Are we about to see a major change in the way developments are planned?

The era when proposed urban development projects can treat their environmental impact as a secondary, or simply compliance level concern, is definitely drawing to a close. New concepts like loss and damage to biodiversity, nature and communities, are encouraging both a more sophisticated and responsible approach to the way we plan and implement future schemes. Practitioners call this ‘environment-led design’ and it presents a significant shift in the structure, values and processes that go into new projects.

To understand the idea, we could look at Beam Parklands, an environment-led project on the eastern edge of London. This was a proposed river and greenspace regeneration project, in a relatively poor area of the city. As a once abandoned hospital site by the river Beam, it had a lot of potential, despite having become a dumping ground for waste and old cars over the previous decades. Working in partnership with the Environment Agency, Arup was able to reimagine the area to perform functionally as a flood storage reservoir protecting 300 nearby homes and businesses, and the local power station that serves a third of London’s energy. But our goals were larger, and the scheme became a new country park, promoting biodiversity and nature in a highly urbanised area. 

Beam Parkland’s transformation from derelict wasteland to a thriving park was achieved by putting an environmental vision at the centre of the concept. By placing a wide range of environmental benefits within the project’s core definition we were able to unlock £4m in additional funding, growing the ambitions to the scheme. Beam Parkland shows that environment-led design is the most powerful way to address the climate, pollution and related social challenges our towns and cities now face.

Putting nature first

These outcomes shouldn’t be one-offs or really that hard to achieve – they can clearly command enthusiastic local support. But for decades a kind of compliance driven mindset has often prevailed, where environmental features are often a tick box feature, one that gets watered down as a project changes shape, budgets tighten or other priorities intrude.

However, a major evolution in the way projects are structured – and therefore also, how their goals are prioritised and realised – is underway. There is a convergence of new regulatory requirements, like the UK’s proposed Environmental Outcomes Reporting rules, which aim to bring a more joined up approach to sustainability at the planning stage, and existing commitments like net zero or biodiversity net gain, the latter already mandated by planning rules. This is leading to the need to place environmental concerns at the start and centre of a scheme’s design definition.

Although the regulatory details vary from place to place, zooming out we can see that the best approach for developers, clients, authorities and communities, is to commit to environmentally-led design. Wherever you are, a wider range of drivers are shaping developments, highlighting the question of how we deliver the most tangible benefits for local environments and communities. 

Viewed from a distance what these new emerging regulations are doing, is reframing what responsible design means, what it should prioritise and how we all as practitioners should approach the development of everything, from roads to housing to transport and beyond. This shift involves a new mindset, new processes, and at base a different perspective on development of any kind. 

But for decades a kind of compliance driven mindset has often prevailed, where environmental features are often a tick box feature, one that gets watered down as a project changes shape, budgets tighten or other priorities intrude.

Kerry Whalley


Going beyond mitigation

By placing the environment at the centre of the process you can strengthen many different outcomes from the start. That means ensuring biodiversity net gain, where nature loss is anticipated and a scheme designed to strengthen natural habitats around the proposal. It will inherently involve prioritising nature-based solutions, which tend to require fewer materials, potentially reducing project costs, even after a project has gone through the usual value engineering stage. For local authorities, it should improve their ability to deliver against wider goals within their climate action plans and related commitments like air quality or improved public realm. 

To be environment-led is to be locally focused. That’s why, for public bodies, authorities and government clients, environment-led design is a chance to show leadership on issues communities care about. For developer clients, with commercial priorities, this is a way of ensuring projects go beyond compliance, save money and ensure that projects and schemes are located in appealing, thriving environments. Environment-led projects are likely to be more appealing and thus retain longer-term value.

A change of process

So that’s the ideal – how do we get there, and is it a realistic goal? Regulation alone doesn’t reshape our industry’s ways of working, we all recognise that. 

Placing the environment at the centre of a scheme means leading from a complex set of objectives and constraints – rather than say, simply achieving a number of saleable units at a given price. Environmental insights and expertise would need to be engaged early. To remain environment-led from the start, a project’s funders, sponsors, developers and professional team also need to commit to the maximalist and holistic version of a scheme’s potential. By making environmental priorities determinative of the master structure and goals of a scheme, it necessarily takes on a different shape and requires more buy-in from all suppliers, contributors, partners. 

A conceptual (and practical) shift

In traditional project development, the business case takes the lead followed shortly by early design work. These necessarily focus on the core objectives of the project – what does it need to achieve, why is it needed, how much will it cost? There is a trend to wider factors coming into the strategic business case, to enhance the funding case for projects, but traditionally environmental assessment of a project often would not start in earnest until a preliminary design is in place. 

Traditionally, the environmental assessment would mostly focus on impacts and mitigation, rather than seeking to drive enhancement or wider holistic benefits. This is where environment-led design necessitates a change in project set up: the level of ambition for sustainability is agreed right at the start and set out in a series of core project objectives or outcomes, including the full suite of environmental, social and economic outcomes. These are ideally baked into project development contracts, including a ‘sustainable design brief’ that sets the framework for design. By designing for environmental (and social) outcomes, the environmental assessment becomes much more of a reporting tool to demonstrate for the consenting process how those outcomes are being achieved. 

Sound familiar? This is what the UK’s new Environmental Outcomes Regime is aiming to achieve – put the focus on driving positive outcomes for the communities and environment in which our projects exist, and keep the reporting simple and to a minimum. The legislative process is long and complicated, why wait? This is in all our hands as design professionals and project leaders – if we advocate for and adopt it in practice.