A brand-new free tool to help built environment professionals play a greater part in nature recovery and climate resilience has been officially launched.
The Nature Assessment Tool for Urban and Rural Environments (the NATURE Tool) records the extent to which any new infrastructure or development project delivers ‘net gains’ for the natural environment.
Now freely available and free to use, the tool has been developed by WSP in association with Ecosystems Knowledge Network and with support from Northumbria University. Innovate UK has provided funding.
The drive for net gain from built development is currently centred on protecting and restoring natural habitat. But this will change because many are calling for it to be expanded to assess the place that natural features play in challenges such as net zero, in improving people’s health and in reducing flood risk.
By bringing together information about all these considerations in one place, the NATURE Tool aims to put built environment professionals on the front foot. The tool’s developers say it is there to inform design, planning and long-term management. The spreadsheet tool has been designed to serve a wide range of projects, from housebuilding to transport infrastructure, and from mineral sites to wind farms.
As part of the development and testing of the NATURE Tool, a partnership across the UK was established with more than 30 built environment organisations including developers, landowners, LPAs, planning professions, NGO’s and government agencies, including National Grid:
National Grid trialled the NATURE Tool on two electricity transmission schemes in South Wales and the Peak District to assess the reinstatement, mitigation and habitat enhancement actions planned onsite and offsite.
Chris Plester, sustainability specialist at National Grid, said: “Over the last few years there have been many different approaches and tools developed to measure and monitor ecosystem service change, developed by a range of stakeholders for a multitude of reasons. It can be a challenge to know the right approach to use. An industry standard, such as the NATURE Tool, will provide a definitive way forward and ‘Go to’ tool that could be adopted by developers and accepted by planners, regulators and policy makers. It is important for us and our peer organisations to adopt a consistent methodology and approach.
“We found the tool was relatively straightforward to complete particularly having detailed habitat information pre and post development already available. The result summary results section provides a good picture of gains and losses across the range of ecosystem services whilst the headline results are a simple and effective way to demonstrate achievement of objectives and benefits for biodiversity and people.
“We would be most likely use the NATURE Tool during the detailed design process as a part of the development of our environmental net gain strategies and to support delivery of our corporate commitments to enhance our natural assets in the future.’’
The NATURE Tool will provide built environment professionals with the ability to assess and measure to what extent new plans or developments across the UK achieve net gains to make future land-use more sustainable. The adaptable tool also permits local planning authorities and companies to pre-define what is expected from new development in terms of net gain and biodiversity helping to enhance planning security for developers, while also setting a new benchmark for minimum net-gain requirements.
WSP and the project partners expect the tool to become a widely accepted UK industry standard; a game-changer for the built environment sector’s response to the nature and climate concerns.
Dr Oliver Hölzinger, associate at WSP and creator of the NATURE Tool, said: “Responding to government policy ambitions and applying our industry expertise, we are delighted to have developed this new tool to aid the built environment sector to collectively achieve ambitions to leave the environment in a better state for the next generation through adopting a natural capital approach to environmental net gain.
“The NATURE Tool is practical and easy to use allowing the assessment of up to 17 ecosystem services plus physical and mental health benefits through a scoring system indicating both the direction and magnitude of project impacts. These scores are aggregated based on policy priorities resulting in an overall ‘people score’ for the project. This assessment aims to encourage both better decision making and clearly demonstrate the results of positive sustainable action during development.”
Bruce Howard, director at Ecosystems Knowledge Network, said: “With good design and planning, there is a positive case for restoring the environment for everyone’s wellbeing and prosperity. We are delighted to have played a part in making this tool available for application throughout the UK and beyond.
“Working on the development of the NATURE Tool with our industry partners marks an important milestone in delivering a step-change tool to revolutionise this type of measurement across the industry to help make projects more sustainable from pre- planning to completion where communities and people can thrive for years to come.”