Science - February 5, 2009


Nobody associates office blocks, harbours or industrial estates with lush and abundant nature. And yet business parks can make a real contribution to the conservation of animals and plants. Landscape ecologist Robbert Snep’s PhD research shows that such complexes can provide a haven for threatened animal species.

Side by side: Economics and Ecology.
Business parks are generally known for their rows of ugly concrete blocks on open spaces along main roads or on the edges of towns. But their location and their typical land use patterns seem to be of value for the natural world. Snep researched their biodiversity with reference to nesting birds. He discovered that a number of species – including some threatened ones – made good use of the largely flat roofs and the often neglected green patches they found. ‘It is especially birds that feed on pioneer vegetation and undergrowth that do well in business parks, says Snep. For example, seagulls, oystercatchers, terns and other seabirds like to nest on the flat roofs and the bare patches of ground that are left fallow.

With a little effort, companies can even increase the value of their complexes for nature, Snep believes. Vegetation on the roof, leaving wild patches, managing the grounds more ecologically and expanding the green areas – these measures can bring more birds and butterflies to the gardens of nearby neighbourhoods. ‘With a few small adjustments, business parks on the edges of towns can become a source of nature for the town’, says Snep.

Using a simulation of the Rotterdam suburb of Hoogvliet, Snep demonstrates that butterfly species such as the small tortoiseshell double their numbers if a nearby business park provides a habitat for them. ‘For a long time we have assumed that economics and ecology are incompatible’, says Snep. His research now shows that business parks can have a surprisingly positive impact. ‘In some countries businesses and nature organizations have been collaborating for decades on nature conservation in business parks. The Netherlands is behind in this respect.’ But there is hope. There are 3600 business parks in the country, thirty percent of which are old and in need of a facelift. Snep sees an opportunity here to make them greener.

He researched what entrepreneurs think of such ecological changes, and he got a positive impression. Most entrepreneurs favour establishing a large green area. They do stipulate that it should look neat, and that employees and local residents should be able to make use of it. / Laurien Holtjer

Robbert Snep is due to obtain his PhD on 6 February from Professor Paul Opdam of Landscape Ecology and Professor Ekko van Ierland of Environmental Economics and Natural Resources.