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Also referred to as biophilic design, renaturing or rewilding, nature-first planning goes beyond planting trees and declaring an area a 'green space.'Heatherwick Studio

The partly demolished structure of what was once a shopping mall has been an eyesore for years to the residents of Nottingham, a central England city of about 324,000.

But this year, the abandoned mall in Nottingham’s city centre – built on an area called Broad Marsh – is set to come back to life through a regeneration project designed to bring wildlife and wetlands back to the city.

“The majority and key focus of the space is creating green biodiverse space through regenerative design,” says Lisa Finlay, a partner at London-based Heatherwick Studio, which crafted the vision for Broad Marsh.

To create wetland habitats, Broad Marsh plans to introduce sustainable urban drainage systems, which use natural landscape designed to clean and contain stormwater. To avoid demolishing what’s left of the shopping mall structure, nature will be encouraged to “take over the frame in places” with climbing plants.

It’s urban design that puts nature first, and it’s a movement that’s gaining momentum across the globe.

“There’s growing recognition that nature is a big part of the answer to the problems of society,” says Tim Beatley, professor of sustainable communities at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture and founder of a network called Biophilic Cities. “We’ve seen a rise in interest in nature-first design – it’s become a really important subject in urban design and architecture.”

Also referred to as biophilic design, renaturing or rewilding, nature-first planning goes beyond planting trees and declaring an area a “green space.” It could mean building oyster reefs – as was done in New York – to clean and restore harbour waters, or erecting dirt bridges to allow mountain lions to cross safely over highways, as Los Angeles is now doing to connect the fragmented habitats of its big cats.

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It can cost more to build with nature in mind – to support its program to plant two billion trees by 2031, the Canadian government is investing up to $3.2-billion.Heatherwick Studio

The bigger vision, Dr. Beatley says, is one of “immersive nature,” where the survival and well-being of diverse plants and wildlife are key factors in urban design, planning and building.

It can cost more to build with nature in mind. Planting trees isn’t cheap – to support its program to plant two billion trees by 2031, the federal government is investing up to $3.2-billion. Building green roofs is no bargain either, with estimates ranging from $12 to $50 a square foot.

There’s also the opportunity loss from preserving a green space instead of developing it for residential or commercial real estate.

Jared Hanley, founder and chief executive of NatureQuant LLC, a Bend, Ore., technology company that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to track and quantify the human benefits of exposure to nature, says building nature-first cities leads to many benefits that can outweigh the costs.

“We know from existing data that being exposed to nature is good for our health, which in turn reduces health care costs,” he says. “A healthier population is more productive, which is good for the country’s GDP.”

Mr. Hanley cites a 2021 study that compared the health care costs for more than five million California-based members of the health plan provider Kaiser Permanente against satellite data measuring plant life density in the neighbourhoods where they lived, adjusting for demographic factors such as race and income.

Researchers found members living in areas with the most green cover had health care costs that were about US$374 lower than those in areas with the least green cover.

For Nina-Marie Lister, professor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s school of urban and regional planning, nature-first city design serves a more existential purpose.

“The United Nations has declared that our best defence against climate disaster is an investment in nature itself,” says Prof. Lister, currently a visiting professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University. “These investments are worthy, we need to make more of them.”

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Researchers found California-based members of a 2021 study living in areas with the most green cover had healthcare costs that were about US$374 lower than those in areas with the least green cover.Heatherwick Studio

The benefits of nature-first planning go beyond better health and lower health care costs. In Edmonton, the integration of “wildlife passages” – which allow land, aerial and aquatic animals to move safely through their habitat – reconnected dozens of natural ecosystems fragmented by urban development. It also reduced collisions involving vehicles and animals by more than 50 per cent between 2006 and 2015, according to the city. In aggregate economic terms, this could be translated into billions of dollars in savings; a February, 2023, report by the U.S. Department of Transportation pointed to a societal cost – accounting for factors such as medical, legal, insurance, workplace productivity and traffic congestion costs as well as lost quality of life – of almost $24-million (US$19-million) for every single-vehicle crash.

Grant Pearsell, a former City of Edmonton executive who led the creation of the city’s ecological planning system, recalls one of the key challenges of designing these wildlife passages: Getting everyone on the same page.

“What we found when we started the project was that ecologists and engineers didn’t speak the same language,” he recalls. “So talks would break down.”

The solution: Create a tool that provides the specifications engineers need – such as the dimensions, components and locations of a passage – based on the size, movement and habitat preferences of the various creatures in the city.

Working with animal behaviour experts at the University of Alberta, the city developed engineering guidelines that, among other things, organized the city’s animals into “design groups” – moose and deer, for example, are in the large terrestrial group while grey partridge and sharp-tailed grouse are in the ground-dwelling birds group.

Examples of recommendations in the guidelines include gently sloping underpass sidewalls for moose or deer, which could confuse straight walls for ledges where predators can hide. For amphibians like frogs, steel structures – which conduct heat, trapping cold in the winter – should be avoided because amphibians won’t use a passage if it’s too cold.

Armando Carbonell, a former urban planning professor at Harvard University and retired vice president for programs at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy think tank in Cambridge, Mass., says nature-first planning in dense urban centres is not as much of a paradox as some may think.

“Density is nature’s friend in many ways,” he says. “Instead of building cities farther and farther out, disturbing more habitat, if we focus on high-density developments that use less land per person, then we would be taking away less nature.”

And nature-first design should serve more than just non-human ecosystems; it should take social equity into account, as well, Prof. Carbonell says.

“Heat is possibly the most deadly impact of climate change and in urban areas it disproportionately affects poor people, who tend to live in areas with less trees,” he says. “In its best form, nature-first design integrates nature everywhere, for everyone’s benefit.”

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