A reform of the Green Belt is long overdue. Here’s how it should be used

A waste of space. Image: London First/Quod/SERC.

The Metropolitan Green Belt is embedded in people’s psyche as the epitome of British countryside alongside the moors of Yorkshire and the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands. It embodies a romantic vision of a preserved landscape – a green and pleasant land where time stays still in contrast to the dizzying urban beast that is London, spewing out pollution, noise and decadence.

Whilst many areas within the Metropolitan Green Belt are undoubtedly beautiful and should be vehemently preserved and nurtured, there is mounting pressure to release more of the designated land to ease housing pressures. This unsurprisingly pits conservationists against developers, idealists against pragmatists, and feeds into party politics.

Much of the debate revolves around housing development and whether increased development will signal the death of the Green Belt as a policy concept; a reductionist and a narrow prism through which to see the debate. A wider strategic view of Green Belt policy is required to address the multiple and interconnected issues facing London and the South-East.

The idyll of the Green Belt as an untouched haven is mostly unfounded. With the remaining wildlife clinging on in hedgerows and in pockets of lush woodland, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), and Sites of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSIs), the Green Belt is for the most part a man-made landscape; a polluted pasture land devoid of biodiversity.

Much of the existing agricultural land is actually in poor condition, with its depleted soils heavily reliant on chemical fertiliser, fungicides and pesticides, which have a damaging effect on biodiversity, key insect pollinators, rivers and ground water sources.

Large swathes of Green Belt land are also unproductive, and are disguised as agricultural in order to collect farm subsidies. Land banking is also common, in the hope that landowners can cash in on speculative development on their land. The Green Belt arguably preserves privilege, whilst many get crippled by appallingly high rent in the urban area.

As well as being unaffordable, London is rabidly hungry. Huge quantities of food produce are imported into London from the world over, clocking up food miles and emissions, which is inherently unsustainable and wasteful. In this respect, the Green Belt surrounding London is an untapped resource; an available space available ideal for the formation of a peri-urban agroecological system.

Broadly speaking, agroecology is the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design, development, and management of sustainable agricultural systems. Along with the release of appropriate Green Belt land for housing and associated infrastructure (schools, roads, essential amenities etc) in close proximity to London and existing transport nodes, a wider vision of the function of the Green Belt is required.


Utilising the Green Belt to produce a portion of the food consumed within London, for example, is an astute spatial adaptation. Indeed, not only would this reduce emissions by sourcing produce locally but with the use of agroecology, it is also an opportunity to provide nutritious organic produce, improve soil health, increase biodiversity, and create jobs.

Agroecology is a form of organic farming whose main ethos is the production of a diversified yield of crops without the use of pesticides or chemical fertiliser. The Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN held an International symposium on agroecology in April 2018 in which it stressed the need to scale up agroecology initiatives so as to meet UN sustainable development goals (SDGs).

In many ways it is an insurgent form of agriculture that goes against the tide of intensive industrial scale farming, minimises human impact and works in symbiosis with local ecosystems – enhancing the synergy between plants, insects, crops and soil fertility. Adopting these methods would bolster climate change resilience and considerably alleviate food insecurity.

Releasing strategic areas of land for housing in transport corridors and nodes as well as within and bordering existing Green Belt settlements should be accompanied by the implementation of a closed-loop agroecological system on suitable land. Such a system could also go hand-in-hand with sustainable waste management: the tons of biodegradable food waste generated in the city can be utilised to provide organic fertiliser or biogas through anaerobic digestion.

Incentives should be given to landowners and farmers to reforest parcels of barren land and they should be encouraged to diversify their crops and adopt agroecological principles. The benefits of this would be multi-pronged from an ecological perspective as well as from an economic and social perspective. It would contribute towards more self-sufficiency instead of a reliance on imported foods.

Reform of Green Belt policy is long overdue. The fundamental planning tenets of Green Belt policy – namely limiting sprawl, settlement coalescence, maintaining “openness”, and assisting in urban regeneration through the recycling of brownfield land can still be preserved but should also be questioned.

What is “openness” for example if it means preserving a sterile green desert and presiding over an insect Armageddon? The national planning system and other relevant bodies and policy-makers should give the Green Belt a wider role in the sustainable urban management of Greater London.

Thomas Courtney is a Bedford-based town planner, writing in a personal capacity.

 
 
 
 

Uncertainty is the new normal: the case for resilience in infrastructure

Members of the New York Urban Search and Rescue Task Force One help evacuate people from their homes in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in September 2018. Image: Getty.

The most recent international report on climate change paints a picture of disruption to society unless there are drastic and rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. And although it’s early days, some cities and municipalities are starting to recognise that past conditions can no longer serve as reasonable proxies for the future.

This is particularly true for America’s infrastructure. Highways, water treatment facilities and the power grid are at increasing risk to extreme weather events and other effects of a changing climate.

The problem is that most infrastructure projects, including the Trump administration’s infrastructure revitalisation plan, typically ignore the risks of climate change.

In our work researching sustainability and infrastructure, we encourage and are starting to shift toward designing man-made infrastructure systems with adaptability in mind.

Designing for the past

Infrastructure systems are the front line of defense against flooding, heat, wildfires, hurricanes and other disasters. City planners and citizens often assume that what is built today will continue to function in the face of these hazards, allowing services to continue and to protect us as they have done so in the past. But these systems are designed based on histories of extreme events.

Pumps, for example, are sized based on historical precipitation events. Transmission lines are designed within limits of how much power they can move while maintaining safe operating conditions relative to air temperatures. Bridges are designed to be able to withstand certain flow rates in the rivers they cross. Infrastructure and the environment are intimately connected.

Now, however, the country is more frequently exceeding these historical conditions and is expected to see more frequent and intense extreme weather events. Said another way, because of climate change, natural systems are now changing faster than infrastructure.

How can infrastructure systems adapt? First let’s consider the reasons infrastructure systems fail at extremes:

  • The hazard exceeds design tolerances. This was the case of Interstate 10 flooding in Phoenix in fall 2014, where the intensity of the rainfall exceeded design conditions.

  • During these times there is less extra capacity across the system: When something goes wrong there are fewer options for managing the stressor, such as rerouting flows, whether it’s water, electricity or even traffic.

  • We often demand the most from our infrastructure during extreme events, pushing systems at a time when there is little extra capacity.

Gradual change also presents serious problems, partly because there is no distinguishing event that spurs a call to action. This type of situation can be especially troublesome in the context of maintenance backlogs and budget shortfalls which currently plague many infrastructure systems. Will cities and towns be lulled into complacency only to find that their long-lifetime infrastructure are no longer operating like they should?

Currently the default seems to be securing funding to build more of what we’ve had for the past century. But infrastructure managers should take a step back and ask what our infrastructure systems need to do for us into the future.


Agile and flexible by design

Fundamentally new approaches are needed to meet the challenges not only of a changing climate, but also of disruptive technologies.

These include increasing integration of information and communication technologies, which raises the risk of cyberattacks. Other emerging technologies include autonomous vehicles and drones as well as intermittent renewable energy and battery storage in the place of conventional power systems. Also, digitally connected technologies fundamentally alter individuals’ cognition of the world around us: consider how our mobile devices can now reroute us in ways that we don’t fully understand based on our own travel behavior and traffic across a region.

Yet our current infrastructure design paradigms emphasise large centralized systems intended to last for decades and that can withstand environmental hazards to a preselected level of risk. The problem is that the level of risk is now uncertain because the climate is changing, sometimes in ways that are not very well-understood. As such, extreme events forecasts may be a little or a lot worse.

Given this uncertainty, agility and flexibility should be central to our infrastructure design. In our research, we’ve seen how a number of cities have adopted principles to advance these goals already, and the benefits they provide.

A ‘smart’ tunnel in Kuala Lumpur is designed to supplement the city’s stormwater drainage system. Image: David Boey/creative commons.

In Kuala Lampur, traffic tunnels are able to transition to stormwater management during intense precipitation events, an example of multifunctionality.

Across the U.S., citizen-based smartphone technologies are beginning to provide real-time insights. For instance, the CrowdHydrology project uses flooding data submitted by citizens that the limited conventional sensors cannot collect.

Infrastructure designers and managers in a number of U.S. locations, including New York, Portland, Miami and Southeast Florida, and Chicago, are now required to plan for this uncertain future – a process called roadmapping. For example, Miami has developed a $500m plan to upgrade infrastructure, including installing new pumping capacity and raising roads to protect at-risk oceanfront property.

These competencies align with resilience-based thinking and move the country away from our default approaches of simply building bigger, stronger or more redundant.

Planning for uncertainty

Because there is now more uncertainty with regard to hazards, resilience instead of risk should be central to infrastructure design and operation in the future. Resilience means systems can withstand extreme weather events and come back into operation quickly.

Microgrid technology allows individual buildings to operate in the event of a broader power outage and is one way to make the electricity system more resilient. Image: Amy Vaughn/U.S. Department of Energy/creative commons.

This means infrastructure planners cannot simply change their design parameter – for example, building to withstand a 1,000-year event instead of a 100-year event. Even if we could accurately predict what these new risk levels should be for the coming century, is it technically, financially or politically feasible to build these more robust systems?

This is why resilience-based approaches are needed that emphasise the capacity to adapt. Conventional approaches emphasise robustness, such as building a levee that is able to withstand a certain amount of sea level rise. These approaches are necessary but given the uncertainty in risk we need other strategies in our arsenal.

For example, providing infrastructure services through alternative means when our primary infrastructure fail, such as deploying microgrids ahead of hurricanes. Or, planners can design infrastructure systems such that when they fail, the consequences to human life and the economy are minimised.

The Netherlands has changed its system of dykes and flood management in certain areas to better sustain flooding.

This is a practice recently implemented in the Netherlands, where the Rhine delta rivers are allowed to flood but people are not allowed to live in the flood plain and farmers are compensated when their crops are lost.

Uncertainty is the new normal, and reliability hinges on positioning infrastructure to operate in and adapt to this uncertainty. If the country continues to commit to building last century’s infrastructure, we can continue to expect failures of these critical systems, and the losses that come along with them.

The Conversation

Mikhail Chester, Associate Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Sustainable Engineering, Arizona State University; Braden Allenby, President's Professor and Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics, School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Arizona State University, and Samuel Markolf, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network, Arizona State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.