The Power of the Place… article for Alternative UK

23 March 2021
Claire Hector

“Don’t let the signs of the times destroy the power of the place!” How to use wildlife law to shape better places for humans too.


From Common Ground

By Ian Boyd

We are living in strange times in the UK. Covid and Brexit, 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 hypocrisy 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 is a salvage operation, rescuing what we can of habitats and landscape; sometimes it’s 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 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.

Covid-19 has sharpened this message, demonstrating that our appalling, dismal inability to build places fit for human life is killing us. By hacking out and throwing up settlements in degraded environments shared by stressed people and stressed biota, we are constantly brewing sickness.

This runs on a scale from the flourishing of allergy, cognitive and emotional disorder, social discontent, and crisis intervention in the UK’s ubiquitous residential sprawl, to the synthesis of pandemic in distant, ravaged biomes. It is the same problem.

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 community living.

Arc’s bespoke Shaping Better Places Framework

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’.

We have called this approach Shaping Better Places. There is a rather wonderful quotation from pioneering urban biologist Forest Stearns, writing in 1972, in the heyday of ecological humanism, that sums it up:

For a balanced urban habitat, we must provide brood cover for small children; safe territory for youthful exploration; flocking, trysting and roosting habitat for young adults; and finally, stable and well-defined territories for older cohorts.

The vacant lot in his block is of far more value to a five-year-old than is the park located three or four blocks away. Likewise, the elderly need readily accessible, comfortable, and quiet parks. With man, as with wildlife, scale and distribution of green areas are important. [Stearns, F. 1972, ‘The city as habitat for wildlife and man’, in Detwyler, T.R. and Marcus, M.G. (eds) Urbanization and Environment: The physical geography of the city, Duxbury, Belmont, 261-277]

By reclaiming this vision, we can begin to concentrate environmental quality into localities, 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 manufactured, cultivated, impoverished and denuded. 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 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 continue to generate, we can shape better places for people too.

Shaping Better Places is ultimately a celebration of place, its local distinctiveness, its capacity to combine the built and the natural in a truly authentic, and therefore sustainable resource for the future.

This idea is beautifully and succinctly captured by Common Ground, one of the most influential but understated organizations of modern times, in its ‘Local Distinctiveness Rules’:

Introduce zeitgeist to genius loci. Don’t let the signs of the times destroy the power of the place!

To find out more about Ian’s work, click here. And for a concrete example of what his approach would mean for a place, see this Place Plan For Ryde (PDF download)