How to make the green belt productive - but keep it green

Walkers on Box Hill, in the North Downs. Most green belt doesn't look like this. Image: Getty.

England’s green belts have had, and continue to have, a major impact on town planning. The idea of a ring of countryside surrounding an urban area to prevent sprawl originated in the 1930s, spread to post-war London and was adopted nationally in 1955. Today, about 13% of England is green belt land

But what made sense in the 1950s seems outdated and rather stale now. A one-size-fits-all approach to tackling complex planning issues tends to create more problems than it solves. You don’t need a belt-shaped area of land to check urban sprawl; you don’t need to block all development to promote greener outcomes. Perhaps in the 21st century it is time to admit that green belts are no longer fit for purpose.

In theory, the idea of still has strong protection within the government’s planning framework. That document identifies five strategic functions for the green belt:

  • To check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
  • To prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
  • To assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
  • To preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
  • To assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.

But green belts have been attacked for failing to meet these purposes by a range of vested interests, who've proposed a range of different ideas in response. The head of Persimmon housebuilders, for instance, has called for a relaxation of green belt controls to ease the housing crisis. The chancellor wants more imagination from local planning authorities in where houses are built – including possible incursions into the green belt. Even Natural England, the government body responsible for safeguarding England’s natural environment, has previously called for a major policy rethink

In any case green belt protection is potentially illusory. Greenfield sites, including green belt, are increasingly favoured by developers as they are cheaper to exploit than brownfield sites which have much higher transaction costs. Here economic growth priorities and national planning policy tend to push development pressures onto the urban fringe areas, rather than to more costly brownfield land.

There is clear evidence that while green belts have stopped urban expansion (at least, in some cities), they have resulted in unintended consequences: higher-density development at the urban fringe, including disconnected “edge cities”, and “leapfrogging” development over the green belt to undermine other areas of countryside.

Green belts have a presumption against development, and thus come with little incentive to be positively managed for environmental, community or economic purposes. This leads to degraded landscapes which, while having a valid planning function, produce limited benefit to communities and the environment – unless, of course, you are lucky enough to live in or next to one.

As with natural assets more generally, it's this lack of incentive for active management that is the greatest cause for concern. It's therefore time for a fundamental rethink of the green belt.

Beyond the belt

For one thing, the “belt” metaphor has had its day. We should define bespoke areas that are functional to local geography and the needs of the cities and towns concerned; so wedges, fingers, belts, bananas or whatever shapes may equally apply.

Rather than have green belts used for just major cities we should also create a more inclusive, ubiquitous and positive set of zoning policies, that apply to large towns and major settlements.

Rather than a impose a rigid presumption against development, we should aim for zones that encourage innovative uses that generate investment in environmental and community benefits in keeping with the principles of sustainable development.

Finally, rather than enabling politically convenient incursions into the green belt under the guise of sustainable urban extensions, local planning authorities should define these zones by considering the long-term development needs of their area looking 50 years into the future rather than the present 25 years.

Positive spaces

These principles lead me to propose the idea of “green investment zones”: new positive spaces to invest in. The urban fringe could be rejuvenated by, for example, community food-growing initiatives for health and recreation, or wetland creation for flood protection and biodiversity. A green investment zone would be flexible enough to incorporate whatever new initiative an entrepreneur might propose.

This would require local planning authorities to think strategically, and come up with bolder and longer term visions about the kind of town or city they want to create. The current 25-year planning lifecycle is not long enough.

Developers shouldn’t see these zones as automatic no-go areas. While housing should not normally be allowed in them, they should act as valuable green spaces that can help to protect new and existing housing development from floods and drought. They can provide local food growing areas. and spaces for play and recreation. They also can be used to protect our agriculture and, perhaps more controversially, for energy production (solar, anaerobic digestion or biomass) – neglected planning factors, all.

In this green belt debate we need to move out of the silo thinking. Separating housing, industry, transport, community, landscape and environment needs just leads to disintegrated development.

The green belt may no longer be fit for purpose – but it must not be allowed to become a developers’ charter for nothing more than the short-term pursuit of economic growth. We need to create a more equitable, environmentally-friendly and socially-responsible zoning tool. In that way, we could address current planning shortfalls, and promote a more positive image for planning. The Conversation

Alister Scott is Professor of Environment and Spatial Planning at Birmingham City University.

He has received funding from Research Councils UK, Defra, Scottish and Welsh Governments as part of the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme for work on the urban rural fringe. He has also received funding from Research Councils UK, Defra and the Welsh Government as part of the National Ecosystem Assessment Follow on Programme. The ideas in this article stem from these research projects but are personal views and do not reflect the views of other partners in the research.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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