Growing greenspace after COVID-19

Urban life 6 July 2020 Malcolm Robertson

We predict the impact COVID-19 and the climate emergency will have on the future development of greenspace in the UK.

Articles

One of the results of both the Covid-19 and climate emergencies, is the convergence of societal demand and policy pressure to provide more greenspaces that provide a number of functions, and more access to these spaces. 

Greenspaces are critical in ensuring people and nature can flourish and that our planet is climate resilient. Shrewd investors, land-owners and developers should reconsider the old approach of deriving value purely from built stock, to think about secure revenues from multi-functional greenspaces. 

The state of greenspaces in the UK today

The UK already has a lot of green space, and almost a third of the urban area consists of natural land and green space. Natural England’s Accessible Natural Greenspace Standard and London’s Area of Deficiency in Access to Nature have sought to promote and improve access to these areas. Recent policy is also promoting the expansion of greenspace with the ambitious Environment Bill embedding Net Zero Carbon and Natural Capital approaches into policy making. The case for accelerating the availability of green space is very strong and the Future Parks Initiative and similar initiatives demonstrate this. 

These green spaces are or will be multi-functional spaces, and high-quality greenspaces should be considered for their potential to deliver ‘Natural Capital’ (e.g. the world’s stock of natural assets that provide ecosystem services which make human life possible). The ecosystem services that green spaces can provide include:

• Public amenity / Lockdown greenspace
Biodiversity net gain (BNG)
Land to attract visits that reduces visits to, and therefore protects more valuable habitats (‘Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace’)
Sustainable Urban Drainage
Carbon sequestration
Amelioration of heat extremes

In addition to the uses listed above, greenspace in certain locations may also be able to contribute to developments being nutrient neutral.  Residual nitrates from legacy of application of fertilisers to farmland and from the treated effluent from the toilets of an increasing population have ended up in coastal waters along the south coast of England. This has affected the condition of several Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Protection Areas (SPA).  

To realise the aims of using the natural capital in greenspace will mean policy and business working together to reflect the demands of society.

Predictions for UK greenspace of the future

Providing a lasting legacy of accessible green spaces for society

The experience of lockdown for many in urban or suburban areas will have been of an hour or so out of the home each day. For many with no garden, seeking greenspace or an opportunity to interact with nature will likely have been frustrating. The calls for accessible greenspace for health and wellbeing purposes have been strongly reinforced by the lockdown. Even those with access to parks and urban greenspaces may have exhausted the options for stimulating walks within reach of home as a result of the duration of lockdown.

The lockdown on daily activity has provided an opportunity to take stock of certain aspects of the way we live our lives. The improved air quality and lack of traffic noise has fed the appetite for a green recovery when life returns to a more normal mode. It would be prudent to expect that there will be some lasting legacy of the pandemic in how we live in future, not forgetting the possibility of further pandemics.  

Multifunctional greenspaces can be secure income streams for developers

It seems likely that a long-term government approach to future pandemics will be devised based on experiences with Covid-19, and this may include an element of lockdown; companies are also looking to have staff work from home as a bigger component of usual working life.  Therefore, in planning future developments (notably for housing and urban areas) more focus should be put on the need to provide a network of attractive and accessible greenspaces for residents to use.

There are other advantages and opportunities of this chance to reflect on how land is considered and used in sustainable development. The Covid-19 pandemic and needed focus on biodiversity net gain should help ensure land is seen as an asset that can be used for more than one purpose. This should all influence land acquisition, financial planning for development and masterplanning. The concepts of ecosystem services and multi-functional greenspace are valid when considering the various roles that land can play. 

Developers affected by nitrate issues in the south of England should plan and account for the need for new residential development to be ‘nitrate neutral’ – one way of doing this is to offset the additional load of nitrates going to sewage works when toilets are flushed by converting intensive arable land to woodland. This is therefore another function that multi-functional, accessible open space can play and another ecosystem service.

Shrewd investors will see the benefit in assembling land and offering it for several uses; housebuilders may come to see this as an income stream as secure as the houses themselves. A well designed, newly created quality greenspace linked with other green infrastructure containing woodland (for nitrates), open spaces (for people) and a range of habitats (for biodiversity) may also provide the opportunity to offer the land as a receptor site for wildlife displaced from other development site(s). 

Policy will also be driving biodiversity net gain in developments; we need to think beyond the built footprint

The UK government’s Environment Bill when ultimately enacted will mandate the delivery of biodiversity net gain (BNG) in developments that require planning permission. This driver should already be informing decisions in developers’ due diligence and land acquisition activities. The old lines: ‘why would I buy more land than I need’ or ‘if I buy land, why would I not maximise the built footprint’ should no longer apply.

The concept of linked networks of greenspaces coincides well with the BNG approach and indeed, walks through grasslands rich in flowers and other wildlife are likely to be more rewarding than through intensively managed short swards typical of open greenspaces.

There are potential benefits to the public purse too; cutting grass less frequently to allow plants to flower and set seed is less intensive from a management point of view with other ancillary benefits of less use of fossil fuel powered tools and fewer trips by the grass cutting teams in their vans. 

Conclusion

We will not magically have a greener future, but Covid-19 has made us realise that the world can change rapidly and there may in future be additional, complementary uses for land that are not apparent to us now.  It is reasonable to expect that it will be the natural capital in the land that continues to be important, which reinforces the need to realise the value of our land and maintain it in a way that allows us to benefit from it in future. Society, business and policy makers each need to take the initiative to bring about new and improved parks and greenspaces. A network of high-quality greenspaces should seek to provide natural capital as well as opportunities for people to engage with nature and get fresh air in a future with unknown challenges.

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