Frontiers 2023 Green Energy

Restoring life to water systems

Written by Elizabeth Woodcock
Here at Frontiers Magazine we focus on fresh ways of viewing existing territory while looking out to new horizons being explored. Recently, we talked with Lisa Shaw, one of the founding partners of Scottish company, Biomatrix, to share their inspiring story of solutions and restoration, at the forefront of global change. For a little background, here in the UK, 90% of wetland habitats have been lost in the last 100 years. This is due to extreme drainage needed to provide land for housing and construction, unsustainable farming methods and removal of green spaces. Biomatrix, based in Forres, Moray, are bringing our water systems back to life, working globally to restore aquatic habitats.

In a nutshell, what do you do?

By integrating ecology and engineering we deliver solutions which build on the power of nature. We create habitats and improve biodiversity, designing beautiful living waterscapes which bring water to life. 

Our main products, Floating Ecosystems, are made with recycled and natural materials and they provide the substrate for plants to grow, creating habitat above and below the water. Beneath the surface the plant roots attract beneficial microorganisms that also help to improve water quality. Fish, birds, pollinators and other species are attracted to the Floating Ecosystems and can find refuge in hard-edged rivers and canals, and in built-up urban environments where they might otherwise struggle to live.   

What’s been your most recent project?

Glasgow Science Centre on the River Clyde at Prince’s Dock. In 1900 the Prince’s Dock, the site of the Science Centre, contained the country’s deepest graving docks, capable of holding the largest ships afloat. Here, they carried out maintenance and repaired the hulls of ships. It’s been a pleasure to work with the Centre bringing life to this historic environment. 

This area of the River Clyde is a challenging hard-edged environment with limited habitat for wildlife. It also has a tidal range of over four metres. We’ve introduced Floating Ecosystems that can accommodate the changing levels of the water, rising and falling with the tide. They are planted with over 2000 native estuarine plants which will provide habitat for indigenous wildlife. Species such as moorhens, ducks, and cormorants to nest, for fish to gain shelter and find food, and may even attract visitors such as seals, otters, and porpoises, which can be found in the Clyde.

One exciting aspect of this project is that scientists and students from the University of Glasgow will study the Floating Ecosystem and use them as a type of ‘living laboratory’. They will examine the impact that plants have on local animal populations and monitor any changes in the water conditions.

You are a pioneering company with a deep vision to help restore and reverse the biodiversity crisis. How did Biomatrix come about?

Our work evolved out of the field of ecological wastewater treatment. One of our founding partners worked with Dr John Todd, to design and build groundbreaking Living Machines to treat wastewater with plants within greenhouses. The water is purified by the plants and the microbial communities amongst their roots, which convert the pollution into a food source. There is still a Living Machine at the Findhorn Community in Scotland that was built in 1985 and treats wastewater in a safe and energy-efficient way. It continues to inspire visitors from far afield.

What’s the most challenging project you have had?

One of the most challenging and exciting projects that we have been working on in stages for five years now is called ‘The Wild Mile’ in the North Branch of the Chicago River with our partner Urban Rivers. It is the world’s first mile-long floating eco-park, that is currently coming to life section by section. The most recent section incorporates a meandering section of boardwalk open to the public, reconnecting the neighborhood with the Chicago River as a living aquatic ecosystem for the first time since pre-industrial days.

This is part of a paradigm shift in the way municipalities view and imagine their urban water spaces and the potential benefits they have to offer. The benefits include increasing biodiversity, amenity, improving water quality, and public health and well-being. The boardwalk provides easy access to the water for water sports enthusiasts. There is also a large floating learning platform that is used for educational classes as well as weekly yoga sessions.

What’s the Living Water Cities Movement?

Almost all cities are water cities. Water commonly serves as a defining, founding feature of settlements. Rivers, lakes and estuaries were once the heart of trade, transport and leisure, and still serve as landmark features for tourism and relaxation. Yet rapid urbanisation has degraded the water bodies of our cities.

Our cities are expanding and new ways of life are taking us further and further from nature. The waterfronts of today’s growing cities typically incorporate docks, canals, flood defences, storm water channels and many different types of containing and retaining walls to control urban water systems.

The result is that today’s water cities typically contain many kilometres of water edge comprised predominantly of hard concrete, steel sheet pile, or stonework. This way, the potential is lost for waterways to become ecological corridors, waterscapes that provide sanctuary for a wide range of species as well as a place for people to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.

Urban river restoration has expanded in recent years, people are starting to understand the interconnected benefits that restored ecosystems can provide to society without disrupting existing infrastructure. By working together and channelling our efforts we can turn underused and polluted resources into vast, living infrastructure.

What’s the best part of your job?

I love meeting people whose lives have been positively impacted through living near our Floating Ecosystem projects. For example, in Newcastle on Killingworth Lake, a local resident, Wally, shared with me how watching the Floating Ecosystems change throughout the season. He photographed them with his drone, and this has improved his mental health, helping him to feel more peace and calm, despite struggling with chronic pain. 

Another example is of a resident in London at Kingsland Basin off the Regent’s Canal. Gideon told me that since the regeneration of the basin he no longer has to travel outside of the city to feel connected with nature and frequently spots rare species of dragonflies, butterflies and birds.  

One final example is artist Adam from East London who coordinated a group of local artists to perform a piece on the Floating Park at the Royal Docks called ‘Readings and Rituals’ which featured new writing, poetry and movement celebrating our relationship with the planet and each other.

Thanks so much for chatting with us. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our Frontiers readers?

Thank you for featuring our work! I’d like to also share that community engagement and outreach is an important part of our work and we usually have local residents, school groups, and community groups helping to plant up and launch the Floating Ecosystems. This also creates a sense of connection and ownership and leads to a greater awareness and stewardship of our incredible waterways. 

If you’d like any more information have a look at their website.

About the author

Elizabeth Woodcock

Elizabeth Woodcock is an RHS horticulturalist with training in regenerative agriculture and permaculture, a garden organic master composter, Lake District National Park walk leader, and is training as a mountain leader. She has been a journalist, science communicator, writer, and adventurer of many high, and low, places. She lives in Cumbria with her daughter, dog and chickens.