One of the most interesting seminars at this year's Ecobuild Future Cities
event was "The Natural Capital City -- a Blueprint for the Future
?," chaired by Nick Grayson, the sustainability manager of Birmingham City Council.
For those of you not readily familiar with Birmingham, it is one of the largest urban conurbations in Europe, at over 1 million residents (Greater Birmingham extends to over 2.5 million residents). It's also one of the fastest growing cities in the UK, and this puts substantial pressure on finding available sites for both commercial and residential development.
Birmingham has a rich industrial past, and its fair share of hasty, post-war developments that highlight the ways that short-sighted municipal planning can go wrong. A major challenge for the city is how planners, faced with a need to provide homes and jobs to a rapidly growing young population, can take account of the past to ensure future developments lead to sustainable places people want to live in -- not neighborhoods likely to be torn down in another twenty years.
In developing the Green Living Spaces Plan for Birmingham, the city council wanted to ensure that it accounted for what is called "natural capital" in the planning process. Natural capital can be thought of as ecosystem services, i.e. those provided directly by nature, which add value above and beyond what is to be built, such as a nearby river or forest, or even just the proximity of a park.
(Source: Andy G)
In recent years, this measurement and integration of natural capital into planning has evolved rapidly. Theories about the best ways to measure it have taken root in academia -- particularly environmental economics. When the council sought help with the project, it turned to Oliver Hölzinger, a doctoral researcher in environmental economics at the University of Birmingham.
Hölzinger secured a small grant from the government to fund a series of focus groups to examine how natural capital should be defined and measured in the context of development. This became the basis for a tool called the "Natural Capital City Tool" or NCCT. The premise of the tool is that it provides a repeatable set of measurements of those parameters that can be used to drive planning with a degree of confidence that the natural capital value of the development has been identified and prioritized to the extent that it will positively change the outcome.
The NCCT will be used in a pilot for the "Sustainable Urban Extension," a plan for 6,000 new homes in the northeast of Birmingham. This is the first time the city planners have sought to make an informed and consistent measurement of Natural Capital on such a large scale development, and it will be used as a model for future planning if successful.
The appeal of the NCCT as a tool for other development projects has resulted in the large design, building, and civil engineering firm Skanska's using it for one of their own projects -- also in the north of England.
While the jury is still out on this implementation of standardized measurements, one thing is very clear. The planners of today are invested in using a natural-capital-influenced model for the developments of the future. This can only mean better, more sustainable, and more eco-friendly developments for us -- now and in the future.