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.

 
 
 
 

America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.