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

Hitting the ground walking: how planners can create more walkable cities, one step at a time

chaotic-people-on-charles-bridge-in-prague-picjumbo-com

In recent times, walking has been enlisted as one of the key weapons in the war on inactivity. Planners and policymakers have taken note of evidence highlighting the benefits of walking for health and wellbeing. Meanwhile, local and national governments have taken up the challenge of embedding walking into policy, strategy and guidance. There are now national walking strategies for England, Wales and Scotland, and from Belfast to Bristol local councils have published their own plans to get more people walking.

Travel trends and their costs

During the twentieth century, there was a shift from work involving physical labour to jobs of a more sedentary nature. In addition, the growth of suburbs and rising car ownership has contributed to a decline in people travelling on foot. At the same time, the attractions of television and home computers mean fewer people are spending their leisure time playing sports or taking part in outdoor activities.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has put the consequences of these trends into stark perspective:

“Sedentary lifestyles increase all causes of mortality, double the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity, and increase the risks of colon cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, lipid disorders, depression and anxiety.”

  • Worldwide, around two million deaths a year are attributed to physical inactivity.
  • In the UK, physical activity contributes to one in six deaths, and costs £7.4 billion a year to business and wider society. It is the fourth largest cause of disease and disability in the UK.
  • In Scotland, inactivity contributes to over 2,500 deaths each year, costing the NHS £94.1m annually.

The benefits of walking

Efforts encouraging people to become more active have had mixed results, and there is now a recognition that turning the tide of physical activity may take decades to achieve. But there’s also a growing understanding that physical activity that can be built in to everyday life can be as effective as supervised exercise programmes. And, as we reported last week, the health benefits of walking can be demonstrated in unexpected ways, such as the emergence of the Pokémon Go game as an incentive to exercise.

A recent report from the Arup design and engineering firm highlights that walking is good for cities as well as for people. It details more than 50 ways in which the world can benefit from walkable cities, including:

  • Social benefits – health and wellbeing, safety, placemaking, social cohesion and equality.
  • Economic benefits – city attractiveness, urban regeneration, cost savings.
  • Environmental benefits – addressing air and noise pollution, improving liveability and transport efficiency.
  • Political benefits – leadership, urban governance, sustainable development and planning opportunities.

Making walkable places

Another key theme of the Arup report was the importance of planning for pedestrians:

“If we want cities to be more walkable, the way we design cities has to change. Walkable places are more compact, dense with mixed uses. Streets have to be well connected with more shade from sun and rain, green spaces, trees and public spaces. And, we must pay more attention to the quality of public spaces, not just providing quantity of walkable space.” Joanna Rowelle, Director at Arup

The report lists 40 actions that city leaders can consider to inform walking policy, strategy and design. Among the ideas:

  • Temporarily removing cars from a city can transform roads into public spaces, raise awareness around car dependency, reduce air pollution, and reveal the potential opportunities created by having more – and safer – spaces for people.
  • Financial incentives and disincentives, including subsidies and taxes like congestion charges, can be used to encourage behaviour change.
  • Use of shared spaces to create a pedestrian-oriented environment where people are aware of fellow road users.
  • Unused infrastructure – such as New York City’s High Line – offers major opportunities for facilitating safe and attractive pedestrian routes and activity spaces.
  • Urban regeneration creates the opportunity to redevelop small pieces of land into pocket parks or public spaces with a green character.
  • Rivers and waterways can be transformed from barriers into walking and cycling routes by creating green and accommodating waterfronts.

Best foot forward?

Many of the suggestions in the Arup report are not hard to implement, and needn’t be costly. But even when schemes have been enacted, they may face opposition.

Each weekend, for the past seven years, a busy thoroughfare in Bucharest has been cleared to create Via Sport – a safe space for leisure and sport. This summer, the city’s new mayor claimed Via Sport has been causing traffic problems. The scheme has now been closed for the foreseeable future.

Old instincts die hard. Those rethinking patterns and processes of urban design to stimulate walking (and cycling) will face a few bumps in the road. But the potential rewards will be great. As David Sim of Gehl Architects observes:

“The key strategy is about getting people to actually spend time out on the street. They become a part of the space, familiar with their neighbours, and are in tune with city life.”


Our previous blog posts on urban planning for pedestrians and cyclists include:

 

Public health in Scotland … problems and solutions

scotpho logoBy Stacey Dingwall

On Friday 11 September 2015 I attended the annual seminar of the Public Health Information Network for Scotland (PHINS) at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Now in its 16th year, the event provides an opportunity to keep up to date with the latest developments in public health related issues and research at both the local and national level.

This year’s sessions were focused around two themes: health inequalities in Scotland, and active travel.

Health inequalities in Scotland: causes and interventions

The first speaker of the day was David Walsh of the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH). David outlined the findings of research he’s been involved in, looking at explanations for excess mortality in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK and Europe, and in Glasgow particularly. Currently, there are still 5,000 ‘extra’ deaths in Scotland than in England each year, i.e. excess mortality.

The session particularly focused on the findings of the 2013 study, Exploring potential reasons for Glasgow’s ‘excess’ mortality: results of a three-city survey of Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester. These three cities are home to the highest levels of deprivation in the UK and consequently, the lowest life expectancies, with Glasgow being the worst of the three. David explained that over 40 potential causes for this were synthesised as part of the research, with the following identified as among the most plausible explanations:

  • The scale of urban change post World War 2 had a larger impact on Glasgow, in the form of slum clearances, the construction of poorer housing and large amounts of high rise flats, and limited investment in maintenance of this housing.
  • The ‘socially selective’ new towns programme created social divisions, with only the wealthier and higher-skilled able to move there.
  • Different responses at the local political level – Manchester and especially Liverpool vehemently resisted the Conservative policies of the time, however this was not the case in Glasgow.

The morning also saw a presentation from Jim McCormick from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) on rising poverty levels in Scotland and the UK since the recession. Jim suggested that the increasing casual nature of work now seen in the UK is what is driving the rise of poverty. He highlighted the hourglass shaped economy we now have, due to the disappearance of mid-level semi-skilled jobs alongside a rise in higher- and lower-skilled jobs.

An analysis of whether a National Living Wage would bring different groups up to the JRF’s annual Minimum Income Standard by 2020 was also presented; according to their findings, the only group that will be close to it is single people without children.

Physical activity and active travel in Scotland and the UK

The first session after the break saw another presentation from GCPH – this time from Bruce Whyte on trends and challenges in active travel in Scotland (i.e. walking and cycling).

It was highlighted that travelling by car remains the most popular mode for people to travel to work, despite the fact that most of the journeys undertaken are short (i.e. less than two miles long). Bruce highlighted successful initiatives in this area in Glasgow, however, including the cycle hire scheme and the development of the Kelvingrove-Anderston cycling and walking route, on which GCPH published a report earlier this year. His presentation included comment from those who use the route on its health and safety benefits, and it was suggested that its success has led to impetus for similar projects in the city.

The following presentation came from Niamh Shortt of the Centre for Research on Environment, Society and Health (CRESH) at the University of Edinburgh. She looked at the findings from research into whether the physical environment has an impact on inequalities in physical activity and active travel. Tying in with the first theme of the day, this session noted the impact of health and income inequalities on physical activity rates and travel mode choices.

The morning was rounded off by Stuart Hay of Living Streets Scotland, a charity working to promote the benefits of walking and ensure that the country’s streets are fit to do so. Stuart praised the work of the Scottish Government in this area, highlighting the development of a separate walking strategy for the country. He concluded that we have the policy infrastructure in place, and it’s now time to ensure it is implemented.


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

Read our other recent articles on public health issues:

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on health inequalities and active travel, to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Is 20 plenty? The evidence for lower speed limits

20mph

Image from Flickr user Edinburgh Greens via Creative Commons License

By Donna Gardiner

This week (18-25 May) it’s Walk to School Week – where parents and children are encouraged to leave the car at home and experience the benefits of walking to and from school.

The campaign is particularly important given recent evidence which suggests that the number of children who walk to school is falling. The most recent Department for Transport National Travel Survey found that only 42% of children walked to school regularly in 2013, compared to 47% in 1995/97. Indeed, Britain has one of the lowest levels of children walking or cycling to school in Europe.

A recent YouGov survey of 1,000 parents of five- to 11-year olds in Great Britain found that speeding traffic was the main reason that parents no longer let their children walk to school. In particular, 39% felt that school-run traffic was dangerous. Almost two-thirds reported that they would like to see car-free zones outside both primary and secondary schools, as well as 20 mph speed limits in surrounding areas.

20 mph limits and zones

The introduction of 20 mph speed limits and zones has received widespread interest of late, with a number of large schemes, such as the one planned in Edinburgh, capturing the headlines. The Edinburgh scheme is particularly notable for its scale. It covers over 80% of the city’s roads – effectively making 20 mph the default speed for all of its urban areas. Implementation is due to start in late 2015.

At the other end of the UK, the London Borough of Hackney has this week begun the rollout of its own 20 mph scheme, through which more than 99% of the borough’s roads will become subject to 20 mph limits by October 2015.

The Edinburgh and Hackney schemes join a host of others across the UK, including those in inner London, Liverpool, York, Bath, Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle, Brighton, Oxford and Glasgow.

Support for further implementation

Numerous campaign and road safety groups have called for the greater implementation of 20 mph zones and limits across the UK, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), Sustrans, the Campaign for Better Transport, CTC – the national cycling charity, 20’s Plenty for Us, The Slower Speeds Initiative and the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC).

The UK Government have also shown support for the wider implementation of 20 mph zones and limits. In 2013, they published revised guidance to make it easier for local authorities to implement 20 mph limits and zones in their areas, and earlier this year, new guidance which further supports 20 mph limits was published by Transport Scotland.

There is also clear evidence of the public’s desire for lower speed limits. A recent YouGov survey found that the majority of respondents supported the introduction of 20 mph speed limits in residential streets (65% support or strongly support) and busy shopping areas and busy streets (72%). Improved road safety and children’s safety were the key reasons for this, along with other reasons – such as making our streets more pleasant to live in, encouraging more walking and cycling, reducing noise and improving the quality of life.

The YouGov survey echoes the findings of the British Social Attitudes Survey 2013, which found 68% of people to be in favour of 20 mile per hour speed limits in residential streets.

Talking of the Hackney scheme, Cllr Feryal Demirci, Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods and Sustainability, Hackney Council neatly summarises the anticipated benefits of 20 mph zones:

“We strongly believe this 20 mph rollout will be better for everyone. It will mean a safer, calmer and more liveable neighbourhoods for all residents, leading to more walking, cycling and playing outside, which in turn will have a positive impact on health and the community.”

Evidence of the benefits

But does the evidence support these anticipated benefits?

One of the most commonly cited benefit of lower speed limits is improved road safety, resulting from a reduction in the number and severity of collisions. There is widespread evidence that this is the case – for example, research published in the BMJ in 2009 concluded that 20 mph zones were effective measures for reducing road injuries and deaths. Specifically, their introduction was associated with a 41.9% reduction in road casualties, with the effect being greatest in younger children and for the category of killed or seriously injured casualties.

Similar findings have been reported elsewhere, for example, in a review of evidence reported to the London Road Safety Unit, in research by the DfT and by the SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research.

There is also evidence that lower speed limits may help to tackle health inequalities. This is because children and young adults are more at risk of road traffic accidents within poorer localities than in richer urban neighbourhoods. Indeed, in January 2014, Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford, went as far as to claim that implementing 20 mph speed limits was the main way in which local authorities could effectively improve the health of the local population and reduce health inequalities.

Similarly, research published in the Journal of Public Health in 2014 reported that targeting 20 mph zones in deprived areas may be beneficial. It also concluded that “20 mph zones and limits were effective means of improving public health via reduced accidents and injuries”.

Improved public health is another often cited benefit of lower speed limits. Evidence from Bristol and Edinburgh demonstrates that 20 mph zones do indeed encourage increased levels of physical activity, including walking and cycling, and there is also evidence that they improve resident quality of life, through increased opportunities for social interaction and less noise and air pollution.

The reduced levels of pollution also mean that lower speed limits can be better for the environment.

Finally, there is also some evidence that 20 mph zones may result in increased local economic activity – with improved walking environments having many potential benefits for local business. Research conducted by Living Streets in London also found that pedestrians tended to spend more than those arriving by car.

Driver concerns and attitudes

Despite the evidence in their favour, 20 mph zones are not always welcomed with open arms. There remain a number of concerns about the implementation of 20 mph zones, including fears that they may lead to increased levels of congestion, increased carbon emissions, suffer from a lack of enforcement, increase journey times, and increase emergency response times.

Most of these concerns have been countered by research evidence; however, attitudinal barriers remain. In an analysis of a YouGov survey of public attitudes towards 20 mph zones, Professor Alan Tapp of UWE Bristol, reports that a sizable minority of people (31%) claim that ‘If a 20 mph speed limit is introduced, I may not stick to it’. He also points out that 49% felt that ‘It is just too difficult to stay at 20 mph’ and almost a third of people (30%) thought that 20 mph is an example of a nanny state.

The way forward

So despite the progress that has been made, there is clearly still some way to go before 20 mph limits and zones become a fully accepted part of UK towns and cities. Implementing more 20 mph limits is only the start – it seems that there is also a need for local authorities to tackle the negative perceptions of 20 mph zones held by many drivers in order to ensure that 20 mph limits are adhered to in practice.

Sharing evidence of the positive benefits of 20 mph zones and demonstrating that many of the main concerns associated with them are ill-founded is likely to play an important part in encouraging more positive attitudes, changing driver behaviour, and in turn, make streets safer and more enjoyable for children and adults alike.


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to further information on improving road safety. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading:

Addressing health inequalities: five practical approaches for local authorities (Perspectives in Public Health, 2014)

Reducing unintentional injuries on the roads among children and young people under 25 years (Public Health England, 2014)

Road safety and public health (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, 2014)

Achieving safety, sustainability and health goals in transport (Parliamentary Advisory Committee for Transport Safety (PACTS), 2014)

Unlimited aspiration for a calmer city (speed limits) (Local Transport Today, 2011)

Sign of the times (20 mph speed limits in Portsmouth) (Parking Review, 2010)

Review of 20 mph zone and limit implementation in England (Department for Transport, 2009)