The NATURE tool - Implementing net gains for the environment at project scale

3rd September 2021 By Oliver Hölzinger

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Introduction

Recent years have seen the UK demonstrate a promising mindset shift when it comes to the environment. This transition in the planning and development sector away from avoidance of negative impacts on the environment towards delivering net benefits is attracting attention globally. Whilst net gains for biodiversity are essential for sustainable development, and to tackle the ecological crisis, it is important to also consider impacts on people through the lens of natural capital.

The Challenge

The challenge for practitioners is how they can effectively implement a natural capital approach and deliver net gains for the environment at the project scale. Planning practitioners and project managers are increasingly aware of the need for designing places that benefit all, wildlife, people and the economy. They also understand the role of natural capital – even if they may not always use the term.

However, this is a complex issue with many aspects and trade-offs to consider. And project timescales and budgets are often not suitable for running excessive bespoke natural capital assessments. Whilst there is increasing appetite for implementing natural capital approaches at the project scale, the question is often “how”? This is why we need to equip planning practitioners with tools that are easy to use, and don’t require a PhD in natural capital science either.

The NATURE Tool

Organisations like WSP and EKN have spearheaded the implementation of holistic natural capital values and impact on real projects. On 27th July 2021, we released a brand-new tool to help built environment professionals play a greater part in nature recovery and climate resilience. The Nature Assessment Tool for Urban and Rural Environments (the NATURE Tool) records the extent to which any new project involving land-use and/or management changes delivers ‘net gains’ for the natural environment.

The NATURE Tool is practical and easy to use allowing the assessment of up to 17 ecosystem services plus physical and mental health benefits through a scoring system indicating both, the direction and magnitude of project impacts. These scores are aggregated based on policy priorities resulting in an overall ‘people score’ for the project. This assessment aims to encourage better decision making and clearly demonstrate the results of positive sustainable action during development.

By bringing together information about all these considerations in one place, the NATURE Tool puts built environment professionals on the front foot. It is there to inform design, planning and long-term management. The spreadsheet tool, which is freely available, has been designed to serve a wide range of projects, from housebuilding to transport infrastructure, and from mineral sites to wind farms and conservation projects.

The NATURE Tool will provide built environment professionals with the ability to assess and measure to what extent new plans or developments across the UK achieve net gains to make future land-use more sustainable. The adaptable tool also permits local planning authorities and companies to pre-define what is expected from new development in terms of net gain, helping to enhance planning security for developers, while also setting a new benchmark for minimum net-gain requirements. WSP and the project partners expect the tool to become a widely accepted UK industry standard; a game-changer for the built environment sector’s response to the nature and climate concerns.

The Partnership

The tool has been developed by WSP, the leading international inter-disciplinary consulting group, in association with Ecosystems Knowledge Network and with support from Northumbria University. Innovate UK has provided funding. As part of the development and testing of the NATURE Tool, a partnership across the UK was established with more than 30 built environment organisations including developers, landowners, Local Planning Authorities, planning professions, NGO’s and Government Agencies. A tool co-developed by the industry – for the industry.

At WSP we see the release of the NATURE Tool as the start of a long-term process – not the end. We are very enthusiastic about the tool and have already developed many ideas together with our project partnership exploring how the tool can be further developed and new features added. We are already planning the next steps in the development of the NATURE Tool. We welcome your ideas and feedback which you can provide via our website, as it is important to us that the tool works for you!

Bio and Additional Information

Oliver Hölzinger is specialist in natural capital and ecological economics at WSP. He created the NATURE Tool and has previously developed the Natural Capital Planning Tool (NCPT) and was also involved in the development of Natural England’s Environmental Benefits from Nature (EBN) tool.

For more information about the NATURE Tool visit NATURE-Tool.com where users can download the most current version of the tool.