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True North: Embracing nature for resilient urban development

True North Embracing nature for resilient urban development

As part of our True North report, Faye Durkin Head of Ecology and Natural Capital (North), Greengage considers how we include nature in our future cities.

“For nature to be commanded, it must be obeyed.” This quote has long resonated with me, encapsulating the essence of why we need to harmonise our aspirations of urban development with the natural world.

Throughout my career, I have come to appreciate the power of nature in shaping resilient, healthy and thriving communities. However, the modern urban landscape often falls short in providing these conditions. We need to realign our built environments with these principles.

With each subsequent generation there has been a ‘shifting of the baseline’ in terms of what each generation views to be ‘normal’. This, until recently, has resulted in a continual decline in how we consider nature in development projects — favouring chemical control and manmade diversions of natural resources.

But we cannot control nature. Instead, we must incorporate nature-based solutions into our construction and way of life in order for our use of it to be sustainable.


Securing productivity in the long term through nature

By assessing the natural capital and ecosystem services within a region, we are discovering how to align development with existing strengths. This approach maximises the value of biodiverse, green spaces and steers development towards areas of lower natural value.

As much as anything, this is an exercise in narrative — making the case that embracing nature does not entail slowing productivity but rather secures it for the long run.

Shifting public perceptions is vital, highlighting the importance of making environmental considerations accepted in daily life. It is not about depriving oneself but about making informed decisions that reflect the true costs, beyond mere monetary value. Fast fashion is perhaps the most obvious example, where the unseen price you pay for cheap items far outweighs the immediate financial outlay.


Ecological considerations under the Environment Act

The Environment Act has been a catalyst for change. It has prompted developers to proactively engage with ecological considerations rather than just ticking boxes.

Biodiversity net gain has led to a fundamental shift in thinking, inspiring a commitment to nature-positive strategies.

Balancing preservation and adaptation is a critical challenge. The adaptive reuse of historic buildings, the integration of green infrastructure and innovative retrofitting methods are avenues for sustainable progress.

This requires framing solutions according to the client’s values, underlining the multi-faceted nature of sustainability. They may not care about wildlife protection, but they do care about reducing flood risk or increasing the value of their property by including open green space, which may lead them to sustainable decisions.


Future cities as a complex tapestry of heritage, community and resources

Often, expanding urban areas is presented as a choice between building on the Greenbelt, or not at all. While we must be wary of urban sprawl, much of the Greenbelt has a much reduced biodiversity value as a result of motorway building. These green deserts are of little value for wildlife.

So, we need to think strategically and use land in the right way, protecting areas of biodiversity while maximising use and value from all of our land.

In envisioning future cities, I see green and blue infrastructure seamlessly blending with urban architecture. Green walls, green roofs and climate-resilient planting should be the norm, not the exception. Sustainability’s three pillars — social, economic and environmental — shape this vision. It is a complex tapestry that interweaves heritage, community well-being and efficient use of resources.


Working together to make bigger, better and more connected cities

There has been mixed success so far in the North across different cities.

While some are ahead of others, True North is an opportunity to put disagreements and competition aside and work together to make bigger, better, more connected cities. We are lucky in terms of our geography, with the space that London lacks and many brownfield sites available for sustainable development.

Overall, I feel optimistic about the path we are on. The recent shifts in developer mindsets, prompted by policy changes, are evident — and over the last two years or so we have really seen this in action.

I am increasingly approached by strategic land teams or land agents, whereas in years gone by it would have been the planning team or technical design team that would have engaged with an ecologist. This shift demonstrates that nature is now being considered at a much earlier stage in the process of a development site. Projects are considering the environmental constraints and opportunities as part of the initial layout, rather than mitigating for impacts to nature once a design has been decided.

We have to remember that nature is to be embraced, not conquered. We should continue to build places that thrive in harmony with the natural world. In doing so, we pave the way for a future where well-being, prosperity and sustainability are intertwined, reflecting the wisdom of nature itself.

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