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Author
Georgina de Beaujeu

Date
November 2022

Imagery
Georgina de Beaujeu

Biodiversity loss, like climate change, is an existential threat that requires us to ‘think global, act local.’ Creating co-benefits is one practical way our profession can assist.

We need nature to survive and to survive nature needs us to make different decisions. This is the ultimate example of a co-benefit. Where we can we need to make decisions that benefit humanity and nature. Where trade-offs between the needs of both groups present, we need to consciously identify and discuss them, so we can moderate their impact. A simple example is selecting plants that provide habitat for local wildlife and health benefits for people.

A pollinator we might see more frequently in southern states if we consider co-benefits; neon cuckoo bee (thyreus nitidulus) - tract
Another pollinator we might see more frequently in southern states if we consider co-benefits; Neon Cuckoo Bee (Thyreus nitidulus)  (de Beaujeu 2020)

The worldwide decline of biodiversity is unprecedented[i] Humanity is living beyond planetary boundaries[ii].

As land is cleared and altered to meet human needs, for example for housing and food production, irreplaceable habitats are destroyed, and sustainable ecosystems and cycles are altered. Population growth, urbanisation, and an exploitation of resources to meet human demands has driven the local or full extinction of species. Beyond the justice implications of our actions resulting in species extinction, the collapse of these systems places humanity in a precarious position, as we rely on functioning ecosystems to survive.

We put our health and wellbeing at risk by not focusing on co-benefit creation in urban areas.

The decline in endemic and local species as part of sustainable ecosystems is apparent in urban areas. This is an issue for urban nature and people. Select species rely on urban areas for their survival and urban ecosystems have impacts on species well beyond their boundaries, for example, pollution. Emerging research also suggests that access to biodiverse ecosystems, as opposed to any green prevalent in urban areas, can deliver a range of health and wellbeing benefits[iii].  For example, more biodiverse environments can bolster respiratory and mental health[iv]. Given mental health is our number one long term health issue and asthma is number three we may be inadvertently undermining our health by not fostering biodiversity in urban areas[v]. Then consider that by 2050 68% of the global population will reside in urban areas; that’s a lot of people who stand to gain if we bring nature back into our cities[vi].

A lot of people stand to gain if we bring nature back into our cities - tract
A lot of people stand to gain if we bring nature back into our cities.

It’s up to our professions to halt the decline of biodiversity in urban areas and bring ‘nature’ back into our suburbs.

Australia has a woeful report card on protecting the environment. While advances in integrated water management, urban forestry and urban heat are evident, a focus on biodiversity is not embedded as a central concern in urban design or planning decisions. Urban nature is not considered as a live and active beneficiary group in city design, whether a private resident designing their backyard, a street upgrade, a new park, or a precinct master plan. The absence of nature in decision making is exacerbated in middle ring suburbs experiencing densification. These areas will accommodate significant population growth and often experience higher levels of disadvantage than inner city areas, yet current infill approaches reduce the area available for nature, as well as the quality of that area, for example the removal of mature trees and increased hardscapes. While conservation and restoration actions in urban areas will not replicate reference states it can improve biodiversity and mitigate against the impacts of climate change by promoting more sustainable ecosystems.

Overly intensive infill approaches reduce the size and quality of the area available for urban nature, to the detriment of people and nature (nearmap 2022) - tract
Overly intensive infill approaches reduce the size and quality of the area available for urban nature, to the detriment of people and nature (Nearmap 2022).

Imagine if the concept of co-benefit creation was a design principle, like Universal Design or Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design.

Embedding the idea of co-benefit creation as a core design principle in city planning may be one way of delivering the positive vision of a good quality of life in harmony with nature we desperately need. This would mean an active consideration of where the needs of urban nature and people align (and don’t) in every built environment project, from tender to implementation, maintenance, and management. Every project, at every scale, would consider how to pursue strategies that maximise the benefits for urban nature and people, elevating urban nature as a beneficiary group with a live voice in the planning room. If this approach were embedded as standard practice, more funds and research would be prioritised to fill the gaps in our understanding around what urban nature needs to thrive and how we can create the conditions for success in a way that reinforces human health and wellbeing. It could be tentatively suggested that this concept aligns with indigenous world views, such as care of, and connection to, Country. However, there isn’t much out there on how to create co-benefits in our suburbs and why this type of thinking isn’t the norm.

How can we make this a reality?

Any co-benefit design philosophy would need to promote approaches that enable nature and people to co-exist as successfully as possible. However, the definition of success varies depending on the species or stakeholder’s perspective, i.e., one person loves a tree while another hates it, one species can’t cross a road that’s 10 metres wide, and another can[vii]. As such any approach would need to elevate nature as a beneficiary group alongside the local community and undertake planning from both vantage points. This would enable synergies and trade-offs to be identified, discussed, and agreed.  Any approach would also need to accommodate different population and species needs within a place and ecosystem. One way could be to take a place based view of ecological and human health, and supplement that with a population or species led view – in effect apply the notion of universal design to ‘nature’, as we do for people. This entails understanding what strategies maximise benefits to a wide array of target taxa and species in a place.

But how can we make this approach the norm? - tract
But how can we make this approach the norm? (de Beaujeu 2020)

The PhD is looking at how we make this a reality.

The PhD first looks at how to scope an area for co-benefits and trade-offs. This entails devising a site analysis process and applying it in a case study area. The site analysis will then be peer reviewed by a landscape architect,  urban designer/planner, traffic engineer, water engineer, ecologist, health promotion expert and public works professional.

The next step will consider whether the systems and structures that dictate ‘in ground’ outcomes enable this way of working. This will entail bringing together up to 15 stakeholders to undertake a ‘systems thinking’ approach called ‘Group Model Building’. The process will develop a shared understanding of the issue and system, scope causal factors and interventions.

The last piece is assessing the potential for long term change, i.e., how can we transition to a future where co-benefit creation is standard practice. This will combine learnings to date with research around other social-ecological transitions, such as the adoption of water sensitive urban design and urban forestry.

i IPBES (2019): Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. S. Díaz, J. Settele, E. S. Brondízio, H. T. Ngo, M. Guèze, J. Agard, A. Arneth, P. Balvanera, K. A. Brauman, S. H. M. Butchart, K. M. A. Chan, L. A. Garibaldi, K. Ichii, J. Liu, S. M. Subramanian, G. F. Midgley, P. Miloslavich, Z. Molnár, D. Obura, A. Pfaff, S. Polasky, A. Purvis, J. Razzaque, B. Reyers, R. Roy Chowdhury, Y. J. Shin, I. J. Visseren-Hamakers, K. J. Willis, and C. N. Zayas (eds.). IPBES secretariat, Bonn, Germany. 56 pages. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3553579
ii Persson L, Carney Almroth BM, Collins CD, Cornell S, de Wit CA, Diamond ML, Fantke P, Hassellöv M, MacLeod M, Ryberg MW, Søgaard Jørgensen P, Villarrubia-Gómez P, Wang Z and Hauschild MZ (2022) ‘Outside the Safe Operating Space of the Planetary Boundary for Novel Entities’, Environmental Science & Technology, 56(3):1510-1521, https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.1c04158
iii Marselle MR, Martens D, Dallimer M and Irvine KN (2019) Biodiversity and Health in the Face of Climate Change, Springer Open, Germany, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-02318-8_9
iv Liddicoat C, Bi P, Waycott M, Glover J, Lowe AJ and Weinstein P (2018) ‘Landscape biodiversity correlates with respiratory health in Australia’, Journal of Environmental Management, 206:113-122.
v United Nations (2018) 68% of the world population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, UN, accessed 12 April 2021. https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html
vi Nehad, 2022, The health of a nation, https://blog.id.com.au/2022/population/demographic-trends/the-health-of-a-nation/
vii Kirk H, Threlfall C, Soanes K, Ramalho C, Parris K, Amati M, Bekessy S and Mata L (2018) Linking Nature in the City: A framework for improving ecological connectivity across the City of Melbourne, Report prepared for the City of Melbourne Urban Sustainability Branch

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