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Biodiversity activism: Nature in crisis: see it, say it, and help to sort it

Words:
Robert Delius

Architects must communicate – and act – if we are to effectively combat declining biodiversity, as Bath's Funeral for Nature showed

Funeral for Nature process encircles plane trees at the centre of the Georgian Circus in Bath.
Funeral for Nature process encircles plane trees at the centre of the Georgian Circus in Bath. Credit: Gareth Morris

Those over a certain age may well recall childhood summers invariably featuring a plastering of insects over the front of the family car. Sadly the wonderful abundance that led to this gruesome mess is now a thing of the past. With what’s known as shifting baseline syndrome, each generation appears to have a collective amnesia, accepting ever-declining biodiversity levels as ‘normal’. 

The data confirms the decline though. The Natural History Museum says the UK has lost a staggering 60% of its flying insects since 2004. This correlates with the equally shocking fact from WWF that there has been a 69% drop in global populations of birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, and amphibians since 1970. Last year’s State of Nature report concluded with the uncomfortable truth that the UK is now one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth.

We can do better

How have we sleepwalked into this position? And more importantly, what are we doing about it? Set against these alarming trajectories, the government’s mandatory 10% Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) target feels woefully inadequate and un-aspirational, especially when we learn that Manchester’s new 12-storey office development Eden is achieving a BNG of over 2000%.

We clearly need to be more ambitious on our projects, and as Eden is proving, if we build on the right sites it’s eminently achievable. We need to be developing a culture where 10% is seen as simply not good enough. While it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, as a profession we can make a difference. With much of the UK countryside now a wildlife-depleted monoculture, urban areas are some of our most ecologically-rich habitats. But construction industries and cities just part of the bigger picture: we need urgent collective action across all sectors of the UK to reverse the wildlife decline. Is that for others to sort out, or can we use our skills as a creative industry to communicate the issues and bring about positive change?

Galvanised by the damning findings of the State of Nature report and its frustrating lack of media coverage (there is six times as much coverage on the climate crisis as the ecological crisis) I approached local environmental groups with an idea – a mock Funeral for Nature, to help spread awareness of the nature crisis to as big an audience as possible.

A view of how biodiversity could be maximised even in a relatively high density design, with green roofs and walls, and wildlife homes designed into buildings with biodiverse play spaces. From Stride Treglown’s publication Maximising Biodiversity Through Design.
A view of how biodiversity could be maximised even in a relatively high density design, with green roofs and walls, and wildlife homes designed into buildings with biodiverse play spaces. From Stride Treglown’s publication Maximising Biodiversity Through Design. Credit: Stride Treglown

Call to action through performance

Noticing that climate protests appear to receive little interest or media attention these days, this would be something else: a peaceful, large-scale street performance that would be shocking and inspiring in equal measure. Ultimately, a call to action. 

Working with global performance group, the Red Rebel brigade, we planned a procession on a scale not attempted before. Taking place through the streets of Bath, the Red Rebels’ distinctive red outfits would contrast beautifully with the city’s architecture, creating imagery that would wow onlookers and encourage them to share the event and its message to a much wider audience on social media. Unlike typical protest marches there would be no banners or placards. Instead, it would be a highly choreographed event, with mourners dressed entirely in black. 

With artist Anna Gillespie, landscape architect Dan Pearson Studio, and other garden designers, a funeral bier with a Mother Earth figure were the procession’s centrepiece. We also prepared 4,000 petal-infused ‘Order of Service’ booklets to hand out to onlookers, which provided facts about the crisis and offered practical suggestions for action. The route would take in Bath’s key landmarks to maximise opportunities for those all-important Instagram photos.

The strategy worked. Recruiting five times as many Red Rebels as had ever assembled before, 50 drummers and hundreds of mourners, we created an audacious multi-sensory experience that was met with great interest by the public, who for the most part looked on with an astonishing hushed reverence. Instead of the apathy that previous leaflet-heavy climate marches had received, the Orders of Services were snapped up and ran out halfway through the procession due to the curiosity of onlookers, eager to find out about the event and its message.

In contrast to much bigger environmental marches, the day received widespread local and national media interest, with almost all of the main papers covering it. Even though it was never conceived as a protest, but as an awareness raising event, Avon and Somerset Police said the photo of the procession circling the trees in Bath’s famous Circus was ‘the single most defining protest image of our generation’. Wildlife presenters and environmental activists Chris Packham and Megan McCubbin joined the procession and gave a powerful ‘eulogy’ at its climax in front of Bath  Abbey.

Communication – but there’s more

The day highlighted the potential of creative industries to help communicate the important issues of our time. David Attenborough has said that the climate crisis is actually a communication crisis, suggesting that we should think more creatively about how we inspire action on climate and biodiversity issues. Megan McCubbin appeared to agree, saying of Funeral for Nature: ‘I love that this is a performance piece. Arts and culture must be woven throughout our actions… they bring more people into the discussion.’

The power of design to communicate and reach wider audiences is something we at Stride Treglown have explored before, when we installed a mock-up of a sinking house in central Bath in the lead up to COP26.

But raising awareness is just half of the challenge. As a profession we also need to inspire hope and convey the art of the possible. It’s within our gift to communicate what a radical, enticing, biodiversity-rich future would actually look like. And there’s no time to waste. 

Rob Delius is head of sustainability at Stride Treglown

 

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