"Biodiversity is the name we give to the variety of all life on Earth. Bacteria to baboons, plants to people - the range of life on our planet is incredible." Katie Pavid, National History Museum
A few weeks ago I met the guys from Arc at an event and we had a really interesting chat about various things on the IOW.
My partner and I had an interesting discussion with Ian about regenerating Island towns and then later, bumped into Claire outside my house whilst we were gardening to discover we live on the same road. We had a great chat and I quickly realised I can learn an awful lot from them as well as spend hours enjoying conversations with these really interesting people.
I invited Claire and Ian for a zoom call last week and we caught up again on Arc projects and Bio-diversity. In a world which can only seem to focus on one subject at a time and growing trends leading people to be more eco friendly ‘because it’s cool’ we talked about the small stuff we can all be doing to help our planet and eco system. It’s not about changing all our habits and being perfect, that’s unrealistic. It’s about making small decisions and positive and progressive steps that will make our environment better for wildlife and people.
Alex – What is it that you do at ARC?
Ian – That is quite a big question and it is quite complicated! There is a group of companies here.
Arc is a consulting company which gives technical ecological advice for the planning world. There are lots of protected species on the Island, lots of protected places and habitats. They all come with law and policy that means you can’t just do what you like. There is quite a lot of stringent protection and it’s our job to explain that, to make sure a development is aware of what it can and can’t do. We are trying to retain what we can and stop awful things happening but that isn’t really enough. We also spend a lot of time trying to reconstruct habitats for wildlife.
As we all come from non-profit backgrounds we are all really interested in designing places for people, we have done a lot of that over the years working with artists and doing community work. When we work on projects we are really interested in the people stuff as well as the wildlife stuff. We have found ways of using wildlife law to work for people. It’s almost extraordinary that there isn’t a similar level of protection for people’s health, wellbeing and development. So we started to say, right, if we are going to protect a dormouse we are going to do it in a way that generates the best possible bit of public space we can deliver.
Artecology is all about deliberately building with construction materials – concrete, wood, metal – habitats for wildlife. So this is architectural and structural engineering objects and products that you could stick in a wall, in a house, a factory, on a roof, in a retaining wall, in a pavement that have a function for wildlife. In other words build stuff that is going to be inhabited by invertebrates and reptiles. It’s going to cover naturally with interesting little plants because we have designed it that way but it is going to be in the built environment. We have tested this out in the marine environment a lot. We have done lots of work with universities so it is quite well advanced now. There is lots of work going on with sea walls, ports and mariners in the UK and elsewhere. We are now moving into everyday terrestrial spaces.
The Common Space is a non profit business. This is done in our immediate locality in Sandown. We do fund raising and we have restored a listed building, made a public footpath, that sort of thing nearby. We use the money we make with Arc to deliver the public benefit work of Common Space. There are only four people here running three different organisations. We also run lots of free public events.
Claire – We did an ecological plan for the shopping centre in Bromley. Their motive was to be a first mover on biodiversity but also be more of an attraction as a shopping centre and to drive people to different areas that weren’t really working. They had a green roof already but it wasn’t functioning for wildlife. It actually has a walkway all the way along it and if it works for wildlife you will be able to see it. We launched the project taking over an empty shop unit in the shopping centre. We had a whole week of people popping in and we literally had thousands of visitors. The first phase has Artecology bio totems and micro-pools, bird boxes, habitat panels and Ian’s planting which is all drought resistant wild food sources for a range of invertebrates and bird life. The whole team at the shopping centre are embracing it and bringing their skills to it. It is a really lovely project.
Alex – I suppose it is awareness of biodiversity that is important now and getting that message out there. I didn’t really fully appreciate that before and was looking into the packaging side of Eat Street. I had been paying a lot of attention to detail and prioritising plastic free but hadn’t fully appreciated the benefits of it being compostable as opposed to just free from plastic. Getting into the research I found it really interesting. I had previously thought it wasn’t really possible to be 100% zero waste. I thought there was always going to be some element of waste. Whilst I might be throwing some vegetable trimmings away, if they are going in the compost bin it is for a benefit, providing a home for a slow worm or lots of other wildlife. People don’t necessarily appreciate that. It was also really interesting to see that a lot of companies still don’t even have plastic free on their radar, they are obviously really far behind the ‘bio-diversity’ way of thinking.
Claire – It’s massively important and really urgent. I think the plastics thing is quite interesting because when that became a thing we were all going ‘yeah that’s great but what about everything else?’ So if you have a compost bin that’s great, they are full of bits and pieces and wildlife!’
Alex – Absolutely. And I think there is also another awareness bit about what makes a healthy compost bin. If you are just filling it with green waste then it won’t necessarily break down efficiently. We have naturally got a mix of brown and green waste within the packaging which creates a better atmosphere that is not too wet or dry. I must admit I didn’t appreciate that before and I naively thought that if I am not using my compost then it must still be a waste. But of course it isn’t because it is providing a home for lots of organisms.
Ian – You can also design that in and construct habitat value into your compost bin. We can construct a refuge and hibernation site using surplus materials such as grass trimmings etc on top of a rubble base with old fence panels and things like that. It just begins to attract attention which leads to more and more. Slow worms can spend their whole lives in a compost heap. It should have plenty of bulk to provide void spaces and this will stop it from getting too hot.
Claire – That’s a great thing about Eat Street. You are creating an ecological useful outcome to the way you are doing things. It is more than zero waste because you are producing your own little habitat and eco system.
Ian – The message from things like the extinction programme and the facts about bio-diversity collapse are not that we should concentrate all of our attention on super rare things like pandas and Syberian tigers (although we should as well of course) it is actually just everyday wildlife that has collapsed. It’s not that all the robins have gone it’s just there are fewer of them and less wildlife across the board. So the range of species is pretty much the same. In our existence we have seen the loss of abundance. Anything we can do to support a relatively common species like a slow worm is now critically important as it is supporting population levels of a representative urban species that is in decline. It allows people to do really good things in their everyday lives.
Claire – There might be one actual front garden on a street and the rest is all concrete. That is a loss of habitat. A new roof could have been a habitat for bats, starlings or sparrows. Any urban environment is currently habitat lost but is also potential for habitat creation if it goes the other way. It supports everyday wildlife. The problem is we have flagship species that everyone goes on about saving, like the honeybee. There were hives popping up everywhere but actually we could just as easily have done something that would support a whole range of other pollinators that are just as useful. It doesn’t take much to make a difference really quickly.
Ian – I think the motivation is there it is just a case of giving people the tools. People feel dis empowered and think ‘what can I possibly do to make a difference?’ and then give up. A lot of people think it’s too late to make a change. The antidote is that we give people actual real, genuinely demonstratively beneficial things that they can do and that they can see the effects of. Big organisations are great but what we really need is people in their own home, doing something and enjoying doing it.
Claire – I always think about moss, people always remove it but it is actually really good. You should mix mash potato with it and paint your walls.
Alex – Why should you paint your walls with mashed potato?
Ian – We are really keen on things like moss, ferns and Bryophytes which tend to be ignored but are incredibly useful in creating simple habitats in a way that is much harder for other big rooted plants in a place that has no soil. We worked on a project in Newcastle producing a textured wall. We found that mashed potato is a really good medium for growing moss. We used smash and potato starch and it was absolutely brilliant.
The message was quite clear – don’t try to change the world overnight. But do something and enjoy doing it. Changing our habits really can make a big difference surprisingly quickly. And it’s fun!