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Time to get serious about measuring biodiversity in urban landscapes

By Mobilane's Alexander Ilsink

The decline of nature is continuing apace, with the UK in a particularly worrying condition, having just 53% of its biodiversity left, according to research by the Natural History Museum. Significantly below the global average of 75%, the need to boost biodiversity across both built and natural environments is a national imperative.

It is to this backdrop that the government’s Biodiversity Net Gain policy will be rolled out this November, which will require all housing, industrial or commercial developments in England to boost biodiversity by 10% in order to receive planning permission. It’s a first step towards a more nature-inclusive, biodiverse built environment, and will hopefully open the door for biodiversity to start receiving the same recognition as decarbonisation as a critical environmental challenge for the sector.

Insects are critical for fulfilling many ecosystem services, from cleaning waste, to pollinating crops, controlling pests, and feeding other animals such as birds. Their importance cannot be underestimated, and due to the intensive agriculture and pesticide usage often prevalent in the countryside, our cities are a vital home in which many insects can thrive.

This is why it is so important not just that our cities are able to provide a welcome habitat for a diverse range of insect communities, but that we’re able to monitor these communities in different contexts, over a sustained period of time. As experienced green systems providers, Mobilane has long been aware of the need to integrate living walls and roofs alongside open green space to support insect communities. However, it is the growing need to track populations and record data more accurately that has driven our recent partnership with SGS Search, and resulted in a new innovation which uses DNA-testing technology to measure biodiversity.


Alexander Ilsink, Mobilane

The DNA Insect Scan works by processing cuttings from living walls in a lab, where researchers are able to pick up e-DNA (environmental DNA) residue from skin, hair, mucus, and bacteria, and subsequently identify the recent presence and distribution of different species. Unlike traditional biodiversity assessments, which rely on trapping or visually identifying species in the field or lab, e-DNA sampling is non-invasive, highly accurate, cost-effective and time efficient.

At an initial test project at a commercial property in the Netherlands, which involved taking 10 samples spread across a living wall and the immediately local environment, 103 different species were detected across the sites. Crucially, not only were the majority of these found in the living wall samples, but 15 species were found on both the living wall and local environment samples, providing encouraging signs that the wall is being used as an ecological corridor, and that verticality isn’t a barrier to habitation.

With the emerging technologies now available to us, our understanding of how urban areas can support biodiversity is growing all the time. Insect communities have the potential to thrive not just in the domains of conservation areas and demarcated green space, but as part of the built infrastructure of everyday places and landscapes. The imperative is on us to act on this knowledge, not just because of nascent policy interventions, but because of the ecological crisis at stake.

About Mobilane

Mobilane is a green systems provider with offices in England, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and South Africa. Its recent collaboration with research consultant SGS Search has resulted in the DNA Insect Scan, a new technology which enables the accurate measurement of insect biodiversity in green infrastructure.

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