Connecting People to Nature: Analysis of Need to Support the Giant Panda in Terms of Conservation
Current estimates on the number of species present on Earth vary widely but a census conducted by Hawaii University concluded that this number stands at 8.7 million species. Of this number, 1.3 million have been entered into a database so far. This diversity is fundamental for ecosystem stability and ultimately essential if we are to support our continued existence on the planet.
We exist in a period of significant environmental uncertainty largely caused by humankind’s impact on the planet. The current rate and magnitude of extinctions are much higher than previously thought and may be accelerating, which some consider to be leading to the sixth mass extinction. A recent UN report, regarded to be the most comprehensive of its kind, identifies 1 million species as being threatened with extinction. It’s hard to fathom what this means exactly.
The report highlights that agriculture, forestry and urbanisation are the leading reasons for biodiversity loss in land-based ecosystems and rivers. These factors are amplified by underlying social values such as unsustainable consumption and production, concentrated human populations, trade, technological advances, and governance at multiple scales.
We know when it comes to achieving biodiversity, it is equally critical that ecosystems and the large areas they occupy are protected. As biologist Ken Thompson proposes in his book Do We Need Pandas?, if we prioritise the conservation of natural areas, biodiversity will be protected as a side bonus.
As urban designers, we engage in issues around urban development and we can challenge the status quo to create positive change. In a recent competition-winning project undertaken by Hassell in the western Chinese city of Chengdu – located in the Sichuan Province which constitutes the world’s most significant contiguous area of panda habitat – we looked at how current practices of over-development and encroachment into natural habitats could be contained and controlled. We looked at how highly sensitive areas could be left intact, while at the same time allowing economic development to occur in a much more responsible way while creating greater social awareness.
The project challenged us to critically examine the need to support the Giant Panda in terms of conservation but also their broader role within Chengdu as an icon to promote the City’s brand identity and tourism perspective. These interventions were applied across three strategic sites – Dujiangyan (a habitat reserve area), Beihu (a middle ring community area) and Longquan Mountain (a future growth area to the east of the city).
The giant panda itself is what is known as an umbrella species. The concept of umbrella species is the core principle of a conservation strategy that focuses on protecting the habitat of one species in the hope of protecting many others in the same ecosystem.
The Giant Panda is an effective umbrella species because its habitat areas overlaps with many other endemic species within China. In fact over 96% of the panda habitat overlaps with the endemic centres, this includes 70% of China’s forest mammals, 70% of forest birds and 31% of forest amphibians. These species might not otherwise get the public or political attention to support their conservation.
Given the global profile of the Giant Panda, it is particularly effective at getting political and social support, promoting public awareness and raising conservation funds to protect these co-occurring species and habitats.
However, this strategy is not without its challenges, as John Wiens, an ecologist formerly of Colorado State University states: ‘Like all things in ecology, it’s not as simple as it looks.’ Picking the right umbrella species, or more specifically, the large area they inhabit is essential and critical for the approach to be successful.
Ultimately it is also a balancing act: through increased awareness there is increased interest and increased tourist numbers. As Dr Liu of Michigan State University points out, ‘Tourists don’t think they have an impact on panda habitat, but indirectly, each visitor has some impact. They come, they take their summer vacations there and stimulate the local economy, but this in turn uses more local natural resources.’
Taking into consideration these competing requirements, our team began by defining a clear framework through which we could align our thinking and the aspirations for the project.
These five principles allowed us to connect the conservation of the panda itself with the restoration of the surrounding habitats underpinned by the political incentives and future custodianship required from future generations.
We applied these five principles to a simple but powerful unifying message of the ‘Panda Trail’ – Explore, Discover and Dream. Through this framework, we leveraged the three key sites identified by the competition and put in place key strategies to best unlock each area’s potential to address these underlying issues, but importantly collectively contributed to the city and the agenda of conservation, education and awareness.
Dujiangyan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, sits to the west of Chengdu and is adjacent to an ancient irrigation system constructed around 256 BC.
The land is prime, highly sensitive natural habitat for the panda and other endemic species and is also where pandas are released into natural environments to develop survival instincts. We worked on the design of this site and recognised the sensitivity of it, placing restrictions on tourism and movement through the environment, safeguarding habitat and containing activity. We enabled tourists to be explorers, where numbers were restricted and the message closely aligned to conservation and preservation of habitat areas. We segmented the target visitor group that would best respond to this site and prevent over tourism of the reserve area.
The second site, Beihu is located near the city centre and contains vastly different opportunities. Its proximity to local communities and education platforms make it the ideal site to engage and create places for people to learn about the issues present both locally but also globally. We crafted purposeful journeys that approached the challenge broadly focussing on showcasing local flora and significant cultural displays. Jon Coe a renowned zoological specialist, provided key advice to support the design of habitat areas. We were keen to ensure that the role of these animals in the minds of visitors is reframed. For example, careful design of the enclosures ensuring that the animals were either level or elevated help to reverse the thought that humans are dominant over nature.
The final and pivotal site location to the east of the city will serve as a gateway site connecting the future airport, serving as the global front door to Chengdu and an opportunity to showcase the efforts raise awareness and provide political incentive. We used this site as a mechanism to demonstrate how sensitive development can occur through thoughtful integration of blue and green systems as well as frameworks to begin to restore the surrounding landscapes. This site brought together a number ecological aspects and aspirational elements to support the city’s future.
Ultimately through this project we aimed to create greater awareness and exposure to these global issues, but we did so in a co-ordinated and targeted way. We leveraged the intrinsic and local values of each site and aligned them to the specific objectives of conservation, education and political incentive. We achieved this in our design regardless of whether we were dealing with protected habitat areas, or targeted and curated journeys for a broad spectrum of tourism depending on the areas sensitivities, or supporting broader city positioning and identity to help with continued fund raising for the Giant Pandas and as a consequence support the regeneration and preservation of critical areas of habitat.
Hassell is committed to supporting ongoing work on the biggest global issue of our time – climate change. Solutions to these issues rely on global thinking and collective solutions across a range of scales from the individual through to government.
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