“If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it.”
– Dr. Pavan Sukhdev, Head of UN Environment Program’s Green Economy Initiative
In every project, we consider the sustainability of a site and the impact it will have upon biodiversity. Recently, our participation in the Green Business Challenge encouraged us to think through the way in which we measure biodiversity in our immediate vicinity, the cities of Webster Groves and Shrewsbury.
While we value the work we do in parks and support continued conservation efforts in nature preserves, we recognize that these areas are, as a whole, too few and far between to sustain a level of biodiversity that will significantly impact our living and working environments. Ecosystems and their environmental benefits are certainly globally connected; however, for example, the trees found in the Shaw Nature Reserve cannot clean the air in the Metro East any more than the populations of bees supported by Yellowstone National Park can pollinate crops in California. Nature reserves make up, at most, 5 percent of the world. As designers and planners we feel a responsibility to promote biodiversity in the other 95 percent.
Design that contributes to a region’s biodiversity must identify and support native and appropriate plant and animal species. We have learned that this seemingly straightforward task is really anything but simple in an urban environment. In the St. Louis region, for example, many post-industrial, commercial or even residential sites have not held a native tree in over a century. A combination of climate change and generations of human disturbance on these sites have resulted in soil types, landforms, hydrology and precipitation patterns that differentiate the urban landscape from surrounding, native ecotypes. Through the development of our cities, we have created a new class of landscape types. Now, if we seek to progress the health and well-being of our urban populations, we must also develop an understanding of appropriate plant material, habitat creation and urban wildlife to serve those landscape types.
Our motivations to promote biodiversity vary. From a desire to preserve a living history to a profound respect for life in all its forms, our different impulses drive our work in a singular direction: to bring ecosystem capital to the communities that our designs serve. Environmental systems provide vital benefits including air and water purification, flood control and ozone protection. The success of these ecological services and their ability to remain resilient in the face of future climate and environmental change depend upon genetic- as well as species-level biodiversity. We will explore urban biodiversity not as a matter of selecting the correct individual species for each artificially-generated landscape type, but as a process of identifying the life support needs required of a project and the species capable of meeting these needs while responding to the unique set of characteristics native to the urban site.
In order to endorse the urban biodiversity agenda, we must learn to speak in the economic language of ecosystems, which asks us to place a value on the amenities that the earth provides. With this in mind, we hope to work with industry leaders in adjacent fields such as public health, social work, and environmental engineering to collect and disseminate information about the economic value of the environment through our design, research and performance measurements.