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Natural Compensation Areas and the Suikerzijde Development

The Suikerzijde is a new city district being developed on the site of the old sugar factory. Currently housing event locations and young companies on the west side of the city, the area is going to be enlarged for mainly residential purposes. It is supposed to be environmentally friendly by constructing a train station and multiple bike lanes combining the Suikerzijde with other parts of the city, like the city centre or the Zernike campus. However, all new constructions and buildings need space, which often has to be taken from nature. The development will be compensated by creating a natural reservoir elsewhere, as it is mandatory for new development on natural sites. But how environmentally friendly is this solution in general? Can you really destroy nature in one space and then build it up again in the same quality elsewhere? Or do we have to find other ways to create an equilibrium between our rising need for space and a healthy ecological system?

According to the frequently asked questions on the website of the Suikerzijde development, the plan is to create permanent compensation areas for protected species such as bats. At the same time, existing trees should be preserved wherever possible. However, there is no specific goal for how many trees are supposed to be saved from being cut down; the goal is simply to keep the trees if they match the blueprint for the construction. Other than that, there are also plans for a park in the development area.

Gemeente Groningen 2022 via Google maps
Gemeente Groningen 2022, via Google Maps.

The new development will be about 160 hectares, but of course, not all of the area is natural as of now, as there were companies and venues there even before the new development started. The red line on the photo shows the total size of the planned area. The total compensation area is supposed to be 14 hectares, of which seven have already been realised.

The Suikerzijde is merely an example of this kind of policy. The development of these compensation areas is evidence of the conflict between the need for city and real estate development on one side and the ongoing loss of biodiversity and environmental quality on the other, which is becoming an increasingly big problem in more and more urban areas. In most cases, the creation of compensation areas is only the last step in trying to minimise the impact of new developments. The construction plans often include ways of keeping or redesigning at least parts of nature, like some of the trees in the Suikerzijde example or the plan for a residential park. Compensation areas are then only the last step that is considered when nothing else is enough for substantial nature conservation.

In general, one might think that creating compensation areas like these is a fair way of dealing with the implications of new developments in nature. However, some sources beg to differ from this point of view. The ultimate goal here is No Net Loss, which means that there should be no loss of biodiversity and environmental quality. Through conducting research and monitoring affected areas, studies found that many compensation areas don’t live up to their expectation of fundamentally replacing the nature that is being developed into something else. Additionally, while there needs to be a compensation area for the Suikerzijde, the same is not true for every new development. That is putting even more pressure on the existing compensation areas, because to achieve general No Net Loss, they would have to make up for the biodiversity loss of the areas that don’t get compensated as well.

Whether or not the successful preservation of biodiversity through compensation areas can be successful depends on multiple factors. For example, the kind of area that is being protected and its relation to the surrounding areas matters. In this way, restoring a naturally deteriorated area that has a biodiverse surrounding is likely to be more effective than protecting an area that is already in a good environmental state. But at the same time, the success of that also depends on how much effort and care is being put into the renaturation, as it has been found that this is often lacking. This makes the outcome of one specific compensation area even harder and almost impossible to predict.

A 2020 study analysed and compared multiple ways of creating and managing compensation areas with each other. The results showed that not a single area, no matter how strict the regulation criteria were and what the area looked like before, could actually achieve the goal of preventing the degradation of local biodiversity and environmental quality. The inability to fulfil this goal also reflects on the services healthy ecosystems provide for us. One of those services is the ability to store greenhouse gasses, an essential aspect of natural areas, especially in the wake of the ongoing climate change. Whether this can be achieved just as well in the compensation area as in the development area is highly linked to the kind of vegetation that is present in both areas since not all types of vegetation can store the same amount of greenhouse gases.

What can be the final verdict on the modus operandi of marking compensation areas and taking away nature elsewhere in favour of new development? It seems evident that the realisation of compensation areas is often lacking, and therefore further negatively impacting their potential. But even when they are carried out as best as possible, they frequently still do not hold up to what they are promised to achieve. Another glaring problem that is important to face and that can’t be solved no matter how good the compensation areas themselves work is that they need space too. However, if more and more space is taken away from nature in favour of new developments, at some point, there will be no more space left that can be transformed into compensation areas, while the pressing need for real estate development amidst the raging housing crisis remains. This clashes heavily with the findings of the study, saying that the most effective way to reduce biodiversity loss as best as possible is to avoid destroying the local flora and fauna in the first place and instead find ways to integrate it or to find other ways to deal with the need for more housing.

Sources

De Suikerzijde. Viewable in: https://desuikerzijde.nl/

Gemeente Groningen, 2022. Meest gestelde vragen over De Suikerzijde. Viewable in: https://gemeente.groningen.nl/file/meestgestelde-vragen-de-suikerzijde

Sonter, L.J., Simmonds, J.S., Watson, J.E.M. et al. Local conditions and policy design determine whether ecological compensation can achieve No Net Loss goals. Nat Commun 11, 2072 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-15861-1

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