The next level of sustainability: restoring nature

When online travel giant Expedia Group unveiled its $900 million Seattle headquarters in 2019, the 40-acre waterfront campus featured plenty of amenities: a bike path, soccer field, and beach dotted with driftwood logs for sitting to the sound of the waves.

It also has well-organized dirt.

Surfacedesign landscape architects in San Francisco focused on extensive restoration of natural habitat for the project, a former industrial site that at one time consisted of two piers in Elliott Bay filled with trash. This meant replacing soil several meters deep to facilitate the seeding of native plants, grasses and a coastal meadow.

The redesign involved months of work, a soil scientist to help create a microbiome and nine distinct soil profiles, and the use of “compost tea mixes,” a kind of organic liquid fertilizer that restores nutrients to the soil. soil without chemical fertilizers.

The idea was to avoid a “manicured, dead-straw look,” said Josh Khanna, director of property services at Expedia. The new headquarters is anything but a “little corporate concrete bunker”, she added.

“All of a sudden, there’s a big shift for customers, who are hungry for big vision,” said James A. Lord, one of Surfacedesign’s founding partners. “They intuitively know there’s more to it than just equipment.”

Developers have long used open spaces and nature as selling points for their projects, such as planned communities centered on golf courses, developments built in and around nature reserves and a new trend known as agrihoods. , which incorporate housing estates with working farms.

Increasingly, developers are not only aiming to preserve nature, but also to promote their role in its restoration. This shift speaks to changing attitudes about the connection to nature, perceptions about being a sustainable corporate citizen, and the contradiction of portraying real estate as a vehicle for restoration.

“People don’t need to use the word ‘sustainability’ anymore, because that’s what’s expected,” said Charles A. Birnbaum, founder and president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, an education group and defense. “People expect a level of performance from their landscapes. There is a power of the place waiting to be unlocked.

Significant projects underway include visions to restore or recreate natural habitats. For example, River Ring, a pair of apartment skyscrapers on the Brooklyn waterfront designed by Bjarke Ingels Group and James Corner Field Operations, will feature tidal pools and salt marshes that will provide crowned night herons black and snowy egrets a place to feed.

Across town in the Rockaways, Arverne East will feature a restored 35-acre waterfront and nature preserve on the site of a long-abandoned parking lot. A developer in Utah proposed to dredge a lake to create a chain of 34 islands totaling 18,000 acres of land, including some set aside for animal habitat.

A series of trends have made these projects more valuable, said Matt Norris, director of the Building Healthy Places initiative at the Urban Land Institute. For residents, the health benefits of outdoor access are more apparent, especially during the pandemic. For developers, offices and homes next to parks can generate up to 20% more value, and adding green space can help projects gain community support and even unlock incentives. to zoning.

The River Ring park and marshes are an attempt to create a “world-class, desirable place,” which helped during a controversial approval and eligibility process, said Bonnie Campbell, director of Two Trees , the Brooklyn developer behind the project. . New York has invested considerable resources in providing public access to the East River over the past decade.

But there are unquantifiable benefits to creating a tidal marsh, where you can touch the water, she said.

“One thing we heard time and time again when we did stakeholder outreach with neighbors was the importance of getting back to nature, feeling somewhere other than New York, and feeling connected to the water,” she said. .

For cities, restored nature helps increase equitable access to parks, which they cannot address as aggressively as they would like without private support. Coastal parks help make waterfronts less susceptible to rising waters and storm surges.

“More is better, in terms of habitat restoration, because we still have a long way to go in terms of habitat preservation and stormwater management,” said Sean Dixon, executive director of Puget. Soundkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit conservation organization in Seattle. “I see a lot of developments with splashy plots on the seafront that do that.”

But judging restoration efforts focused on a system as complex as nature can be tricky, said Bethanie Walder, executive director of the Society for Ecological Restoration, a global nonprofit alliance.

The organization’s tool for measuring recovery efforts, called the ecological recovery wheelconsiders a wide range of benefits, including recovery and resilience of animal populations, but operates in general and holistic terms without quantifiable details.

“Not everything is greenwashing, and not everything is restoration,” she said. “You have to think on a case-by-case basis. We have to figure out how to live with nature and not destroy it.

Restored or abandoned commercial or industrial sites, such as the Arverne East project in the Rockaways, are trying to make the case for green-oriented developments. The 116-acre beachfront site is being developed by L+M Development Partners, Bluestone Organization and Triangle Equities and will include 1,650 apartments, townhouses and bungalows; Commercial space; and solar and geothermal power generation.

The development team, including certified arborists, horticulturists and conservationists, along with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s Natural Resources Group, meticulously assessed and replanted the site. An unruly bramble of plants that was originally meant to be explored with a machete in hand, the new reserve will soon flourish with native trees and other plants.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s wilderness,” said Laura Starr, the project’s lead landscaper and manager of Starr Whitehouse. “But the idea of ​​a reserve is that it’s there to preserve natural habitats or wildlife.”

Developers may not be able to accurately measure the benefits of these new landscapes to the wider environment, but they will quickly get an idea of ​​the cost of maintaining these new ecological landscapes. Many are required by law to include nature-based features in projects and maintain them as if they were overseeing an urban park. But part of the long-term value of more restorative projects, which often exceed requirements, is their lower maintenance costs: native plants in a more natural environment require less expensive care, while landscapes more resilient will suffer less long-term degradation.

The developers of River Ring, for example, believe that more natural shorelines, filled with plants and natural beaches instead of concrete walls, will better withstand damage from water and waves.

“We’re hoping to create a riparian edge that sustains itself through ecology rather than this artificial barrier infrastructure that we have to continually maintain,” said Ms Campbell of Two Trees.

The same change is expected on the Expedia campus. As the perennials and beehives slowly become established, the environment will begin to stabilize and much of the campus will become self-sufficient, even self-sufficient.

“That doesn’t mean life will prosper as quickly as you want and in the way you expect,” said Mr. Dixon of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. “It’s hard to pin down for places that have been industrially barren for 100 years. But there’s immense value for these large facilities that are redeveloping properties to make it big or go home and provide community amenities like this .