The UK city has pioneered a natural capital planning tool that takes account of 10 ecosystem services. Angeli Mehta reports

Nick Grayson, Birmingham’s climate change and sustainability manager, is trying to get natural capital at the centre of the city’s decision making. And he is optimistic he’s getting close.

The council and university have been partners in the UK’s Liveable Cities project. Its goal is to understand how cities can be sustainable and resilient. It brought together a wide range of disciplines, from engineering and ecosystems to transport and psychology.

“The pressure on UK cities for house-building, infrastructure and growth is squeezing out land,” says Grayson. “So the very point of contact between people and nature is being undervalued, which is compromising our future.”

You don’t have a city that works across five capitals. It works on just one or two

“Cities as a unit should work well because you have all the players and all the infrastructure ... but not a governance arrangement that works to meet 21st century challenges – but that is fixable.” 

Grayson argues that city governance needs to work across not just natural capital, but four others too: social, human, financial and manufactured. At the moment, each sector operates in isolation: there’s no oversight as to their interdependencies.   

“You don’t have a city that works across five capitals. It works on just one or two.”  He believes there is potential for an evidence-based governance and finance model that shows why green space is needed in cities.

The pressure to build houses in the UK is squeezing out land. (Credit: Radovan 1/Shutterstock)

He believes there is potential for an evidence-based governance and finance model that shows why green space is needed in cities.

Together with industrial partners, Birmingham has been developing and testing a natural capital planning tool that should be publicly available this year. The Excel spreadsheet uses indicators and science-based metrics to take account of 10 ecosystem services, including water quality regulation, recreation, and air quality. National trials at six locations are almost complete.

The idea is that a planner or developer doesn’t have to have knowledge of ecosystem services. He or she puts information into boxes and the tool gives an output score of the impact the proposed scheme would have. If the score is negative, there is a drop-down menu that suggests other options to look at.

The highest-value land is the spaces in cities, but that’s not recognised

Birmingham’s pilot site was greenbelt land that had been earmarked for 6,000 new homes, and for which there had been major objections. “We’ve run models with the tool: some have failed; some have just got to the point of a positive balance” through the arrangement of green space, and the way its laid out.

The tool can also be used for existing development, says Grayson. “The highest-value land is the spaces in cities, but that’s not recognised," says Grayson.

However by allying green spaces to health, air quality, and climate change resilience, for example, it could be valued differently.

Bourneville suburb; green spaces are undervalued, says Grayson. (Credit: David Hughes/Shutterstock)

His team has mapped the entire city on an ecosystem service basis, overlaid with local population demand. That exercise reveals the major challenges for a city expected to grow by 150,000 people in the next 20 years who will need more than 50,000 new homes.

Having mapped out natural capital services, the next step is to engage the beneficiaries. “Can we make a business case for restoration?” In this way a green bond to finance management of flooding should attract investment, because everyone impacted by flooding in a given catchment area recognises it will prevent future flooding of their premises.

Such an idea is being tried in Washington DC, where the city has issued green impact bonds to help alleviate storm-water run-off.

Angeli Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a researchPhD. She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the environment and sustainability. @AngeliMehta
Main picture credit: David Huges/Shutterstock

This article is part of the in-depth briefing Natural Capital: See also:

Accounting for change: the drive to put a dollar figure on natural capital

Earth Genome using big data to zero in on water scarcity

Yorkshire Water’s plan to plant 1m trees for flood protection

Kering gets to the bottom of its supply chain with EP&L

AkzoNobel puts a price on its impact across four capitals

How Nestlé is collaborating in building a business case

The restoration economy: why trees are the next growth opportunity


Birmingham  Liveable Cities  natural capital 

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