When you remake a 480-hectare inner-urban area to cater for up to 80,000 residents and workers, delivering warm and cold pools for certain species of frog may not be top of mind.
Nevertheless, the project at the renewal of Melbourne’s Fisherman’s Bend precinct demonstrates how nature and biodiversity can be maximised in urban renewal developments.
As part of the project, civil engineering firm GHD contracted RMIT to develop a biodiversity strategy for the precinct. This looked at the species which are present on site and how their habitat can not only be protected but also be improved.
One species was the growling grass frog, which is endangered in Victoria.
When looking at this species, the team found that the frogs jump into particularly saline ponds at certain times of year to wash off fungus. At other times, they prefer ponds which are cooler or warmer.
Understanding this, the team was able to devise a solution involving ponds of varying temperatures as well as saline ponds.
Meanwhile, new roads from the renewal pose a threat to these species. By identifying this, however, roads can be designed to enable the frogs to go under them and can contain lips to prevent the frogs going on them.
Exercises such as these, RMIT Professor Sarah Bekessy told a recent half-day seminar in Melbourne hosted by the Green Building Council of Australia, demonstrate how developers, designers and planners can enhance the value of nature on projects.
At the outset, it must be acknowledged that a degree of biodiversity protection is afforded by legislation.
In Victoria, for example, the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act protects threatened plant and animal species and ecological communities whilst the Environmental Effects Act requires potential environmental impacts of some proposed developments to be assessed by the Department of Land, Water and Planning.
Federally, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and accompanying regulations require projects which may impact matters of national environmental significance such as world or national heritage places, internationally significant wetlands and nationally threatened or migratory species to be referred to the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities for assessment.
Whilst these are welcome, Bekessy says much of this focuses on minimising impact and frames biodiversity as a ‘problem’ which needs to be managed. Instead, she says we need to move beyond this and look at ways to maximise opportunities which nature delivers to our built environment.
Moreover, she encourages project owners to move beyond minimum requirements and think about nature as an opportunity to be grasped.
Encouraging, Bekessy says wording in some policies is changing. The Resilient Melbourne strategy talks not only of surviving and adapting but also thriving and having a strong natural environment in our urban landscape which coexists alongside development. The new nature category in the proposed Green Star for New Buildings rating tool talks not only about protecting ecologically sensitive sites and reducing water pollution and runoff but also fostering human connection with nature, introducing landscaping that create habitats which enhances biodiversity and improving ecological connectivity to enhance wildlife movement.
Despite this, trends are concerning. In Melbourne, a study released by RMIT in July showed that the overall metropolitan area lost almost 2,000 hectares (1,742 hectares) or 0.7 percent of its urban tree canopy between 2014 and 2018. Trends are particularly concerning in the traditionally leafier eastern, south eastern and inner-south-eastern suburbs. These areas lost 3 percent, 0.8 percent and 1 percent of their tree canopy during this period respectively.
According to Bekessy, much of this space being lost is in the private realm. In established suburbs, this is happening not only through subdivisions but also knock down and rebuild projects which feature larger houses and smaller yards. In greenfield areas, it is happening as large homes are constructed on small blocks, leaving little room for plants and trees. She says a psyche revolving around large houses and cars serves as a barrier in delivering nature on private land.
For project owners, Bekessy recommends strategies in four areas.
1. Bring Nature to Where People Are
Whilst biodiversity in parks and nature reserves is welcome, Bekessy says few people access these spaces on a daily basis.
Instead, nature must be brought to where people are. This includes on walls, on roofs, in front/back gardens, in streetscapes and on roundabouts and nature strips.
2. Move Away from Offsets
The proposed new nature category in Green Star will award credits for projects which invest in solutions that promote the restoration and conservation of habitats in areas outside the site.
Nevertheless, Bekessy encourages project owners to move away from offsetting as a solution.
Offsets, Bekessy says, are often poorly done. In one example, a critically endangered grassy woodland was cleared and offset with statues of animals that once inhabited the land.
As well, offsets of biodiversity lost within urban areas often take place outside of the city. This defeats the idea of bringing nature back into cities.
Rather than offsets, we need to think about onsets, bringing nature back into cities and making things better.
3. Think Strategically
When going about biodiversity, Bekessy says it is important to avoid simply putting up green facades and instead to think strategically about nature at start of projects. This includes what you are trying to achieve, which species you want to bring back, who you are bringing them back for and your values and objectives regarding biodiversity on your site.
When doing this, Bekessy encourages consideration of:.
- Types of species which may be culturally significant, help to deliver effective ecosystem services and be ecologically feasible in the environment in question given available habitat.
- How your building or project fits within its surrounds and can contribute toward biodiversity within that landscape.
- The plants and ecosystems you wish to cater for and protect. Will insects visit this building? Where will they come from and go? How can you deliver the resources they need? How can you mitigate any threats they might face?
On the last point, Bekessy says an example can be seen through the aforementioned case of the growling grass frog at Fishermans Bend and the provision of resources through different ponds as well as the protection from danger by delivering roads which they can go under.
4). Think Novel Ways
Fourth, Bekessy encourages project owners to think about novel ways in which habitat might be provided. She shows an example of a nest box which can be built as a brick into a building. Birds are able to nest on one side whilst people can see them nesting on the other.
Such an example, she says, deliver the enchantment with nature and shows that ‘scrappy’ parts of nature can be as invaluable.
In summary, Bekessy says the new Green Star credit for nature represents a wonderful opportunity
“The opportunity presented by this nature credit is an important one,” Bekessy said.
“We need to push regulation further than just threat mitigation and offsetting. We need to move much more into seeing biodiversity as a massive opportunity to maximise at every step of the planning and design process.”