Shaping Better Places

5 December 2019
Ian Boyd

We are living in strange times. The financial crash and the Brexit vote; declining lifespans and increasing child mortality; runaway inequality with a top 10% increasingly insulated from collapsing public services and a bottom 15% increasingly abandoned by them. We have a mental health crisis amongst our young and an epidemic of isolation amongst our old. We should be angry, and we should work harder to articulate that anger in the face of the casual cruelty, ignorance and Tartuffery of our political classes. Above all we need to stop the erosion of ‘public goods’, the foundation capital of everyday places.

I spend a great deal of my time at the development coal-face, working with companies large and small to secure effective ecological compliance as required by the planning system. Often, it’s a salvage operation, rescuing what we can of habitats and landscape, sometimes a more optimistic exercise in designing new spaces that can extend and expand resources for wildlife. The latter is becoming more common thanks to a shift in public policy towards what is called ‘net gain’ for biodiversity. Of course, this ambition is fraught already with expedient interpretations and canny avoidance, but that’s life, and the simple fact that the narrative has shifted is something good.

But this positive move for wildlife throws into even sharper relief the truly dismal failure of development policy for people. I can honestly say that an average housing scheme will pay far more attention, and invest far more ingenuity and money, in the protection of dormice, than it will in the protection of a basic standard of wellbeing for the community it creates. We are absolutely hopeless at designing habitats for humans.

That’s why we, as a practice, have begun to use the leverage that wildlife policy and law provides to actually drive up standards of public realm, play spaces and the shared and common areas that are the fabric of communities. If we can create more interesting, stimulating, appealing, diverse and flexible neighbourhoods for people by making them necessary for ecological compliance then we might just avoid the appalling sterility and drabness of the usual fare dished up as ‘green infrastructure’.

By overlaying nature conservation and ‘bioreceptivity’ across the traditionally separate elements of residential design: greenspace, balancing ponds, roads and paths, and even the materials and ornament of the buildings themselves; we can begin to concentrate environmental quality, folding enriched spaces for living into the development envelope. We have forgotten that we are organisms sharing our bit of territory with the encompassing natural world. It might too often be a manufactured, cultivated, impoverished and denuded ecology that we inhabit but it is still an ecosystem, and we are still plugged into it.

Wildlife encounter, even a passing experience of something natural, is unequivocally good for us. We don’t need to fetishize nature or fog it with mystery to benefit. We just need to make it easier, and more likely that we will see, hear, smell or touch something of the natural world in our daily rounds. By creating spaces for wildlife in every part of the built and planted environments that our urban lives will continue to generate, we can shape better places for people too.