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Page last updated at 06:12 GMT, Sunday, 7 June 2009 07:12 UK

Can animals live in high-rise blocks?

The winning wildlife design

By Peter Jackson
BBC News

A high-rise tower for animals in the industrial heartland of Leeds is offering a unique solution to the decline of urban wildlife. Can it work?

Rising 40 feet (12 metres) above canals once lined with textile mills and factory chimneys could soon be another kind of tower - a high-rise for all creatures great and (mainly) small.

If the plans come to fruition, the structure aims to encourage a variety of species to "reclaim their urban landscape".

It is the vision of a small team of architects, a vertical solution to a horizontal desire to offer shelter to creatures in urban areas where space on the ground is tight.

The man behind the project, 26-year-old Neil Oxlee, hopes his "man-made tree" will provide a habitat for bats, birds, butterflies, insects and even foxes.

Neil Oxlee
House proud: Neil Oxlee's design beat entries from around the world

He says the different species would thrive off each other like they would in a woodland environment, with minimal human involvement.

"I'm not an animal expert, if it goes further we'd need to get a wildlife expert on board... to see exactly which ones eat the other ones. There's a food chain there.

"It would evolve from there... there may be a few extra design factors to take into account. This is a concept."

Mr Oxlee's towers - to be built from recycled materials - draw inspiration from three nearby Italianate towers which are 200 years old and stand 80 feet (25m) tall.

'Striking design'

The design, by Garnett Netherwood Architects, beat more than 30 entries in a competition run by Holbeck Urban Village, a business community backed by Leeds City Council.

Chris Packham
The towers are a brilliant idea, says wildlife presenter Chris Packham

Organisers say they launched the competition because bird song has all but vanished from many cities and towns and wildlife generally is in decline.

Marketing officer Leanne Buchan says the "village" community wanted to respect the bio-diversity of the area during its regeneration.

Otters have returned to the area for the first time in 30 years and she hopes to see butterflies, bats and bees plus swifts, house martins and other nesting birds, attracted by raised beds.

"We went on tour with a conservation officer to see what wildlife to invite in and sustain once here, and what was needed from the habitat," she says.

"Part of it is for people to enjoy the wildlife around them, but it's more about taking responsibility for things... to safeguard it for future generations."

The winning tower design would be "striking", she says, and could well become an iconic piece of architecture.

Swifts, house martins and collard doves fell 15% from 1994 to 2006 - house sparrows by a third
Allotments - valuable green spaces in urban areas - have declined by 80% in 50 years
The natterjack toad is found at only 50 sites in England, a fall of 80% in the last century
The small tortoiseshell butterfly has declined 81% between 2003 and 2007
Urban land cover in England is projected to rise more than 1% to 11.9% by 2016
Source: Natural England

And conservationists will ensure they attracted the right animals and assess whether to fence off the towers.

House sparrow numbers are down 64% in 25 years, the UK's 17 species of bat are all now protected by law and there are just 56 butterfly species remaining in Britain, figures show.

Few know that better than presenter Chris Packham, who is joining BBC 2's wildlife programme Springwatch.

He thinks the towers are a "brilliant" idea, partly because modern urban houses don't have holes to double up as nests.

"Hopefully there will be room for bats, small nesting birds like great tits or blue tits and insects," he says.

Other towers built for barn owls have managed to also attract kestrels, he adds, and there is no reason why this design shouldn't work, although it won't be to every animal's liking.

"Foxes and badgers are quite wary and don't want to be disturbed by dogs or people, so they tend to go to railway cuttings and embankments or quiet gardens," he explains.

These fantastic tower block designs provide all the needs for an aspiring city dweller
Peter Nottage
Natural England

Conservation group Natural England believes the "fantastic" design could potentially prove as successful as garden bird boxes, and has offered its expertise to help.

Peter Nottage, regional director for Yorkshire and Humber, says wildlife should be recorded before a project goes ahead that could change its balance.

"It's important to carry out surveys so we know what's living there, how it could be affected or how the design could be developed to enhance the habitat for the existing wildlife.

"We'd want to make sure that anything rare was protected and given the opportunity to thrive.

"These fantastic tower block designs provide all the needs for an aspiring city dweller - a trendy home made from renewable materials, somewhere close to the best food and watering holes and a place to socialise.

"In the right places and after careful planning, there is no reason why these towers could not provide homes for wildlife."

He said those most likely to benefit are nesting birds, with nooks and crannies for insects, and other less mobile animals.

A selection of your comments appears below.

This may be a good idea but how will the towers be protected from the human wildlife. They are the type of thing the local denizens will love to vandalise.
Peter, Cheltenham, UK

One thing seems badly missed, all these animals at the bottom of the food chain need large areas of greenery, forest etc to survive. They disappear as the food is not available to them. The foxes live on the plant eaters. Without large numbers of them, no meat eaters are possible. Also, most animals will not live close to each either, is a rabbit or bird going to live in the same tower as a fox?

It seems neat, but the massive loss of countryside is the problem that this cannot fix - more 'birdhouses' doesn't really fix anything...
David Huntley, Canada, ex-UK

It is a simple but an excellent idea. The concept is not new as it is used commonly in skyscrapers in Metros. For vertically mobile birds, insects and animals including monkeys, it should be an easy success. For other land animals it may need guard rails to keep them from falling. These will have to be close to water bodies which can be frequented by the animals. We will also have to have a way of cleaning the animal refuse and those animals which will die. I do not know how we can keep roots from penetrating deep into the walls and weakening them. I am sure more issues will be found when these towers are made. But I am also sure some ways will be found around most. All said, it is worth a try.
Sanjay Sood, Bangalore

I've seen something similar to this in an area close to me, using renewable resources with minimum effort. Fantastic-looking structures. Trees.
Liam, Gillingham, Kent

At first this seemed an appealing idea, until I thought of the magnificent trees where I live that provide this same habitat free of charge. I think you need a plant-a-tree-in-the-city campaign, not a tower campaign. With all your magnificent gardeners, trees would flourish.
Mary Cowmeadow, Plymouth, Michigan, U.S.A.

At last someone with common sense and vision, do not let town councillors or MPs get involved or it will take years and cost a fortune. This is the best thing I have read in a long time, hope other towns/cities take it up
Warder, York

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