Biodiversity, air quality and housing: joining the dots for a better future

Ben Kite, managing director and principal ecological consultant at Ecological Planning & Research Ltd discusses the importance of protecting the environment while we build the homes and services that are needed to accommodate a growing population. 

The housing shortage in the UK is reaching a critical point.

In England alone there is now a backlog of 4 million homes, contributing to increasing rents and falling rates of homeownership. In order to clear this backlog and cater for a growing population, between 240,000 and 340,000 homes must be built each year, along with an attendant increase in necessary supporting infrastructure such as schools, healthcare services and roads.

Taking action to rectify this shortage in homes is vital, but it is also crucial that new homes do not come at the expense of our country’s rapidly declining biodiversity. A quarter of mammal species are at risk of extinction – a key reason for this being habitat loss.

A report released by The State of Nature partnership last year highlighted that 15% of species in the UK are threatened with extinction, and 41% have decreased in abundance since 1970. For example, Hedgehog numbers have declined by around 50% since the start of the 21stcentury due to the destruction of hedgerows and an increase in intensively farmed monoculture landscapes.

Biodiversity and Air Quality

There is rising recognition of another serious problem facing valuable habitats and associated wildlife – air pollution, especially nitrogen deposition.  Nitrogen deposition occurs when nitrogen compounds emitted by vehicles, agriculture, energy generation and industrial processes are deposited back into the environment. The result is an enrichment (‘eutrophication’) of the soil and habitats, which can eventually lead to changes in plant communities and loss of biodiversity.

This negatively affects a variety of sensitive ecological receptors – including habitats which are protected at a national and international level.

To prevent the problem of air pollution worsening as new homes are developed, it is essential that the potential for changes in air quality are properly understood, effects on sensitive receptors are robustly assessed, and mitigation measures are implemented where negative effects are anticipated.

Cutting Air Pollution Through Green Infrastructure

Green infrastructure is also a vital part of the solution to addressing air pollution. For example, planting hedges and trees between roads and receptors that are sensitive to air pollution can be an effective way of preventing certain pollutants from reaching them, while also increasing habitat connectivity.

Designing green links and routes throughout development can also encourage walking and cycling. This will help to reduce the generation of air pollution from vehicles, as well as provide dispersal corridors for native wildlife species such as the Hedgehog.

Integrating plant life into homes and public buildings by adding green walls and roofs is an aesthetically striking measure which acts as a pollution trapper and absorbs gases and excess water, as well as improving the thermal efficiency of buildings – thereby reducing their demand for energy and by extension the need to burn fossil fuels. By acting as a sink for toxic gases such as ammonia, oxides of nitrogen and sulphur emitted by cars, agriculture and industry, these actions to increase biodiversity can also help to make our air cleaner too.

Building for People and for Wildlife

The crises facing the quality of the UK’s environment do not appear to sit easily with the need to build more than four million new homes. However, the National Planning Policy Framework and emerging Environment Bill aim to ensure developments drive improvements in the environment for both people and wildlife – an agenda that has been entitled ‘Biodiversity Net Gain’.

Meeting housing needs whilst achieving a significant increase in biodiversity need not be onerous for developers if the requirements are tackled proactively and effectively.

Attractive and wildlife-rich green spaces or ‘green infrastructure’ – create better places for people, with access to green space found to markedly increase property values.

Wider benefits to the economy are similarly high, as the Office for National Statistics estimates that green and blue space add £2,813 to the price of the average house in Great Britain – equivalent to £77.9 billion.

Likewise, wildlife-friendly management regimes for open spaces are often less expensive in the long run than taking a more manicured approach. Development sites themselves are often located in wildlife-depleted intensively managed agricultural landscapes – offering the opportunity to create new habitats where previously there might have been large monocultural expanses of crop species.

The benefit to communities from green infrastructure extends to a reduction in incidences of depression, obesity, and recovery time. This has a material effect on the country’s health services – it is estimated that increased access to greenspace saves the healthcare system upwards of £2.1billion per year.

Leveraging the financial and political resources stemming from developing new communities to drive positive land-use change is a smart solution to the housing, air quality, and biodiversity crises facing the UK. Instead of killing multiple birds with one stone, we can revive them. With the regulatory environment beginning to swing in favour of biodiversity and the environment on a national scale, housebuilders will become one of the most important players in the battle against air pollution and biodiversity loss – if they consider both of these factors from the inception of their developments.

EPR will be releasing a report entitled ‘Building biodiversity net gain into housing’ on how housing developers can plan for biodiversity net gain this Spring. The report will be available to download from the EPR website’

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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