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Written by: Sheena Moses

In a remarkable scene from David Attenborough’s latest documentary – The Year Earth Changed, an amateur photographer recounts his experience of the first time he was able to view the Himalayas from the rooftop of his home in Jalandhar, India, in 2020 – a year that saw human activity come to a standstill, and the air pollution that once blocked this beautiful line of sight finally cleared out. David Attenborough perfectly summarized this moment by saying “It is a vivid illustration that the moment we paused, the earth was able to breath again”.

The Year Earth Changed is an eye-opening documentary that follows several amazing moments captured during a year that saw a twist in the way the world works- humans trapped in concrete shelters whilst wildlife explored otherwise uncharted territories (or in the case of the Sika Deer of Nara Japan, re-exploring old territories – you have got to watch it to know what I am talking about!).

The 48-minute documentary explores several new discoveries that scientists have made in relation to the behavior of wildlife when humans are not present. But that is ultimately not the message that the documentary is trying to convey. It does not intend to drag us into an existential crisis by merely showing us just how well the world can thrive without us in it, but it is one that stresses the endless possibilities that lie before us in a world where humans and wildlife coexist harmoniously.

Take the story of the community of farmers in Assam, India who have been in a constant battle to protect the people of the village and their harvest from attack by elephants for decades. By working with a local conservation trust during the Covid-19 pandemic that saw large numbers of city workers return home to the village, the community was able to gather enough workforce to plant a buffer zone of plants for the elephants to feed on. The effort was a tremendous success that saw elephants able to access enough food supply, thus not having to disturb the villagers and their crops. This success was simply put by David Attenborough as “a buffer zone of plants providing a solution to an age-old conflict”.

All it took to make this happen was – proper planning involving people well suited to the task with the right goals in mind (the conservation trust), an easily accessible and dedicated workforce (city workers who returned home) and the time required to implement it (a crazy lockdown!). Sounds very much like any project managers dream come true!

In the past several years, IEN has been fortunate enough to be involved in several projects that have been driven by clients who place ecology as a cornerstone to their developments. Some, such as Paramit Factory in The Forest was driven by an architect cum project manager and a landscape architect with a deep knowledge and understanding of designing with nature. Other projects incorporate green building certifications to provide the right type of guidance in ensuring sustainable ecological management was captured in in their developments.

One such green building certification tool that provides a more detailed approach to ecological design is the BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) Green Building Standard by the UK’s Building Research Establishment (BRE). Containing an entire category specifically focused on land use & ecology, the rating tool first and foremost looks at identifying the “ecological value” of a site and then goes on to addressing a host of other ecological management features which is summarized in the infographic found in Figure 2 below.

Appointing a qualified ecologist at the concept stage of a project is a crucial element in determining the ecological value of a site and to strategize ways in which to protect, minimize impact and enhance the ecological features of a development. A comprehensive ecology report provides enough information for a project manager to adequately address the necessary effort, manpower and time required to ensure the natural world is not forgotten during the course of design & construction.

As BREEAM consultants, it is our role to monitor the enforcement of these efforts during the design and construction stages. While our ongoing BREEAM project with ecology targets are still in its early stage, we have already observed the impact it has on the design and project management of a greenfield site in comparison to other typical developments without ecological goals. From expansion of protected green areas on-site in the concept design, to incorporating consideration for existing wildlife, right down to contractors who have actual serious conversations about the ways in which a barrier for trees can be most effective.

This shows us that we already have the tools necessary to move toward a harmonious coexistence with nature & wildlife in the built environment, all it takes is the will to do it!

In speaking about the efforts that can be taken to reduce the human impact on wildlife existence, a turtle researcher interviewed on The Year Earth Changed placed emphasis on “very small alterations that people can do to make sure that humans and wildlife can be successful together”.

We hope that the lessons from this documentary impacts all of us built environment professionals from project managers to designers, engineers and contractors to do our little part in ensuring coexistence with Nature is possible in our projects. And we definitely look forward to seeing more developers and building managers seek new and innovative ways to incorporate biodiversity and natural elements in their new or existing buildings.

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