What does the future of urban green space look like?

9 minute read
07 May 2021


As a nation, we have probably had more exposure to and interaction with green and natural spaces in the last 12 months than in the previous 12 years. According to The People and Nature Survey for England, led by Natural England and published in March 2021, almost half the population say they have spent more time outside since COVID-19 hit and believe that nature and wildlife is more important than ever to their wellbeing.

Based on the growing body of evidence that links encounters with nature to our mental and physical wellbeing, this makes a lot of sense in the midst of a global pandemic.

Nature divide

But what about the half of the population that didn't spend as much time outside? Why was this? The reasons are complex but access, availability and opportunity to visit green spaces is clearly a major factor. Urban life, dominated by high-rise buildings, narrow roads and a lack of green infrastructure, excludes many city residents from having any kind of meaningful exposure to nature, particularly – as research shows – low-income and minority groups.

This divide between urban and rural living may seem obvious. But such a two-tier system has far reaching consequences when it comes to the impacts of climate change and air pollution in congested city areas. The seriousness of the issue was brought into sharp focus in December last year when eight-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, who lived 25 metres from the South Circular Road in south-east London, became the first person to have air pollution listed as a cause of death.

Time for action

While more access to green spaces will never solve our cities' air quality issues, it should be part of the mix of measures we take to live more sustainably and with a better appreciation for the natural environment.

In this critical year for the climate, culminating in the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference, the Prime Minister's recent announcement of a tough new carbon-cutting target is the latest sign of how seriously the Government is taking the broader threat of climate change. It follows the ten-point plan for a green industrial revolution and also The Dasgupta Review commissioned by The Treasury. This landmark review into the economics of biodiversity argues for a major overhaul in how economic success is measured in order to turn the tide of nature destruction.

The ten-point plan focuses on decarbonisation and dominated the headlines, but the less well-publicised 600-page Dasgupta Review is a compelling and comprehensive analysis of how not just the economy but all our livelihoods and wellbeing depend on nature.

Policy interventions

On the face of it, these are positive signs for promoting access for all to nature – but as always, the devil is in the detail and, in particular, the interpretation of government policy.

The Biodiversity Net Gain policy from the long-awaited Environmental Bill will require all developments to demonstrate a 10% net gain in biodiversity at or near their sites. Although this is not a huge number it is, nevertheless, encouraging and provides scope for planning authorities to get to grips with how you accurately measure biodiversity. We expect many developers will seek to go beyond the target as they strive to boost their environmental credentials in such a competitive market.

This is a step in the right direction, but could more be done to embrace the human element of access to green spaces? Creating green roofs or green walls to attract new species of insects is hugely important but, to benefit people directly, there needs to be an element of interaction. Moreover, those who benefit are likely to be the people who live within these developments – not the general public – plus it will be easier for housebuilders to deliver biodiversity in regional and rural settings rather than urban areas.

The Government is also proposing creating new National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Another laudable policy, but it seems unlikely that these areas will be easily accessible to those inner-city families reliant on public transport. Arguably, these initiatives could stretch the nature divide even further.

Urban nature

Another statistic from the Natural England report suggests that what is missing here are policies that directly benefit our cities and towns. The research shows that urban green spaces continue to be the most popular type of green space visited, with half of adults reporting a visit in February this year.

During the first lockdown, the popularity of city parks skyrocketed as they became a vital public service, particularly for the many millions of people without access to a garden. Funding for local authorities to build new city parks and invest in existing urban green spaces would provide a genuine feeling of accessibility for entire communities and begin to redress the balance.

The National Trust recently teamed up with local authorities and conservation charities to petition the Government on this point by calling for a £5.5 billion green infrastructure fund to level up access to green space. The Trust argued that this green infrastructure investment would bring an impressive £200 billion in physical health benefits through disease prevention and mental wellbeing benefits which would alleviate some of the strain on local health service providers and improve people's quality of life.

While the need for initial investment is clear, these are projects which should benefit communities for many years to come. That requires long-term thinking and clear guidance on broader issues such as insurance and funding for ongoing maintenance and upkeep. These are not insurmountable hurdles, and there are great examples of how innovative thinking and collaboration can create new green spaces in inner-city areas.

Think small

Part of the problem of creating new parks in a city environment is space – or rather the lack of it. One way of tackling this is not to 'think big' but instead focus on lots of very small parks – or parklets. San Francisco was the first city credited with introducing parklets in the form of small pavement extensions, which encompass decking, seating and plenty of plants. The parklets are intended to be publicly accessible and provide space for people to sit, relax and enjoy the area immediately around them. While parklets have been around in the US for 20 years, the first only came to the UK in 2015. Their popularity has soared during the pandemic as cafés, pubs and restaurants have adopted the concept to serve customers outside. Now there is an opportunity for cities to create more parklets which aren't just linked to local businesses.

It's all too easy for those who are fortunate enough to have their own gardens or local parks to take the mental and physical benefits of access to green spaces for granted. Many people do not have the opportunity to connect with nature in ways which will benefit their wellbeing, the environment and our economy. While decarbonisation is undoubtedly critical in tackling climate change, it is not a panacea for the world's environmental ills. A true appreciation of nature only comes from the opportunity to experience it in your everyday life. Policymakers must give due consideration to ensuring everyone gets that opportunity.

Gowling WLG offers clients a wide range of experience and expertise in sustainability, biodiversity and decarbonisation. To find out more, request a call back from Ben Stansfield below.

Ensuring everyone has access to green space is just one aspect of building a 'levelled up' society. Read our guest blog by The Right Honourable Baroness Morgan of Cotes where she discusses the importance of smart cities in creating opportunities across the country.

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