Ecosystems Knowledge Network: connecting people and nature
By Daija Angeli and Bruce Howard | 10 Jul, 2012
Daija Angeli and Bruce Howard introduce a network to promote the benefits of protecting and enhancing our natural environment.
There is little contention that high quality built environments are vital in underpinning prosperity and well-being at the local and national level. Society doesn’t always view the natural environment in the same way. The media focuses our minds on threats from nature, such as flooding and invasive species. Much less consideration is given to the positive ways in which land and nature underpins life and livelihoods. We often get absorbed on single issues, such as protecting a single species of animals and plants, rather than the full spectrum of benefits that nature provides for people. The UK National Ecosystem Assessment, published last year, outlined the array of ways in which the natural environment underpins people’s health and the economy. Regional studies have provided a similar picture. For example, Natural Economy Northwest estimated that green infrastructure provides direct gross value added of £2.6bn in the Northwest England.
All of this leads to one immediate question for readers of Greenbuild: what difference might greater recognition of people’s dependence on the natural environment make to the day-to-day work of built environment professionals? The Ecosystems Knowledge Network has recently been launched to help address this question. The network is bringing together a wide range of professional groups and others, to share ideas and practical experience about ways to put people at the centre of planning and decision-making about the natural environment. The focus is on specific areas of land and marine habitat.
The new network, which is free to join, is sponsored by Defra. It is being facilitated by a team drawn from Countryscape, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural Capital Initiative, Fabis Consulting and the University of Exeter’s Centre for Rural Policy Research. A key part of the Ecosystems Knowledge Network is shared learning from projects up and down the country that have tried out new ways of connecting people and nature. The network facilitators have already been talking to over 40 individual projects with valuable experience. These stretch from the Scilly Isles to Shetland.
One example of these projects is the Mayesbrook Climate Change Park in Barking, East London; an innovative and highly collaborative project that is showcasing how public greenspace can help a community to adapt to the impacts from climate change. The Mayesbrook Project has been strengthened by analysis of the key benefits of the planned river restoration and the wider park improvements. These ‘ecosystem services’ include regulation of air and water quality, microclimate and flood risk, as well as enhanced recreation and tourism. Based on this analysis, the benefit-to-cost ratio was calculated to be £7 of benefits for every £1 invested. The Thames River Restoration Trust assembled a partnership of public, private and voluntary organisations to deliver the project, which is now being implemented on the ground.
Another project involved in the Ecosystems Knowledge Network took place in the Cambrian Mountains area, east of Aberystwyth. This involved local people in assessing what values they place on goods and services provided by nature and considering future change in the landscape. The work involved street stalls, workshops, and interactive tools to help people visualise change in the landscape. The work was commissioned by Countryside Council for Wales, with support from Sciencewise, and was delivered by Resources for Change.
There are many other projects involved in the Ecosystems Knowledge Network that demonstrate practical ways of connecting people and nature with ideas and experience that can be applied in the built environment context.
The integrated approach that forms the focus of the Ecosystems Knowledge Network is sometimes referred to as an ecosystems approach. The approach is inclusive and seeks to involve local communities, avoiding top-down approaches to management. An ecosystems approach is changing the way we make the case for nature in decision making about particular areas of land and marine habitat. It is not intended to be a new scheme or initiative. Rather, the approach is a set of principles that can benefit existing programmes, such as in the design of green infrastructure and urban regeneration.
The Ecosystems Knowledge Network will provide resources for shared learning about an ecosystems approach and its practical application in various settings. Participants of the network will receive an newsletter containing news items and articles and will be invited to virtual and in-person workshops and events. They will be offered a variety of downloadable resources, including guidance on how to use the approach in your own area of work and links to other initiatives and resources. One of the key roles of the network will be drawing together existing research and knowledge about delivery of an ecosystems approach, as well as identifying what are the key evidence gaps.
So what practical difference might an ecosystems approach make to the work of built environment professionals?
- Firstly, in planning and designing any project, all of the green issues that are often considered individually (such as energy efficiency, nature conservation and site drainage) are more likely to be evaluated together. The big question is: how can a development of any one part of the built environment best fit with the way the local environment functions?
- Secondly, those involved in creating new places for people to live, work and relax will involve users of the built environment more closely in assessing the benefits that they derive from the natural environment. Consultation over design is likely to become active participation, giving people the opportunity to explore and value what nature does for them.
- Finally, design of the built environment is likely to take greater account of how the natural environment can help us to meet wider societal goals, such as improving the physical and mental health of local communities.
The network is there to share practical experience in reflecting an ecosystems approach. For further information or to register your interest in joining, please visit www.naturalcapitalinitiative.org.uk/ekn.
Daija Angeli and Bruce Howard are part of the Ecosystems Knowledge Network Facilitation Team. They can be contacted by email at email@example.com.
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