It’s a kind of magic: how green infrastructure is changing landscapes and lives

Daisies in Victoria Park sent in by Fiona Ann Patterson

Victoria Park, Belfast. Image: Fiona Ann Paterson

The greatest change happening to the face of our planet is the rapid growth of urban areas. Every ten years, an area the size of Britain is colonised by urban development, and by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in urban areas. This urban growth is already having a profound impact: while cities occupy 2% of the world’s surface, they consume 75% of the Earth’s natural resources and produce 75% of global CO2 emissions.

Last month’s Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN) forum in Edinburgh explored how green infrastructure projects can help cities and towns repair the damage of urbanisation, while making urban areas more healthy and prosperous places for the people who live there.

The importance of green infrastructure

Green infrastructure includes elements such as parks and gardens, woodland and wetlands, canals and cycle paths. It’s a natural life support system that can play a key role in helping urban areas adapt to and mitigate climate change.

Three projects showcased at the CSGN forum admirably demonstrated how green infrastructure can benefit the environment, the economy, large cities and local communities.

Milan: building forests in the sky
Francesca Cesa Bianci, senior architect at Stefano Boeri Architects in Milan described a ground-breaking project in her city, called Bosco Verticale – the Vertical Forest.

She explained that, while urban growth cannot be stopped, it is possible to build cities more in harmony with nature. The Vertical Forest project is a response to this challenge.

Almost 800 trees and 5000 shrubs have been planted on the balconies of two residential towers built on a brownfield site in central Milan. The result is visually striking, but even more outstanding is the greenery’s environmental impact. The two towers absorb 30 tons of CO2 per year and produce 19 tons of oxygen a day. Noise and heat are also reduced and the buildings now provide habitat for more than 20 species of birds.

The Bosco Verticale idea is now spreading beyond Italy, with similar projects in Albania, Switzerland and China. Some municipalities in China are also exploring the idea of entire cities composed of vertical forests – which could bring significant benefits to urban areas where air pollution is a hidden killer.

Belfast: telling a different story

East Belfast is an area of multiple deprivation, with some of the worst levels of physical and mental health in Europe, low educational attainment and a deprived physical environment. The 2014 edition of the Rough Guide to Ireland warned readers that it was “inadvisable” to visit the area.

That scenario is now changing, thanks largely to a green infrastructure project. Wendy Langham, Programme Manager for the EastSide Partnership, outlined to the CSGN forum how the Connswater Community Greenway  (CCG) is changing lives and changing the way people think about the area.

Wiggle-8713

Connswater Community Greenway Image: EastSide Partnership, Belfast

Funded by the Big Lottery Fund, Belfast City Council and the Northern Ireland Executive, two major phases of development have created a 9km linear park with 16km of walking and cycling routes, 30 new or improved bridges crossing over three rivers, and works to deliver elements of Belfast’s Flood Alleviation scheme and improve water quality.

An ongoing assessment of the project has estimated the potential economic return of the CCG to be up to 14 times the investment. The flood alleviation investment of £11.7m has saved an estimated £54.7m.

The study also highlighted the wider benefits of the project:

“We have shown that environmental interventions, such as the Connswater Community Greenway, could be a cost-effective way to increase physical activity levels, prevent major chronic diseases and decrease healthcare expenditure. In addition, the Greenway may have benefits beyond health such as reductions in traffic and carbon emissions, crime and improvements in safety.”

The project has been keen to tell a different story about East Belfast from the negative narrative so long associated with the area. Celebrating local heroes, the project has developed a public square named in honour of author C.S. Lewis, while a Van Morrison music trail has attracted locals and tourists to the area.

Wendy explained that the project is far from finished, and has ambitious plans for the future. She concluded with a quotation from Michelangelo that captures the spirit of the project:

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

Copenhagen: connecting people with nature

For many years, the Danish capital has been the envy of cyclists the world over. But now, the city’s well-developed network of on-road cycling routes is being supplemented by a new set of ‘green cycle routes’. Winding through parks, open spaces, woodlands and other habitats, the new paths will give cyclists and pedestrians safe and enjoyable access to nature.

Niels Jensen, traffic planner with the City of Copenhagen, explained that the first of these green cycle routes opened in 2012, and a further 23 routes are planned, covering an area of over 100km. One of the routes connects central Copenhagen with the suburban town of Albertslund, 22 km outside the city, while another follows the course of an abandoned railway line.

Albertslund Bikeway

Albertslund Green Cycleway. Image: Soren Rud/LifeExhibitions. Further information – Copenhagen Green

Niels acknowledged that the investment in the project is significant – €20.7 million, But Copenhagen believes the benefits are worth the money,with more non-cyclists – including children – taking to bikes, using safe, direct and unpolluted connections. Since 2012, the first two routes have experienced a growth in the number of bicycle users of 61% and 34% respectively. The project expects to see a 25% increase in cycling traffic by 2025, advancing Copenhagen’s ambition to be the best cycling city in the world.

Conclusion

In her keynote speech to the CSGN forum, Scottish Government minister Roseanna Cunningham described the transformation achieved by green infrastructure as “magical”. She highlighted the examples of a project that will transform a landfill site in Glasgow into a community woodland, and another programme to improve mental health by bringing people into contact with woodlands and forests.

These projects, and those showcased during the CSGN forum demonstrate that our urbanising world need not be a concrete jungle, and that the benefits of green infrastructure go far beyond its face value.

Orangefield Park Celebrations

Orangefield Park, Belfast Image: EastSide Partnership, Belfast


Further reading on green spaces in our blog

How Finland put housing first

Earlier this year, official figures showed that rough sleeping in England had risen for the sixth successive year.

The data showed that 4,134 people slept on the street in 2016, an increase of 16% on the previous year’s figure of 3,569, and more than double the 2010 figure. Many of those enduring long-term homelessness have complex and multiple needs related to mental health or addiction. While this is a growing problem in the UK, housing exclusion is by no means confined to these shores. As we reported in April, there is growing evidence of an alarming increase in homelessness across Europe.

But one European country is bucking this trend. Since 2008, the Finnish government has been working with housing agencies to reduce long term homelessness and improve prevention services. The adopted approach, called ‘Housing First’, has had a big impact, achieving a 35% fall in long term homelessness over seven years. Finland is now the only country in the European Union where homelessness continues to fall.

Housing First: what it means

Housing First is not a uniquely Finnish approach to tackling homelessness, nor is it a new idea. The practice began in Los Angeles in the 1980s. It’s based on the principle that housing is a basic human right, and turns on its head the notion that vulnerable people are only ‘housing ready’ once they have begun to engage with support services.

As the name suggests, Housing First means providing vulnerable people with permanent, affordable housing, and then offering specialised support to ensure that they don’t return to sleeping on the streets. However, acceptance of that support is not a condition for access to housing. The approach has been adopted in various American cities, as well as parts of Australia, Canada, France and Japan. But it’s in Finland that Housing First has achieved some of its most impressive results.

Housing First: how it works

One of the key players in Finland’s Housing First strategy is the Y-Foundation, an association of local authorities, church, construction, trade union and health organisations that has been supporting homeless people for more than thirty years. Starting in 2008, the foundation converted homeless shelters in Finland’s biggest cities into rental housing. At the same time, the government set targets for local authorities to build new flats in mixed housing developments. The programme is backed by money from government grants and the proceeds from Finland’s not-for-profit gambling monopoly.

Housing First: why it works

The cost estimate for Finland’s Housing First programme is €78 million. But Juha Kaakinen, chief executive of the Y-Foundation, has no doubts about its value for money. In an interview with Inside Housing, he explained:

“It’s not only good social policy; it has a big safety and security angle, as the more homeless people there are on the streets, the more unsafe the city is. And there’s an economic argument, too: taking care of these people is a good investment.”

He estimates that taking each homeless person off the streets saves social, health and emergency services around €15,000 a year.

Housing First in the UK

Homelessness charities in Britain have been taking great interest in the success of Housing First in Finland.

“It’s a stunning result,” Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at Crisis, told Inside Housing.  “They used to have a bigger homelessness problem than we have.” But he was less sure whether the programme could be replicated here. “We’ve got a system that is the exact opposite of Housing First. In Finland they made a strategic choice; that allowed them to change everything.”

Even so, Housing First is already gaining ground around the UK:

Scotland
A pilot project in Glasgow by Turning Point Scotland was the first Housing First project to be implemented in the UK. Between 2011 and 2013, the project provided mainstream social housing and 24/7 floating support to 22 individuals who were homeless, aged 18 or over, and involved in substance misuse. An evaluation of the project by Heriot Watt University found that none of the tenants were evicted from their flat and the majority of participants retained their tenancies.

Wales
The Welsh Government has announced that it is considering moves towards a Housing First policy. The communities and children secretary for Wales told the Welsh Assembly in April 2017 that he would be reviewing homelessness prevention in Wales, and is exploring Housing First initiatives.

Northern Ireland
Working with the Depaul youth homelessness charity, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive funded a Housing First pilot scheme in Belfast. An evaluation of the 18-month programme reported a number of positive results, including a high rate of tenancy retention, improvements in participants’ self-care, confidence and living skills, and reductions in their dependence on drugs and alcohol. A further Housing First programme has since been established in Derry.

England
In 2015, the University of York published findings from a study of nine Housing First services in England. The authors reported high levels of success in reducing long-term and repeated homelessness, with 74% of service users successfully housed for one year or more. There were also significant improvements in the physical and mental health of Housing First tenants and high levels of satisfaction. The Centre for Social Justice has called on the UK government to set up a £110m national Housing First programme, arguing that the investment would save money and lives.

Final thoughts

There is no quick fix to the problem of homelessness, but Finland has shown that adopting new ways of thinking about the problem can virtually eradicate rough sleeping. As Juha Kaakinen observes:

“Housing First means ending homelessness instead of managing it.”



Further reading on homelessness:

Supercommuting: is it worth it?

crowd rush on the london tube

By Rebecca Jackson

In recent years there has been a surge in the number of people in the UK being classed as ‘supercommuters’ – people who travel more than 90 minutes to work each day. And figures from the TUC published last week suggest that over 3 million of us now have long daily commutes of two hours or more, a rise of 72% in the last decade.

Rising rent, the London-centric nature of the British economy and the desire to maintain a healthy work-life balance have all been cited as factors which have contributed to this mass commute which millions of us, myself included, go through every day.

Reliance on commuting for ‘better job’ opportunities

In a recent survey it was found that accountants have the longest average commute, at 75 minutes, with IT software developers next at 65 minutes. The shortest average commute belongs to those who work in the retail and leisure industries, who have commute times of between 20-30 minutes respectively.

A recent IPPR report suggested that commuting, or more specifically the lack of ability to commute, was resulting in many job-seekers remaining out of work. As a result, a reliance on commuting for ‘better jobs’ was limiting the growth of the British economy, particularly in areas outside of London.

Commuting, and the resulting inflexibility this gives many jobs, can also be a barrier to many women, particularly those with families or caring responsibilities, taking on roles which are higher paid or higher up the ‘corporate ladder’, including more senior roles in company structures and professions such as accountancy and law.

The costs of supercommuting

So how realistic is a ‘supercommute’ in terms of cost, and in terms of family life and commitments … and is it worth it?

I calculated the cost and time it would take to commute to London from 4 cities: Manchester, Edinburgh, Belfast and Barcelona (I chose Barcelona because I know someone who did it for a year!).

The scenario I used was for an individual who works full time in an office in the City of London, within walking distance of Liverpool Street Station. All prices shown are averages and will fluctuate depending on proximity to amenities, time of booking transport etc. This information also does not take into account the cost of living more generally, food, utilities, socialising etc.

Untitled 2*Average time, without excessive traffic or delays, for flights includes check in and transfer to Liverpool Street
** Northern Irish “Rates” are slightly different to council tax
*** For a 1 month Zone 1-6 Oyster card OR to fly from MAN; EDI; BFS; BCN to STN and get the Express to Liverpool Street, 3 days per week, returning each night.

The figures seem to show that cost wise, it’s true, supercommutes can save you money if travelling means that you can take a higher wage or better job.

Work-life balance

People who supercommute, while grateful for the better lifestyle it gives them and their families on days off, often highlight how long commutes, which often mean significantly longer working days, impact on their relationships, their health and require significantly more commitment and energy from them as individuals than a ‘normal 9-5 job’ would. An individual’s personal well-being can often be hugely affected by extreme commuting times.

Statistics have also shown that people who supercommute, who have a wife or partner who doesn’t commute with them, or doesn’t undertake a similar length of commute of their own, have a higher rate of divorce and/or separation. And those with children reported stressed and difficult relationships with them too.

Studies have also shown that its not all about the money, and that to equate monetary value to distance commuted, you would need to be offered a pay rise of 40% to compensate for the detriment caused in other areas of life by an extra hour’s commute.

Another factor influencing how realistic supercommuting is as an option for employees, is the willingness of the company, and the ability of the job, to be flexible. Many people who are interviewed, or used as successful case examples of supercomputing, work in jobs where they can work remotely for part or all of the time.

And as you can see in my example above, it is based on the understanding that those commuting from outside London are only doing so on a 3 day week basis, with a view that they would work remotely from home on the other two days. Not all jobs can facilitate this, and neither can all employees.

Is it worth it?

Supercommuting can, therefore, be a way to save money, and offer improved quality of life, enabling people to live closer to family or in the countryside. However it comes at a potential cost to social life and relationships, and to personal well-being in terms of physical and mental health.

Sadly it’s not all afternoon strolls or sangria weekends on a beach in Barcelona, although this can be part of it. It takes commitment to the job and the commute itself and a regular reassessment of the question of “is it actually worth it?”

And, unfortunately for many, supercommuting is no longer a choice, but a situation forced on workers by the state of the housing or employment markets.


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Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read Donna Gardiner’s post on remote working