36 / BUILDING DIALOGUE / March 2023 ELEMENTS Nature Positive A Colorado Outlook on Nature-Positive Real Estate S ince 1970, wildlife populations have declined by almost 70%, and currently 1 million species are at risk of extinction. Unfortunate- ly, the real estate industry has histor- ically been a significant driver of bio- diversity loss: Converting ecosystems to developed land destroys habitat for countless species. Though it’s been a slow change, real estate is beginning to understand how to integrate ecological thinking as part of a holistic climate and busi- ness strategy. If the industry contin- ues to prioritize halting biodiversity loss and ecosystem destruction, de- velopment can actually help regener- ate nature – in other words, become nature positive – with co-benefits for net-zero carbon efforts, resilience, health and social equity. A 17-story mixed-use building in Portland, Oregon, developed by The Green Cities Co, 5 MLK treats nearly all on-site storm- water through green infrastructure and uses water-ef- ficient features, native plantings and drip irrigation to reduce water demand by 75%. n What’s the outlook for nature-positive real estate in Colorado? As industry experts, we have seen growth in nature-positive development in Colorado and across the United States, and we believe it will accelerate. Investors are not only interested in nature-positive ef- forts, but also they push for them. For lenders, it’s their second or third question when considering funding a project. We’re also seeing more interest from tenants to understand what ESG (environmental, social and gover- nance) priorities are all about. The industry is at a tipping point. Soon, nature-posi- tive real estate will either be mandated by policies and regulation, or lawmakers will provide incentives and the market will expect it of us. Nature-positive design is specific to place, so the broader trend toward its use will need to stay true to Colorado’s setting. The state’s landscapes are often high plains desert, where the climax ecosystem is grasslands. Historically, Colorado imported an aesthetic from other places – green lawns, trees, shrubs, etc. – but in the past 20 years, many local landscape designers have made the transition to understand and adopt an appreciation of the native landscape previously lost. The Central Park neighborhood in Denver, developed by a team that includes Dig Studio, transformed the for- mer Stapleton International Airport site into a connected system of over 1,000 acres of parks and open space that knit the community together and provide extensive ecological habitat through a low-water-use landscape aesthetic. Local policy and local culture tend to lend additional support, and change is occurring from a regulato- ry standpoint as well. Certain cities and agencies now require these tech- niques in projects, and particularly in Colorado the market is more sensitive to environmental responsibility. For example, Denver’s Green Build- ings Ordinance evolved from a ballot initiative to become one of the most aggressive carbon policies in the country. It includes significant mea- sures on creating new green space and improving water and stormwa- ter management. The city is similarly pursuing an ambitious Urban Forest Initiative combin- ing public funds and private donations to expand tree canopy and create more space for urban trees to thrive. As part of its Larimer Square repositioning, Urban Vil- lages converted a rooftop parking lot into an urban farm that grows over 60 varieties of fruit and vegetables while also hosting weddings and community events. The farm reduces both water use and carbon emissions for the building. It’s also important to note that nature-positive think- ing can be simpler and cheaper than the alternative. For example, seasonal potted plants in the downtown Den- ver landscaping are thrown away every year to prepare for the following year’s planting – increasing water use and requiring purchases of new annual plants. Urban Villages wanted to pilot a new approach. It pushed the downtown business improvement district to incorporate perennial plantings. A year without replac- ing the planters, plus installation of placards to explain why the public wouldn’t see flowers out of season, cre- ated a social media following. Next year, this case study can be used to show what can be done from a climate, dollar and nature-first standpoint. To achieve maximum benefit, this work requires that people consider social equity as a critical component. Adding green space and expanding access to nature in underserved communities is core to pursuing both na- ture-positive development and environmental justice. But it can be difficult. August Williams-Eynon Manager of Sustainability, Urban Land Institute Jon Buerge Chief Development Of cer, Urban Villages Laurel Raines Founding Principal and President, Dig Studio Bill Vitek Principal, Dig Studio