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.

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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

Growing places: community gardens are rising up the policy agenda

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In April, a study by Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN) reported a significant increase in community growing between 2010 and 2015. The results of the study found a rise of 79% in the number of sites devoted to community gardens, taking the total to 84, with land coverage rising to 29 hectares.

The increasing popularity of community gardens is also reflected elsewhere in the UK. The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens (FCFCG) estimates that there are now around 1000 community gardens around the UK.

What are community gardens?

Community gardens are defined by Greenspace Scotland as:

“locally managed pieces of land that are developed in response to and reflect the needs of the communities in which they are based.”

They differ from allotments in that the focus is on communal, rather than individual growing space. Most community gardens concentrate on cultivation of fruit and vegetables, although they may also promote complementary elements, such as recreation, biodiversity and education.

Last year, our Idox Information Service briefing on community growing highlighted a number of these projects, including the Incredible Edible community growing project in West Yorkshire and G3 Growers in Glasgow. Further examples include the Culpeper Community Garden in Islington, north London, and the Grove Community Garden in Edinburgh. Meanwhile, in Streatham, south London, a patch of waste ground next to a health centre has been transformed into a community garden by a group of patients with long-term health conditions. The garden is now supplying enough produce to sell fruit and vegetables to patients and visitors at a nearby hospital.

Benefits of Community Gardens

A 2009 report from the FCFCG identified a range of social, economic and environmental benefits stemming from community gardens. These included:

  • social interactions and inclusion
  • healthy eating
  • natural therapy (feelings of relaxation, appreciation, happiness, achievement)
  • skills development, training and development
  • environmental awareness and activities

More recently, a 2015 report on community gardens in Glasgow indicated that participants enjoy physical and mental health benefits, make new friends and develop community empowerment.

In addition, community growth projects have a role to play in the local economy, providing stepping stones to employment and generating income through the sale of fruit and vegetables.

Community gardens: the policy challenges

As the benefits of community gardens have become more apparent, public policymakers have come to view community growing as a vehicle for delivering policy goals in sectors as diverse as health and the environment, business and planning.

In Scotland, a number of community gardens are being supported by funding from the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund, administered by Keep Scotland Beautiful. Other public funders of community gardens include the Big Lottery Fund and Scottish local authorities.

Earlier this year, research findings highlighted increasing support for community gardens from policymakers in Scotland at national and local levels, and the widening range of funding policy initiatives:

“There is no doubt that national and local government policy agendas are changing in response to the mounting evidence linking urban greenspace with a range of positive health, social, economic and environmental benefits and that increased support will be available for community gardens in Scotland in the future.”

However, the authors also identified a number of challenges facing community growing projects, including planning and legal issues, land availability, funding issues, winning the support of local communities and addressing skills shortages.

Tackling these issues, the authors argued, will need support at local and national levels, but they went on to highlight problems encountered by community gardens in Scotland when applying for grant funding:

“…because the policies relevant to community gardens span such a wide range of concerns across a variety of sectors (including health, land use, social regeneration and the environment) and because funding tends to be located within individual sectors, they often feel pressured to fit in with social policy agendas and associated grant funding criteria which are not entirely suited to their original aims or the needs of their users in order to be eligible for grant money.”

As an example of this, one of the research participants recalled a local health group meeting where the direction of their community garden was pushed from a “therapeutic mental health benefit” agenda to a “back to work” agenda in order to fit in with a recent policy change.

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Looking ahead

It’s likely that prevailing policy will continue to affect the way community growing projects organise and develop. In 2015, the Scottish Parliament approved the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act, which includes provisions giving communities the right to take over land in urban and rural areas, enabling, for example, the transformation of waste ground into community garden. And in its 2016 manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections, the Scottish National Party pledged to work through the Community Empowerment Act to increase access to land for food growing purposes to develop allotments and community gardens.

If community gardens are to grow further, it appears that organisers will have to explore inventive ways of navigating a complex funding landscape, while satisfying the objectives of policymakers at national and local levels.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may be interested in some of our other posts on community development:

The Govanhill Baths: a successful example of community-led regeneration

SURF Awards winners: success stories in Scottish regeneration

The potential of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill to strengthen community planning

Designing for wildlife – can new housing developments support biodiversity?

Great spotted woodpecker on garden feeder. Image: Chris Johnson

Great spotted woodpecker on garden feeder. Image: Chris Johnson

By Morwen Johnson

Britain has a reputation as both a nation of wildlife lovers and garden lovers. Many native species however are under threat, so conservation groups are increasingly highlighting the positive contribution that private green space can make to providing wildlife habitats, especially in urban areas.

And with over 240,000 new homes needed each year to meet housing demand in England, the development industry currently represents both a major threat and an opportunity for the environment. That’s why a new partnership between a major housebuilder and the RSPB is being touted as a trail-blazer for wildlife-friendly housing development.

Pioneering partnership

Earlier this year, Barratt Developments and the RSPB announced a pioneering agreement to embed sustainable development and biodiversity into new housing developments. The first project to benefit from the approach, at Kingsbrook in Aylesbury Vale, is due to start construction later this year and is expected to include 2,540 new homes.

Green infrastructure will comprise about 50% of the Kingsbrook development site and will include orchards, hedgehog highways, newt ponds, tree-lined avenues, fruit trees in gardens, bat, owl and swift nest-boxes and nectar-rich planting for bees. There will also be 250 acres of wildlife-rich open space, accessible to the public.

Councillor Howard Mordue, Cabinet Member for Leisure at Aylesbury Vale District Council, said: “I see this benchmark project as the first step in developers working with nature agencies to deliver housing and also to protect the environment”. The council has been commended in the past for employing ecologists in its dedicated Green Spaces Team.

Educating and engaging residents

Integrating wildlife-friendly design elements into new housing developments seems like a step in the right direction. But the maintenance and continued existence of these elements, once houses are sold, is not inevitable.

Last month the Royal Horiticultural Society launched a campaign “Greening Grey Britain” to encourage householders not to pave over gardens. Research conducted for them suggested that three times as many front gardens are now paved over compared to ten years ago, and over five million front gardens now have no plants growing in them (that’s one in three for the UK). Four and a half million front gardens (one in four) are completely paved over. In London it’s estimated that two-thirds of gardens are already at least partially paved over.

These figures don’t necessarily mean that householders don’t want gardens – but that needs are not being met by the design of housing. The 2013 National Travel Survey found that only 14% of household vehicles are parked in a garage overnight and 25% are parked on the street. The majority are parked on private property but not garaged. A lack of living space means that many people use their garages for storage, or have converted the original garage space into living space. Floor space in the UK for new build housing is the smallest in Europe. Nowadays, most households also have more than one car.

Paving gardens doesn’t just reduce spaces for wildlife. Back in 2008, government guidance highlighted that replacing grass and plant beds with concrete and asphalt surfaces can increase flooding and pollution risks, and create unwanted urban heat island effects (when local temperatures rise).

Everyone can help biodiversity

England has populations of at least 55,000 species of animals, plants and fungi, and over a thousand are assessed as requiring special conservation attention. Familiar species which are endangered, or deemed to be of high conservation concern, include hedgehogs, red squirrels, the small tortoiseshell butterfly, and birds such as house sparrows and starlings. Wildlife-friendly gardens and green space (even when the spaces are small) are useful as they provide habitat corridors and food sources.

While the RSPB and Barratt partnership is positive therefore, it’s disappointing that this approach should still be so unusual. Over a decade ago, consumer research by Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that purchasers of new build housing felt that builders put very little thought into the design and quality of gardens. In the worst cases, ‘gardens’ were actually just piles of builders’ rubble, while the minimal landscaping approach of just turfing the outdoor space was widespread. It seems that in the intervening period, little has changed.

Recent case studies from the Landscape Institute have shown that well-planned landscape design can transform a site with relatively modest levels of investment. Partnerships such as the one between Barratt and the RSPB show that developers are willing to create great places if they think there is a market for them.

It will be interesting however to see if the green infrastructure introduced in the Kingsbrook development is sustained over time and whether home-owners have the skills and the inclination to maintain these wildlife-friendly features.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

We’ve made some of our member briefings freely available. View a selection of our environment publications on our website.

Growing Places: Sustainable design at the Chelsea Flower Show

spring flowersby James Carson

Throughout this week, the 2014 Chelsea Flower Show has been in full bloom, and a number of exhibits are showcasing good examples of sustainable design.

One of this year’s gold medal-winning gardens is from debutant Hugo Bugg, whose waterscape garden shows how water management features that occur in the natural world can be replicated in bold and innovative ways. Mimicking the watershed, water is directed through the garden at different gradients and speeds. Bugg believes that Chelsea is the perfect platform to highlight water conservation and present solutions: Continue reading