Ongoing pressure for new housing and development represents a significant challenge for nature conservation. Yet this need not be a binary issue. The need to conserve nature is also a vital opportunity to deliver better places. Here, the work of the government-initiated Building Better Building Beautiful Commission represents an important step, encouraging a greater focus on quality whilst expressly highlighting the role of nature.

In order to stand the test of time, and secure community support, truly sustainable places will need to be beautiful. As nature represents a central component of beauty in the built environment, sustainability and beauty should not be perceived as conflicting. Instead, they should be seen as vital partners.

Concrete jungles

As the recent State of Nature 2019 report illustrates, both urbanisation and new development can contribute to species decline, through the removal and fragmentation of habitats. Indeed over 22,000 hectares of UK green space, an area twice the size of Liverpool, were converted into artificial surfaces, most of which was for housing, between 2006 and 2012.

The policy of biodiversity net gain, introduced in the Environment Bill, aims to improve matters. New developments will be required to replace any lost biodiversity and provide an additional 10% on top. In addition, new Local Nature Recovery Partnerships are intended to enable a strategic approach, identifying key priorities with habitat maps. The hope is that these will then enable the creation of integrated nature recovery networks, and habitat corridors.

But we need to go further. Net gain will have a two-year transition period, and crucially does not cover existing buildings. There are also practical questions over how net gains will be maintained over the long term. This, is where beauty comes in.

Better, Greener, Faster

Considering ‘beauty’ in the built environment helps us recognise how building for nature can also significantly enhance people’s lives. Nature’s place in beauty is underscored by a long cultural history and deep significance in the UK, from Wordsworth to Turner. Its value in ‘good design’ more broadly is reflected in its proven value for our mental health. Research has shown that more species-rich, natural places are significantly better for our mental health and wellbeing than bland, ‘greenwashed’ titbits.

Here, the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC) has been vital in promoting a focus on beautiful design, and the role of nature, in new development. Following our response, we were very pleased to see the role of nature in beauty thoroughly acknowledged in the interim report. Indeed, the value of biodiversity-enhancing green infrastructure in good placemaking was subsequently echoed in the Government’s own National Design Guide, and will hopefully be reinforced further in the upcoming National Model Design Code.

Yet, this should be just the start of a wider conversation. For a long time, conservation charities have highlighted how the rise of artificial grass and paving-over of front gardens have both had an adverse impact on wildlife and our resilience to the impacts of climate change (notably flooding). As such, if we are to truly address the biodiversity crisis in this country, we must look beyond new development.

To this end, UKGBC has launched a sector ambition for businesses across the construction and property sector. This was built around targets for net environmental gain and nature-based climate resilience with proposals put to consultation crucially covering both new and existing buildings.

Here, the BBBBC’s work could usefully live on beyond the release of the final report. Its brief, but welcome, focus on regenerative design, and wider recommendations, would provide a valuable basis for a broader conversation about the quality of our existing towns and cities.

What next?

As DEFRA looks set to explore wider ‘environmental net gain’, delivering environmental improvements beyond just biodiversity, beauty should remain a valuable component. Crucially, the conversation should not just be about delivering good quality new development, but how we improve the quality of places that already exist.

The pursuit of beauty in the built environment stands out as a real potential ‘win-win’. It’s an idea that, if embraced properly, could deliver places that benefit both people and nature. Whatever the vicissitudes of politics to come, it is vital that the beauty, and the quality of our built environment more generally, remain on the agenda.