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

Biodiversity in the UK – it’s not just about habitat protection but how we live our lives

By Morwen Johnson

When we talk about preserving biodiversity many people will assume it’s something that’s only an issue in far-flung places like the Amazon rainforest. England however has at least 55,000 species of animals, plants and fungi, and over a thousand of these are at risk. This includes familiar species such as hedgehogs, red squirrels, the small tortoiseshell butterfly, and birds such as house sparrows and starlings.

Small changes can make a big difference

Protecting habitats is a vital part of conservation – and the UK is lucky to have such diverse landscapes. While sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs), areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks all provide legal protection for the environment, it’s not all about large-scale conservation. Biodiversity can be supported at the local or neighbourhood level too.

Green infrastructure can help create habitat corridors for wildlife. We wrote recently about a new partnership between the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Barratt Developments looking at how the design of new housing developments can be wildlife-friendly. Another industry initiative is the BIG Challenge which encourages developers to add one new biodiversity enhancement to their construction site, development or existing building.

The shift to neighbourhood planning has also given communities more opportunities to improve their local environment. As well as mapping and protecting existing green assets, neighbourhood plans also enable communities to enhance or create new habitat areas.

This grassroots interest in the environment is reflected in other alternative approaches to making conservation relevant to the public, many of whom live in towns and cities.

Headlines were created earlier this year, with the suggestion that London should be rebranded as the Greater London National Park City. Many people don’t realise that 47% of London is already green space and has over eight million trees. The London Assembly has supported the campaign, with Assembly Member Jenny Jones saying in June: “This initiative could ensure that nature is included in every aspect of London’s urban fabric.

Inspiration from further afield can be found in the Rouge National Urban Park which was formally established in Canada in May 2015. A ‘national urban park’ is a new category in Parks Canada’s protected areas alongside national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas.

Biodiversity offsetting

While this is all positive news, there is a potentially different story emerging at the same time. In England, DEFRA consulted on the idea of biodiversity offsetting in 2013. This is a market-based mechanism that aims to compensate for biodiversity loss as a result of development, through conservation activities that deliver an equivalent amount of biodiversity elsewhere. The results of the consultation have still not been published, but it may be that the idea is still on the government’s agenda.

The question of whether a monetary value can be placed on biodiversity or whether one established habitat can just be replaced by another one, is controversial. The British Ecological Society reported on recent research which identified the risks of implementing offsetting without fully understanding the consequences. How the government chooses to take biodiversity offsetting forward will be a key test of the principle of evidence-based policymaking, and their wider approach to the environment.

Social aspects of biodiversity policy

In June 2015 the Scottish Government published Scotland’s Biodiversity: a Route Map to 2020 setting out how the goals in Scotland’s biodiversity strategy are to be achieved. Seven main pressures are identified: pollution, land-use intensification and modification, spread of invasive species and wildlife disease, lack of recognition of the value of nature, disconnection with nature, climate change, and marine exploitation.

Writing in August’s issue of the Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal, Professor Colin Reid of the University of Dundee notes that two of the priorities “deal with our relationship with nature rather than direct physical impact.” This suggests an appreciation that protecting our environment “calls for a pervasive change of mind-set as opposed to simply stopping particular harmful activities.”

Professor Reid also says that the focus on actions related to natural capital and greenspace elements reflect a “greater emphasis on the pervasive and social aspects of biodiversity policy.”

A healthy natural environment can only be achieved if regard for nature is integrated into how we live our lives. Biodiversity policy is now making this connection more explicit and the challenge, perhaps, is to ensure that this is reciprocated in other areas, such as planning”.


Reference

Colin T Reid ‘Big steps for biodiversity‘ IN Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal, No 170 Aug 2015, p78

Morwen Johnson is Managing Editor of Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal.

If you enjoyed this blog, read our other recent articles:

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.


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

Planning healthy cities … integration is key

Image from Flickr user Sebastian Niedlich, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

Image from Flickr user Sebastian Niedlich, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

By Dorothy Laing

“The environment in which we live, work and spend leisure time – both the physical nature of places and the social environment of communities – has an enormous impact on our health and wellbeing. Health problems such as obesity, chronic heart disease, stress and mental health issues are intricately linked to the environments in which people live and work”. (RTPI, 2014)

Earlier this month the RTPI published Promoting healthy cities: Why planning is critical to a healthy urban future, the third in a series of Planning Horizons papers launched to mark the RTPI’s centenary. The report looks at how planning can help to create healthy cities – one of its main arguments being that health and wellbeing need to be at the core of city design and development.

With a growing number of people living in urban areas, and health problems such obesity and diabetes on the rise, planning for healthy cities is vital. And interest in the links between planning and urban health is nothing new.

Continue reading

Going green together: regeneration through shared spaces

Allotment holders in the Wirral

Participants in the Green Together project in the Wirral. Copyright Riverside and used with permission.

by James Carson

Good housing isn’t just about good houses. Residents of all ages need local spaces that are safe, and accessible, for leisure, to socialise, or to enjoy the health and wellbeing benefits provided by the natural environment.

Well-designed local spaces promote social cohesion, bring communities together and reduce anti-social behaviour.  Housing associations already understand this: a 2011 good practice guide to green spaces from the National Housing Federation and Neighbourhoods Green (a partnership promoting  open spaces for residents of social housing) reported that £41.5m was invested annually by housing associations in England to improve shared spaces in neighbourhoods. At the launch of the guide, Nicola Wheeler, Neighbourhoods Green project coordinator, highlighted some of the other benefits of green spaces:

“Local open spaces provide volunteering and employment opportunities, facilitate civic action and mitigate the effects of climate change.”

Neighbourhoods Green has also been working on a project with social housing associations and other partners in the Midlands. The Birmingham Active Neighbourhoods initiative is exploring how increased participation in housing green space can contribute to improved health outcomes for local people.

Another ambitious shared spaces project has brought together three of the UK’s largest housing groups: the Riverside Group; Places for People; and Peabody. Supported by a £15.6 million grant from the Big Lottery Fund, Green Spaces for People has transformed poor quality open spaces into well-designed areas for local people to enjoy. Projects include the introduction of parks and community gardens, as well as the creation of sports facilities, play areas, wildlife habitats, sensory gardens and green social enterprises. The aim of the five-year project has been not only to physically transform over 70 neighbourhoods around England, but to improve the quality of life for their residents.

One of the Green Spaces for People projects was “Steps to Sustainability”, delivered by the Riverside Group and its Merseyside partner Lairdside Communities Together between 2008 and 2013. The project has been generating a number of environmental improvements in the Tranmere/Rock Ferry area, which is home to 10,500 people. Once a thriving shipbuilding community, it suffered a body blow in 2001 with the closure of the Cammel Laird shipyard, from which employment in the area has yet to recover.

The Green Together project aimed to redevelop the area and to rekindle the community’s sense of pride in its surroundings through a number of different strands:

  • Green Together Schools (eco gardens created at nine schools across the area as well as the launch of a junior neighbourhood warden initiative);
  • Green Together Neighbourhoods  (new green spaces, allotments brought back into use, and a range of youth engagement activities to improve the environment);
  • Green Together Food (a food co-op run by the community as well as a healthy eating initiative);
  • Green Together Services (focusing on the delivery of the overall project as well as exploring opportunities to create social enterprises where local people run their own environmental projects).

As with other successful regeneration projects, Green Together put local residents at the heart of the planning process. Volunteers living in the area helped to guide and monitor the project and to develop skills so that local people can continue to run the projects they have helped to create.

 


The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles, case studies and evaluations on community engagement and regeneration. Items we’ve recently summarised for our database include:

Edible estates: a good practice guide to food growing for social landlords

Space to grow (sustainable regeneration), IN Holyrood, No 322 7 Jul 2014, pp63-64

Summerfield Eco Village, Birmingham: a leading sustainable community (Cities in Action case study)

Tree testament, IN Horticulture Week, 13 Jul 2012, pp22-23

Gallowgate redux (sustainable urban form in Glasgow’s East End), IN Urban Design, No 122 Spring 2012, pp36-37

Catalyst for change (green spaces and social housing estates), IN Green Places, No 81 Feb 2012, pp36-39

Green investment (investment in green space by a housing association), IN Horticulture Week, 2 Sep 2011, pp18-19

Community gains (green space improvement), IN Horticulture Week, 18 Mar 2011, pp20-21

Weed ’em and reap (improving open spaces), IN Repairs and Maintenance (Inside Housing Supplement), Jan 2011, pp14-15,17

It’s Craigmillar time, IN Prospect, No 132 Autumn 2008, pp20-21,23

Urbanism (shared spaces), IN Prospect, No 128 Autumn 2007, pp59,61

N.B. Abstracts and full text access to subscription journal articles are only available to members of the Idox Information Service. For more information on the service, click here.

Love Parks Week: shouting out for green spaces

bluebell fairylandby Laura Dobie

This week is Love Parks Week (25th July-3rd August), an annual campaign to raise the profile of local parks and green spaces. The initiative, managed by Keep Britain Tidy and Love Where You Live, began in 2006 with the aim to encourage people to visit and take a pride in their local parks and highlight their vital contribution to healthy, happy and strong communities.

The campaign has been growing year on year, and last year there were 1,100 events across the country, with approximately 1.4 million participants. The quality of green spaces is an important concern for the campaign, and its Park Health Check questionnaire invites people to rate the quality of their local green spaces and contribute to a report assessing the health of the nation’s parks. With listings for a variety of events across the UK, and promotional materials available to help people to promote events in green spaces in their communities, it is clear that Love Parks Week is raising awareness of parks and green spaces and making the case for continued investment in these places in the face of funding constraints. Continue reading

Integrating green and grey: green infrastructure projects and approaches in Glasgow

Mighty oak.

by Laura Dobie

Architecture and Design Scotland’s This Friday Presents… Integrating Green and Grey talk on 16th May provided much food for thought on approaches to green space in urban areas. Rolf Roscher, the director of landscape and urban design consultancy ERZ Ltd, gave an engaging presentation focused on both the individual project level, through the Multifunctional Green Space projects, and the wider strategic level, through the Integrated Green Infrastructure study of South West Glasgow. Continue reading