The Changing Roles of Landscape Design in Nature-Based Solutions, Part 3

by Lee Parks, International ASLA, and LIAO Jingjing

The Singapore-Nanjing Eco Hi-tech Island / image: © Zoom Arch

Exploring of the Changing Roles of Landscape Design in Nature-Based Solutions: A Reflection on Professional Practice over the Last Two Decades

Part 3: A Nature Positive Future

Nature-based Solutions (NbS) are actions designed to work with and enhance natural habitats to take advantage of the ability of healthy natural and managed ecosystems to sequester carbon and support biodiversity recovery. The first part of this series focused on greening grey infrastructure; part 2 covered incorporating naturalistic landscape into the public realm. Here in part 3, we continue to explore how NbS can be pushed into the realms of social awareness and everyday recognition by policy makers and the public at large and in turn, support wider and longer term international environmental successes.

4 Towards a Nature Positive Future

4.1 COP26 Advocacy

Prior to the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP15) held in 2021, leading scientists presented a conceptual shift which puts forward Nature (the environment) as the context for all life, human society, and all human activities (including all economic activity). Similarly, at COP26, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, the Prince of Wales, who has for over fifty years championed action for a sustainable future said: “…after billions of years of evolution, Nature is our best teacher – in this regard, restoring Natural Capital, accelerating Nature-based solutions and leveraging the circular bioeconomy will be vital to our efforts..”

Putting nature at the core is the key to a nature positive world, or one in which the dominant importance of nature to humanity is recognized and human actions are governed accordingly (see graphic below). China’s embrace of eco-civilization as a national development objective is aligned with this conceptual shift, recognizing that humans are completely dependent on a healthy planet for our survival, which in turn depends on a functioning living biosphere. As urban development is still predominantly driven by urban planners aiming to balance the competing interests of economic, social, and environmental development goals, landscape architects need to rise to the forefront of the process, to prioritize nature (the environment) as the context for forms of physical, social, and economic development.

The difference between the competing interest conception of sustainable development (left) and the hierarchical view of nature positive (right). / image: based on a graphic © E. Asselin in A Nature-Positive World: The Global Goal for Nature, redrawn by the authors

4.2 Will NbS Be Enough?

Will NbS alone be enough to tackle the inter-related crises of climate change and biodiversity loss? It is important to recognize that individual behavioral choices can collectively have a significant effect on our planet’s future health. In addition to reducing consumption, reducing waste and bending the curve on fossil fuel dependence and excessive growth, one of the biggest potential shifts we can make is through our diets. Brent Loken, Global Lead Food Scientist at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), proposes a global shift to diets that contain a larger proportion of plant-based foods relative to animal-source foods to release enough agricultural land to sequester 5 to 10 Gt of CO2-equivalent per year if this land was restored to native vegetation.

We cannot feed the world without agriculture, yet where and how we produce food is one of the biggest human-caused threats to biodiversity and our ecosystems. This makes the transformation of our global food system more important than ever, particularly considering urbanization and land development pressures to the countryside. We all need to make the connection between what we eat and consume and the impact the global food system has on our planet. This should also include the positive application of urban food production as part of urban landscape plans.

4.3 Nature Positive World

In a proposal by leading world scientists entitled “A Nature-Positive World: The Global Goal for Nature,” three measurable temporal objectives are put forward: zero net loss of nature from 2020, net positive by 2030, and full recovery by 2050. When combined with development and climate goals, the emphasis on nature is to create an integrated overarching direction for global agreements of an equitable, nature positive, carbon-neutral world.

4.4 A Systematic Nature Positive Practice

Jiangxin Island in Nanjing, now referred to as Singapore Nanjing Eco Hi-tech Island (SNEI), is a township development project jointly supported by Jiangsu & Nanjing Government as well as the Singapore Ministry of Trade and Industry. To transition from experiential/qualitative decision making to quantified solutions, the creation of a new scenic waterfront belt on the island’s Yangtze River embankment offered a chance to apply NbS using systematic thinking and holistic design. The brief was to create a 12 km long (210 hectare) ecologically restorative park providing scenic attraction for the increasingly urban island community. Using the concept of ‘Sustainable Footprints,’ ecological goals and data driven targets were established to minimize the water footprint (water used for landscape irrigation), carbon footprint (embodied carbon in landscape structures and materials), and ecological footprint (impact on the environment) while creating a base for healthy lifestyles, jogging tracks, and even possible marathons races, cycling events, and retaining traces of the island’s “cultural footprint” (such as agricultural and industrial heritage).

The vision for the development of Singapore-Nanjing Eco Hi-tech Island is to create urban habitat and nature in the city, exploring more species diversity and color for greater public acceptance of naturalistic planting in an urban environment. / image:© Zoom Arch

Inspired and spurred by the success of the 2012 London Olympic Park Meadow and iconic projects like the High Line in New York with planting design by Piet Oudolf, the project found ways to introduce dynamic and colorful planting and a water conservation sponge solution.

The project subsequently brought together Nature-based Solutions for resilience to flooding and naturalistic plantings to enhance a wilder aesthetic rather than succumb to an urban landscape approach. Complex forest restoration techniques for succession planning, riverbank wildflower grassland mixes, and native forest understory planting were implemented. Dead wood, stone boulders, fruit- and nut-producing plants all add richness to the planting, establishing habitats diverse with insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and small mammals.
Sponge city demonstration bioswales and flood attenuation ponds all come together to create opportunities for wildlife, biodiversity, and habitat enhancement and creation. Traces of industrial history were retained through the reuse of concrete, gravel, and weathering steel for park features, while reducing the carbon footprint compared to moving these materials to off-site landfill (see table below).

NbS Measures and Benefits at Singapore Nanjing Eco Hi-tech Island / table: © Lee Parks, Liao Jingjing and Jiang Xin

After the construction, according to a survey conducted by the China Bird Watching Record Center, Jiangxin Island (Singapore Nanjing Eco Hi- tech Island) has attracted 19 species of wild birds from 16 families. In addition to common forest birds and waterbirds such as magpies and egrets, it also includes migratory forest birds such as spotted thrush and black capuchin, as well as migratory waterbirds such as common cormorants and green shanks, which have become important indicators of this ecological stepping-stone in the East Asian- Australian bird migration route.

The popularity of Singapore Nanjing Eco Hi-tech Island was boosted by the introduction of Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), which is known for its pink to purple clump- forming inflorescences. However, tourists flocked to the island in droves during the peak national holiday week in 2017, trampling the grasses and requiring security guards to protect the area. This led to adjustments to the planting layout for future years. Opening up paths between inflorescences to make the fields more accessible to large numbers was essential to limit further damage. Across China, similar projects have experienced damage by hordes of tourists posing for selfies, triggering outrage on social media. This raised awareness of the need for greater efforts in educating the public on protection of plants and nature and to strive for greater use of native species in the hope of increasing acceptance of less exotic and more indigenous naturalistic landscapes.

The project not only aims to leave “sustainable footprints” but also to restore ecological systems, food chains, and biodiversity. It has won multiple international awards, including for Wildlife, Biodiversity, Habitat Enhancement or Creation at 2018 IFLA World Congress, and was a finalist at the Landscape Institute Awards 2021.

Efforts to quantify solutions and demonstrate performance against ecological goals and data driven targets also enabled the project to secure a Sustainable Future Award for Urban Design from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) International Region in 2020 for demonstrating performance outcomes in relation to the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE)’s rigorous criteria for social, economic, and ecological value.

4.5  Embracing Nature in Our Homes, Our Workplace, and Our Communities

Making behavioral changes as individuals can start in our homes, workplaces, or communities. Balcony gardens, green roofs, community gardens, greening schools, and creating natural areas in pocket parks all add value and allow us to embrace nature in our cities. Community driven grassroots initiatives help close the gap between top-down policies like Sponge City implementation with public acceptance when implemented at a community level. At the Knowledge Innovation Community (KIC) in Yangpu District, Shanghai, international companies like AECOM have led roof garden initiatives to engage employees, increase biodiversity, and mitigate increasingly intense rainfall events by slowing run-off from the roof. Green roofs also insulate buildings, reducing heat in summer and loss of heat in winter. The use of a diverse range of plants increases passing visits from insects and birds, while also supporting employee health and well-being through access to nature in the workplace. The roof garden is used as a research base for plant trials which assess performance in full sun exposure, full shade, wind exposure, and exposure to drought (largely due to limited maintenance). Reviewing resilience to the harsh conditions of roof top environments enables our horticulturalists to monitor species that would be able to perform in similar microclimatic conditions and with similar maintenance regimes in Shanghai and nearby cities.

The AECOM roof garden is on the 12th floor of an office tower in the Knowledge Innovation Community, Shanghai. / image: © Chen Liang
Demonstration planters illustrate how green roof systems work, using ‘windows’ to show soil and drainage layers. / image: © Lee Parks

4.6 City Resilience and Popular Science in the City

A large-scale exploration of city resilience is taking place in one of Shanghai’s largest green spaces: Zhangjiabang Park. Following an international, award-winning analysis and planning stage in 2015, clear quantifiable goals were established to guide the downstream implementation of the master plan.

Implementing the design across multiple phases, the leading landscape architectural team applied systematic thinking and holistic design solutions, working in close collaboration with ecologists, water specialists, local engineers and consulting specialist advisors, such as The Nature Conservancy. Decision-making was driven to establish ecological habitat to provide a base for monitoring performance and enable future surveys to quantify outcomes. As part of an extensive area of constructed wetlands, flood alleviation lakes will support city resilience to increasingly intense storm events; these wetlands were also found to have established habitat to support over 22 species of birds identified by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. A nature education center for popular science and bird hides for bird watching enthusiasts will provide a base for educating school groups and official visitors. This all helps to advance the planning objective and improve the understanding of local people and public officials to embrace a new large-scale ecological park in the urban core area of Shanghai.

Public education in caring and respecting the landscape of parks and open spaces is important—there need to be better opportunities for local people, students, and tourists to engage in environmental learning to connect people with the natural environment.

With wetlands, meadows, an agricultural-themed island, and forest, the project aims to create an ecological park that provides open space and protected areas with diverse and inclusive opportunities for public access and experiencing nature to improve health and well-being.

Nature-based Solutions lead the creation of an ecological green wedge, covering over 600 hectares. / image: © AECOM

When complete, the green wedge will cover a total area of more than 600 hectares—twice the size of Central Park in New York. NbS is applied to increase flood alleviation for Pudong New Area, forest buffers for air quality and thermal comfort, and provide extensive areas of emergent wetland habitat and open water across the site. Phase I and phase II are approaching completion and have established nature protection wetlands with protected islands for bird habitat. Bird hides located in wetlands for nature enthusiasts will provide opportunities to watch and learn from nature in the city. The park frames view corridors to Lujiazui, the financial heart of Shanghai, dynamically reminding visitors of being in the city, despite being in a very naturalistic park. It will also include a science ‘Discovery Center’ for school education tours.

AECOM’s Zhangjiabang Phase II Popular Science Park wetlands, looking west towards Lujiazui, Pudong, Shanghai. New constructed wetlands, habitat, and bird hides/bird blinds will support nature education in the park for engaging local residents, school groups, and tourists. / image: © Lee Parks

As the park evolves, an ideal goal would be to establish a framework to measure performance together with the client to demonstrate outcomes scientifically and to enhance quantification of the project’s environmental, economic, and social benefits. This can be seen from one excellent example, that brings us back to the Highlands of Scotland, where learning from nature has become a Natural Capital Laboratory (NCL).

4.7 NbS for a Natural Capital Accounting Framework

With many Nature-based Solutions, quantifying the impacts is an increasingly important priority as scientists and economists try to put a monetary value on natural capital, or how much nature is worth. Being able to put a price on ecosystem services is how we can make sure nature—or rather, natural capital—is given due weight at the decision-making table in the same way the global carbon market is being discussed.

Accounting for environmental, social, and economic impacts is also becoming more of a priority for many organizations and is a key future measurement factor. The Natural Capital Laboratory, set up in 2019 by AECOM and the Lifescape Project, is a unique project to do just this: a live environment for identifying, quantifying, and valuing the impacts of rewilding.

AECOM’s Natural Capital Laboratory, Scotland / image: © Chris Coupland

Alongside restoration of the site, the living laboratory aims to:

  1. Test innovative new approaches for capturing data on social and environmental change such as drones, AI, and remote sensing technologies.
  2. Develop a ‘capitals accounting framework’ that records, quantifies, and values the environmental and social changes on the site.
  3. Create engaging ways of communicating the findings and the benefits of rewilding such as virtual reality and digital platforms which provide an important public educational transmission.

It is an interesting project to learn from, and annual reports of progress will be available online for everyone to learn from this timely and innovative investigation.

5 Conclusion

Through a career dedicated to the pursuit of working with nature, this article has explored the evolution of a landscape planning and design approach from single-purpose solutions to systematic thinking and holistic design, together with a change from experiential/qualitative decision making to quantified solutions.

Nature-based Solutions need to be embedded in every aspect of our lives. A nature positive future is a necessary complement to our carbon neutrality goals and is the prerequisite for equitable sustainable development, a robust economic recovery, and the health of the planet, people, and all other species.

The three phases of NbS explored here were: 1) greening grey infrastructure, 2) incorporating naturalistic landscape into the public realm, and 3) advocacy for a nature positive future.

For greening grey infrastructure, Nature-based Solutions can protect against erosion, manage stormwater, and reduce impacts of noise and pollution. By restoring forests, wetlands, and coastal and riparian habitats, we can address air and water quality issues, increase carbon sinks, and provide habitat for wildlife.

By increasing nature inside urban public open space, we can reduce urban heat islands, enhance human well-being and health, manage stormwater, and increase biodiversity. Additionally, accounting for environmental, social, and economic impacts is a growing priority for many organizations to quantify and demonstrate the benefits of NbS.

Finally, NbS alone will need additional understanding of the inter-related crises of climate change and biodiversity loss impacted by human pressure on the biosphere. COP26 outcomes left many frustrated that the world may quickly return to business as usual: the time to act at a grassroots and individual level is now. This is a pivotal moment for landscape architects to rise to the challenge, to make our voices powerful, and to have an ever bigger impact on the environmental, social, and governance of landscapes in our cities and to deliver a thriving future for people, nature, and the planet. We must go beyond Nature-based Solutions by advocating a nature positive future through our work as landscape professionals and as individuals.

Lee Parks, International ASLA, is a British landscape architect and landscape director of AECOM. His research focuses on ecological landscape planning, green infrastructure, Nature-based Solutions, and ecological planting design.

LIAO Jingjing, Master, is an assistant landscape designer of AECOM. Her research focuses on green infrastructure, Nature-based Solutions, and community renewal and empowerment.

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