Biodiversity – the variety of plant and animal life in the world or in a particular habitat – is essential for the processes which maintain life on earth. Real estate investors are beginning to consider how their assets affect biodiversity and how they can contribute to improving it and thus improving the built environment.

It is still early days for the industry, says Rupert Biggin, project director at property firm Grosvenor Group. “I think that, broadly, the real estate industry is still getting its head around biodiversity,” he says.

However, biodiversity is making its way further up the agenda. Biodiversity is one of the mandatory indicators under the EU’s Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation and from 2023, proposed developments in the UK will need to prove a 10 percent net gain in biodiversity to achieve planning permission. There is also a Taskforce on nature-related financial disclosures, which was launched in 2020 to provide a framework for organizations to report on risks from biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation.

Nonetheless, at present, legislation on biodiversity tends to be at the national level. The UK has been a leader with its biodiversity net gain requirements, although other European nations are bringing in relevant legislation. For example, France recently passed a new law requiring all new commercial buildings to have plants or solar panels on their roofs.

However, biodiversity reporting is not straightforward, says Emily Hamilton, ESG director at Savills Investment Management. “Biodiversity is really difficult to quantify,” she says.

“For example, there are many different metrics and almost no agreed consensus yet for quantifying green space. So we just don’t have a consistent way to assess biodiversity across a multinational portfolio.”

Part of the whole

Savills has signaled its commitment to biodiversity by making nature one of the three pillars of its sustainability platform. “We set the three pillars of our sustainability strategy as climate action, people and nature because they are all interconnected. You can’t address climate change without understanding and addressing biodiversity and nature,” says Hamilton.

“Real estate needs to understand that buildings and built areas are like living systems, they are not just bricks and mortar.”

“There are many different metrics and almost no agreed consensus yet for quantifying green space”

Emily Hamilton
Savills Investment Management

Improving biodiversity is not simply advantageous in meeting regulations, but in making buildings more attractive to prospective tenants. Biggin says: “People are demanding more from their office buildings and environments, so green terraces and roofs, for example, can make an asset more attractive.”

Singaporean developer and investment manager CapitaLand recently completed a “biophilic” skyscraper in its home city. The CapitaSpring building features 80,000 trees and plants across 90,000 square feet of landscaped space, much of which is on the higher levels of the 919-foot skyscraper, including a rooftop urban farm. However, not all biodiversity initiatives need to be so dramatic. “You don’t need lots of space to improve biodiversity: window boxes and bird boxes can do a lot. Another powerful thing is rainwater gardens, where you let runoff from your hard landscape travel via basins filled with water-loving plants. This slows runoff and increases biodiversity,” says Biggin.

Hamilton notes that beehives on the roofs of buildings are a simple way to improve biodiversity so long as they are matched with planting which suits their apian inhabitants. She also says beehives pique the interest of investors, thus promoting engagement with biodiversity.

Making a new development biodiverse is somewhat easier than retrofitting it to an existing asset, so long as it is part of the process from the start, says Hamilton. “For new buildings, factoring biodiversity into initial designs is important, so you might add a green roof along with rooftop solar. The green roof helps cool the building and the solar panels shade the green roof, so they are complementary.”

One area where asset owners can easily improve biodiversity is by replanting areas of mown grass, or even letting them grow as meadows with a wider range of plants which are allowed to flower. More trees on site means more shade and better drainage. Across large portfolios or developments, planting trees may be a quantifiable carbon sink, however acres of trees are needed for significant amounts of carbon to be absorbed.

“A large number of trees are needed to absorb significant amounts of carbon, but it is not just about carbon emissions, it is about all the other benefits that trees bring to a site,” says Hamilton.

Asset owners seeking to improve biodiversity cannot take shortcuts and simply think that seeding a green roof will do the trick, says Biggin. “It is often a misconception that if you create a green roof, you end up with biodiversity, but it is quite easy to end up with monoculture if you don’t design with biodiversity in mind,” he says.

A good start for asset owners is to find out what species are already in the area and how they can be encouraged to dwell on and around real estate. Biggin says: “We have an opportunity, through good design and placemaking, to create a huge new habitat gain in our developments.”

Wilding London’s West End

How real estate owners are helping nature thrive.

A number of real estate owners including Grosvenor and The Crown Estate are involved in the Wild West End initiative, which seeks to improve biodiversity in London’s West End.

Each of the landowners controls a mix of built and open, public and private space. The initiative seeks to not only improve biodiversity in those spaces, but to link them together to build a larger area for nature to thrive.

Rupert Biggin, project director at Grosvenor Group, says: “We have carried out an audit of our Mayfair and Belgravia portfolio, including all the street trees and our existing squares, and we have been working to increase the biodiversity in these areas.”

Grosvenor recently launched a plan to boost the biodiversity in its historic Grosvenor Square, with more planting and more accessible public space.