SCN: The Changing Nature of Architecture

Biodiverse Mid Rise Building

Collaborating with ecologists can help shopping centre planners and designers understand the needs of biodiversity and design to accommodate them. The Changing Nature of Architecture is co authored by Claire Bowles and Cris Hernandez-Santin explore Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design (BSUD), how to apply its principles to urban design and incorporate them into retail centres.

Development can have devastating impacts for biodiversity. Negative effects include habitat loss and fragmentation, the introduction of exotic species, alteration of local climates via the urban heat island and increased levels of chemical, light and noise pollution. Careful, considered design can reduce these impacts, and increase the benefits that biodiversity and everyday nature experiences can deliver to local communities and visitors alike (see Figure 1). “Biodiverse streetscapes and landscapes can have a positive effect in economic activity with demonstrated links to increased foot traffic resulting in higher retail activity,” said Sarah Bekessy, an Australian interdisciplinary conservation scientist and RMIT University Professor.

Above Figure 1: Artist impression of a biodiverse mid-rise building (Source: ICON Science)

To achieve this, we as designers must reframe nature as an opportunity rather than a constraint. The discovery of a rare species on a development site has all too frequently been seen by our sector of professionals as a ‘crisis’ that disrupts timelines and sets projects back. Yet professionals across the built environment can learn to view biodiversity as non-human stakeholders that can be designed for, with careful consideration early in process with ecological information to support it.
This also includes considering processes of the landscape at the ecosystem-level (eg. how healthy wetlands have the ability to clean water) and questioning design norms that place human convenience (eg. street parking or roads) over environmental functions.

A living systems view
Traditionally, when considering roles and key actors within the built environment, human beings are our starting point. According to regenerative development and design expert, Pamela Mang, living systems views move away from anthropocentric ways of thinking – a belief that humans are the most important entity in the universe – towards more eco-centric perspectives; taking time to understand the relationships that give life to a system.

In their 2022 research paper entitled Transformative Roles in Tourism: Adopting Living Systems’ Thinking for Regenerative Futures, Loretta Bellato, a regenerative development and tourism researcher based at the Centre for Urban Transitions, Swinburne University of Technology and her team stated: “Living systems’ thinking sees humans as part of nature, rather than the anthropocentric view that regards humans as separate and dominating the rest of nature. Aboriginal Australian knowledge holders, a Murrawarri Elder and Bama researcher assert that the core role of humans is to undertake an ethical custodial role on Earth.”

Design teams, like ecosystems, thrive with a diversity of stakeholders, each with key roles and perspectives and capabilities. As author Carole Sanford stated in her book entitled The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success: “Multi-directional complex networks of diverse stakeholders are inter-related and mutually benefit from collaborating and investing in the wellbeing and prosperity of the whole system.”

Collaborating with ecologists can help planners and designers understand the needs of biodiversity and design to accommodate them. At larger scales, planning tools can help identify areas with existing conservation value (see Figure 2 below) while at smaller scales, they can help compare between alternative planning and design scenarios, and identify opportunities to create habitat within existing and planned development2 (see Figure 3 below).

Clockwise from top left: Figure 2. Spatial analysis used to identify areas with high biodiversity value (blue) and high development value (red).(Source: Adapted from Sarah Bekessy et al 2012). Top right: Figure 3a. Connectivity analysis to evaluate BSUD potential under two development scenarios. (Source: Adapted from Holly Kirk et al 2021). Bottom right: Figure 3b Connectivity analysis to evaluate BSUD potential under two development scenarios. (Source: Adapted from Holly Kirk et al 2018)

Our recent experience of collaborating with the ICON research group at RMIT on our Living Building Challenge design competition entry is testament to what can be achieved when ecologists are brought onto a project early, providing guidance around Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design (BSUD)1 and insights through the lens of our diverse and beautiful living world.

Bringing nature to life in retail

Retail centres are fast becoming hubs for community and places where memorable experiences are made. These vibrant places bring the opportunity to regenerate, not only the local economy, but also the vibrancy of the human community and the land itself.

In A Pattern Language, author Christopher Alexander states: “When you build a thing, you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within it, so that the large world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing you make takes its place within the web of nature as you make it.” Bringing visitors and shoppers into closer relationship with their natural environment not only builds ecological literacy but also starts to build a community of nature stewards. This provides both health and wellbeing benefits, as well as adaptation to and mitigation against climate change.

Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design guidelines were produced by a collaboration of researchers, including the aforementioned Professor Sarah Bekessy, who leads the ICON Science lab at RMIT.

Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design (BSUD) aims to create urban environments that make a positive on-site contribution to biodiversity. This is in contrast to offsetting, which is unreliable and assumes that the environmental losses off-site can be accounted for by creating gains elsewhere. On-site contributions to biodiversity (or ‘onsets’) involve careful planning and innovative design and architecture. BSUD seeks to build nature into the urban fabric by linking urban planning and design to the basic needs and survival of native plants and animals (see Figure 4 below).

Figure 4. Source: As published in Garrard et al. (2018). 

BSUD draws on ecological theory and understanding to apply five simple principles to urban design:

1. Protect and create habitat

2. Help species disperse

3. Minimise anthropogenic threats

4. Promote ecological processes

5. Encourage positive human-nature interactions

BSUD offers a framework for architects and other design professionals to incorporate non-human voices into their design process. These principles can be applied at any scale, from individual houses to retail centres to precinct-scale developments. The Biodiverse Mid-rise for Fishermans Bend case study3 by Georgia Garrard and Sarah Bekessy of RMIT’s Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group is included in the BSUD implementation guide4 with more in-depth information offered by a 2021 publication by Holly Kirk, Research Fellow, Design and Context portfolio and her team at RMIT. This model achieves housing densities comparable to those identified for brownfield development sites in Plan Melbourne. However, when compared to the proposed high-rise development for Fishermans Bend, the sustainable mid-rise model provides better urban design and human health and wellbeing outcomes, including better access to open space and improved streetscapes, a reduction in the urban heat island effect, a reduction in household energy use, and improved workplace productivity and childhood cognitive development. In addition, the wetlands required by some species provide additional water purification and flood mitigation services in a flood-prone landscape like Fishermans Bend.

How can BSUD be incorporated into retail centres?

While working closely with the ICON team for the Living Building Challenge competition submission, we quickly realised that while the competition itself asked us to develop a community centre, the experience helped us see how BSUD could be adapted to retail projects through wayfinding and signage; free play spaces; green spaces, third spaces (ie. social environments separate from the home or work space), materials, totemic species programs and integrated water systems.

Wayfinding can draw out cues to care and educate community on their local ecosystems and threatened species through effective ecology trails and the use of flora and fauna names for wayfinding and educational signage. Bringing in structures to play spaces that represent local fauna and flora as free play areas within retail centres will allow children to explore and let their imaginations run wild.

Planting for biodiversity in green spaces, bringing indigenous species back and encouraging the inclusion of bush foods and edible plants delivers multiple benefits for people and nature alike.

Figure 5. Native grassland as a biodiversity asset (Source: ICON Science)

Looking beyond planned green spaces, find every opportunity to bring nature into the design through the introduction of third spaces for biodiversity. Ensuring that (big or small) pockets of nature are frequent and consistent will not only create a more connected landscape for species, it will also provide multiple opportunities for nature interaction, boosting our wellbeing.

Materials provide the opportunity to incorporate analogue habitats into the built environment, including in the fabric of the built form (eg. nesting bricks, habitat boxes, biodiverse green walls and roofs).

Some retail centres may even choose to consider establishing a totem or iconic species program that links individual target species to particular neighbourhoods. There is significant scope here to engage with local Indigenous communities and Traditional Owners.

Within retail centres, water management and WSUD is a key consideration and BSUD has real synergies here; for example, vegetation can be used to reduce runoff and nutrient loads through vegetated swales and rain gardens, and water/drainage issues can be managed to promote biodiversity.

When considered early and with an equal seating and perspective at the table, nature can play a key role in creating enjoyable places that educate, inspire, reconnect and regenerate our environments. The nature of architecture is truly changing…

Cris Hernandez-Santin, Biodiversity Inclusive Designer, Icon Research Hub (left) and Claire Bowles, Purpose Director, i2C (right)


Alexander, C. (2018). A pattern language: towns, buildings, construction. Oxford university press. 

Bekessy, S. A., White, M., Gordon, A., Moilanen, A., Mccarthy, M. A., & Wintle, B. A. (2012). Transparent planning for biodiversity and development in the urban fringe. Landscape and Urban Planning108(2-4), 140-149.

Bellato, L., Frantzeskaki, N., Fiebig, C. B., Pollock, A., Dens, E., & Reed, B. (2022). Transformative roles in tourism: adopting living systems’ thinking for regenerative futures. Journal of Tourism Futures8(3), 312-329. 

Garrard, G. E., Williams, N. S., Mata, L., Thomas, J., & Bekessy, S. A. (2018). Biodiversity sensitive urban design. Conservation Letters11(2), e12411.

ICON Science [Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group]. (2015) Biodiversity sensitive urban design: Creating urban environments that are good for people and good for nature. Available at:  Accessed 8, Nov 2023.

Kirk, H., Garrard, G. E., Croeser, T., Backstrom, A., Berthon, K., Furlong, C., … & Bekessy, S. A. (2021). Building biodiversity into the urban fabric: A case study in applying Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design (BSUD). Urban Forestry & Urban Greening62, 127176.

Mang, P. and Haggard, B. (2016), Regenerative Development and Design: a Framework for Evolving Sustainability, Wiley, Hoboken, NJ.

Sanford, C. (2011). The responsible business: Reimagining sustainability and success. John Wiley & Sons.

i2C Architects

i2C Architects