“I was interested in native birds first, then I ran out of birds to identify in Taranaki so I moved onto plants. I was given the book Plants of New Zealand at the age of nine. After a few years I knew the book by heart.”
Fast forward five decades, and Professor Clarkson is championing biodiversity and the natural world through his ecological research.
Bruce leads the MBIE-funded research programme, People, Cities and Nature, a multidisciplinary project involving researchers from Waikato University, Otago University, Victoria University and Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research.
That research has brought him back home to Taranaki, where he has been working closely with the New Plymouth Regional Council (NPDC) for a number of years.
Renee Davies is a senior planner at NPDC, and her work is focused on the region’s parks, reserves and natural spaces.
Bruce has helped the council by sharing his knowledge and research on biodiversity and the natural environment, to progress urban ecological restoration projects across the city.
Access to the research data and expertise from the People, Cities and Nature team has been invaluable for New Plymouth District Council.
“Bruce often comes in and gives presentations to our councillors and community to help build understanding around the research and the importance of biodiversity, and the special character of our district,” says Renee.
“He helps advocate for nature, why we need to save what we’ve got and how we can do better going forward.”
Research done through the People, Cities and Nature project in New Plymouth helped inform the Draft National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity, which is expected to be approved by Cabinet this year.
It recommends a target of at least 10 per cent indigenous vegetation cover in urban environments.
New Plymouth is leading the way on this front. It is the most biodiverse city in New Zealand with 8.9 per cent of its urban area vegetated.
In 2019, the average cover was 1.96% in the largest 20 urban centres (ranging from less than one per cent to more than 8 per cent).
In its latest Long Term Plan, NPDC has committed to reaching a target of 10 per cent native flora in urban areas, and many other councils - including Hamilton City - doing the same.
Halting or reversing biodiversity decline in New Zealand is a significant and critical challenge.
According to Forest and Bird, 80 per cent of native birds, 88 per cent of native lizards and 100 per cent of native frogs are threatened with extinction.
But better engagement with urban dwellers - which make up around 87 per cent of the population - can help achieve conservation outcomes, according to Aotearoa Biodiversity Strategy.
“Climate change and biodiversity decline are becoming such significant issues,” says Bruce. “We know that extinction rates are massively increasing across the world, and we know what the impact of climate change is and young people are rightly asking the question, what are you doing about it?”
Bruce led a team of Waikato University students to identify areas of urban ecological restoration along the Waiwhakaiho River, which led to the establishment of a major 50ha ecological corridor in New Plymouth.
Insights from the People, Cities and Nature research has also spurred NPDC to develop a programme called Planting our Place.
As part of its strategy to combat climate change and biodiversity decline, the council plans 34ha of native plantings through urban parks and open spaces over a 20 year period, to achieve its 10 per cent urban vegetation cover goal.
“We are aiming to be one of the first cities in the country to be able to do that,” says Renee. “Council has committed a 10 year programme of work and funding to do that. Essentially, Bruce and the People, Cities and Nature research has guided a major restoration initiative in the district. He is continuing to work with us on refining that work, on identifying particular species that we want in our planting across the district.”
Renee says that residents and visitors are becoming increasingly aware of “how special Taranaki is”.
“We have the maunga at the centre and we have a huge number of streams that run through everything and dissipate out to the coast. People are now more aware of the complete interrelationship between the awa and our natural environment, and the restoration of those water bodies are providing benefits to health and wellbeing as well as diversity.”
Walkways along streams and rivers are popular with Taranaki residents.
“It’s a realisation that the environment is quite special here; the community really values it and we are hearing that through our Long Term Plan engagement, especially from young people.”
“There is a big groundswell back to spending time in nature. We saw during covid-19 lockdown, that people were getting out into their backyards and local parks and walkways a lot more. It really highlighted the value of it. People want to hear the birds in their backyard. People are planting their gardens with natives to bring the birds back in.”
Dr Bruce Clarkson with the team at NPDC Te Rewa Rewa Reserve planting site. This site is part of a Mahinga Kai restoration project led by Ngāti Tawhirikura hapū. Bruce has been providing guidance on plant selection for this landscape-scale restoration project. Left to right Sean Zeiltjes, Dr Bruce Clarkson, Sera Gibson, Cordelle Rei and Kim Northcott.