Gazing into the Crystal Ball: Future Leaders

The past is easy to predict, the future not so much. As custodians of the built environment and designers of long-lasting infrastructure, WSP experts need to balance the needs of today with the possibility of the future. We asked our thought leaders what trends are likely to shape their area of expertise in 2020.

We’ve witnessed a revolution in recent years. Arguably catalysed by the Diversity Agenda, our industry is waking up to the true benefits of a diverse workforce. However, simply mirroring the diversity of our communities won’t achieve much; empowering and engaging a diverse group of leaders is how we’ll challenge the status quo. This is the backdrop to the increasingly influential position Young Professionals (YPs) are taking in our industry.

We’ve moved away from traditional hierarchical thinking by giving YPs the opportunity to earn their stripes at their own pace. “You can’t win anything with kids”, Alan Hansen once said (sorry – football quote), but as Manchester United fans will attest, what you lack in experience can be made up by talent. Would you keep David Beckham on the bench until he was 30? I’m certainly not expecting to see YPs sitting on boards, but senior management will take an increasing interest in the priorities of this demographic.

I sometimes see a perception that being ‘digital natives’, YPs have access to mysterious technology that is alien to older generations. However, I haven’t met any ‘boomers’ who don’t know what a drone is or how cryptocurrency works. In reality, YPs have simply grown up with constant technological innovation and are therefore (arguably) more adaptable to change.

Over the coming years we will see YPs engaged as change agents to promote transformation in the business and wider industry. The adoption of Microsoft Teams heralds a shift in the way we will communicate with each other in the future. YPs will be critical to ensuring the acceptance and success of this and other changes.

YPs are ‘woke’. We are all too aware of this century’s pressing issues because we, as a generation, will inherit the consequences of today’s environmental, social and economic decision making. Through involvement with WSP’s Sustainability Working Group, Engineers Without Borders and Bridges to Prosperity to name a few, YPs are taking up the mantle of their own volition, to ensure our long-lasting infrastructure is developed in a sustainable way.
I believe the real value YPs bring is that they are the future generations for whom we are creating what matters.

There is a well-publicised dearth of engineers in New Zealand, particularly at the intermediate level (the time at which kiwis typically take their ‘OE’). This poses a risk to the ability of the industry to service the array of massive upcoming infrastructure projects across the country. However, where there is risk, there is opportunity; we will see YPs taking advantage of this, stepping up into leadership roles sooner than previously possible. Succession planning will become imperative to retain the best YPs.

This year, with incredible support from business leaders, WSP launched our Young Professionals Group, ‘Pathways’, which is designed to accelerate the careers of junior and intermediate level staff. In the coming years, Pathways will look further afield, connecting with the international WSP business and establishing a global presence for kiwi YPs. We aren’t aiming for world domination, but sooner or later, we’ll be in charge.

Chris Baker, WSP Young Professional Chair

Gazing into the Crystal Ball: RMA Reform

The past is easy to predict, the future not so much. As custodians of the built environment and designers of long-lasting infrastructure, WSP experts need to balance the needs of today with the possibility of the future. We asked our thought leaders what trends are likely to shape their area of expertise in 2020.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to hear the renowned Formula 1 leadership expert Mark Gallagher speak, and was struck by the insights we could apply to the latest review of the Resource Management Act (RMA).

The intent of the current overhaul is to reduce the complexity and costs of regulation, to better enable urban development and to improve protection of the environment. Environment Minister David Parker said, “There is a need to create a system that better enables economic growth within environmental limits and which aligns the economy with the environment.”

Balancing the needs of growth in our economy with those of environmental protection seems like an almost impossible task in today’s consumption-focused society. However, impossible tasks are the bread and butter of F1 motor racing. Adopting an F1 mindset could help planners, scientists and engineers as we lean into the challenge of seeking more sustainable outcomes for our communities.

As you might expect F1 has a relentless focus on improving performance and achieves this by 8-10% year-on-year, measured by velocity improvements and wins on the track.

It’s hard to ignore the level of investment that goes into creating such a high-performance team. If the environment industry spent upwards of US$2.6 billion annually, I guarantee we’d be able to measure a similar tangible uplift in performance. Sadly, this isn’t our current reality, but we can emulate F1’s steely focus.

Another thing F1 does is focus on the front windscreen, rather than the rear vision mirror. The importance of ‘lead’ as opposed to ‘lag’ indicators and the role that these indicators play helps motivate everyone to reach the goal.

Stage two of the RMA review will consider the potential of spatial planning, one of the most powerful tools planners have to focus on a forward-looking view and achieve alignment.

Spatial planning isn’t a new concept, but it’s important. In 1959, Ian McHarg wrote the book Design with Nature, a visionary approach that recognised the need for environmental planning to be responsive. McHarg demonstrated how complex spatial data could be layered and used to inform policy decisions and design choices that focused on site suitability and carrying capacity.

Essentially this concept improved both development and conservation outcomes.

Spatial planning enables us to build a model of complex data and view different priorities including cultural, environmental, economic or social through a single view. This gives us a considered view of what direction to take and is far superior to the traditional policy-based planning approach.

Spatial plans are designed to evolve and are, by nature, adaptable. They incorporate new and growing sources of data, some of which don’t exist at the time a plan is first generated. Back in 2011 who could have imagined that future refreshes of the Auckland spatial plan might use data from scooters and rideshare bikes, mobile phones and crowd sourcing to better understand our community’s needs? The ability to use big data in this way enhances how we might design our infrastructure to improve user experience, achieve better economic outcomes, lift social connection opportunities, and create environmental net gain.

Spatial planning is the chassis of our planning approach; the data layers provide the engine, the fuel source body shape, and control instrumentation. In the world of F1, the shape of the vehicle will change, and the fuel source may be hydrogen rather than petroleum – but the goal of lifting performance, shaking the champagne and taking a place on the winner’s podium won’t change. A change in approach to spatial planning presents an opportunity to minimise impact on the planet and improve social and economic outcomes for all.

Carole Smith, Director Environment

Sharing the Road

Sharing the Road

At WSP’s Research & Innovation centre in Petone, a world-first instrumented bicycle is helping provide a better understanding of the factors affecting cyclists’ experiences on New Zealand’s roads.

A team of behavioural scientists, sustainable transport experts and instrumentation engineers have undertaken innovative research for Waka Kotahi – the NZ Transport Agency, providing them with a solid scientific basis to inform their goal of improving levels of cycling throughout the country.

Jared Thomas is a leading expert in the research and design of spaces for vulnerable road users. He says that although it’s currently the most repressed mode of transport, there is potential for cycling to become the largest demand growth area.

Figures support this. The Ministry of Transport Household Travel Survey shows that although 31% of New Zealanders aged over 15 have cycled in the past year, less than 2% of trips are made by bike. A key target group for improving uptake is the ‘interested but concerned’ 20-30% of people who would like to cycle more, but are discouraged by safety concerns.

Jared’s research confirms that their concerns are justified in many cases, with most riders experiencing an uncomfortable interaction with a motor vehicle on their ride – typically one every 22 minutes.

“These incidents are from a vehicle overtaking too closely, but can also be from other cyclists overtaking closely. Another common example is a vehicle cutting them off at intersections or roundabouts, such as turning left in front of them or suddenly pulling out.”

Thoughtful, connected infrastructure design has a large part to play, particularly for less experienced cyclists, explains Jared; one bad element of the route will stop a rider from completing the whole journey.

Tension between cyclists and motorists is also an issue, but Jared acknowledges that while much is made of the animosity between drivers and cyclists, WSP’s ‘passing gap’ research demonstrates that most drivers do give cyclists an appropriate amount of space.

“If anything, a surprising number of problematic events actually occur between other cyclists or pedestrians.”

In trying to increase cyclist numbers, Jared emphasises that it is important to understand the priorities of, and impediments to, different groups.

“We know that commuters want fast and safe routes, with strong links to other transport modes. Recreational cyclists are more accepting of slower routes, but want an ‘experience’, valuing features like public art and waterside routes. For children, it’s important to consider separation from traffic, and the availability of ‘learn to ride’ facilities.”

The latest study undertaken for the NZ Transport Agency looked at factors affecting this ‘level of service’.

Volunteer cyclists in cities across the country followed pre-determined routes on the instrumented bike, giving opinions on cycling provision including shared pathways, separated lanes and painted lanes. Footage was then shown to a larger experimental group of cyclists of differing levels of ability. Feedback was shared, including whether the group would use the routes. WSP’s behavioural scientists analysed the data, to highlight how different factors affect perceptions of safety, and which changes are most likely to reduce perceived risks.

The data was also used to map incident clusters, providing a clear visual representation of problem areas. Combined with video footage which has a more persuasive impact that numbers alone, this enables decision-makers to see how cyclists experience their environment, helping prioritise areas where network improvements will give the best results.

Historically, safety data on cycling has been restricted to statistics on fatalities; near miss incidents are not recorded. Jared advocates a preventative approach, using cameras for machine learning and analysis of near misses to help form a clearer picture of where interventions can help. He combines this data with a human-centric design approach to devise solutions for high-risk behaviour areas.

It works. His next generation driveway design led to an impressive 75% reduction in near miss events for cyclists and will be introduced nationally by the NZ Transport Agency.

Jared also works with transport teams to help road design adapt to future trends. For example, the emergence of e-bikes has enabled longer and steeper trips, makes commuting more feasible; riders don’t arrive at work needing a shower and cycle accessibility for older and disabled people is improved. When combined with new safer, separated routes, this could lead to an increase in cyclist numbers, which should be considered when planning road developments.

Peter Kortegast, Senior Transportation Engineer, suggests that meeting the needs of those who are concerned about safety through well-designed cycling infrastructure increases trips.

His analysis of a separated cycleway in Nelson, New Zealand’s first bi-directional cycle facility, showed a 94% increase in cycle user numbers.

“The majority of cyclists felt it was a safety improvement. What was really interesting was that the users who were most supportive were those on mobility scooters who enjoyed the even surface.”

Providing these facilities is well worth the effort he says.

“Cyclists are active, healthy, save health taxes, have lower emotional stress, free up vehicle parks for shoppers, help support cycle shops and free up space on congested roads. They’re a positive to have in our communities.”

A truly smart bike

Based on an early 2003 model which was used to test road surfaces, the instrumented bike has been developed to shed light on more complex issues, with the current iteration collecting a unique combination of objective and subjective data. The bike uses LiDAR to measure the speed and size of passing vehicles, as well as the distance from the cyclist, while also recording geospatial information and video footage of the journey. This is combined with the cyclists’ input via a button which can be pressed to report incidents which make them feel uncomfortable.

Jared Thomas, Technical Principal for Behavioural Science, is passionate about bringing human-centred design approaches and data together to make better spaces for us to work, live and play. His work focuses on improving the safety and usability of road corridors, footpaths, cycleways, public transport, buildings, and public spaces, such as outdoor urban parks.

Peter Kortegast, Senior Transportation Engineer and Project Manager, has specialist experience in transportation planning, economic business case development, road safety, cycling and walking facilities and Safety in Design. He is considered a national leader in this field and has been involved in developing strategic national policy.

TRENDWATCH: Moving towards a Biodiversity Net Gain world

In the UK, there’s momentum towards a concept known as Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) – where development leaves biodiversity in a measurably better state, rather than simply the same.

Recent reports confirm that on average there has been a continued decline in the distribution and abundance of the UK’s priority species since the 1970s, says WSP UK’s Principal Consultant in Biodiversity, Jonny Miller.

“Even with various policies, initiatives and legislation in place to try to halt this decline, many metrics suggest it has continued over the last 10 years. Primarily this is from increasing agricultural intensification, climate change and building on land to meet the needs of our growing population – collectively the impact is really significant.”

That’s why many ecologists view BNG as a game-changer. It requires development to leave biodiversity in a measurably better state. It introduces a standardised metric for quantifying changes in biodiversity, and is expected to become mandatory for development in England in a matter of years.
Not only does it give greater certainty for budget and programme planning, but it can help feed into the design process to deliver better outcomes for wildlife, local communities and developers.

Back in 2012 the UK first trialled the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ habitat-based metric during a two-year biodiversity offsetting pilot. This metric allowed the quality and condition of the biodiversity present on a site to be converted into numeric biodiversity units per hectare. Guidance was provided on the implementation of offsetting and use of the metric, supported by changes in the national planning policy framework.

Jonny says this framework only went as far as saying developments should deliver net gain ‘where possible’ making it essentially voluntary and hard to enforce.

“There was also a lot of scepticism that offsetting would be used as a ‘license to trash’. The concern was that developers and decision makers would shortcut straight to paying for biodiversity offsite, rather than following the mitigation hierarchy of first avoiding and minimising impacts, then restoring remaining biodiversity loss onsite, before (as a last resort) compensating offsite through offsets.”

To address this, various industry institutes representing ecologists and environmental managers came together and published good practice principles for delivering BNG, with the mitigation hierarchy at the heart of it. WSP then played a lead role in developing UK-wide guidance for the practical implementation of BNG for the development industry.

Over time, industry has also picked up the mantle, with infrastructure providers and flagship projects such as Highways England and Crossrail 2 setting out their own policies to deliver net gain.

Fast forward to 2019 and national policy is catching up. “We now have national policy being much more bullish about seeking net gains, and following consultation, the Government has committed to making biodiversity net gain mandatory for development in England. This will be through the Environment Bill that was introduced to Parliament in October this year.”

Jonny says that both industry and Government are looking to take the concept further. “We should be moving towards environmental net gain – once we’ve demonstrated net gains for biodiversity (that’s a prerequisite), then we can also assess the wider benefits that these spaces provide, such as flood attenuation or carbon sequestration, and try to optimise them whilst also considering local priorities. It’s a really exciting time and WSP
is right in the thick of it!”

WSP UK Biodiversity Net Gain expertise

  • Dedicated biodiversity team leading the work on BNG. Supporting this are over 140 ecologists who are regularly involved in the application of BNG assessments for a range of development projects, both in the UK and abroad.
  • Authors commissioned by chartered environmental institutes to develop UK-wide guidance for the practical implementation of BNG for the UK development industry.
  • Steering group members providing critical review in the second phase of development of the UK’s official BNG metrics to quantify biodiversity losses and gains.
  • Expert advisors helping draft the British Standard for BNG in the UK, allowing businesses to achieve BNG accreditation at a development project or strategic level.
  • Authors of two industry white papers: Biodiversity Net Gain and Biodiversity in the City.

For the Love of Bees (& Bats)

How can the fragmented landscape of a city be healed using bio-corridors that connect people and habitats through enhanced and restored ecosystem services? Increasingly biodiversity corridors – including pollinator paths – are used to provide places for wildlife to thrive, improve water quality and create open green spaces.

The continued loss of biodiversity worldwide made headlines recently with the release of two reports highlighting biodiversity is at crisis point. The WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018 reveals there has been a 60% decline in the population size of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in just over 40 years. Meanwhile, a study published in the journal Science in August showed that since 1970, bird populations in the United States and Canada alone have declined by 29%, or almost three billion birds.

Closer to home, the government has released Te Koiroa o te Koiora, a discussion document on proposals for a biodiversity strategy for Aotearoa New Zealand. Almost two thirds of New Zealand’s 71 identified rare and naturally uncommon ecosystems are threatened, and 75% of terrestrial birds, 85% of reptiles and 70% of butterflies and moths are threatened or at risk of extinction.

With development and land use for humans being one of the leading causes of biodiversity loss, the concept of biodiversity corridors has taken on a greater significance. At WSP, it is important we lead the way in ensuring developments consider local and regional connectivity to support the natural migration of biodiversity.

“In simple terms a biodiversity corridor is an interconnected and linear habitat that wildlife, flora, fauna and microorganisms can travel and disperse easily because of that connection”, says WSP Technical Principal of Ecology, John Turner.

“They don’t always have to be entirely connected (contiguous corridors) – corridors can act as ‘stepping stones’ and those with small gaps can still prove functional. But it’s the linear nature of the habitat which is important and allows the movement of wildlife and dispersion of certain species of plants.”

John says his introduction to the concept of inter-connected corridors came in the mid-1980s when the concept was starting to be applied widely in the UK, but the idea’s origin started well before then. In New Zealand, the concept of biodiversity corridors has been used in urban planning and research management planning for several decades.

“Here in New Zealand, biodiversity corridors are often associated with waterways, such as streams. While the streams do get culverted and fragmented during the urbanisation process, sufficient streams remain in cities such as Hamilton for them to continue to act as biodiversity corridors. In urban settings, major streams often lend themselves to creating biodiversity and amenity corridors.”

Other forms of biodiversity corridors include terrestrial corridors, or green space corridors. “One example is the Eastern Green Belt in Hamilton – a linear corridor of exotic and native planting, inter-dispersed with public open spaces, playgrounds and playing fields. While these may seem like they are for human use only, they also provide corridors and access routes for wildlife too,” says John.

With an estimated $US650b worth of global crops put at risk every year from pollinator loss, another form of biodiversity corridor is gaining prominence. Pollinator paths are interconnected habitats that allow pollinators to travel more easily throughout a city, and WSP was involved in developing Auckland’s first pollinator highway.

“For the last 50 years we’ve been designing cities around cars,” says WSP’s Andrea Reid. “But we’re seeing a shift in thinking that could see streets become public realm, where cars will be permitted but not have priority. We’re already seeing this approach with an increase in design that is greener, promotes walking and cycling, and increases connectivity between existing parks and green spaces.”

“Add to this the increased trend towards urban gardening – whether at home or through community gardens – which is being driven by the desire to grow food locally to reduce food miles. The problem is, it’s really hard to grow food if you don’t have pollinators, which is why projects that create hubs are so vital.”

Andrea says pollinator paths link existing habitat to create pollinator highways to allow pollinators to travel more easily throughout the city. Hubs allow pollinators to shelter over winter and provide different food sources, helping them to travel around an area easily.

“In New Zealand we have over 30 species of native bees. Unlike the honey bee most of these bees are solitary and nest in the ground. We also have a variety of native birds, bats, lizards, skinks, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles and other insects that all contribute to the pollination of plants we need to survive.”

Andrea worked with Auckland Council, Auckland Transport and the Waitemata Local Board on Auckland’s first pollinator path in Grey Lynn, funded by the Waitemata Local Board. The path connects habitats in Cox’s Bay Reserve and Grey Lynn Park via Hakanoa Reserve and Kelmarna Gardens, and has been a huge hit with the local human (and pollinator) communities.

“We have a massive opportunity in New Zealand towns and cities to include more green infrastructure – that’s not as easy to do in other places in the world. With more thoughtful management of amenity green space and the installation of more urban greening features such as green roofs or living walls, we can create ecological networks at a finer grain throughout the city.”

Further south in Hamilton, John Turner and the WSP team have been working on a different type of corridor to support the local bat population to get around the urban environment. Bats frequently use the natural gullies around the region to travel and avoid built-up spaces and structures.

“We’ve been working extensively on the Hamilton Section of the Waikato Expressway, which intersects through gullies to the south of Hamilton. These gullies are important corridors for the local long-tailed bat population, a species with a threat classification of Nationally Critical,” says John.

“Since 2014 we’ve been completing annual bat surveys for Waka Kotahi – NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) to assess any impacts of the expressway on bat populations. We haven’t found any conclusive results as to what the effects might be, but we continue to work with NZTA to assess, plan and mitigate any impacts, using thermal imaging cameras and bat monitors to try to study bat activity and movements in association with the road structures through the gully.”

WSP has also been working on a section of the Te Awa walk and cycleway, which in its entirety stretches along the Waikato River, from Ngaruawahia in the north to Karapiro in the south. The Mangaonua Gully in Hamilton touches the city edge and is a corridor frequently used by bats to commute between roosting and foraging areas. WSP completed an ecological impact assessment of the walk and cycleway, to assess the effects on wildlife, ensuring they are minimised.

Wildlife isn’t the only benefactor of bio-corridors – they also deliver a range of other ecosystem services that improve spaces for the public and local communities – from delivering carbon sequestration, flood risk management and water quality improvement, to space for people to recreate in, encouraging physical and mental wellbeing.

John Turner, WSP Technical Principal of Ecology, has almost 30 years’ experience as an ecology consultant. He has substantial experience in the integration of existing ecosystems into plans for new developments and a special interest in retaining, enhancing and creating ecosystems within urban and sub-urban environments. His technical knowledge of ecosystems is wide ranging and includes forests, rivers, streams and lakes, and various types of wetlands.

Andrea Reid is a driven, multi-award-winning landscape architect working at WSP. She is passionate about the environmental enrichment of urban areas and has a particular interest in providing connected habitats for pollinators. Andrea has been involved with the design of a range of project types including public realm, parks, town centres, sport parks, wetlands, wayfinding design, cemeteries and ecological restoration.

New Zealand as it was, forever

Piopiotahi/Milford Sound, once described by Rudyard Kipling as the eighth Wonder of the World, is known for its spectacular and ethereal beauty. However, without intervention, this breath-taking environment is on the brink of irreversible damage caused by more than one million visitors each year.

Increasing visitor numbers have put incredible pressure on conservation and the limited infrastructure in and around the remote Piopiotahi. For an environment promoted as pristine, the reality of the experience can be jarring; congestion at key sites, crowding at peak times and inadequate visitor infrastructure including car parking, bus services and electricity.

WSP’s Catherine Hamilton says this has resulted in an increasingly suboptimal visitor experience that is far from the marketed expectation, undermining the reputation of Milford Sound and New Zealand.

“This ancient and iconic landscape has become a budget day trip that’s bursting at the seams. It’s compromised the natural tranquillity of Piopiotahi and impacted the wilderness areas and marine environment.”

In response the Milford Opportunity Project (MOP) was established in 2017 to look at sustainable ways of managing the tourism impact and preserving the majestic environment.

Created by the Southland District Council, the MOP group includes Ngāi Tahu, various local councils, New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA), the Ministry for Business, Employment and Innovation (MBIE) and the Department of Conservation (DOC).

A team from WSP delivered the MOP Master Plan and Catherine played a pivotal role in defining  the vision, values and outline. The Master Plan is founded on seven key pillars that weave the importance of people and place with visitor experience.

“We want visitors to Piopiotahi to have a world-class experience that fits with the unique natural environment and rich cultural values of the region. It should feel untouched and allow them to feel the true essence, beauty and wonder of Piopiotahi and Murihiku/Southland, through curated story-telling, sympathetic infrastructure and wide choices suited to multi-day experiences.”

Specific initiatives will be activated in the next phase of the project, which is one of the first to be funded by the International Visitor Levy. Introduced in July 2019, most international visitors entering New Zealand will be charged a levy of $35 that will be invested in sustainable tourism and conservation projects.

Catherine says MOP is a once in a lifetime chance to create and define the visitor experience, one that’s rooted in sustainable principals, with māna whenua values woven through. In turn, an improved visitor experience will become a catalyst for funding conservation growth and community prosperity throughout the region. Another key area of focus is to ensure that activities and infrastructure are adaptive and resilient to change and risk, such as avalanche and flood risks.

“Through delivering this plan we developed a deeper passion and personal connection with the landscape and its people. We were inspired to find creative solutions to ensure that Piopiotahi/Milford Sound would continue to reflect Aotearoa New Zealand as it was, forever.”

Catherine Hamilton, Technical Principal Landscape Architect, has delivered a large body of work over her long career as a landscape architect and continues to build her portfolio across design and planning. She has received numerous national and international awards for her designs and is recognised by her peers as an industry leader.