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Logo: Nature Assessment Tool

(Dr. Stuart Robertson, Ecosystems Knowledge Network, https://ecosystemsknowledge.net)

When it comes to environmental stewardship within the built environment professions, avoidance of negative impacts is now only one part of the equation. As the nature and climate emergencies rise on political agendas, net gain is rapidly becoming the new mantra. We now need to ask whether new housing and infrastructure projects are securing overall improvements in the core functions of a healthy environment. This means, for example, storage of carbon in soils and vegetation, nature-based flood risk reduction and the promotion of good health in local communities.

A new open-access tool to answer the net gain question was released earlier this year by WSP and partners. The Nature Tool for Urban and Rural Environments (the NATURE Tool) is designed to be used by the full range of professionals that are involved in shaping built development throughout the UK, from design teams to planners and construction specialists, as well as organisations whose sole focus is nature enhancement. It is expected to be deployed on everything from linear infrastructure projects to new housing.

The NATURE Tool has been developed with the different needs and public policy priorities of each UK jurisdiction in mind. This adaptable tool permits local planning authorities and project developers to pre-define what is expected from new development in terms of net gain. The intention is to enhance planning security for developers, while also setting a new benchmark for minimum net gain requirements.

This new tool has been created with funding from Innovate UK. WSP worked with the Ecosystems Knowledge Network – a UK-wide non-profit – to develop the Tool. Northumbria University provided specialist support in the process.

Case study partners list

Some may ask why we should consider the mesmerising plethora of functions that a healthy environment performs in society; the so called ‘ecosystem services’. After all, biodiversity net gain is only just becoming mandatory (at least in England). In reality, there is already a strong interest in achieving measurable get gains for the environment. For instance, earlier this year, the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission published a document exploring the idea. Mandated environmental net gain is potentially around the corner. In Wales, the Wellbeing and Future Generations Act (2015) already provides a basis for all public bodies such as local authorities to support projects that secure an environment that is better for everyone.

Example screenshot from the NATURE Tool
Example screenshot from the NATURE Tool

The NATURE Tool also comes in the midst of calls for a green recovery within the UK. In the context of the needs for enhancements to the built and natural environments, this all points to net gain beyond simply measures of the extent and condition of natural habitat.

The spreadsheet tool, which is freely available, has been designed to serve a wide range of projects, from housebuilding to transport infrastructure, and from mineral sites to wind farms and importantly the tool can be used across all 4 jurisdictions of the UK. As part of the development and testing of the NATURE Tool, a partnership across the UK was established with more than 30 organisations involved in the built environment including developers, landowners, local planning authorities, NGOs, and Government Agencies.

Users of the NATURE tool will need to enter a range of simple indicators such as land-use and greenspace accessibility before and after development. On that basis, the tool will calculate the impact of the land-use change on up to 17 ecosystem services (nature's contributions to people), on physical and mental health, and on biodiversity, and assess to what extent net gains for the environment would be/have been achieved.

Case study for Vale of Glamorgan Council

The NATURE tool will not only help to make future land-use more sustainable, but it will also enable those involved in shaping the built environment to play a more positive role by becoming a net-contributor to tackling environmental issues. WSP and the project partners expect the tool to become a widely accepted UK industry standard; a game-changer for the built environment sector’s response to the nature and climate concerns.

Dr Oliver Hölzinger, Associate at WSP and creator of the NATURE Tool explains: “Responding to government policy ambitions and applying our industry expertise, we are delighted to have developed this new tool to aid the built environment sector to collectively achieve ambitions to leave the environment in a better state for the next generation through adopting a natural capital approach to environmental net gain.

“The NATURE Tool is practical and easy to use allowing the assessment of up to 17 ecosystem services plus physical and mental health benefits through a scoring system indicating both, the direction and magnitude of project impacts. These scores are aggregated based on policy priorities resulting in an overall ‘people score’ for the project. This assessment aims to encourage both better decision making and clearly demonstrate the results of positive sustainable action during development.”

With good design and planning, there is a positive case for restoring the environment for everyone’s wellbeing and prosperity. The NATURE Tool means that, where good design and planning is already delivering net gain, this can be communicated in a robust manner.

For more information about the NATURE tool visit www.NATURE-Tool.com where you can download the most current version of the tool.

Example screenshot from the NATURE Tool

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