Biodiversity loss is the canary in the coalmine of landscape systems health. With one million species currently under threat of extinction globally, what can be done? Photo: Andreas P.
Biodiversity loss is the canary in the coalmine of landscape systems health. With one million species currently under threat of extinction globally, what can be done? Photo: Andreas P.

Biodiversity loss: the canary in the coalmine

With 30 percent of Australia’s threatened species living in cities, there is an urgent need to plan, design and manage urban landscapes to conserve and enhance life. Foreground spoke with Claire Martin about the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects’ biodiversity loss emergency declaration.

Foreground: The Australian Institute for Landscape Architects (AILA) board, which you sit on, has declared a climate change emergency and also a biodiversity loss emergency. Why is it so important to raise awareness of biodiversity loss?

Claire Martin: We made the declaration not just to raise awareness but because we wanted to drive change. Cities, councils and other organisations have made similar announcements and there have been many petitions explaining the importance of making a declaration. It is clear that the earth’s ecosystems are failing at rates unprecedented in human history, and species’ extinctions are accelerating, with potentially grave impacts for people around the world. One million of the world’s species are now under threat of extinction, according to the biggest-ever review of the state of nature on earth. This is no longer a future threat, this is our here and now.

“… ultimately, biodiversity underpins all life on earth” – Claire Martin, AILA board director @AILA_national @OCULUS_PROJECTS

One of the difficulties with capturing biodiversity is that it is difficult to measure but it is also critical to have measures. Such diversity occurs at a genetic level, a species level, and an ecosystem level. Biodiversity is part of ecosystem health and a barometer for human health because, of course, we’re part of the same system, and, ultimately, biodiversity underpins all life on earth. Biodiversity loss occurs when ecosystems can no longer meet habitat needs and that causes direct and indirect impacts in terms of human health and changing patterns of migration for all life forms. So it’s really critical to retain and enhance biodiversity.

Landscape architects do this by providing conditions for diverse life to establish and flourish, from the scale of individual dwellings such as the Jones Residence by Taylor Cullity Lethlean with existing Indigenous Eucalyptus and mature Palm trees along a replanted creek line, to huge masterplanning projects that set direction for long-term improvements to degraded or threatened landscapes such as the Sydney Waterways Health Program by McGregor Coxall and Sydney Water Corporation. Landscape architects raise awareness of positive effects biodiverse environments can have on human well-being. The gardens of Bendigo Hospital by Oculus reinforce findings that human health and healing is hugely enhanced by direct and indirect exposure to nature.

One term that would be good to think more about is biodiversity sensitive urban design. We’ve focused on water sensitive urban design and environmentally sustainable urban design and we should now think of biodiversity sensitive urban design. I think this talks to what people can relate to across scales, from buildings and gardens to streets and beyond to precincts and the city where you can notice all sorts of life, from insects and birds to possums and bats.

Foreground: AILA is calling on the Australian Government to develop a living infrastructure strategy. We have heard about green infrastructure. Is this the same?

Claire Martin: ‘Living infrastructure’ is a more encompassing version. Some people refer to green and blue infrastructure meaning vegetation and water infrastructural systems. Living infrastructure is about the use of integrated natural systems to achieve social, ecological, financial and – I would argue – cultural benefits, reducing harm to these systems and improving their capacities. We have much to learn and gain, for example, from Indigenous cultures, as demonstrated by a new project introducing school children to “ways of viewing, interacting with and respecting nature”. Felixstowe Reserve by ASPECT Studios and Oxigen has transformed a barren field into a biodiverse wetlands and recreation area, but also made it rich with the stories of living Kaurna culture. From an AILA point of view, we strategically aligned with the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) in the lead-up to the last federal election to promote living infrastructure.

“To call for a national living infrastructure strategy is to call on the federal government for action” – Claire Martin, AILA board director @AILA_national @OCULUS_PROJECTS

Living infrastructure provides critical services for communities, from protecting from flood and heat extremes to helping improve air and water quality. This reduces energy consumption levels and costs, as well as building personal and community resilience, productivity and joy. To call for a national living infrastructure strategy is to call on the federal government for action because of the critical role the Australian government has in the development of cities. It’s not down to state and local governments alone, as cities are where most Australians live.

We’ve noticed that there is much clearer expenditure and targets around grey infrastructure – transport, energy – but less transparency about living infrastructure targets. This includes both up-front and life-cycle costs, as well as ecological or ecosystem services benefits and the critical contributions that they make in terms of avoidance costs.

So our living infrastructure election platform remains vitally important. We’re calling for a national living infrastructure strategy that would have an accompanying fund for improving living infrastructure across the country, available for state and local government project implementation. We see it as similar to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), helping to leverage private sector funds to enhance public benefit outcomes through investment. The other part of our strategy is really just saying that there is potential for living infrastructure to be defined as an asset class, and to also implement a lot of the recommendations of the Building Up and Moving Out report on settlement strategy. These are the main objectives of our platform.

“Ecological systems don’t discern between public and private and no one government agency, private corporation or professional discipline can deal with this complexity” – Claire Martin, AILA board director @AILA_national @OCULUS_PROJECTS

Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2018-2030 – which is actually subtitled Australia’s biodiversity, conservation strategy and action inventory – is still in draft form, although it has undergone public consultation which closed in March 2018. I think it is fair to say that it is a widely criticised document. It’s only seventeen pages long. And while I can normally be quite critical of producing more and more strategies and reports and not focusing enough on implementation, given that this document is intended to protect biodiversity in a country that’s the size of, and as diverse as, a continent, the report seems reductive. I think it is criticised mainly because it doesn’t have any firm commitments, doesn’t have any measurable targets and it seems to overlook a lot of scientific evidence. There are numerous representative bodies that have made criticisms of the document and also recommendations. If AILA are to support mitigation of biodiversity loss, then we really need these sorts of strategies and policies to set clear targets for effective action.

Foreground: Is living infrastructure something that is only relevant to denser cities?

Claire Martin: Definitely not! But cities are where most people live and 30 percent of biodiversity is in cities. Cities are subject to the highest rates of change, which means that what we do in cities is critical to mitigating impacts of climate change on biodiversity loss. We understand it’s inextricably linked: what happens in cities has direct and indirect effects on regions and non-urbanised areas. Because of the rates of change and the sheer scale of urban impacts on natural systems, it becomes vital to enhance and protect urban biodiversity, or, as a last resort, to offset or replace urban losses with targeted increases in species elsewhere. It’s also about a future-proofing of cities and ensuring healthy, sustainable species-diverse populations.


One example that can help us grasp the different impacts and scales of biodiversity is a new Green Star, future-focused credit system being developed by the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA). The system is about being able to demonstrate value, transparency and accountability by monitoring and evaluating defined sustainable building outcomes. It offers a really tangible way to do this. We know that developments have some things mandated at a planning level, while other actions are incentivised or discretionary. Green Star as a rating tool becomes a discretionary way to affect biodiversity at a precinct, lot and building scale.

Foreground: Waterways are obviously a key part of our natural systems and waterway health is vital to wider system health. How can the condition of rivers and creeks be improved?

Claire Martin: Using living infrastructure as a term is much more comprehensive and helpful than blue infrastructure when talking about waterways, because anything to do with their protection and enhancement needs to look at what happens at a catchment level. It is really about understanding that we need to have appropriate land uses within catchments and adjacent to waterways. We need to have effective buffers and protect connective habitat along waterway corridors. This means we must also look to incorporate Indigenous and traditional management of waterways. Using waterway projects in particular can help in terms of community education and engagement.

“So we need to be thinking at the massive scale of catchments – which is bigger than city or even regional scales – and acting down at the city scale, to precincts, to individual development sites” – Claire Martin, AILA board director @AILA_national @OCULUS_PROJECTS

Urban development generates high amounts of pollution, and according to Ocean Protect, 80 percent of ocean plastic comes from land-based activities. Our Prime Minister has suggested that plastic in the ocean is an equal threat to climate change. This is then something we can tackle with some urgency. It is a simple thing to ensure every project we do has a gross pollutant trap – effectively a cage or large sieve to capture rubbish washing into waterways and the ocean – and it would make a huge difference. Government funding for the regular emptying and maintenance of this literal upstream problem-solver for ocean pollution would be an easy win for the federal government to support.

Ultimately living infrastructure is essential to integrated water management. This includes everything from having high sustainability benchmarks and water sensitive urban design, stormwater management in both public and private domains, the reduction of litter entering waterways, using recycled or alternative water sources, developing best practice water quality performance objectives and well-considered water use, along with reduction of peak flows and sediment control, enabled through effective retention and detention. This is tied to the idea of permeability of surfaces and groundwater recharge, which all influences atmospheric heat reduction. So we need to be thinking at the massive scale of catchments – which is bigger than city or even regional scales – and acting down at the city scale, to precincts, to individual development sites.

Foreground: Landscape architects have expertise in creating or recreating healthy environments but they work with a range of experts. Is this true?

Claire Martin: Yes, it is true. Ecological systems don’t discern between public and private and no one government agency, private corporation or professional discipline can deal with this complexity. As landscape architects we work with complex systems. Complexity creates disciplinary challenges. In much the same way that architects working on significant tower developments, work with structural engineers, mechanical engineers and other specialists, landscape architects working on a large horizontal developments work with ecologists, horticulturalists, arborists, and ecological engineers. We need to bring all that technical expertise together. Operating with that capacity to have both an overview and to work through the detail is a key expertise of landscape architecture.

“… what is critical is that if we don’t work at every scale, we miss the real benefits and opportunities of living infrastructure, which is grounded in connections” – Claire Martin, AILA board director @AILA_national @OCULUS_PROJECTS

In my mind, landscape architects understand that the existential threat that we are facing, in large part, is caused by our lack of connection to nature and our lack of connection to each other. As landscape architects, I would argue that we are trying to connect people to each other and to their environment. We are part of our environment. In Australia we live in a country with the longest continuing culture on earth. Indigenous people have always known that we’re not separate from our environment. Appreciating that interconnectedness and respecting Indigenous cultural knowledge is really paramount in terms of the topic of addressing biodiversity loss.

In thinking about all the big things we do professionally, it’s important to consider too, the many little things we can do as individuals. I think we need to remember that landscape architects are citizens first, and designers second. I’ve got a birdbath; I’ve got composts, an insect hotel, a worm farm. I’ve planted lots of trees but I have space to do this. People without gardens who can make time can contribute by volunteering their time. I and many others volunteer time to AILA’s advocacy. John Mongard, for example, has decided to scale back his practice to have time to help his community develop climate change adaptation projects. We can all find ways to engage at a community level to help.

I’m getting excited about how we can tackle biodiversity loss because we are learning fast and there is massive potential through our work to make a difference. AILA has done and will continue to do work with allied organisations on standards and benchmarks that can be applied at every scale. You can enhance life at any scale. And if we don’t work at every scale, we miss the real benefits and opportunities of living infrastructure, which is grounded in connection to landscape systems. So we have to connect from smaller scale gardens or narrow nature strips to larger ecological corridors. We have to connect isolated sites to systems and habitats to create meaningful and enduring change. And I think together we can make this change.

Claire Martin is a Board Director of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, a landscape architect and Associate Director of OCULUS’ Melbourne studio, a contributing editor of Landscape Architecture Australia, and a member of the Office of the Victorian Government Architect’s Victorian Design Review Panel and RMIT University’s Landscape Architecture Industry Advisory Committee.