Nature in the City – the Sky’s the Limit

People have become worryingly disconnected from the natural world. Our green spaces and wildlife are often away from where we live and work; nature has become a novelty. As policy and best practice begin to encourage engagement with all things wild, it’s time to adapt the way we design and manage urban spaces. A good place to start is by looking up…
A peregrine falcon rises on the thermals, before jerking abruptly right and entering its stoop, the downward hunting dive where it can reach speeds of 300kph, its wings folded and claws poised. There are few sights that exemplify the magnificence of wildlife more.

Thankfully this is no longer such a rare occurrence in our cities, with peregrine numbers in lowland England a rare success story. The peregrines of London (of which there are now about 30 pairs) increasingly hunt amongst a growing patchwork of living roofs – rooftops covered in growing media and often seeded or planted with wildflowers. These living roofs rose to the forefront of urban nature conservation in the early 2000s as mitigation space for the loss of brownfield land, which had provided valuable habitats for another urban bird, the black redstart.

One of the best examples of biodiverse living roofs in London can be found at 201 Bishopsgate on the Broadgate campus. This roof supports upwards of 40 plant species, with the elusive black redstart observed singing from its exposed railings.

Although situated high in the sky, the roof can be viewed from nearby offices and plays a valuable role in the urban mosaic of habitats, acting as a stepping stone for wildlife dispersal around London and, importantly, forming the backdrop to the performances of the City’s hungry peregrines.

201 Bishopsgate shows how the special conditions of brownfield sites can be recreated at roof level. These nutrient poor environments create high competition for plant growth, nurturing high floral diversity, which encourages diverse invertebrates and consequently their predators, birds, bats and small mammals. Together, these factors form highly functional ecosystems, which in turn provide a plethora of ‘ecosystem services’, such as pollination, nutrient cycling and climate control.

Today, our city rooftops find themselves on the frontline of urban nature conservation, providing reserves for some of our rarest and most interesting wildlife. Here, we are not only fighting to protect ecological resources amongst dense urban networks, but to reconnect people with the wonders of the natural world.

Nature’s role in health and wellbeing has become increasingly well understood over recent years, with a wealth of studies clearly establishing a link between access to nature and mental health. Re-establishing our fundamental link with wildlife therefore represents a simple means of beginning to address the mental health crisis, which sees one in four people suffering a significant mental health problem in their lifetime. What better place to do this than in the places where we live and work?

Urban green infrastructure plays a central role in the provision of health and wellbeing benefits, alongside biodiversity gains. Commitments to create and enhance green infrastructure should be at the forefront of design and decision-making in planning and site management.

Thankfully, planning policy and best practice by companies like British Land are driving green infrastructure features such as living roofs across the capital.

This article was written for British Land by Greengage Principal Ecologist Morgan Taylor