Flourishing campuses safeguard urban biodiversity

The University of Helsinki strives to improve ecological sustainability and prevent biodiversity loss through concrete measures. Projects carried out on the campuses boost urban biodiversity, with several projects ongoing at the University promoting biodiversity both on and beyond the campuses.

Campuses can significantly affect urban biodiversity. The University of Helsinki is carrying out a range of projects to promote biodiversity in its day-to-day operations: species surveys, the establishment of meadows to replace lawns and, as the latest example, a forest garden currently being created on Viikki Campus. Common to all these projects is an approach to biodiversity efforts that engages the University community.

 “At the University of Helsinki, significant research is conducted and experts trained in various areas of sustainability and responsibility, such as the prevention of biodiversity loss. Our goal is to utilise this expertise also in the development of everyday life at the University and the campuses. In fact, many of our projects combine two things important to us: the inclusion of members of the University community and reliance on research-based knowledge,” says Riina Koivuranta, Senior Specialist in Sustainable Development and Responsibility at the University of Helsinki. 

Particularly in the case of species surveys, the aim is to take advantage of citizen science activity. This way, as many people as possible, within or outside the University community, can take part in this important work.

Biodiversity is one of the focus areas of the University’s sustainability and responsibility plan for the period 2022–2024. The theme plays an increasingly important role in various organisations; for example, environmental impact is now calculated frequently alongside the carbon footprint.

Physical outdoor activities provide a lot of positive health effects, which is why it is possible to simultaneously promote biodiversity and human wellbeing.

Promoting biodiversity by surveying campus environments and consulting the University community

In spring 2024, information was collected from the University community on the most important campus locations and the opportunities to further promote biodiversity identified by community members.

A total of 1,300 responses were received, of which roughly 700 were comprehensive. More than 3,000 campus locations were marked as important to members of the University community, while a variety of biodiversity efforts were desired for 2,000 locations. The survey results will be combined with existing biodiversity and carbon sink data, as well as data collected through species surveys.

“A report based on the work will indicate which places on the campuses are most valuable for biodiversity, carbon sinks and the social significance of the campus environment. All of this helps in planning measures to promote biodiversity where the need to preserve and increase diversity is the greatest,” says Postdoctoral Researcher Jussi Lampinen from the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science HELSUS, who is in charge of the survey.

The report is set to be completed by the end of 2024.

In addition to the questionnaire survey, the planning is supported by various species surveys carried out on the campuses. The aim is to incorporate research knowledge into decision-making at the University of Helsinki – under the auspices of the University, the Finnish Museum of Natural History Luomus is in fact mapping the species of all four campuses as part of its own research operations.

All members of the University community familiar with birds, flowering plants, butterflies or bumblebees can take part in the surveys. Even those from outside the University community who visit the campuses can contribute.

The occurrence of individual specimens is surveyed in hectare-sized survey plots with the help of the Nature Notebook application of the Finnish Biodiversity Information Facility. Species observations can be reported in the app as complete lists, which makes it possible to systematically collect information on all species surveyed.

“Data collected using the complete list method are of a significantly higher quality than randomly reported observations,” says Senior Curator Aleksi Lehikoinen, who heads the project.

On 20 May, no fewer than 248 species were observed during a recreational event for staff organised in Kumpula Botanic Garden.

Even those not well versed in species identification can take part in the surveys. A BioBlitz event on Viikki Campus is underway in the iNaturalist application. iNaturalist Suomi is part of the international iNaturalist network. The observations produced through the service will eventually be stored in the Finnish Biodiversity Information Facility, making them available to researchers, authorities and hobbyists.

As the name suggests, BioBlitzes are usually short-term events for surveying the species of a specific area. In Viikki, however, the blitz will run throughout the summer, until the end of September.

“Participation is easy. Just take your phone with you for a walk to photograph plants, fungi and animals around the campus. iNaturalist takes care of identification if you don’t recognise the species yourself,” says Academy Research Fellow Anne Duplouy from the Biodiversity on Campus initiative.

The information collected in the blitz will be used, among other things, as content for campus signage guiding people on a lush campus tour. If the BioBlitz is repeated, for example, every year, it can also be used to examine changes in the green spaces and biodiversity of Viikki Campus.

However, if you catch the species identification bug, you can accept the challenge and take part in other Luomus projects, or the 100 species or complete lists challenge.

Flowering meadows safeguard the future of pollinators

In addition to species surveys, the plan is to actively increase biodiversity on the campuses. In Viikki, the meadow project is ongoing for the third summer, and new meadows have been established at various campus sites through volunteer efforts. The latest plots are awaiting rain in front of the Finnish Food Authority and next to Biocenter 3. Another meadow can be found in the centre of Helsinki, in the courtyard of the Natural History Museum.

“At the turn of the year, the University carried out a funding call inviting any members of the University community to apply for funding for their sustainability and responsibility ideas, known as Sparkles. The purpose of Sparkle funding is to collaboratively establish with the community itself a sustainability culture, visible in the everyday life of our University and accelerating the achievement of our sustainability goals,” says Riina Koivuranta. 

In Viikki, the Sparkle funding is used to produce nature trails and info signage, in addition to which a part-time project planning officer has been hired to coordinate BioBlitz and invite, among others, a few school classes to take part in the surveying. Venues known as Urban Garden and Gallery Greenhouse at Siltavuorenpenger have been built on the City Centre Campus with Sparkle funding.

Funding has also been granted to a slightly more extensive project compared to the meadows, namely a forest garden that will emerge next to Biocenter 3. The garden’s purpose is to turn an underutilised lawn into a pleasant green space. Forest gardens are wooded but open and bright spaces with trees of varying height, bushes and herbaceous plants, with the garden mimicking the growth form of forests. Conceptualised by David Israel and Kim Yrjölä, the project was also involved in the Circulator incubator of the University of Helsinki, which supports latent innovations.

Next to the forest garden are planter boxes for campus gardening, an activity ongoing since 2013.