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

Who pays for parks? Are ‘green benefit districts’ the answer?

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Southwark Park, London. Photograph: Mike Faherty. Licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

The benefits of urban parks are well told. Quite apart from their environmental impact, green spaces really do make a difference to our quality of life: from health to housing, community cohesion to crime prevention, city parks generate spin-offs extending far beyond their green acres.

They also cost money. Even before the economic crisis of 2008, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment was highlighting the challenges of maintaining urban parkland:

“We risk a never-ending cycle of large areas of poor quality urban green space that are restored with public money, then decline, then need more public investment to restore them to a good standard.”

In the age of austerity, those challenges have intensified: between 2010/11 and 2012/13 local authority spending on open spaces in England was cut by an average of 10.5%. Now, more than ever, local authorities have to think more imaginatively about sources of revenue and capital funding for urban green spaces.

Last summer, the Policy Exchange think tank came up with some ideas for attracting more money to maintain urban parks. These included:

  • extending the Gift Aid scheme to community civic improvement groups;
  • requiring new green spaces to include a long term funding plan;
  • allowing communities and local authorities to apply for funding to employ park keepers in those spaces identified as crime hotspots.

The report also encouraged the idea of green benefit districts. Also known as park improvement districts, these are urban parks, gardens, and green spaces whose upkeep is funded in part by a tax on nearby residents.

It’s an approach that echoes the concept of business improvement districts, defined areas where participating businesses pay a levy for security, landscaping and other improvements to their trading environment.

Some communities in San Francisco are already exploring the idea, teaming up with housing developers to establish a green benefit district that aims to protect and enhance 25 small parks, community gardens and ad hoc recreation spaces.

In the UK, green benefit districts might prove to be a harder sell. Many people feel that they are already contributing quite enough for the maintenance of parks through the council tax, and the Policy Exchange report stressed that the idea would not be appropriate in deprived areas.

But the authors suggested that home owners living near parks might be persuaded to pay more for amenities that raise the value of their properties.  An analysis of price increases of homes in south London before and after a £2.7m regeneration of Southwark Park revealed a significant increase in prices of properties located within 100m of the park. The report could not conclude that this increase was due to renovation of the park, but suggested that the link between green space quality and property prices was worth further investigation.

The green benefit districts idea has received a cool response from coalition ministers, who suggest that cutting waste and inefficiency in local government is preferable to additional taxation. But, with the prospect of councils’ budgets being squeezed further in the coming years, the idea of green benefit districts might well take root.


 

Further reading

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on urban green space. Items of interest include:

The contribution of green and open space in public health and wellbeing

Future parks (Birmingham City Council seeking NHS funding for upkeep of parks)

Time to re-think parks (innovative income generation for public parks)

Park land: how open data can improve our urban green spaces

Rethinking parks: exploring new business models for parks in the 21st century

N.B. Abstracts and access to subscription journal articles are only available to members.

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