Nature is everywhere, and that includes in the most built up of urban environments. These sparks of green in a grey landscape can have a positive impact on wildlife and people. From pocket parks to street trees, there are many ways we can enhance nature in the build environment. In today’s blog, John Day, the RSPB’s urban specialist, takes us on a journey to understand how enhancing the urban environment for nature has knock-on positive effects for sustainability and the people that live there.

Many of us live and work in the urban environment. However, due to its built-up nature it is also one of the most challenging of environments in which to live. And, although it occupies just 10% of the UK’s land area it consumes most of our energy needs and is responsible for much of our environmental problems.

Urban nature
Despite being a harsh environment, there are many species that are closely associated with the urban environment. These include some familiar favourites: swifts – our only truly urban bird, hedgehogs, water voles and some more species you might not have heard of: black redstarts, bombardier beetles and shrill carder bees, as well as a host of other scarce species.

Here at the RSPB, we’re working with partners to help green our urban landscapes so that the species above, and many more, can thrive in our shared urban spaces. Let’s take a look at some of the inspiring projects that are helping nature close to home.

Nutrient poor substrates laid with a varying topography can create a dynamic flower and wildlife rich landscape and habitat for a variety of wildlife and requires little or no maintenance. © John Day.

Bringing greenspaces to life
Of the approximate 12,600km2 of greenspace in Britain, around 68% is publicly accessible. If you live near or regularly visit a park you’ll probably appreciate how important they are as a space for connecting with nature, exercising or meeting friends and family. In fact, these public greenspaces are an important and often undervalued resource of social, economic and health benefit. On top of that they can provide cooling, water absorption, and carbon storage, as well as helping to provide much-needed habitats for wildlife.

We are working with greenspace managers, primarily through our partnership with idverde, to enhance habitats in the green spaces for wildlife. This includes Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, various parks in Bromley, across the south Midlands, north-west England, central belt of Scotland and in Northern Ireland with the NI Housing Executive.

Brownfield and development
Brownfield sites, or patches of formerly developed land that are often taken over by nature, is constantly pressured for redevelopment.

Many brownfield sites though have become valuable for biodiversity and are home to very rare and threatened species such as the bombardier beetle, rare solitary bees, and other invertebrates. This makes decisions to build on them not as clear cut as would first seem.

We work with and support others to protect existing high-value sites where threatened, such as the proposed London Resort Theme Park at Swanscombe and proposed housing development on the former MOD site at Lodge Hill. We also advocate for the creation of quasi-brownfield features in landscaping to extend the habitat needed by the specialist wildlife that depend on it, developed by innovators like John Little’s Grassroof Company. In addition to their biodiversity benefits, brownfield sites can provide a suite of nature-based solutions to climate resilience in cooling the atmosphere, sequestering carbon, and reducing run-off.

Making homes for swifts
If, like me, you’ve waved a fond goodbye to our much-loved summer visitor, the swift, you might be interested to know that we’re working hard to ensure that when swifts return to our skies next spring they find more and more nesting sites. Earlier this year a new British Standard, BS42021, for nest boxes in new developments was published. I was part of the working group.

This new standard is primarily focused on having an agreed specification for swift nesting bricks that are built into the fabric of the building. This should remove confusion and means architects, ecologists and planners will specify the correct type and quantity to be fitted.

Meanwhile, the RSPB is collaborating with organisations like Swift Conservation and Action for Swifts to do more for swifts. Along with Action for Swifts, Manthorpe Building Products and our partners Barratt Developments plc we designed and developed an innovative swift brick that is both cheap and easy to fit.

The Manthorpe swift brick. © John Day.

Extreme weather events
The recent extremely high temperatures across the UK and beyond prompt the realisation that towns and cities need to be much more resilient to extreme heat and storm events. These events are set to increase in frequency and severity, whilst urban areas are several degrees hotter than surrounding green spaces; this is known as the 'urban heat island effect'.

To help cool them, towns, cities and villages need; more shading canopy trees, both in parks and open spaces, and roadside; drought tolerant planting to avoid the need to water; and fully functioning Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) that manage water at the surface so help to keep the public realm cool, and to help deal with volumes of water in storm events. This approach to using nature-based solutions such as SuDS is advocated throughout our work with developers and others in the built environment.

Examples such as the Sheffield Grey to Green SuDS project should be a common-place feature of our streetscape if we are to make them climate resilient and better places to live and cheaper to maintain. © John Day

Working with others
Our conservation partnerships with Barratt and idverde focus on the urban environment. Together, we are developing and applying adaptations to greenspace design and management that benefit wildlife and people. Through our partnership with Barratt we were able partner with the National House Building Council (NHBC) Foundation, to produce the guide Biodiversity in new Housing Developments: creating wildlife friendly communities. This guide is designed to help create new housing developments – big or small – to protect, enhance and create wildlife-friendly features that will benefit nature as well as future residents. We will be writing in much more detail on this work in future blogs.

We also work together with many other professional groups and organisations with similar goals to create biodiverse sustainable environments. In early 2022 we worked with the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) to produce a keynote report, Cracking the Code, which aims to encourage local planning authorities, developers and local communities to prepare design codes that put nature at the forefront of district and site level design to deliver carbon net zero and biodiverse developments. Alongside the report are two accompanying illustrative design codes to help with that process.

A model for the future
It is entirely achievable for urban places in the UK to be sustainable, nature-rich and provide a much better quality of life for people. The technical know-how already exists, as does the enthusiasm of many. Now we need action from policy and decision makers to put knowledge into practice and introduce sustainable, nature-enhancing measures into our built environment before it is too late.

Keep following the Conservation Action blog to hear more about our work in the urban environment and how we are working with partners to create nature-friendly, sustainable spaces.

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