Practicing what we preach…

At the SRI, we are continually (some might say, too often….) shouting about how to make our urban landscapes more permeable to biodiversity, particularly for our often maligned invertebrates! But, do we practice what we preach?

Presenting a recent lecture to our Landscape Architect students reminded me it was time to write a blog about what we do in our own backyard, not just what we tell everyone else to do on theirs… The Landscape Architecture MSc students had been tasked with carrying out a green infrastructure audit of the UEL Docklands Campus and making recommendations for ‘green’ enhancements that could be made to the campus with a particular focus on enhancing the open space for people and nature. My job was to present a lecture on why we should be putting nature back into our urban landscapes and innovative ways that this can be achieved. What I didn’t present (as it would have been essentially a cheat sheet for the students) was that we had already carried out a ‘green infrastructure audit’ of the campus back in 2010: Contracted by the UEL Facilities team, we fastidiously divided the entire of the UEL estate into a series of GIS polygons.

Figure 1. Biodiversity hotspot mapping at the University of East London Docklands Campus. Aerial photo from http://www.bing.com/maps, polygon mapping using ERSI ArcGIS.

Each polygon was categorised in terms of its type of landuse and a floral/habitat survey was carried out in each as a proxy for biodiversity value. This provided a baseline measure of the areas of different types of landuse across the UEL estate and the quality of these for supporting biodiversity against which future change could be measured. It also provided an all important planning stamp, highlighting the most valuable areas of the campuses for biodiversity (‘biodiversity hotspots’), so that these could be managed appropriately and, critically, avoided/protected during any campus redevelopments. Lastly, the survey also provided an opportunity to highlight areas where improvements could be made to increase the value of the UEL estate for urban biodiversity (the section that would have been so valuable to the Landscape Architecture students!).

Figure 2. Representation of global biodiveristy decline including the impact in urbanised areas. Source:
https://www.ukgbc.org/biodiversity/

I am pleased to say that, rather than sitting on a hard drive gathering cyber-dust, the report acted as a catalyst for change. Following swiftly on the heels of the baseline biodiversity mapping was the development of a UEL Biodiversity Action Plan. This plan has been used to shape estate management and has been supplied to external contractors for any campus redevelopments. The plan has a broad set of objectives:

  • Estate management – To adopt general management practices to enhance biodiversity and to balance this with other functions of estates management and organisational needs.
  • Development of complex habitats – To break up the homogeneity of the UEL estate and develop a complexity of habitats to increase biodiversity interest, ensuring that the planting of native species is promoted.
  • Species management and protection – To target specific species identified in the Newham Biodiversity Action Plan for protection and habitat management.
  • Training and communications – To raise awareness amongst staff and students about the importance of biodiversity and the activities they can get involved with on campus.
  • Strategic management – To ensure that biodiversity protection and enhancement is incorporated into UEL plans and procedures as necessary.
  • Future research and monitoring – To build upon the first UEL biodiversity baseline and to continue survey and monitoring work as required.  
  • Community links – To work with others in the wider local community to enhance biodiversity.

Within each of these objectives is a series of actions to strengthen design and management practices in relation to biodiversity on campus, and to improve the habitat and species conservation on site for the benefit of staff, students and the local community. By doing this, we are able to live up to our corporate responsibility in relation to protecting the natural environment.

From a broader view point, this is helping our borough, the London Borough of Newham, to meet some of its biodiversity targets and United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and means that the UEL Docklands Campus can be a glowing exemplar within the Royal Docks Green Infrastructure Strategy (currently being developed) of how to balance urban greenspace for both people and nature.

UEL’s Docklands Campus sits right next to Royal Albert Dock in the heart of the Royal Docks. This location next to a Grade I Site of Borough Importance provides added opportunities for wildlife spotting as birds regularly cruise by, or across, our campus. Photo by Stuart Connop

In terms of physical changes across the estate, and in relation to how the campus greenspace is managed, there has been a clear change in mindset within the Facilities team. Greenspace provision is now balanced between space for leisure, space for nature, and food growing spaces. The landscape managers are managing more sympathetically to the nature that has made a home on our campuses, and opportunities to improve practices are constantly being explored. This has been shown during repeats of the Biodiversity Baseline Survey that have been carried out in 2012 and 2015. These surveys showed that, not only have the majority of biodiversity hotspots been protected and improved, but that more hotspots have been created, or existing spaces managed more sympathetically since the original survey. Information boards have also been popping up across the campuses to introduce staff and students to the wildlife they might come across on site.

The Herb Garden at UEL’s Stratford Campus – originally created to support the herbal medicine programme, this garden of species used in herbal medicines provides a home for pollinators and staff and students in need of some escape from the bustle of the city. Photo by Stuart Connop

Biodiversity ‘hotspots’ across the campuses include:

  • Twenty-one green roofs – comprising a mosaic of sedum, wildflower and brownroofs. Some of these include habitat piles and bug hotels to enhance their value in supporting nature;
  • Wildflower meadows – including one bordering the new UEL sign at the vehicle entrance to the Docklands Campus;
  • The UK’s first Beetle Bump – a small-scale brownfield inspired nature reserve created to home an endangered beetle in the UK, the streaked bombardier beetle (Brachinus sclopeta);
  • A new urban woodland – developed in partnership with the Woodland Trust on grassland areas previously managed as amenity areas bordering the car park at Docklands;
  • Pocket gardens – planted with nectar and pollen-rich plants for pollinators and standing deadwood for saproxylic invertebrates;
  • Vegetable allotments – with loads of wildflowers and seeds for pollinators and birds;
  • A herbal medicine garden – comprising a diversity of plants that have been used for various herbal medicine treatments.
Pollinator planting – one of the colourful and rich raised beds planted around the campus to provide a visual and olfactory experience for staff and students and a sugary hit for pollinators. Photo by Stuart Connop

Whilst it hasn’t always been possible to protect all of the hotspots, due to new developments, or miscommunications over management, overall the process has been a very positive one: Contractors involved in new developments are made aware of the value of areas of the campuses prior to project initiation, and of the targets within the UEL Biodiversity Action Plan; hotspots across the campuses are protected and treasured; and the Facilities team have good communication with ecology academics. All of this means that we now have campus wildlife of which we can be very proud, and the Landscape Architecture students have a bit more of a difficult job in trying to recommend improvements!

The streaked bombardier beetle (Brachinus sclopeta) – a beautiful and very rare beetle that UEL provided a home for in an attempt to save the species from extinction in the UK. Photo by Stuart Connop

Such has been the success, that we have also been asked to carry out campus/workplace audits for other organistions. If you are interested in a campus/workplace biodiversity audit, recommendations for biodiversity improvements, or have an interesting sighting from our campuses, just get in touch: s.p.connop@uel.ac.uk

By Stuart Connop

Some of our interesting sightings on across the campuses:

Invertebrates: brown-banded carder bee (Bombus humilis) (UKBAP priority species), streaked bombardier beetle (Brachinus sclopeta) (UKBAP), Jersey tiger moth (Euplagia quadripunctaria) (Nationally Scarce)

Birds: house martins (Delichon urbicum) (UK conservation status – Amber), linnets (Linaria cannabina) (UK conservation status – Red), Euorpean goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus), great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus), common terns (Sterna hirundo) (UK conservation status – Amber), black-headed gulls (Croicocephalus ridibundus) (UK conservation status – Amber), kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) (UK conservation status – Amber), common whitethroat ( Sylvia communis), fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) (UK conservation status – Red), redwing (Turdus iliacus) (UK conservation status – Red), starling (Sturnus vulgaris) (UK conservation status – Red).

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