Green infrastructure – planning and designing a functioning nature

A country road in a forest and farming landscape. Photo.

After climate change, biodiversity loss is the biggest environmental challenge facing the world today. The loss of plant and animal species also means a loss of the resources that humans obtain from well-functioning ecosystems. At Lund University, a project is underway in which researchers are studying how work to counteract these losses is carried out with so-called green infrastructure.

In today’s world, many plant and animal species struggle to survive. Their living space is shrinking as we humans change the nature around us. Just like us, animals need a good quality living environment with enough space to find the right food and a good habitat, and they need to be able to spread to new places. Currently, however, the environments around us are becoming both increasingly monotonous and less connected.     

“We must find better ways to ensure that plant and animal species are protected so that they can continue to function as resources for us, for example, through pollination and photosynthesis. We humans are ultimately entirely dependent on well-functioning ecosystems”, says ecologist Johan Ekroos, project manager for the strategic research area BECC’s project The making of green infrastructure as a policy tool for biodiversity conservation.

Green infrastructure conveys how landscapes and environments can be viewed

Green infrastructure (GI) is a relatively new concept that conveys how authorities and organisations in Sweden and the EU can view landscapes and environments as a network of living habitats, structures, natural and semi-natural areas. The aim of GI is to provide a network managed for biodiversity conservation and maintaining functional landscapes, so that the important benefits for humans, the so-called ecosystem services, are promoted.  

GI is introduced as a tool to use, for example, in large-scale land-use planning, where everyone involved plans together for long-term sustainable landscapes. In the project, the researchers have seen that those involved in the planning processes interpret the meaning of GI in different ways, and that they base their work on different parts of the research findings.

“How different societal actors view green infrastructure could have major consequences on biodiversity conservation across Europe in the coming decades”, says Johan Ekroos. “The understanding that prevails will affect how GI is implemented and, with that, the conservation strategies that are chosen. Research is needed on the connection between the underlying scientific knowledge and the conservation strategies that are implemented. 

Improve planning and conservation work

One aim of the BECC project is to demonstrate which parts of the knowledge base pertaining to the landscape ecology of mobile organisms affected research and applications of GI, and whether there are alternatives that consider this knowledge base in a better way. This is to be able to convey the strengths of working with GI so that, for example, regional administrative boards and municipalities use it optimally in biodiversity conservation, says ecologist Maria von Post who is also involved in the project.

“The research indicates that, for conservation of endangered species in specific living environments, the most important thing to look at is the available area and quality of the different types of habitat. When we look at the current policy work at the EU and Swedish levels, we see a focus on quality but ecological corridors emerge as being the most important in the policy work. This differs from what the ecological theories say.”  

When the factors that are important to look at in conservation work are known, good planning documentation is also needed for as many species as possible to be able to answer questions such as: what is missing and what are the advantages in this landscape for this species? Which measures do we need to prioritise to do it better here? The aim, according to Ola Olsson, who works with ecological modelling in the project, is that when you work with GI you should have access to tools that identify good areas. 

The tools that the regional administrative boards have today, for example, to produce regional conservation programmes, species under the responsibility of different municipalities or action programmes for particularly endangered species is based on the existence of a lot of data from inventories in relevant areas. This data is the basis for maps of the incidence of different species in the landscape. 

Models that can visualise the needs of animals and species

“Our idea is that it should be possible to let go of the data requirement and instead work with good models”, says Ola Olsson. “To this end, we need to develop additional ecological models that are based on how individual organisms with different ecological characteristics use the landscape on a daily basis.” 

By using these kinds of it is possible to visualise the distribution of certain species, or habitats, to overlay them on a map of a landscape and, in principle, display a layer for each species. As the models are based on the ecological demands of the species it is possible to demonstrate how the distribution of a certain species is expected to change when the environment changes.  

“You can then sit and play around with the landscape itself”, says Ola Olsson. “What happens if you create another forest here or add corridors, or increase a forest area?”

Ola Olsson and his colleagues have the basis for such a model when it comes to pollinators such as bumblebees and bees, animals that nest in one place and go out to collect food. 

“A model for territorial animals is another one for which there is already a basis. It has its origin in the work I did a long time ago on the lesser spotted woodpecker.” 

Ola Olsson will continue to develop these theoretical models and put them together into landscape models. However, background knowledge is required for the models to apply to more species and habitats. The ongoing project also includes a compilation of all the knowledge currently available. 

“We are trying to find all the studies that have looked more specifically at why different species persist in a landscape. How do they manage to reproduce, how do they manage to spread, what is their survival rate? In addition, we are studying the strength in the links to the quality and size of the habitat as well as how species spread between areas. Based on the knowledge available, you then have to compile the species in organism groups with certain characteristic needs and in that way produce a somewhat more general measure than for just one species”, says Maria von Post.

Maria von Post will continue searching for studies that can provide parameters for the models that are needed to plan for green infrastructure. The good thing about planning based on GI is that it makes us adopt a broader perspective”, says Maria von Post.

“It is easy to become fixed on your land area, municipal boundaries or another planning category. However, nature does not have those borders and therefore we must see different landscape segments in a larger context.”

Green infrastructure

Definition

Green infrastructure (GI): An ecologically functional network of habitats and structures, natural and semi-natural components that are designed, used and managed for biodiversity conservation and for the promotion of ecosystem services that are important to society.

www.naturvardsverket.se/gron-infrastruktur

The making of green infrastructure

The project The making of green infrastructure as a policy tool for biodiversity conservation (in Swedish: Formandet av grön infrastruktur som ett politiskt verktyg för bevarande av biologisk mångfald) includes ecologists Johan Ekroos, Maria von Post, Ola Olsson and Anna Persson, as well as social scientists Johanna Alkan Olsson and Åsa Knaggård.

BECC (Biodiversity and ecosystem services in a changing climate) is a strategic research area at Lund University. 
BECC's website