World Wetlands Day: wetlands and the urban environment
By Robert Riddington, Senior Associate
Happy World Wetlands Day! I am sure that it has been in your diary for a while now, but in case it has slipped your notice I hope that you will find this a worthwhile reminder. Wetlands help us cope with extreme weather events, reduce pollution, provide habitats to flora and fauna and are generally great places to visit.
Celebrated on every 2nd of February since the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands in 1971, the day aims to raise public awareness about the importance and value of wetlands.
This year’s theme is ‘Wetlands for a Sustainable Urban Future’ which aims to provide a spotlight on how our urban environments can successfully integrate and interact with these habitats. Population growth and expansion of our urban areas increases pressure on our wetlands and therefore the consideration of this impact forms a vital part of urban planning.
UK policy and practice
Within the UK we have longstanding legislative structures to guide and steer our developments and since the 1990s particular effort has been focused on the quality of the UK’s waterbodies and therefore determines our response to these questions.
One of the key drivers in legislation is the Water Framework Directive (WFD) which introduced the ambitious target to protect and restore aquatic ecosystems and to ensure the long term sustainable use of water for people, business and nature. Within the UK, as with the whole of Europe, there is the default objective for all water bodies to reach ‘good ecological status’ by 2027.
Our regulatory and statutory bodies; the Environment Agency, Natural England, Local Authorities and Water Companies, all have responsibilities and duties under WFD to improve the water environments, and the cost to deliver our obligations is significant. Defra has estimated that the total cost of implementing the WFD could be between £30bn and £100bn in England and Wales by 2027.
With such significant investment requirements and a challenging timetable (as of 2017 only 17% of the UK’s water bodies had reached the 2027 target of good ecological status), it is not just these statutory bodies that are being called on to deliver the improvements through their River Basin Management Plans and AMP Cycle improvements, there is an implicit requirement that these targets are delivered throughout our society.
Charitable organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), are often drivers of projects or custodians of these assets. Through places such as WWT’s London Wetland Centre, they provide space for nesting birds and wildlife, whilst offering safe, educational and recreational locations often within an urban setting. In addition, volunteering for these organisations provides personal growth and develops community engagement.
Other organisations propose alternative approaches. For example, Rewilding Britain’s aspiration is to convert/revert a million hectares in Britain to their ‘natural ecological processes’ over the next century. By working with local communities they aim to provide both societal improvements, such as reduction in flood risk through natural floodplain management (e.g. through slowing flow in the upper catchment via various techniques), together with habitat improvements.
Opportunities to retain, manage, restore
Wetlands can provide opportunities for SUDS and flood risk management, recreation and educational opportunities, whilst also providing ecological benefits and progression towards the objectives of the WFD.
When we design new urban developments which incorporate waterbodies and wetlands we can use a hierarchal approach: Retain, Manage and Restore.
Through retaining or conserving of wetlands we must demonstrate to regulators that proposals minimise the impact to waterbodies and that the introduction of infrastructure and human activity will not compromise their future operation.
More often we are managing our interaction through the development of sympathetic solutions and proposals. At the same time, we should be considering the opportunities that adjacent wetlands afford, be it the improved management of flooding, etc, or the recreational and environmental amenity that this may present.
Finally, the potential to create or restore wetlands should be considered. These can provide direct opportunities to address specific challenges such as flood or pollution management whilst providing environmental enhancement.
For all of the above we need to deliver and present evidence based solutions to both the developer and the regulators to demonstrate the challenges and how our proposals will deliver improvements, or at the very least not cause detriment.
Whilst it is sometimes easy to dismiss awareness days, and ignore the intention behind them, I hope that you agree that today it is worth raising awareness on the vital role that our wetlands play in our communities. It reminds us to focus on the importance of how an ecosystem can provide multiple benefits, for wildlife and society as a whole, and through the tenets of retain, manage and restore apply this to wherever our society interacts with the natural world.
There are a number of events across the UK and would encourage you to visit and support your local wetland centre this weekend and throughout the year: