Exploring the Nature-Positive Approach to the Built Environment

March 13, 2023 • John Salustri

The commercial environment, as critical as it is to business, has long been at loggerheads with nature in all its forms, from the air we breathe inside to the preservation of plant and animal life outside. 

But advances in technology and environmental science are changing that, and it seems that business and nature can actually coexist. Strides have been made toward enhancing that tense relationship, and developers, owners and managers are clearly sensitive to environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns and all those three concepts entail. But clearly there is much work still to be done. 

(The strides that the industry has made and the path left to travel are all on the table at BOMA International’s Decarbonization Symposium and Legislative Fly-in, March 14-15.) 

The details of this traditionally contentious relationship have been documented in “Nature Positive and Net Zero: The Ecology of Design,” a recently released report by The Urban Land Institute’s Greenprint Center for Building Performance and engineering firm Jacobs. 

Measuring the Issue

The ramped-up awareness of biodiversity on the part of commercial real estate decision makers couldn’t happen at a more critical time. As ULI reports, “the world is currently undergoing the Sixth Great Extinction, with a 68% reduction in wildlife populations since 1970 and another one million species at risk of extinction in the coming decades.”

The issue, says the report, is that, despite the inroads made on fronts including energy efficiency and carbon neutrality, the industry falls short of embracing “biodiversity and ecosystem services as part of its business or climate strategy.” 

The concept seen as the path forward–nature-positive development–calls for the second definition: Simply put, it encompasses not just conserving current resources in land use planning and development, but also enhancing or restoring those resources. 

It’s a definition packed with challenges: Nature positive development “in its fullest expression would ensure that any given development is as ecologically functional as the wildlands next door.” 

Making the Business Case

Of course, commerce moves on its capital expenditures and returns. It is good news then that the growing sustainability awareness of real estate decision makers is being shared by their investors and their tenants. There alone lies the promise of increased marketing value for informed stakeholders. 

But wait. There’s more. “Biodiversity investments can also pay off in the long term by increasing efficiency and reducing operating costs,” says ULI. This includes the reduction of HVAC needs through the implementation of green roofs or onsite rainwater treatment.

Capital biodiversity expenditures needn’t break the bank. (In fact, ULI references some lending institutions that provide sustainability-focused lending). And as far-reaching as the concept sounds, it can start with such simple initiatives as cutting back on mowing and seeding with native plants. 

The report goes on to break initiatives into four scales of opportunity: 

Portfolio level strategies include the selection of metrics to measure biodiversity risks, the use of green building certifications and partnering with outside biodiversity experts for intel that might not already be on your team.

Among the steps that can be taken at the building level are such initiatives as implementing water conservation measures, adopting bird-safe designs and, as we saw above in the landscaping example, adjusting property maintenance. 

Key to material selection strategies is the support of the so-called circular economy. This simply means “limiting new raw resource extraction, manufacturing and transport, while supporting net-zero goals by decreasing emissions from new construction.” The reuse of building materials whenever possible and the redevelopment of obsolete assets are two practical applications.

Finally, consider developing offsite strategies such as power purchased from renewable sources like solar farms and researching biodiversity offsets and credits. ULI notes: “Biodiversity offsets often require the cooperation or engagement of local communities, which can include local Indigenous communities that have been stewards of the land throughout history.”

Biodiversity at Work

As stated above, while there is much more we can do to promote sustainable developments of all sorts, commercial real estate has been making impressive strides. Witness the 700-acre intermodal logistics park Prologis is developing in the UK. The REIT has struck a partnership with the Wildlife Trust, through which  nearly 200 acres have been made into what ULI describes as “an ecological habitat named Lilbourne Meadows, a mixed habitat of wetland and grassland with extensive hedgerows.”

Of course, there are examples from outside the ULI report. Take Realty Income’s newly announced $1-billion alliance with vertical farming company Plenty. The farming company’s “sustainable business practices align with Realty Income's values, which include giving more than we take in our community and environment," said Sumit Roy, Realty Income's president and CEO in a statement. "Our entry into agriculture technology provides another potential growth opportunity for our company.” 

Or take a clue from the Empire State Building. Last November, the iconic building’s ownership, the Empire State Realty Trust , unveiled plans for bee farms there and three other Manhattan properties. 

“The honey beehives are a great way to engage our tenants and our community with something that is so small, but that has such a major impact on our daily lives,” said Dana Robbins Schneider, ESRT’s senior vice president and director of energy, sustainability and ESG. “It contributes to our tenants’ environmental and ESG goals, too. A huge part of the value that we add is that we do this for them.”

Other projects that mark the steps we can take toward an enhanced ecosystem include but are certainly not limited to bioswales and rain gardens for natural irrigation, the restoration of waterfront edges to create “living shorelines” and the planting of street trees and right-of-way plantings.

Clearly, there is a growing ecological imperative for real estate practitioners, no matter the discipline, be it development, investment, ownership or management. But as the ULI report makes clear, nature and the built environment can indeed coexist.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John Salustri is editor-in-chief of Salustri Content Solutions, a national editorial advisory firm based in East Northport, New York. He is best known as the founding editor of GlobeSt.com. Prior to launching GlobeSt.com, Salustri was editor of Real Estate Forum.