The new role of an urban ecologist

The urban population is growing. In 2014 54% of the total global population lived in urban areas, up from 34% in 1960. By 2050 it is estimated that 66% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas. This demand for urban living has had an obvious consequence on the loss of open green space. Research by a team at the University of Leicester found that between 2006 and 2012, 22,000ha of green space were converted to ‘artificial surfaces’ – mostly housing but also road, pavements and non-permeable surfaces. To little surprise, the biggest change occurred on the outer fringes of London. Add to this the numerous existing and predicted impacts of climate change, many of which are exasperated where hard standing replaces green space, the need to include Green Infrastructure (GI) in new developments becomes clear.

Today’s ecologist, as part of the wider design team pre- and post-planning, has an important role to play in ensuring that GI is not only well thought through and included in developments, but is designed to benefit species known to occur in the local area.

In the past, ecology during the planning process has predominantly been about protecting specific habitats and/or protected species and mitigating any impacts a development has on them. This was primarily led by the need to comply with various pieces of legislation and compliance with local planning policy at the time. Ecological enhancement of a site, which was required by local planning policies, often included putting up some bat and/or bird boxes, with little consideration for the surrounding area and whether they would be used; very few developments considered GI. However, following several high-profile reviews and reports, for example the Lawton Report ‘Making Space for Nature’ (PDF) in late 2010, the importance of including GI in proposed developments has increased significantly. Changes in the wording of subsequent planning policy reflects this.

The 2011 Natural Environment White Paper (PDF) referred to the role of urban GI as completing ‘the links in our national ecological network’ and ‘one of the most effective tools available to us in managing environmental risks such as flooding and heat waves’.

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) (PDF, document no longer accessible) in 2012 stated that local planning authorities should ‘set out a strategic approach in their Local Plans, planning positively for the creation, protection, enhancement and management of networks of biodiversity and green infrastructure’.

These recommendations and guidance have been implemented in regional and local planning policy. The London Plan (2016) (PDF) has a specific policy on GI (Policy 2.18) and individual Borough and city plans reflect this. For example, Westminster City Plan Policy S38 states ‘Biodiversity and green infrastructure will be protected and enhanced… and opportunities to extend and create new wildlife habitat as part of the development will be maximised’ and Westminster are by no means the only ones. The Canada Water Area Action Plan under Policy 18 states that their strategy ‘is to protect and maintain and enhance…green corridors and habitat for wildlife’. They go on to state in the same policy that ‘development in the core area must…improve the overall greenness of the area, through planting street trees, creating living roofs and walls and providing habitats for wildlife which increase biodiversity’. (The Canada Water Area Action Plan is now the Canada Water Masterplan)

All of this has led to a change in the role ecology and the ecologist plays in the planning and development process. Yes, the ecologist still undertakes surveys & assessments and prepares mitigation schemes and the legislation and planning policy protecting habitats and species is still here. But, the ecologist is now far more involved in the design process and at a far earlier stage. This means they can embed themselves within the wider team and fully align themselves with the vision of the project. By being part of the wider project team at an early stage, the ecologist can input to the design and help create GI which is locally relevant and that makes a meaningful ecological enhancement.

Incorporating GI such as living roofs, sustainable drainage, green walls and native species led landscaping, is far easier before an initial design has been produced as opposed to trying to retrofit it afterwards. The increased load of a living roof can be taken in to consideration when the structure is designed. The landscaping can be designed using native species of local provenance and enhancements can be in line with both National and Local Biodiversity Action Plans. The GI can be designed to act as a ‘stepping-stone’ for biodiversity between currently isolated ecologically valuable areas, thereby playing a part in creating these much-needed ecological networks.

It would be easy to conclude that the more descriptive planning policy which specifically mentions GI, living roofs, green walls etc has meant developers are more inclined to incorporate such features in to their developments. For sure, by adding these features a development can become more appealing to the Local Planning Authority when an application is submitted. But this would be an unfair and a somewhat narrow conclusion. GI is being incorporated now for many more reasons than to satisfy planning policy. We can conclude this because Greengage are involved with multiple projects where the GI and in turn ecological enhancement of the site, goes well beyond just compliance. Design teams and developers are readily buying-in to the other, equally valuable, benefits of GI (PDF) (link removed) in addition to the biodiversity benefits. Benefits that include, amongst others:

  • An improvement in the overall health and well-being of the residents. Research has found a link between green space and increased life expectancy, reduced health inequality, raised levels of physical activity and the promotion of psychological health and mental well-being;
  • Facilitation of social interaction, inclusion and increased social cohesion. All of which lead to the creation of communities;
  • The amelioration of the warming effects caused by the urban heat island effect and climate change in urban areas;
  • Absorbing significant quantities of water from rainfall, thereby providing flood alleviation and improving water quality through greatly reducing the amount of water run-off on urban surfaces; and
  • Improving air quality through the absorption of gaseous pollutants, the production of oxygen and by lowering the surrounding temperature through the process of transpiration.

And if that’s not enough, research has shown that there is a link between incorporating GI in to developments and an increase in inward investment and sale value.

GI will play an important role in helping us ‘future proof’ our developments against climate change and the ecologist, alongside their client, will play an important part in the process.

Mike Harris


Mike is an experienced Environmental Consultant with a track record of delivering pragmatic and innovative environmental solutions to clients from a range of industries. Mike has over 17 years of experience working in both the public and private sector with an emphasis on biodiversity and environmental assessment. Mike is an Associate at Greengage, an award winning Sustainability and Environmental Consultancy which delivers truly sustainable solutions, through a holistic, innovative and no nonsense approach.