Spatial planning for nature and for infrastructure

Project Details

This CASE project is supported by Natural England

Key Questions

How can we plan infrastructure and nature in an integrated way to yield multiple benefits?


Construction of infrastructure often has severe impacts upon nature and biodiversity. Infrastructure fragments habitats, reducing their resilience to climate change, and opens up previously inaccessible areas to exploitation. Yet these habitats support a wide variety of ecosystem services from drawing down and storing carbon and disaster risk reduction, to crop pollination and provision of clean water.

Aims of the Project

The aim of this project is to understand the interdependencies between infrastructure construction and biodiversity, and devise ways in which the two can be planned in an integrated way for mutual benefits.

Project Description

With infrastructure investment at an all-time high, there is potential for new projects to cause ever-greater impacts upon already fragile environments, which in turn increases human vulnerability to climate change. Though some of these impacts may be mitigated through thoughtful design, the most critical decisions relate to the location of new projects. Once a project has been approved it is usually too late to deal with the environmental impacts. Thus there needs to be a shift in ‘up-front’ thinking so that the sustainability of nature is planned ahead of and at the same time as infrastructure, rather than afterwards. One potential example of this approach is in the planning of the Nature Recovery Network and Local Nature Recovery Strategies ( in England. Connectivity is a key determinant of the resilience of ecosystems and hence ecosystem services (Oliver et al. 2015), and one key reason for this is that it enables species to move as an adaptive response to the impacts of climate change (Smith et al., 2021). Yet England’s natural habitats are highly fragmented and hence vulnerable. Nature Recovery Networks are a structured way of reconnecting them by planning for nature on a large scale. However, the process of creating Nature Recovery Networks is currently disconnected from the process of infrastructure planning. This projects aims to address that disconnect. In particular, we wish to explore how processes of spatial optimization for nature (e.g. Schuster et al., 2019) can be combined with infrastructure planning. To address this problem we propose to adapt the National Infrastructure Systems Model (NISMOD) developed by the Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (Hall et al., 2016) and combine it with methods for mapping and assessing biodiversity and ecosystem services under a range of different future scenarios – both of future land conversion for infrastructure and urbanisation, and also of land restoration for nature recovery.

Methods to be used

The research will involve analysis of the evidence for the spatial attributes of different habitats, their scale and interconnectedness, and how this supports gene flow, biodiversity and ecosystem services (including disaster risk reduction and carbon storage). It will involve examining the spatial evolution of infrastructure networks and simulation of how they may evolve in future in different economic development and climate scenarios. This will lead to development of an integrated spatial optimization methodology that seeks to address human needs for infrastructure services whilst conserving and restoring nature. Potential applications include infrastructure/nature planning in England, possibly with a focus upon the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, in collaboration with Natural England. There will also be interest in applying on a large scale in a developing country context (Africa, Asia or Latin America) where major new infrastructure developments are proposed. We would like to conduct a large-scale assessment so we can compare national infrastructure plans with integrated pathways that prioritise nature conservation and recovery. We wish to demonstrate how nature can be protected and restored whilst delivering the infrastructure services that people need and plotting a pathway of climate-and biodiversity compatible development.

Specialised skills required

The project will involve a combination of evidence review, geospatial analysis, decision analysis and multi-objective optimisation. It will suit students from any quantified background, including environmental sciences, engineering or economics. Students should be able to demonstrate aptitude for computer modelling and geospatial analysis, and enthusiasm to address real-world problems of great policy significance.

Please contact Jim Hall and Nat Seddon if you are interested in this project.