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Why commercial real estate must play a role in boosting urban biodiversity

A walk through almost any urban landscape will reveal nature’s resiliency in the most unexpected ways – a dandelion sprouting up in the gravel next to a stop sign, or a few blades of grass emerging from a crack in the sidewalk. Despite these tiny signs of resilience, there are increasingly fewer plants, insects and animals planting roots in Canadian cities – and urban centres around the world.  

Between 2001 and 2019, urban greenness, a term used to measure the presence and health of vegetation in municipalities, decreased in more than 77 percent of large Canadian cities, according to a Statistics Canada report. At the same time, wild bee populations are declining. Pollinators of all kinds – from monarch butterflies to the more than 800 different species of wild bees that are native to Canada – are disappearing, contributing to an overall loss of biodiversity, or the different forms of life in an area. 

Where do these pollinators go? They’re pushed further and further away from their original habitats due to land use changes and urban development. With limited green space in cities, and remaining green spaces often highly cultivated – think of rows of hostas and conventional grass turf in an office courtyard – there may not be enough variety to entice pollinators to stay put.

Cities need to make space for pollinators – which help propagate the vast majority of plants and vegetation – by providing pockets of habitat, and commercial real estate is poised to offer up an ideal solution, thanks to its available space and large footprint, whether on rooftops, terraces, or courtyards. Not only can this be an environmental win, but it can also benefit organizations looking to improve their ESG scores and qualify for enhanced environmental certifications like BOMA BEST.

Taking action

Shiri Rosenberg, Senior Director of Asset Strategy and Site Activation at Colliers, has been passionate about investing in regenerative projects for as long as she can remember, installing vegetable and pollinator-friendly gardens in the courtyards of several properties and donating any harvested food to the community. In 2017, Colliers first partnered with Alvéole, a certified B Corp company offering turnkey nature-driven solutions with a strong educational component. They installed honey bee hives on several sites and offered tenants access to Alvéole’s environmental engagement programming. 

Most recently, though, she helped one of her company’s flagship locations, Royal Bank Plaza in Toronto, sign on to one of the new packages offered by Alvéole, which expands beyond rooftop hives to create a welcoming habitat for all kinds of pollinators.

Rosenberg notes that while many retrofits take time and potentially a significant investment, there are smaller-scale options. “Every building can afford to buy a $15 pack of pollinator seeds and get a company like Alvéole on to facilitate that process. That can have a huge effect on biodiversity.”

Responsible urban beekeeping isn’t going anywhere, but with the growing movement toward greening cities and producing more food locally, Alvéole CEO and co-founder Alex Mclean explains the company developed a more holistic set of offerings because of the increasing demand to use spaces in different ways. 

“There’s a growing appetite from building owners and managers to use their buildings for habitat creation, so other species can nest and live there,” he says. 

From the ground up

One new avenue building owners should consider, when looking to support biodiversity on their properties, is to incorporate wild bee “hotels” for solitary bees that are local but don’t produce honey. The structures allow non-stinging bees to nest there, giving them a place in the city to lay their eggs.

Rosenberg is most excited about these hotels because they’re accompanied by educational signage, giving passers-by the opportunity to learn about local pollinators and connect with nature in a place they might not have been able to before. 

“They’re a way for people to start learning, understanding and engaging directly with what’s going on and what the bees do,” she explains. “So that we can all learn and start to find ways to contribute.”

Healthy rooftops, happy communities

Education and engagement have always been an essential part of Alvéole’s mandate, and with both tenants and building owners facing increased pressure to deliver on ESG goals, Mclean notes his company exists at the intersection of environmental and social objectives. 

The buildings with honey bee hives, BeeHomes, and pollinator gardens don’t just improve their environmental certification scores, the tenants can also donate the honey their hives produce, or sell jars to raise money for a local community organization. Beyond that, there’s an element of facilitating change on a micro level, as people learn how to support pollinators and bring that knowledge home. “It’s a good way for the building owners to think beyond their own four walls and think more about the surrounding community.”

Although workshops about bees and local pollinators may be an important element for some property managers who are looking to better attract and retain tenants, they have enormous potential for community engagement, as well. Many buildings invite local schools to participate in their workshops, according to Mclean, inspiring the next generation to connect with and learn about urban biodiversity.

Measuring impact

Creating a landscape that welcomes all kinds of pollinators is obviously an easy way to increase biodiversity, but a relatively new technology has been introduced at Alvéole to help companies gain a better understanding of what that biodiversity actually means. 

The process, called biomonitoring, analyzes environmental DNA (eDNA), by sampling honey from a building’s beehive to determine which plants and flowers are present. That, in turn, gives the company a picture, in the form of a detailed report, of how diverse and plentiful their forage is, as well as how far the bees are travelling to pollinate.

“Bees naturally do biomonitoring,” explains Mclean. “They’re a little bit like drones, capturing information from nectar and pollen from all these different places around the city.”

What’s more, the eDNA analysis can be prescriptive, informing building owners which beneficial plants and flowers may be missing in the bees’ diets. They can then direct their landscaping companies to add these plants the following year, according to their specific sample collected at their building. 

“We want a property manager to say, ‘I’d like to increase the biodiversity of my building by X percent,’ and for us to say, ‘OK, we know exactly the things that you should do, and we can implement it, and you’ll reach those objectives over the next 18 months. All the while educating the building’s occupants about biodiversity and conservation-related issues with our engagement program.’”

The green future of cities

Ultimately, every commercial real estate property has the chance to move the dial further toward greener urban environments, even if full green building retrofits aren’t yet in the cards. It’s a goal for both Mclean and Rosenberg, on a scale wider than just one company.

“Imagine if all our competitors in the industry started adding pollinator gardens, bee hotels, green rooftops, and completely rethinking their conventional landscaping practices to support pollinators” Rosenberg says, looking at a map of Canada. “Before we know it, the urban landscape in Canada begins to change. And if Alvéole, especially, has the data to show what’s going on now and can track how things are going, that’s just huge. I really think we can change things.”


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