Biodiversity as a planning tool

Once viewed as the whim of environmentalists, biodiversity has become ingrained in the way the Australian National University approaches the sustainability of its campus

When I was five we moved to a house on the fringe of the city. Our new backyard was the Australian bush and our neighbours were kangaroos and kookaburras, frogs croaking in the little creek running through the gully and the occasional snake that snoozed on the concrete path leading to the clothes line. I’d never been a nature lover – too much time spent in the city for that – but in the short period we lived in this house, I understood the delicate balance that existed in the natural environment.

Years later that came back to me as part of the team developing an environmental management plan for the Australian National University. The ANU campus, in Canberra – (often called the Bush Capital) is peri-urban, bridging the area between the city centre and the natural bushlands. In the late 1990s, as the university sought to build new research and learning infrastructure, a tension between that development and the natural environment emerged, with many in the community concerned that the character of the campus would be lost under bricks and concrete. This became a key driver for including biodiversity in the environmental plan, along with the recent federal legislation obligating public institutions to report on environmental protection and conservation.

The initial intention was to highlight the complex interaction of ecosystems and to make a clear statement about the university’s commitment to sustainability. As obvious as this seemed to the drafting team, when the plan was presented to the executive management, the first response was confusion.

Surely we should be focusing our efforts on energy and water conservation?

img_0275Though these issues were clearly addressed in other areas of the plan – along with emissions reduction, waste management, transport and community education – there seemed to be a concern that the important operational aspects of environmental management would be swamped by issues that were perceived as being ideologically driven; what one manager described as ‘that hard green stuff’. Sure, biodiversity is important, they said, but it had more to do with the national parks than the operations of a modern campus. Only after extended discussions was there agreement to include it in the final plan and then, only as an incremental approach than began with analysis of existing biodiversity data.

In 2000, when the plan was approved, there was very limited eco data available so the organisational reflex was to engage consultants to undertake a survey. However, the complexity and consequent time required to complete that project would have made it extremely costly, far exceeding the funds available in the environmental budget.

Thus the idea of establishing a community based programme emerged, based on the principles of citizen science where lay people gather data on the natural environment that is used in research and ecological planning.

Using that structure, the university established a project that ‘employed’ the community to collect the site species data that could then be used to set environmental goals, including planning guidelines for the future development of the campus and biodiversity protection strategies. This approach was also seen as having the added benefit of engaging people in the campus sustainability process.

The first step was to appoint a biodiversity officer as part of the university environmental management team. This officer would be responsible for coordinating the audits, including recruiting volunteers to work with community groups, then collating the data for analysis.   The officer would also eventually write a biodiversity plan.

photoThe second step was to establish partnerships with the surrounding institutions, which included the Australian National Museum, the National Botanical Gardens and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. These, like the ANU, had peri-urban campuses and given the migratory nature of species, it would have clearly been ineffective to limit the auditing of bio diversity to within university boundaries. All of these organisations had their own established environmental goals and responded positively to a request to participate – and partially fund – audits of the area.

The final step was to recruit the community. As it turned out, this proved to be far easier than anticipated. Using low tech marketing in the form of flyers and posters, coupled with radio interviews and emails sent through various student and staff groups, the word spread and they came. Audits were run on Saturdays over several months and included social activities such as a barbecue or pizza buffet to promote family participation.

What was once considered the whim of a few committed environmentalists – something that was good to do, but with no intrinsic operational value – has become an important element of organisational planning

Each audit targeted a specific ecological group and the participants were provided with a briefing by relevant species experts before being split into teams and allocated areas within the audit zone.

The number of participants varied depending on the focus of the audit. Birds, marsupials, reptiles and frogs were all popular. Invertebrates attracted far less interest. Nonetheless, over 18 months these audits captured extensive data on species population and diversity as well as habitats and migratory paths.

Once collected those data were analysed and formed the basis of a publication called Life in the Suburbs, which provided urban habitat guidelines that could be used not only by the university but by the broader community, including the planning department within the regional government. The data also became the basis of university biodiversity plans which went on to inform the development principles outlined in the campus masterplan.

However, perhaps the most satisfying outcome was the various projects established to protect and enhance campus eco-diversity. Among them was the construction of a wetland in a barren section of the campus residential colleges’ precinct. Not only has biodiversity thrived here but the space is now an ‘outdoor classroom’, allowing students and staff to complete their own research on the ecology of the area. A second project, which protected threatened grassy woodlands and the various species that it supported, has also be used as learning opportunity for the broader campus community.

The data collected in those initial audits continues to be used as part of the university planning process. Ecological sensitivity is a consideration in all new developments and the campus masterplan identifies several major goals for the future, including enhancing biodiversity along the corridor formed by the water way that passes through the campus.

The success of this approach has seen the model adopted (with minor modifications) by several other organisations and municipalities as part of their planning and environmental sustainability strategies. Consequently, what was once considered the whim of a few committed environmentalists – something that was good to do, but with no intrinsic operational value – has become an important element of organisational planning and provided valuable information for use by the broader regional community.

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Bart Meehan

Bart Meehan

Visiting fellow and research associate, Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University

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