Should England build on its green spaces to solve the housing crisis?

We've done it before: suburbia from the air. Image: Getty.

Back in the 1930s, English planners came up with a novel idea to prevent urban sprawl: a ring of countryside surrounding the city, protected from development by law. This “green belt” would preserve the unique characters of historic towns, safeguard the countryside from development and encourage the regeneration and reuse of urban land. It was adopted nationally in 1955, and around 13 per cent of England is now zoned as green belt land.

But today, the UK is experiencing a housing crisis. The nation requires 220,000 new homes each year to keep up with demand – not to mention making up for the undersupply from previous years. In the year to September 2016, only 141,000 were built. This deficit has sparked renewed debate over the value of the green belt.

Leading housebuilders and think tanks argue that selectively releasing parts of the green belt would help to meet the government’s ambitious housebuilding targets. Meanwhile, other pressure groups claim that the green belt should be sacrosanct, to safeguard the environmental and health benefits it provides for nearby towns and cities.

Under threat?

In theory, the green belt is protected within the government’s planning framework. Alterations to the green belt boundaries can only be made by local governments in exceptional circumstances, and individual planning applications on green belt sites are only approved under very special circumstances.

In practice, though, it seems the criteria aren’t always quite so strict. Increasingly, greenfield sites (undeveloped land, which can include the green belt) are being favoured by developers because they are cheaper to exploit than brownfield sites (previously developed land, such as disused industrial estates), which have much higher transaction costs.

Brownfield site: ripe for redevelopment.Image: tj.blackwell/Flickr/creative commons.

In fact, national planning policy encourages development on greenfield sites through the use of highly questionable “objective” assessments (or rather, estimates) of housing need, based on past trends and dubious population projections. What’s more, measures of economic viability only take stock of profit, and fail to incorporate environmental or social considerations.

The case for development is also propped up by overly simplified claims that much of the green belt is poor-quality, unproductive land, with no clear requirements for good management.

Hidden values

This incremental assaults on the green belt overlook the need for vital infrastructure and services to create strong, resilient communities and sustainable places. In fact, the green belt holds significant market and non-market value for urban economies, which pose a challenge conventional economic arguments in favour of more houses on “unproductive” green belt land.

For one thing, releasing the green belt in the wrong place comes with certain costs, such as longer commutes, worse congestion and more dangerous levels of air pollution, as well as increased risk of surface water flooding. These costs are normally exacted after development, and don’t appear in initial assessments.

Healthy town. Image: foilman/flickr/creative commons.

The green belt when seen as part of critical green infrastructure has the potential to deliver multiple benefits for cities: it provides space for agriculture, protection from flooding and drought, it improves air quality and mitigates the urban heat island effect, as well as enabling recreation and enhancing biodiversity.


Hatching a plan

The challenge, then, is to identify where these benefits of the greenbelt can be optimised, and the costs of development minimised. At a national level, England lacks a strategic plan to to identify the best sites for housing, jobs and key infrastructure. This is needed to drive sustainable growth and address deep-rooted problems, such as the divide between the wealthy but congested south-east, and the less prosperous north.

On a local level, it means planning to put the right developments in the right place. This isn’t limited to houses: city outskirts can be rejuvenated by community food-growing initiatives, or wetlands created for flood protection and biodiversity. Local authorities should think and plan strategically and form long-term visions about the kind of places they want to create – just like the great planners of England’s historic garden cities.

The recent housing white paper requires local authorities to meet housing demand, but crucially fails to move away from fetish on housing numbers and address the current strategic planning void. It does however, propose a standard method for calculating housing need, which is welcome and will prevent delays to local plans over disputed methodologies.

Strategic, cross-boundary planning can help to make the green belt more productive and deliver more houses. Green belt value can be enhanced through positive management of its natural capital. It’s time to leave behind the polarised and siloed green belt debate, and recognise that housing, industry, transport, community, landscape and environment are vital pieces of the planning jigsaw for cities, towns and countryside.The Conversation

Alister Scott is professor of environment & spatial planning at Northumbria University, Newcastle.

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

 
 
 
 

Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.


The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

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