Creating sustainable cities that are good for people and good for nature.

  • Project dates: 2015

Nature in cities provides a remarkable range of benefits, including future-proofing against the impacts of climate change, improving the health and well-being of urban residents, improving the cognitive development of children and re-enchanting people with the awe and wonder of the natural world1 . Yet, for too long, biodiversity conservation has been thought of as something that happens ‘out there’, in National Parks and conservation reserves located outside of our cities, and away from where the vast majority of Australians live.

However, cities are critical places for conservation. Our recent research highlighted that, per unit area, Australian cities support three times as many threatened species as rural areas2 . So cities need nature, and nature needs cities. But, despite this seemingly obvious synergy, measurable guidelines for designing cities where nature can thrive did not previously exist.

We aimed to incorporate current ecological knowledge into an evidence-based protocol for Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design (BSUD) and demonstrate how it could be used to create cities that are good for people AND nature.

To be successful, BSUD would need to improve the fate of native species within the built environment, deliver improvements to human health and wellbeing, and result in better integration of biodiversity conservation into the planning system.


Our three-step approach combined technical excellence and scientific rigour with targeted communication and engagement strategies to incorporate ecological knowledge into the planning system while increasing the appetite for change within the broader community.

First, we developed a BSUD protocol that links individual urban design elements – such as a biodiverse green roof or a road underpass to facilitate animal dispersal – to measurable outcomes for native species and ecosystems. This protocol is:

  • evidence-based, using ecological knowledge about the influence of urban design on native species to assess the impacts of alternative designs; and
  • target-based, so developers can choose the combination of design elements that allows them to best meet biodiversity targets while achieving other objectives, such as development targets, or energy requirements.

BSUD can be used to improve the planning, design and construction of new urban developments, or retrofit existing urban areas.

  1. Second, we demonstrated the application of the BSUD protocol using two case studies:
  2.  Re-wilding native species and enhancing liveability in Fishermans Bend, a high-density urban renewal site in Melbourne; and

Protecting and enhancing native grasslands in greenfield developments in Melbourne’s growth areas.

Third, we produced a practitioners’ guide that outlines steps for implementing BSUD . We also communicated BSUD to a wide and varied audience through the use of high-quality visualisations, media coverage, publication in academic and industry publications, and public presentations.

Urban design and building types

  • Our building types are based on successfully implemented designs from Europe.  Urban design features include:
  • Building heights 4-7 storeys to improve accessibility and connectedness to nature and streets.
  • Active streetscapes to improve safety and strengthen community (Bain et al. 2012)
  • Diversity of building typologies to ensure dwellings for a range of urban residents.
  • Incorporating Melbournes unique city block and laneway features;
  • High quality living spaces, average apartment size 100 m2


The sustainable mid-rise model achieves housing densities that are 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 will provide better urban design and human health and well-bieng 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.

  • Density    We achieved net housing densities of between 200 and 310 dwellings per hectare, assuming average apartment size is 100m2. This is comparable to densities required for many brownfield development sites, as identified in Plan Melbourne.
  • Activated streetscapes    In contrast to the standard tower & podium model, building frontages are residential, mixed with office spaces and commercial use on the ground floor. High diversity of street types, including laneways and vegetated boulevards, provide improved connectivity.
  • Open space    100% dwellings are within 2 minutes walk of at least one green open space. Open space is a mix of large shared areas and smaller semi-private courtyards.
  • Cooling    Vegetated landscapes are up to 4 degrees cooler on the basis of City of Melbourne urban greening temperature modelling.
  • Household energy use   Operational energy use of midrise apartments is up to 45% lower per dwelling than that of high-rise apartments.
  • Childhood cognitive development   Numerous recent studies have connected the provision of biodiverse green open space to significant improvements in childhood cognitive development.
  • Workplace productivity   Evidence demonstrates that integrating nature with workplace design reduces stress and increases productivity. For example, a recent study showed 6% increase in productivity of employees who have a view of nature compared to those who have no view.

Policy implications

To move towards the sustainable mid-rise model presented here, we need:

  • better strategic identification of appropriate development sites;
  • a tweaked policy environment including some alterations to current zoning to allow residential and mix-use development in sites currently zoned commercial and industrial;
  • a shift in the built-form/design typology of current practice. This could be achieved through changes to precinct plans, planning schemes and design guidelines; and
  • Better integration of planning and biodiversity. Changes to the planning scheme that mandate urban greening are required, as are policies that explicitly link urban greening with biodiversity.

Future prospects

We are confident that the required elements are lining up to enable the mainstreaming of Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design in planning and development practice, including:

Unprecedented interest in urban greening and associated human health & wellbeing benefits;

  • Strong government support;
  • In principle industry support; and
  • High level of interest from other professions, demonstrated, for example, by our successful Linking Ecology & Architecture project, which culminated in a forum attended by over 30 architecture and planning professionals

An exciting, but currently unexplored, opportunity relates to links between BSUD and Indigenous culture through Caring for Country. Initial discussions with Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria and through our work in the National Environment Science Programme’s Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub have highlighted enormous potential to

  1. engage Indigenous people in the planning, design, implementation and governance of urban re-naturing,
  2. improve the success of urban greening by building traditional ecological knowledge into planning practices, and
  3.  re-engage urban residents with Indigenous culture through BSUD that highlights Caring for Country.

Key People

Lead researchers

Dr Georgia Garrard

Dr Georgia Garrard

Research Fellow

Professor Sarah Bekessy

Professor Sarah Bekessy

Convener of ICON Science


  • Simon van Wijnen | Mauro Baracco | Catherine Horwill | Jonathan Ware |  

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The ICON Science Research Group is a team of researchers working to understand the interaction between society and our environment.

News & Blog


Urban researchers nominated for Banksia Sustainability Award

15 November 2016

Research on biodiversity conservation in cities by two urban researchers has been recognised by the Banksia Foundation for its excellence in sustainability practice.