value and limits of nature-based solutions to climate change and other global challenges. Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B Biological Sciences.
World Economic Forum, A. (2020). New Nature Economy Report II The Future Of Nature and Business. Geneva: World Economic Forum.

This article was written by Ho Ning Li (co-authors – Song Lin and Tai Wa Lo)

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