Project Highlights:

  • Natural capital ecosystem service connectivity model synthesis
  • Biodiversity net gain through smart green infrastructure investment and ecological restoration / enhancement.
  • Climate change mitigation and adaptation
  • Smart tool development
  • Moving towards evidence based ecological assessments, away from natural history recording

Lawton (2010) reviewed England’s biodiversity and ecological networks and concluded that biodiversity sites did not comprise a coherent and resilient ecological network, in the face of a changing climate and threats to biodiversity. We need to make our network of sites bigger, better and more joined up and plan effectively to avoid further degradation.

The Government’s 25 year environment plan sets goals for improving the environment, aiming to achieve a growing and resilient network richer in biodiversity.

This project answers the question, how do we deliver these goals by means of green infrastructure investments informed by robust science? This will:

  • be carried out in the context of the current development agenda and wider landscape management pre- and post-development using real planning data from AECOM’s broad portfolio of development projects;
  • allow analysis of established urban, peri-urban, rural areas and proposed plans; and
  • use scenarios to test how designs might be optimised to secure nature-people interactions.

Predicting spatial variation in biodiversity, broader natural capital and the provision of ecosystem services depends, inter alia, on a detailed understanding of relationships between landscape structure and biodiversity, and accurate spatial modelling. Delivering our assessments in a robust and rigorous manner will provide tools enabling a greater understanding of how to achieve “bigger, better and more joined-up” landscapes.

We will define the way in which landscaping interventions can lead to net gains in biodiversity and ecosystem service delivery, whilst securing ecosystem resilience of these landscapes in a changing environment. Figure 1 illustrates links between abundance and connectivity (Source: NERC funded Urban BESS project F3UES).

This approach will:

  • go beyond the industry standard and consider landscape scale rather than isolated assessments;
  • develop a decision-aiding tool for planning focused assessments; and,
  • facilitate transition from a biodiversity approach to a focus on connectivity and ‘bigger picture’ ecology, providing a measureable and quantifiable assessment– bringing cutting edge science into contemporary professional practice.

We have teamed up with AECOM who will provide experienced staff and case study material from infrastructure projects, ensuring that solutions/tools are practical and useful in current and future decision-making.

Total plant species richness and bird abundance/connectivity for Bedford, Milton Keynes and Luton. From Grafius et al, 2017: and Grafius et al 2019)).


A number of related, but seldom integrated modelling approaches will be used: GIS-linked Bayesian Belief Networks; fragment and patch analysis (e.g. FRAGSTATS) and connectivity (e.g. CircuitScape extension of Arc-GIS) to test whether landscape structural characteristics (including vegetation height, green-space patch size and their connectivity) drive measured taxonomic richness and flows, using data sets available through AECOM, subsequent AECOM projects which come on line during the studentship and additional data for the analysis collected in the field. These will then be linked with natural capital and ecosystem service mapping through tools such as InVEST.

This will lead to an approach for establishing a comprehensive spatially explicit decision support tool that could be deployed within the consultancy environment to enable smart decision making with regards to net gain analysis and ecological restoration within the landscape.

Training and Skills

In addition to the financial contribution, AECOM will provide support for the student in terms of periodic placements to facilitate the research. The student will be integrated into AECOM projects and fieldwork with our large network (120+) of ecologists and the AECOM policy and appraisal team, receiving direct consultancy experience and targeted training. AECOM will also work closely with the student involving them in the production of project proposals that could act as case studies for the data collection / testing phase of the studentship. There will also be the opportunity for AECOM staff to spend time at Cranfield University.


We aim to produce peer-reviewed papers during the course of the studentship in collaboration with AECOM, as is the standard model at Cranfield University. AECOM Secondments will be for periods of between 1 week to 3 months in the Cambridge Office

  • Year 1: technique familiarisation, fieldwork, data collection, AECOM secondment, model development.
  • Year 2: collect data / testing models, AECOM secondment, Model testing validation and refinement.
  • Year 3: Delivery / write up , AECOM secondment, scenario testing, application to planning proposals, thesis delivery.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

AECOM will be the industrial CASE partner, co-supervisor and co-developer for this PhD studentship, the AECOM collaboration partner (Co-I) for this studentship will be Lewis Deacon, Associate Director (Ecology) who is responsible for AECOM’s higher education development and collaboration. He was a post-doctoral research officer at Cranfield for 6 years within this research group. AECOM also has established links with Salford, Leeds and Nottingham Universities.

A collaborative approach to the project will be instilled from the outset, with periodic placements in AECOM offices and working on AECOM projects directly with AECOM staff.

Further Details

This project has been selected as a CENTA Flagship project. This is based on the projects fulfilment of specific characteristics e.g., NERC CASE support, collaboration with our CENTA high-level end-users, diversity of the supervisory team, career development of the supervisory team, collaboration with one of our Research Centre Partners (BGS, CEH, NCEO, NCAS), or a potential applicant co-development of the project.



Ron Corstanje, Professor of Environmental Data Science, Head of Centre, Centre for Environmental and Agricultural Informatics (CEAI), Building 52a, School of Energy, Environment and AgriFood, Cranfield University, Cranfield, Bedfordshire, MK43 0AL

E: roncorstanje@cranfield.ac.uk

T: 01234 75 4817


Academic – Jim Harris, Professor of Environmental Technology, School of Water, Energy and Environment, Building 53, Cranfield University, Cranfield, Bedfordshire, MK43 0AL

E: j.a.harris@cranfield.ac.uk

T: 01234 75 8067

Industry (AECOM) - Lewis Deacon, Associate Director (Ecology), Environment and Ground Engineering, UK & Ireland, AECOM House, 63-77 Victoria Street, St Albans, Herts, AL1 3ER / AECOM 6th Floor 1 New York Street, Manchester, M1 4HD

E: lewis.deacon@aecom.com

M: 07776 527 606