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Building with nature for the health of people and planet

Building with nature for the health of people and planet

Before Maggie’s Centre opened their second Glasgow facility in the grounds of Gartnavel Hospital in 2011, the charity appointed a young firm of landscape architects to shape something significant out of the bare earth that surrounded the site. Instead of just sterile lawns, Maggie’s wanted a rich and stimulating space, one that was uplifting throughout the seasons and where the people who used its services could find comfort and healing in the sounds, sights and smells of nature as they came to terms with a health diagnosis or recovered from treatment.

The cancer caring charity was one of the first organisations to recognise the link between nature and wellbeing and in the then recently-formed practice of HarrisonStevens, it found a partner that shared the same philosophy.

HarrisonStevens may have been up against larger and longer-established firms, yet even then the studio was clear that its mission was about more than just ‘greening’ spaces with grass and trees. It saw its role as improving lives by reconciling human experience and eco-systems in order to create a more balanced world for everything.

More than a decade later, HarrisonStevens is still creating landscapes based on the principle of connecting people and nature.

Building with nature for the health of people and planet
landscape first

Around a barren former quarry in Ratho on the outskirts of Edinburgh, where Wavegarden, Scotland’s first artificial surfing reef is taking shape, HarrisonStevens is creating a country park teeming with wildlife. At the Inverness Campus, a business, science and research complex in the Highlands, native planting, locally-sourced timber and a man-made lake have created habitats where people and nature can thrive, and the daylighting of a culverted burn in a public park on Orkney provides numerous opportunities for nature to thrive in the new space.

Meanwhile the garden at Maggie’s Centre, which was designed to be beneficial when viewed from indoors, as well as experienced up close, continues to be an uplifting place where many people find the space and tranquillity they need to restore their spirits.

In all of these and on its many other projects, HarrisonStevens has consistently worked towards no net loss of biodiversity, but recently it moved the goalposts and set itself the much more daunting challenge of achieving biodiversity net gain.
What this means in practice is that on every project where it works, HarrisonStevens has undertaken to leave a richer environment than existed prior to development. This may be straightforward where its designs involve ‘greening’ once-sterile urban environments, such as Fletton Quays in Peterborough, where the 350 apartments that now replace a series of redundant buildings have been surrounded by an urban park with cycle paths and a wildlife area, but where development impinges on existing ecosystems, the danger is that these will end up degraded.

Yet not only does Liz Leech, an Associate landscape architect with HarrisonStevens, argue that biodiversity net gain is possible, but that it is in fact the key approach to the current climate crisis, and even when it is difficult to achieve, anything less is not likely to provide a positive benefit.

“Environmental change is perhaps the biggest issue of our time. It affects us on a planetary scale and it impacts everything that supports our lifestyles. As landscape architects it is our role to see projects as part of both the local and the wider environment and even though the immense complexity of ecosystems make it a challenge to design for both the micro and the macro at the same time, that’s the challenge that we face.”

Currently biodiversity net gain is not a legal requirement in Scotland, but in order to explore how it could be achieved, HarrisonStevens reviewed a number of its projects, finally settling on its work on the new Peffermill Sports Village for the University of Edinburgh to test out its theories.

Development at Peffermill involved creating a 600-unit residential facility on what was open parkland, as well as renewing and upgrading the sports centre itself, and Liz says: “We chose this, rather than a ‘grey’ site because the work here involved removing some of the green space that was in place. This already had significant biodiversity value and we reckoned that it would be considerably more difficult to make gains when so much of the existing green space had to be removed in order to complete the development.”

Gain was made possible by adding brown and green roofs to the residential blocks, seeding meadows, creating soft SuDs components, planting native species of shrubs and trees, and strengthening existing key habitats.

“Before starting work we had carried out a review of the different habitats and then worked out what needed to be done to enhance them and to link them up with wider greenspaces - and what new habitats could be created,” says Liz.

Thus it isn’t just on single sites that habitats can be nurtured; active travel routes installed for the benefit of pedestrians and cyclists, also act like wildlife corridors, joining up different sites’ islands of biodiversity and allowing beneficial plants, insects, birds and mammals to migrate through dense urban spaces, instead of becoming isolated in small pockets, where the threat to their existence and diversity is greater.

Not only do these green routes combine ecological benefits with the healthy activities of walking and cycling, but by also integrating them with sustainable drainage systems, which capture and treat surface water, they can also help to prevent and mitigate flooding and improve water quality.

The next step for HarrisonStevens in 2022 has been to gain Building With Nature accreditation, which Liz achieved back in February. This is a scheme that brings together many of the diverse strands of site design and management into a holistic benchmark for green infrastructure, defining the quality of places and spaces. Whilst this - as with BNG in Scotland - remains optional for developers, an increasing number of clients are expressing interest in the scheme as not only can it reduce planning uncertainty, but it will also deliver quality spaces which are provably sustainable into the future, for people and for nature.

However, whilst these metrics and schemes remain optional, a danger exists that opportunities to protect and enhance nature and to join up greenspaces into a wider infrastructural network, will be missed, despite the considerable evidence for the economic benefits of creating integrated, biodiverse, connected and beautiful landscapes. Perhaps the time has arrived for biodiversity net gain to become a legal requirement, so that every project contributes to a greener and healthier planet.

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