As humans, we consume vast amounts of nature’s gifts, and we are just starting to see the drastic effects that our overconsumption has on the planet. What if there was a way that we could revitalize our planet and restore it back to its bountiful beauty, just through the spaces we utilize? Good news, there is! We can lead efforts to increase biodiversity by designing intentional spaces with nature as the focus.
What is Biodiversity?
According to National Geographic, biodiversity describes all living species on Earth and all the ecosystems they are interwoven into. Scientists have estimated that there are around 9 million species of plants and animals, 1.2 million species of which we have already discovered. Upon studying biodiversity, scientists must measure how the ecosystems connect with the species that live in those ecosystems, as well as how the actions of humans affect them. Highly biodiverse areas increase healthy habitats and generally, create the most ideal conditions for plant growth. This can make for cohesive spaces for many species and humans alike. Biodiversity works to stabilize the natural environment and provide a thriving life for all species.
In Virginia Beach, we have various geographic features that make for a unique area. We are located on the nexus of the 7 A/B and 8 A/B horticultural zones, meaning that the plant types can vary dramatically. There are unique combination soils that are composed of sand and standard dirt. Virginia Beach is in the Coastal Plain region, meaning that the climate in the area can be nearing tropical weather at some points of the year and can be blanketed in snow as well. We have the ocean air/breeze and ocean spray that affect the way plants can grow. The Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound are also areas that contain many of the region’s species, so our decisions greatly affect them. The Gulf Stream also comes very near Virginia Beach, bringing higher surface temperatures and gusty windstorms to the area. These factors naturally make plant life possible, which builds habitats, and draws wildlife inwards. This is the cycle in which natural ecosystems grow and biodiversity happens.
Problems of Creating a Biodiverse Design
The Living Planet Report 2020 defined the five threats to biodiversity as land and sea use change, pollution, species overexploitation, climate change, and invasive species and diseases. These are very complex threats to address because there are so many components that can affect them, especially species loss.
Many landscape architects and managers believe in using the 30-20-10 rule, meaning that on a site, only 30% of trees or less can be from the same family, only 20% of trees or less can be from the same genus, and only 10% of trees or less can be from the same species. This idea stemmed out of the Dutch Elm Disease in the mid-1900s when Dutch Elms were the only trees planted along many city streets. This made a high density of the same trees and allowed a fungus spread by the Elm Bark Beetle, to infest the trees in large numbers. These cities were basically inviting pest populations in the area, and it led to a large percentage of the trees dying. So, in turn, the 30-20-10 rule was invented and was meant to boost biodiversity and limit property damage. While this is a great idea, it does make for a tough challenge for landscape architects to have to iron out. Environmentally, this may be more beneficial to the Earth, but it is not always practical or designed well. There is a way we can increase biodiversity through design and make it aesthetically pleasing as well, but we need to follow the natural patterns of biodiversity.
It can be difficult to not be swayed by the allure of all the ‘fancy’ plants that are native to other geographical areas, but these plants can foster unnatural environments. When plants are introduced to an area that they do not natively come from, they can turn out to be invasive species and they can also have shorter lifespans because they are not accustomed to these new conditions.
How can we Increase Biodiversity through Design?
There are various actions that design professionals can implement when designing a biodiverse space.
- By using native species
- Native species invite the most wildlife into cities and work to heal the Earth the way it was initially intended to. When we utilize native species, we can work to bring back habitats destroyed by various environment-harming practices. Using native plants also ensures that there is a balance between the plants and the Earth, instead of using plants that are not meant to be the cultivated in these new conditions.
- By not ‘gilding the lily’
- ‘Gilding the lily’ means to add unnecessary additions to something to make it appear more beautiful. Nature needs to have some space to grow on its own and let Mother Nature perform her magic. By allowing her to have some creative leeway, natural vegetation can strengthen biodiversity efforts without needing human assistance.
- Protect, Mimic, and Restore
- Plants and animals make up very intricate ecosystems, these ecosystems are at the very heart of an area’s ecology. By studying the ecology of the area, you can really get to know a place and feel connected with it. When this happens, you understand what makes an ecosystem thrive and can implement planting designs that work in conjunction with the natural environment to restore what we have left. By understanding the area, you can also protect the native species and include similar plants into the design that will help to create a space for all species.
- John Beardsley of ASLA, described this phenomenon as ‘designing for the full range of biodiversity.’ He says that to preserve our Earth, scientists and design professionals all need to collaborate on recreating wildlife habitats through productive habitat creation and restorative ecology.
By coming up with constantly innovative designs and using these tactics, design professionals can incorporate healthy environments into beautiful and practical spaces. Many professionals, such as landscape architects have collaborated to create these innovative spaces. Some examples of these spaces are ‘wildlife crossings’ (see header image) that make it easier for animals to cross over busy roads and ‘lawn to forest gardens’ (see below) by allowing spontaneous growth to happen without over maintenance. These are just two strategies that designers have used to bring nature back to the people and the Earth, through boosting natural biodiversity.
Additional background information of the topics included was provided by Mike Fox, ASLA of WPL along with Dr. Anna Salzberg and Dr. Brian Toibin of Virginia Commonwealth University.