Urban planning for ecology: insights and opportunities

At a time when land available for use is at a premium, there is growing debate into how best remaining land should be managed and developed. For a long time, the land-sharing, land-sparing debate regarding agricultural land use has been much contested. Now, in a recent article in the Journal of Applied Ecology, this debate has been opened up to urban systems and considers how the original land sharing/sparing principles could be applied to planning the development of our towns and cities.

The land sharing/sparing debate has seen much argument between academics, conservationists and land managers over the merits and pitfalls of either approach in delivering economic and ecological outcomes. At its simplest, land sparing argues for agricultural practices to take place on small patches of land in an intensive way, whereas land sharing argues for agriculture to occur over a wider landscape and less intensively. Both result in different social and ecological trade-offs and as such there is still uncertainty over which approach is best.

But why would this debate which is rooted in agriculture be applied to urban systems? The answers may be more obvious than you think.  Firstly, there is huge need to better plan and develop our urban areas; 50% of the world’s population is considered urban and urban areas are increasing in their size, density and number. Given this, learning from other systems can highlight key issues and solutions that may not have been obvious or considered before. Secondly, as the authors of the article argue, there are many parallels between agricultural and urban areas. Both have similar land use changes, degrade or influence biodiversity and ecosystem services and are both socio-ecological systems. Therefore applying land sharing/sparing ideas to urban areas can give better insight into the socio-economic and ecological trade-offs that can occur as a result of development, and help to move urban planning into a more holistic process that better considers the environment.

In an urban context, whilst high density and restricted urban development could spare further vegetation being developed but impact local biodiversity (land sparing), less intense sprawling urban development would use up more land but could have less impact on biodiversity (land sharing). The aim of the article however, is not to favour one approach over the other. Instead the authors highlight the importance of applying a spatial framework to help guide urban development and planning, and offer research areas within urban ecology that need addressing in order to progress such approaches.

A key problem in urban planning is that the rate of development far exceeds the rate of research output and policy implementation, meaning that urban development often ignores its full environmental impact. In the UK, there are a number of planning policies using buzzwords such as ‘increasing green spaces’ and ‘improving access to nature’, yet there is little guidance for exactly how to achieve this. One of the core principles of the UK’s National Planning Policy Framework is to conserve and enhance the natural environment, whilst the Natural Environment White Paper champions for many initiatives and actions such as Local Nature Partnerships, the Green Infrastructure Partnership and biodiversity offsets. Some objectives of these policies are easier to implement than others, but generally there is still uncertainty in large areas of urban development as to how to go about planning for the environment, and more specifically how to conserve biodiversity and maintain ecosystem services.

There are however some useful documents and case studies emerging which encourage planners and developers to better account for the environment. The Town and Country Planning Association, joint with over 60 organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts, produced a ‘Good Practice Guide’ last year which outlines specific actions that can be taken for a ‘greener’ approach to urban development. Green infrastructure is also increasing in its applications, and Natural England recently published a report regarding the different values of green infrastructure tools in urban areas. Learning from recent urban development sites, such as in Cambourne, also shows that urban development which is ecologically sensitive is possible if the tools and guidance are in place.

There is still a long way to go in terms of urban research and development, yet with the increasing research output from urban ecological science and the novel approaches being pushed for guiding work, there are many potential opportunities to balance social and ecological trade-offs and make urban planning more ecologically sensitive. Within the planning industry itself there is already much motion towards making developments ‘greener’. The challenge is to ensure that research and policy can keep up to inform and provide the tools to help achieve this.