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December 8, 2023
Biodiversity in the City

How might we preserve biodiversity in the city?

Biodiversity – at global and local levels – is under threat. Driven by changes in land use, consumption of natural resources, climate change, pollution, and the growth of invasive species, we now find ourselves in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in history. This period, dubbed the Anthropocene, dates from the mid-20th century and has marked the acceleration of human impact on our planet and its ecosystems. 

Even if we are comfortable with presiding over an existential crisis (and of course, we shouldn’t be), healthy biodiversity at home and abroad allows human civilization to better respond to a range of environmental stressors and diseases while performing a range of duties, including controlling the spread of invasive species, maintaining fertile growing soil, pollinating vegetation, and purifying both air and water.

While different levels of government have a role to play in the continued stewardship of global biodiversity, municipalities are uniquely placed to assume a significant role in conserving biodiversity at the local level. Municipal responsibilities include land use and transportation planning, park space dedication, and urban forest and water resources management. These responsibilities allow a municipal government the ability to integrate the conservation of biodiversity into both its strategic decision-making and day-to-day operations. Their efforts aim to maintain existing natural habitats and to augment them with novel “green” infrastructures through thoughtful land use planning, development of new engineering standards, and continued dialogue with the urban development industry.

However, this represents only a small slice of what is possible for urban biodiversity conservation. Beyond regulation and urban design, municipalities also have a duty to promote this important concept within the cities they oversee through community engagement and service delivery, and within their organizations through capital planning and operational management.

In 2019, Intelligent Futures and our project partner Hatfield worked with City of Calgary Parks to consider the community engagement and operational management dimensions of biodiversity conservation in the city we call home. “Biodiverse Communities,” as the project was called, was built on The City’s Biodiversity Strategy and aimed to improve habitat connectivity while reducing its loss, and to control the growth of invasive species in the city. The scope of the challenge and the different dimensions from which we approached it allowed us to consider the systems of biodiversity from the small-scale – a backyard pollinator pathway – to the city-scale – a continuous habitat across the city’s parks and open spaces for local plants, animals, and insects.

Beyond the core concept of biodiversity, Biodiverse Communities was also an opportunity to consider a very transferable question: how does high-level strategy actually get implemented within community and municipal government systems? In this sense, we know exactly what we need to do, but the real challenge is how we do it. While we considered this from the biodiversity perspective, it is not too much of a stretch to see how this question could also apply to everything from rolling out an environmental resilience strategy to responding to the mental health and addiction crisis, for example.

The three key planks of Biodiverse Communities responded to this transferable question in three key ways:

1. The application of community-based social marketing (CBSM) to an environmental planning challenge. This approach is used by practitioners across different disciplines to prompt behaviour changes that range from reducing rates of teenage smoking to promoting seatbelt use. In this project, the approach helped the team meet the challenge of integrating urban planning and environmental resilience by considering the varied audiences that required outreach and the specific messages and delivery formats that would resonate most with them. 

Community-based social marketing has since become a more significant part of our engagement practice across our different domains of work. While audience identification is a standard part of any engagement process, CBSM has pointed us towards tools and practices like personas development to foster audience empathy, creating effective messaging and design campaigns to prompt people towards a socially beneficial goal, and small-scale pilot programs that can be easily deployed and learned from before achieving scale.

2. A comprehensive toolkit for process management and change based on high-level strategy. The comprehensive nature of the resulting Biodiverse Communities deliverables is largely unique within the field. The two products – an organizational management-focused Habitat Restoration Program Manual and a public engagement-focused Community Involvement Guide distill high-level strategy into actionable direction supported by identified resources and in response to practical needs and requirements articulated by municipal staff.

Municipalities – indeed, any large institution – are complicated entities. Regardless of the project, we’ve found it is often the case that building the process and the organizational structure for the work is as hard, if not harder, than achieving the desired outcomes of the project. The experience during Biodiverse Communities focused on continual iteration and understanding of the City’s process for habitat restoration; this was done through ongoing interviews, stakeholder workshops and close collaboration with the core City team.

It seems an obvious statement, but nevertheless: by better understanding the context for the work through the organizational pathways that staff take to perform their roles, the relationship between leadership and administration, and the interface between different parts of an organization, we are better able to write effective strategies that achieve real outcomes. This attitude has heavily influenced our subsequent strategy sprints that have been used across projects.

3. A model to unite technical process improvements with an engaging public messaging and involvement campaign to realize broader cultural impact. The initiative joins fundamental ecological concepts with practical process recommendations to promote awareness and engagement across the community as a whole.

Crucially, designing and delivering the Biodiverse Communities initiative demonstrated the foremost need for time and participation in the project. Rallying the different individual team perspectives from within the City and consulting with the general public is not something that happens in a day or a week. It is a continual and persistent process of outreach to meet people where they are, learn about their challenges and balance these against the higher-order problem to be solved. This also reflects the need for both access to knowledge and resources; any project of this scale does not get done “off the side of the desk” but was instead a significant part of both our and the City team’s working lives for the better part of a year. This is an attitude we have carried forward, both in how we design engagement processes and strategic planning frameworks.

At the beginning of this post, we asked you to consider how we can preserve biodiversity in the city. In doing so, we think we’ve found a conclusion that – while indeed helpful to keep the bees buzzing and the flowers growing – has broader applicability across domains of practice. Here, we considered a systems-focused approach – at a municipal and community level – and how we might leverage a system’s advantages and overcome its limitations to achieve progress towards strategic goals. Whether as an individual solving a problem in your own life or part of a team working together to solve a pressing issue, be sure to consider how the systems you live and work within exert themselves and how you might point the system – with all its advantages and disadvantages – at the challenge you aim to solve.

Reach out to us if you'd like to explore how to apply our change process to your complex challenge to build a brighter future.