Act: Inspiration

Bottom-up Biodiversity

January 14, 2021

This text was commissioned by the Swiss Ministry of the Environment, FOEN. It is also available online in these other languages:
German Biodiversität nach dem Bottom-up-Prinzip
Italian Biodiversità dal basso verso l’alt
French Biodiversité : une politique de terrain

“The world has failed to arrest the steep decline of nature. The world must act fast to avert catastrophe”.

These recent headlines have been dispiriting – but they are also misleading.

High Level Meetings and international summits may indeed be an imperfect model of change – but at ground level, a million positive projects tell a different story.

Whether connecting schools to farms in France, daylighting rivers in Mexico, or rewilding grasslands in Patagonia, we’re learning how to ‘do’ biodiversity well.

Ecological Restoration Camps are a notable example. More than 26,000 people have joined this new movement for large-scale ecosystem restoration at a landscape scale. In temporary settlements, professional and amateur ‘’campers’ learn how to restore ecosystems, restore the hydrological cycle, and enhance natural soil fertility.

These and other direct actions increase biodiversity. Set up by the ecologist John Liu in 2017, camps have been established in Mexico, Bolivia, the US, Thailand, South Africa, Portugal, France, Egypt and Brazil.

In Ireland, meanwhile, on the ‘learning landscape’ of the Burren bioregion, fifteen local communities are implementing Biodiversity Action Plans. Communities are taught different ways to enhance biodiversity: community orchards and soil repair, to pollinators, tree and hedgerow planting.

Tutors in the Burren include a Rites of Passage coach, a wildlife tracker, and the founder of a Wild Kitchen.

Much larger numbers of people are active closer to home – in cities.

In the civic ecology movement, millions of citizens are active in tree planting, watershed regeneration, sustainable urban drainage; daylighting rivers, blue-green corridors, litter clean-up, and pollinator pathways.

This upsurge of enthusiasm has prompted municipalities to add other items to their plans. Cemeteries, watercourses, and avenues are seen as sites of potential biodiversity. So, too, are roadside verges, green roofs, and facades. Sports fields, vacant lots, abandoned sites, empty malls and landfills are being assessed as for their biodiversity potential.

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Disused airports are more recent candidates for rewilding. So, soon, will the rows of abandoned aircraft that, thanks to Covid-19, are now parked on them.

Another positive aftermath of Covid-19: many cities are creating “parklets” out of under-used parking spaces and access roads.

In Allegheny County, Pittsburgh, 45,000 vacant lots are being brought back to life, one by one. The work itself is done by citizens; the role of the city is to provide an interactive map that guides community organizations and residents to vacant lots with the potential to be transformed.

Some sites of biorenewal are tiny. Awareness that microbes play a key role in the healthy function of ecosystems, including urban ones, has focused attention on microbiodiversity.

In New York’s Urban Barcode Project, high school students use DNA technology to sample biodiversity in parks, gardens, offices and schools. They check for invasive plant or animal species; monitor disease vectors; identify exotic or endangered food products in markets; and detect food mislabeling.

Other innovations enhance biodiversity at a bioregional scale, in new urban-rural relationships.

Social farming and care farming, for example, enable city people to participate actively in watershed and agro-ecology projects. Food hubs are proliferating that enable collaborative learning and knowledge exchange within regional food economies. Networked models such as fibersheds and grainsheds also connect diverse actors in activities that enhance biodiversity.

In these myriad experiments, biodiversity is not confined to national parks and wildlife reserves. On the contrary, studies throughout Europe confirm there is more biodiversity in some cities than in protected areas outside them.

The richness of urban biodiversity in what used to be regarded as useless wastelands is documented in a growing number of platforms. The Urban Nature Atlas, for example, contains more than one thousand examples of nature-based solutions from across 100 European cities. On another platform, The Nature of Cities, 750 professionals from 100 countries exchange case study stories.

Small to Big

This extensive, below-the-radar activity is cheering to learn about – but a question nonetheless arises: Are small local initiatives – connected together or otherwise – really enough to restore biodiversity health on a global scale?

One answer is to do the math. In the United States, ecological restoration at a local and municipal level employs more people than coal mining, logging, or steel mills.

The sheer number and variety of initiatives now emerging is a second answer to the scale question. Watershed restoration, for example, requires that only local resources be used to execute projects. Very little money spent on restoration leaves the region, which means that the economic benefit is directly felt in the area where restoration occurs.

A third answer is that ecological restoration actions need to be based on specific local needs if they are to be effective. Every social and ecological context is unique. There is no such thing as a biodiversity blueprint for the whole planet.

A fourth answer is that transformation on large-scale is happening where small institutions are reconfigured in smart ways.

The design of links between schools and farms is a notable example. In Europe’s biocanteens movement, a growing number of municipal farmers are supplying organic produce directly to local schools. Ans Rossy, an educational ecologist, has demonstrated that these farm-school relationships can be a game-changer not only for school students farmers, but also for biodiversity.

In Belgium, the Ceinture Aliment-terre Liégeoise (CATL, the Liége Food Belt) is another example of networked institutional innovation. CATL is co-ordinating 21 co-operatives in the provision of meals to schools.

In Sweden, where around 2.5 million meals per day are served from kindergarten through to high school, schools and food have been identified as a priority “Mission” by Vinnova, Sweden’s “whole of government” innovation agency

Relational ecology

The opportunity here for policy is to find ways to connect these fast-growing but indeed fragmented activities.

Two young French researchers, Damien Deville and Pierre Spielewoy, have introduced the concept of relational ecology to describe joining up the dots among grassroots projects. Rather than expend time and air miles on participation in global summits, they argue, governments should attend to relationships – between places, communities, and nature. As the biologist Andreas Weber points out, this is how nature works, too: The practice of ecology is the forging of relationships.

Social infrastructure

As a practice, relational ecology means learning in new ways, with new people, and in new places. And for these relationships to flourish, a new kind of infrastructure is needed: social infrastructure – in the form of people, skills, and time.

Paying attention to the process by which groups work together, for example, is just as important as deciding what needs to be done, if not more so.

As we change the way we inhabit and restore our ecosystems, a variety of different actors and stakeholders need to work together – often, for the first time. The exploration of a territory’s social and biological assets can involve a range of skills and capabilities: the geographer’s knowledge of territory; the biologist’s expertise in habitats; the ecologist’s literacy in ecosystems.

The economist’s ability to measure flows and leakage of money and resources also needs to be part of the mix.

New social business models are already appearing that can be added to the innovation mix: Sharing and Peer-to-Peer; Mobility as a Service; Civic Ecology; Food and Fibersheds; Transition Towns; Bioregions; The Care Economy.

Platform Co-operatives, in particular, promise to be effective ways to share the provision of services in which value is shared fairly among the people who make them valuable.

Relational ecology is beginning to resonate in local politics, especially in France. In an electoral green wave earlier this year, hundreds of successful candidates backed a call to “rethink our relationship to place…reinvent politics (based on) ecological relationships… build bonds of solidarity beyond the West, the human, the visible”.

Daoism judges the affluence of a society by the number of different species that live there. “If all things in the universe grow well, then a society is a community of affluence”.

A focus on biodiversity gives a welcome new meaning to the concept of growth. Rather than measure progress against abstract measures such as money, or GDP, growth in biodiversity means observable improvements to the health and carrying capacity of the land, and the resilience of communities. The good news is that we are doing better than expected outside the traditional domain of Protected Areas and the ‘countryside’. Bottom-up biodiversity policy makers plenty to work with.


Teaser photo credit: Wikipedia Commons, Sasata,

John Thackara

For thirty years John Thackara has traveled the world in his search of stories about the practical steps taken by communities to realize a sustainable future. He writes about these stories online, and in books; he uses them in talks for cities, and business; he also organizes festivals and events that bring the subjects of these stories together. John is the author of a widely-read blog at and of the best-selling In the Bubble: Designing In A Complex World (MIT Press) - also translated into nine languages. As director of, John organizes conferences and festivals in which social innovators share knowledge. He has lectured in more than forty countries.

Tags: biodiversity, building resilient communities