Nature and building design
How can the design of buildings and infrastructure take a proactive and regenerative approach to nature and biodiversity?
The UK government’s Build Back Better plan places historic levels of investment in infrastructure as one of three core pillars to support economic recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic [source].
The total value of planned public and private investment in economic and social infrastructure is estimated to be £650 billion over the next ten years [source]. This investment has the potential to put a great strain on nature through the consumption of raw materials and the associated emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs).
Further, the delivery of buildings and infrastructure developments can have both direct and indirect negative impacts on biodiversity through land use change, the associated loss, degradation, and fragmentation of habitats, and ongoing future disturbance of species.
Designers of buildings and infrastructure are in a unique position to turn these challenges into opportunities to support both economic and the environmental regeneration required to address climate and biodiversity crises.Challenges facing nature
What’s being done
The legislative and policy landscape is changing to better support the natural environment.
The Environment Act 2021 requires the government to set at least one long-term target in each of the four priority areasof air quality; water; biodiversity; and resource efficiency and waste reduction. It requires targets to be set for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and to halt the decline in species abundance by 2030.
The Act also requires development to achieve a 10% net gain for biodiversity.
In England, development for which planning permission is granted under the Town and Country Planning Act, and Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects, will be required to achieve biodiversity net gain. Local Nature Recovery Strategies are a new, England-wide system of spatial strategies that will establish priorities and map proposals for specific actions to drive nature’s recovery and provide wider environmental benefits. These will be supported by a strengthened biodiversity duty on public authorities, requiring them to assess the action they can take to conserve and enhance biodiversity, while having regard to Local Nature Recovery Strategies.
Already, work is underway to make the economic recovery a green one.
The UK government’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution sets out the strategy to create new jobs in the pursuit of net zero [source]. Green public transport, cycling and walking is one of the points of the Plan which will require thoughtful design to encourage movement away from private vehicles, reducing GHGs and improving our air quality.
Greener buildings are another focal point where design will be critical to the delivery of future-proofed properties with low carbon heating and high energy efficiency.Explore case studies
The path forward
The buildings and infrastructure sector has a key role to play in ensuring economic that future economic developments are environmentally and socially conscientious – not just by mitigating or preventing environmental damage but also enabling a restorative approach and actively seeking to enhance nature and biodiversity.
Globally and in the UK, damage to the environment is driven by rapid economic growth and human development. Consequently, a wide range of environmental problems have emerged including climate change, ocean acidification, deforestation, ozone depletion, pollution, eutrophication, the spread of invasive species, soil erosion and degradation, habitat loss and declining biodiversity. Habitat and species disturbance from light, noise and human activity, and habitat fragmentation, which creates barriers to wildlife movement, are two key issues associated with buildings and infrastructure.
These changes have become so extensive that the fundamental physical, chemical and biological systems of the planet have been altered [source]. To bring human civilisation back into safe operating limits, we need a fundamental re-think of the economy and our relationship with the environment.
The construction industry and the built environment consumes approximately half of all of the world’s resources making it one of the least sustainable industries in the world and a major contributor to environmental degradation [source].
However, this also means that the sector can play a leading role in the transition to a sustainable future. The UK government’s Construction Sector Deal, encompassing over half a trillion pounds worth of investment, stresses the importance of the industry enabling clean growth [source]. Even small changes in such a vast industry can lead to significantly better outcomes for the environment.
Transitioning the built environment towards a circular economic model is emerging as one of the most important initiatives. The 2020 Circular Economy Package (CEP) sets out the UK’s commitment to moving towards a more circular economy [source] where resources can be continually reused so that waste is minimised and there is little need for the extraction of new resources. The World Economic Forum’s estimates that a sustainable transformation of the building sector alone can reduce global GHG emissions by more than 30% [source].
The key to this transformation lies in design.
For buildings and infrastructure to be produced sustainably, designers must plan from the inception of a project by considering the use of sustainable, recyclable and non-toxic materials from accredited sources – FSC timber for example, how materials can be reused and put back into the economy, and how components can be designed to be easy to repair and maintain as well as easy to take apart.
Design is key to shifting the sector from having a negative relationship with nature to getting nature positive [source].
As well as leading to significant economic changes, COVID-19 has illustrated the value of nature for society in terms of mental health and wellbeing. However, these benefits are not always shared fairly across society, with clear inequalities in opportunities for engaging with nature [source]. Improving access to nature through infrastructure solutions and design can address this balance and generate social value but only when carefully designed within the context of individual area so as not to disturb the local environment. Examples of different types of action are showcased here, not as a comprehensive checklist, but as inspiration for further positive action. Effective action begins with an understanding of the challenges facing nature.Explore actions for nature
- The built environment contributes to about 40% of Britain’s total territorial carbon footprint, The UK Green Building Council estimates making the construction industry one of the major contributors to climate change. 
- A sustainable transformation of the building sector alone can reduce global GHG emissions by more than 30%, World Economic Forum estimates. 
- In the UK, the construction industry has significantly improved recycling rates – the recovery rate of non-hazardous waste was 92% in 2018 [source] – even so, significant improvements to the efficient use of resources are still needed. 
Securing long-term equitable prosperity and societal wellbeing relies on the understanding and mitigation of negative impacts to our planet and the rebalancing of demands for nature’s resources. From purifying our water to pollinating our crops and removing carbon from the atmosphere, our natural systems are critical.
Today, I believe, we are seeing a renewed focus on society’s relationship with our natural world and how we can address climate challenges and reduce biodiversity loss across our global ecosystems.
As infrastructure designers and solution providers, we are in a unique position to help tackle the threats posed to nature from global warming, harmful pollution, over-exploitation of resources, land-use change and invasive species – and support a flourishing long-term future for humanity, living in harmony with the natural environment.
Nature provides us with an abundant source of inspiration and novel ways that can help us think differently and reimagine these solutions. By harnessing nature positive design and better integrating nature-based solutions into infrastructure development, we can shape outcomes that protect, sustainably manage and restore the vast array of ecosystem benefits that humanity depends upon.
Nature-based solutions are increasingly being woven into built environment design disciplines, while by nature inspired design, such as biomimicry, provides a unique platform for the development of sustainable and regenerative infrastructure that also supports greater equity among our communities.
In our quest to protect and restore the natural world, we must significantly amplify the role of natural capital throughout design and optioneering to realise the true value of infrastructure and achieve better outcomes for society and our planet.
It is also important that we don’t limit design and associated environment enhancement opportunities solely by what can be measured today. If we delay striving for environmental net gain because of a lack of defined guidance, we may miss out on opportunities to deliver nature positive solutions in the near-term.
In cities and communities around the world, green spaces and nature have become increasingly invaluable to residents.
We need to design smarter to meet societal needs and ensure environmental gains are permanent, enabled by effective management and monitoring. With nature at the forefront of design, we can plan and develop climate-smart, nature-positive building and infrastructure solutions which enhance quality of life and enable humanity to adapt and thrive for generations to come.
Steve Demetriou, CEO Jacobs