“These are floating gardens usually planted with native plants,” explains Lisa Shaw, artistic director of Biomatrix Water. “They often look like a natural bank or a small island, but are usually found in places where nature would find it difficult to intrude, places where there are concrete or sheet pile shores that do not allow plants to grow naturally.”
Since 2012, 4,839 of these floating ecosystems have been used to help restore 153 bodies of water and waterways around the world, including London’s Regent Canal, a historically degraded industrial waterway.
“There are butterflies, bees, insects, moorhens, coots and sparrows coming in and out and feeding on the plants,” reports Dave Bedford, co-chair of the Lower Regents Coalition, a community group in London who is working on the restoration of the canal. “If you look under the islands you can see lots of fish sheltering. It is beautiful and provides essential habitat for urban wildlife. It’s just better on so many levels!
“It’s important to realize that nature-centered building also builds for the future.”
A growing body of scientific research shows how restored canals can also bring significant improvements to the quality of life for local residents. Researchers from Glasgow Caledonian University recently published data showing that people living within 700 meters of a restored canal experienced health benefits after restoration, including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke and diabetes.
While floating ecosystems are designed to heal waterways, other urban innovators are turning to bridges that cross more rivers and streams. This includes the NEXT architects of the Netherlands who designed the Vlotwateringbrug, popularly known as the “bat bridge”, in Westland, a municipality in the west of the Netherlands.
Westland recently implemented a landscaping plan to create optimal conditions for insects and animals. When plans were drawn up for a bridge to span one of the local waterways, it was discovered that the location of the bridge was in the middle of a flight route for many bat species, including some are in steep decline due to habitat loss. Another obstacle was the last thing bat species at risk needed, so NEXT decided to pivot and approach the bridge as “a unique opportunity for bat-friendly design”.
“The green requirements were not an additional feature to be added later to the design,” the firm said in a report on the deck. “Instead, they formed the backbone and starting point of the bridge.”
The design team worked with bat experts from the Dutch Mammal Association to determine the ideal features for bats that could be physically incorporated into the bridge. The result was a bridge built with a very thick north side abutment to provide winter shelter for bats, as well as spaces at the bottom of the bridge and a custom brick balustrade to house bats during the summer. The roosting spaces below decks were designed to be wide enough to let bats in but narrow enough to keep predators out. No bat-friendly detail has been overlooked – the edges of the roosting spaces have been given a rough finish so that bats can easily grip their surfaces.
The bridge, says bat expert Marcel Schillemans of the Dutch Mammal Association, is “a classic example of how a functional object can at the same time serve nature”. While bats have yet to populate the bridge, it was built as part of a long-term strategy, “during which the environment changes and bat populations also change”, explains Schillemans. “It’s important to realize that nature-centered construction also builds for the future, not just for immediate use by animals.”
OF ALL THE DIVISIONS between nature and the built environment, none is as defining as that between land and sea. Tons of cement and stone have been dumped along coastlines in the ultimate “us vs. them” with nature. However, it has long been unknown what damage these levees have caused to the “them” side of the equation, and how that damage has also worsened conditions for “us,” especially as sea levels rise. Finally, there is a growing understanding that a resilient future requires turning barricades into bastions of life.
To that end, San Diego, California recently installed an additional 1,000 feet of coastal protection along its shores to guard against rising sea water. Previously, large flat slabs of rock would have been used, which has often resulted in ecological dead zones for vulnerable riparian species due to the lack of crevices, textures and natural contours of the original coastal banks once provided.
To nurture coastal species and habitats, the city installed “Coastalock”, a new type of coastal barrier created by the company ECOncrete, which contains shapes to mimic tidal pool habitats and a specially textured surface to encourage growth. plants and algae that help clean the water and provide nutrients for coastal species.
The barrier provides “sustainable pools for marine species to inhabit and rehabilitates these habitats for fish to enjoy cooler temperatures and organic living surfaces, while generating an expansive carbon sink in the process,” ECOncrete says on its website.
In Australia, Reef Design Lab and the Sydney Institute of Marine Science are working to restore aquatic habitats on existing seawall barricades using custom-designed “habitat panels” to repair damage to coastal areas during development. .
“Many man-made marine structures such as seawalls, wharfs and pontoons are very different from natural shorelines such as rocky shores and mangroves,” says Aria Lee, who manages the project, labeled Living Seawalls. “This results in lower biodiversity and fewer native species inhabiting these man-made structures. Living Seawalls has developed an eco-engineering solution to improve marine life on new or existing seawalls. Modular habitat panels mimicking natural features – such as rock pools, crevices and hollows – are installed on seawalls to increase habitat choice for marine life to boost biodiversity on man-made marine structures.