University of Tartu

What is Greenmeter and how does it work?

Greenmeter is an application that measures how the areas in the Estonian countryside and urban landscapes support the biodiversity characteristic of the local ecosystems. The application assesses various landscape parameters within a 500m radius of any given point in Estonia, using a special algorithm developed at the University of Tartu. Greenmeter identifies and then visualises the areas that support biodiversity the most or least in the 100x100 m plots around the clicked location, and provides aggregate index ranging from 1 to 100.

Low aggregate index values show that the structure of the landscape and the changes that have occurred in it are not conducive to the biodiversity of the area, high values apply to landscapes that are of high quality and in good standing from the point of view of biodiversity.

The application is available to people, companies and local government units as well as for schools and kindergartens for instructional purposes. Greenmeter helps to make the choices and decisions that keep the environment favourable for people as well as the species that surround us in the back yard or in public spaces. Moreover, Greenmeter provides directly applicable recommendations for maintaining or restoring biodiversity in particular locations.

The input information Greenmeter uses involves up-to-date recent data as well as historical data on habitats and the spread of species in Estonia. Several map layers describe environmental conditions (e.g., the network of irrigation ditches in peaty bog soil or the vegetation height model) and some indices characterise landscape structure. The application makes use of open data from either Estonian public systems (map layers of the Land Board, Estonian Nature Information System EELIS, data layers of the Agricultural Registers and Information Board) or international databases (Global Forest Watch, the European Union’s data registers). Some of the data layers used in Greenmeter (the landscape indices, for example) have been developed by the University of Tartu independently. The application also uses data on the mapping of Estonian vegetation dating back to the period from 1930 to 1950, which was published in the book Eesti NSV taimkate (Vegetation in the Estonian SSR, Laasimer 1965); those maps are kept in the Estonian University of Life Sciences and were digitised at the University of Tartu. Likewise, the University of Tartu digitised data on the historical spread of Estonian forests based on the topographic maps of the Soviet Union and specified the data with the help of historical information gained from mapping vegetation.

The average value of each 100×100 meter square has been calculated on the basis of parameters gained from numerous data layers. 15–40 data layers are used to calculate the displayed value of each 100×100 meter square. Altogether, the application makes use of more than 70 data layers. The aggregate index of Greenmeter, which reflects whether an observed landscape is suitable for maintaining biodiversity, is the average of the area within a 500 meter radius of the location point.

Greenmeter has been created by researchers from the macroecology and landscape biodiversity working group at the Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences of the University of Tartu. The macroecology working group headed by Professor Meelis Pärtel studies biodiversity on various levels both in Estonia and all over the world, both today and a thousand years ago, both above and below ground. The landscape biodiversity working group headed by Aveliina Helm creates knowledge necessary for restoring and maintaining biodiversity and researches how to guarantee the welfare of humans as well as other species while the world is changing.

Frequently asked questions

Why do some cities have higher aggregate values in Greenmeter compared to areas in the countryside?

The values attributed to settlements and areas in the countryside cannot be compared one on one, as in the case of settlements, Greenmeter evaluates whether the landscape is conducive to biodiversity in view of urban nature. There are many species in Estonia for whom settlements are not suitable habitats, but there are also those who are fine in the vicinity of people if other conditions are favourable.

Greenmeter applies the so-called species pool approach and evaluates how well the biodiversity characteristic of ecosystems in that particular landscape has been supported at the selected location point. Each area and ecosystem have its own special biota and factors that influence its biodiversity. For instance, the biota in forests and forest landscapes requires a distinct proportion of old-growth forest in the landscape, the biota characteristic of bogs requires a natural water regime and an undisturbed ecosystem, while the abundance of habitats and feeding grounds are essential for agricultural biota. Even if the conditions are as favourable as they can be, there is still a smaller number of species in bogs and wetlands compared to meadow communities, which are known for their abundance of species, but both get an equally high mark if the conditions are suitable for the biota of that particular ecosystem in the area. Greenmeter evaluates settlements on a similar basis—it assesses the conditions that are suitable for biodiversity compatible with cities and settlements. Thus, a biodiverse and green settlement area may have a remarkably higher Greenmeter index compared to an irrigated marsh or forest where trees have been cut down from large spaces.

What do the squares around the selected location point signify and why do they change colour?

The application assesses how well biodiversity is supported in a landscape at a selected point and evaluates the location point, considering the surrounding landscape. The colourful squares that surround the selected location point help to show how the index of the observed point was calculated (the individual assessments that it was based on) but do not constitute the final value. To get an assessment about a colourful square on the landscape, select a location point within its limits. Greenmeter does not employ a pre-determined map layer, meaning that it calculates the evaluation on how well biodiversity is supported at the selected location point in real time and as a response to your inquiry.

Will Greenmeter be developed further and may the evaluations provided change in the future?

Yes, Greenmeter is constantly developing, while information is added and the data layers employed are updated or complemented. The evaluations provided by Greenmeter may also change in the future when new important data layers are added or existing data is updated. Users should also consider that all real-life changes are reflected on various map layers and in Greenmeter with a delay.

Why is biodiversity important?

Our nature needs protection for several reasons. We have the moral responsibility to preserve suitable conditions for the other species with whom we share our home. However, a biodiverse natural environment and the benefits related to it also form the basis of human welfare. Ecosystems that are in sound condition and biodiverse landscapes guarantee us clean air, water, sustainable food production, the functioning of the substance turnover, resilience to climate change, physical and mental health, identity, a sense of belonging and many other things that we tend to take for granted.

Biodiversity is diminishing all over the world, unfortunately in Estonia as well. The landscape changes that have occurred in the past century influence a major proportion of our natural species. Each year, the number of Estonian farmland birds diminishes by 24,000 to 52,000 nesting pairs and the number of woodland birds by 60,000 pairs. The monitoring of agricultural landscapes shows that the biodiversity and number of bumblebees, highly important pollinators, is significantly poorer and lower in Central Estonia on intensively cultivated agricultural landscapes compared to the more diverse landscapes of South Estonia. Semi-natural meadows, our heritage communities, are among the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, but have diminished by 95% in terms of their area in the past 100 years. Forests where trees are more than 81 years old make up 17% of the total in Estonia and as little as 2% of our forests may be considered to have natural dynamics (based on Estonia’s statistical forest inventory).

The factors that have the greatest impact on biodiversity include the loss of traditional seminatural communities and landscapes; intensifying agricultural activity, as a result of which agricultural landscapes are turning increasingly more uniform; the use of pesticides and fertilisers; rejuvenation and homogenisation of forests, and the spread of areas covered with lawn and tarmac. The protected areas alone cannot cover the needs of all species, all landscapes should support biodiversity. All small patches of meadow, groves of trees, ditch banks, little ponds or even pretty blooming road-verges have their role on a landscape.

When biodiversity diminishes, it reduces the opportunities we and our children have of living a good life in a pristine environment. In the next few years, we need to set the goal of creating biodiverse landscapes that are resistant to climate change both in the city and countryside—maintaining biodiversity and restoring the ecological environment of the landscapes that have already suffered is not a luxury, but a necessity.

What can you do for biodiversity?

Tips for Everyone’s Nature Conservation

'Everyone’s Nature Conservation' is each voluntary and conscious step we take to help species and their habitats. Smart choices in our gardens, hometowns or workplaces are important to help maintain the biodiversity around us.

Biodiversity is evident on the meadows and in the forests, on road-verges and field margins, on decaying stumps and mossy rocks, in puddles and ditches, in the sea and rivers. The conservation of a biodiverse environment is dependent on our actions. Do not forget, almost all our companions on Earth are smaller than humans, and every square meter is home to hundreds of species.

What can you do in your community and surroundings?

Learn about the important habitats in the Estonian nature. This way, you can value those around your home. Sustain the existing habitats, every inch of them. Remember that the development of old forests, typical bogs and biodiverse meadows takes a long time, and if they are destroyed, the restoration of their former biodiversity and natural benefits is difficult, sometimes impossible. 

Engage your community and think how to facilitate biodiversity in common spaces, why not create a ‘biodiversity oasis’ in every village or area?

Protect ancient trees, also the ones already dying. If they are dangerous, find ways to make them safe. Ancient trees and (especially) partially decaying broadleaf trees are disproportionally important dens of biodiversity. Cutting down the tree should be the last resort, and even then, the biodiversity of the old tree can be supported as a coarse woody habitat.

Value and care for small waterholes. Puddles, ponds, ditches, and small brooks are important living environments for many species and also provide drinking water.

Bushes and hedges offer shelter to birds for nesting and taking cover. Plant avenues and hedges with trees and bushes. Avenues have a good tendency to remain intact on a landscape for a long time—long-term and stable habitats are basic necessities for the formation of biodiversity.

Stone walls and piles of stones are important living environments. Did you know that there is at least one species of spiders (the snake-back spider, Segestria senoculata), for whom stone walls are the only suitable habitat?

Keep peace during the bird nesting period. Do not disturb life in the forests, hedges, and bushes from the beginning of April at least until mid-July. Pay attention before and after that as well, many birds nest early and some species (like the barn swallow, the great tit, the white wagtail, and the Eurasian skylark) lay a second clutch as well.

Use logs, stumps, woodcuts, piles of branches, and old haybales as fences or landscaping elements—all of those can house many species.

Reduce light pollution! Your surroundings should be dark while you are asleep. Light pollution is deemed to be a factor in the massively declining number of insects. Artificial light disturbs the orientation of the insects who have just emerged from pupae, it lowers their reproductive success and interferes with nocturnal bird migration, forcing them to fly higher.

Do not disturb or feed wild animals and birds. Healthy animals, not even lonely baby animals or birds need people to interfere, they must be left alone.

Road verges are the last shelter for many meadow species, especially on landscapes which have received a very low score from Greenmeter. A biodiversity-friendly road verge is rich in flowers and it should be mown 2-3 times every year. Herbicides should never be used on road verges. If you notice a road verge sprayed with herbicides, contact your local government unit, and suggest a more nature friendly way of maintenance. Mowing the road verges two or three times every year is enough in most cases—the road is still safe, but the state of biodiversity is much better.

In addition to road verges, other infrastructure areas, such as the verges of high voltage lines, gas supply routes and railways, which are regularly kept unforested, provide habitats and movement corridors for meadow species, including pollinators.

Recommend that your local government unit support biodiversity in other areas as well. Keep an eye on whether biodiversity is considered in the maintenance of parks and green areas, and whether new developments cover unnecessarily large areas. Encourage your local government unit to plant green roofs with flowers, natural parks, meadowed green areas and promote all-around greener cities and settlements.

What can you do for biodiversity in your home garden or yard?

What seems unmaintained to us might be a sweet home to many species sharing a habitat with us—unmown garden corners, fallen and decaying tree trunks, snags, old stone walls, piles of leaves or branches, and mossy stones all favour biodiversity. Be lazier this year with the upkeep of your surroundings!

Mow the lawn less and try haymaking instead in the rarely used corners of the garden. Every square meter where local flowers have a right to grow, is a piece of nature.

Grow an abundance of flowering plants in your flower beds, flower boxes for balconies, and in the verges of your garden—these help feed bees, bumblebees, and butterflies.

Plant a diverse vegetable garden. According to research conducted in Great Britain, small eco gardens (especially in urban areas) are hotspots for biodiversity.

Do not use synthetic pesticides.

Gather seeds of natural Estonian meadow species and grow them in your garden. With this, you can offer habitat for plants lacking space in the landscape.

Try to avoid planting seeds of local species that have been produced abroad—this might cause changes in the local gene pool of the species.

Build birdhouses, insect hotels and bat shelters, but do not forget to clean and maintain them. Do not rush to weed out umbellifer stems and grass shrubs, as they offer shelter for the winter for many insects and spiders, and act as a nesting place for many pollinators.

A tree fell down or you cut down a dangerous tree? Leave a part of the stump up and the wider part of the trunk on the ground—snags and fallen dead trunks (especially of coarse broadleaf trees) are valuable and increasingly rare habitats, which are the only available living space and food supply for many fungi and insects.

Do not grow or foster invasive foreign species that endanger our local ones when they spread to nature (such as beach rose, Himalayan balsam and Canadian goldenrod).

Compost garden and food waste. This is very environmentally friendly in many aspects and supports biodiversity.

Do not use synthetic pesticides in your home garden or urban space.

Do not fight weeds where they do not disturb you—ground elder, dandelions, thistles and other species that are deemed troublesome are vital to pollinators and other important insects.

How to upscale your impact?

Keep an eye on the Estonian landscape and help to guarantee that activities, which have a great influence on biodiversity would be nature friendly. Those include agriculture, forestry, creation of mining areas, soil drainage, construction of infrastructure, expansion of cities and settlements.

Support Estonian NGOs dedicated to the well-being of Estonian nature support, both in words as well as with actions. The Estonian Fund for Nature, Estonian Ornithological Society, Estonian Green Movement, Estonian Forest Aid, Estonian Seminatural Community Conservation Association, Estonian Society for Nature Conservation, and many other organisations focused on the environment do valuable work. Join their ranks or offer support by donating.

Volunteer in nature protection activities or contribute to nature observation.

Recognise greenwashing. Greenwashing is an activity or communication, which attempts to cover otherwise environmentally harmful actions with an environmentally friendly façade. Do not let yourself be tricked by businesses or organisations, whose main activity has a massive impact on climate or the environment, but who try to hide that with the disproportionately wide coverage of their few environmentally friendly activities or plainly presenting only part of the facts.

Trust scientifically proven information. There are many recommendations on social media on supporting biodiversity but learn to pick out the ones that are beneficial and applicable in Estonia, as well as scientifically proven to be successful.

Greenmeter logo

User information

Greenmeter calculates landscape biodiversity support based on the best available data. Greenmeter is regularly updated. Greenmeter team has put in efforts to ensure that the output information is accurate and as complete as possible. However, as we use data that originates from outside of the University of Tartu, we cannot guarantee full accuracy of the tool. Thus, the output of Greenmeter should be considered to be informative. Use of Greenmeter output is under the responsibility of the user.

Please note that the Greenmeter recommendations do not replace land-use requirements by municipalities or state and official requirements outlined in management plans and other documents for protected areas, habitats or species.

If you hav any questions regarding Greenmeter, Estonian nature or Everyone's Nature Conservation idea, please write

Copyright owner of Greenmeter is University of Tartu.