Greening our Cities: Are we doing enough, or do we need a law for landscaping?

Greening our Cities: Are we doing enough, or do we need a law for landscaping?

Climate change, energy security, biodiversity losses, growing urbanisation… people are increasingly aware, especially in our densely packed island, of their own relationship with the environment. Multiple ‘green’ initiatives and developments abound, which can be confusing and difficult to identify. Is the landscape industry doing enough to promote effective, practical and environmentally aware landscaping protocol and projects?

What is ‘greening’ anyway?
In among all the multiple definitions, one all-encompassing concept is the ‘Green Infrastructure’ (GI), described by the Landscape Institute in its 2013 position statement as ‘the network of natural and semi-natural features, green spaces, rivers and lakes that intersperse and connect villages, towns and cities.’ Taking that concept into our urban areas, such ‘greening’ can be seen as having ‘the potential, when integrated properly into the built environment (and the wider greenspace beyond) to provide a vast array of functions and benefits to all stakeholders.’ (UK Green Building Council, 2015)

Why is it important?
As society became more urbanised through the 20th century, the continuing exploitation of natural resources seemed unrelated to the everyday needs of clean air, water, food, power and transport. Not until the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (1992), was there a formal acknowledgment of society’s dependence on biodiversity.
Since then, we have increasingly understood that ‘greening’ our urban areas impacts our life quality, not only contributing to cleaner air for our citizens, but also, through the use of renewable energy sources and low-carbon technologies, offering future jobs.
Indeed, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan’s manifesto pledged a ‘greener, cleaner London’, where ‘environmental checks are not simply a side concern to be weighed up against economic and social benefits.’
Speaking to Landscaper magazine, a spokesperson for the Mayor of London said: ‘Poor air quality is a ticking time-bomb for our health, particularly for Londoners in the most deprived parts of the city.’
And as Gary Grant, Green Infrastructure Services, comments: ‘There are people that are yet to understand what our relationship with nature is, and that’s at the heart of the problems we’re dealing with, that people take for granted the eco-system services that nature provides, but when those services are overwhelmed we have to boost nature to try to fix the problem… we have to fix our processes that are causing the pollution in the first place.’

Who’s doing what?
Perhaps surprisingly, London does not qualify as having the most polluted air in the UK: a World Health Organisation (WHO) report published in May 2016 found that of the 50+ UK towns and cities included in its database, Port Talbot (South Wales) is the most polluted, ahead of London, Glasgow, Southampton and Leeds; the cleanest UK city in the WHO list is Inverness, followed by Bournemouth, Newcastle and Sunderland.
Indeed, Bournemouth wants to be ‘internationally recognised for championing its green economy credentials through pursuing its goal to become a Green Economy Leader by 2020.’ And Councillor Mike Greene, Cabinet Member for Transport, Sustainability & Carbon Management, said: ‘By seeking to become a Green Economy Leader this will ensure visibility of Bournemouth’s positive action in the global effort to tackle climate change whilst also enabling the town to attract, retain and develop leading green and sustainable businesses and world class talent.’

So, are government intervention, and regulation and legislation necessary for the greening of our cities to be reality?
‘A collaborative marketing strategy between all organisations would be beneficial,’ comments Paul Cowell, PC Landscapes. He adds that the Landscape Institute has done great work around the green infrastructure, along with the Green Building Council, and the Royal Horticultural Society.
‘We’re not doing enough,’ says Janine Pattison, JPS Landscape Design. She believes growing public consciousness, supported by strong government legislation will ‘force through a change.’ And she adds: ‘In the 18th, 19th and early 20th century it was all about smog, which you can see, and it was very obvious when there were very bad conditions because you could see and taste it. Now it’s been replaced with ‘invisible’ pollution that you can’t see it – and that makes it more difficult to raise public awareness, and win people over.’ She adds that Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) legislation is often not taken seriously by local authorities, which need to become proactive and get involved earlier in landscaping schemes. ‘It’s a bit like Health & Safety, which wasn’t take seriously until it came into legislation – and that’s what has to happen with the sustainability of landscaping.’
And Jennifer Gayler, Jennifer Gayler Garden Design, believes that ‘while there are people and organisations who are aware of the need to have nature in cities… there isn’t a central, coordinated movement to introducing nature into cities.’ Roger Gayler adds that there is a need to get government involved in that major shift: ‘Perhaps we need a law for landscaping.’
The lack of a strong legislative framework, such as possibly in some rural areas, may lead to failure to incorporate a detailed landscape plan. As Gary Grant comments: ‘Some rural authorities may need to learn from urban areas, where they are tougher… In some cases, the planning authorities will expect a landscape plan, and some boroughs will insist, especially in London, on a green roof, and encouraging people to do these things, as well as being required through planning.’
‘The lack of a central, coordinated movement to introducing nature into cities is what is missing,’ adds Jennifer Gayler. ‘Other than in high profile projects, landscaping in often the very last thing being considered (in smaller, everyday projects) and, in terms of budget, is the one always pushed to the back and has the smallest amount of money spent on it. There has to be a major shift in thinking, which is probably down to awareness of the research being done about the importance of human interaction with nature, and its effects on wellbeing and health. And the implications of that in the future. So that it can be taken seriously. And that’s the thinking behind the [2016 European Landscape] conference.’

What more can we do?
Paul Cowell believes ‘we could always be doing more’, including promoting projects within local plans to meet bio-diversity aspects and mitigate environmental impacts in new developments. He adds that ‘the architects and developers need to see the financial case that it [GI] does actually pay – there is evidence starting to emerge, although it will be a slow process to build up the statistics and evidence. We know it does, but that doesn’t always show in the bottom line of profit.’
For Gary Grant, functionality is a key word: ‘We need to look at multi-functionality, we need to look at biodiversity, and how all these different systems work together to provide us with all the things we need. Landscape architects need to go for multi-functionality, and an ecological approach, in a more rigorous way – and some of them are already doing that – not just say ‘it is’, but how ‘it is’. We’re in a transitional phase, things are changing.’
As Janine Pattison comments, ‘It can all be done if the will is there early on. When greening up happens in a city, it’s almost universally welcomed – things like green roofs, green walls, pocket parks, even just getting trees in containers in a street.’ She believes the master planning of sites has to be taken seriously, ‘including sustainable drainage and sustainable planting – it can’t just be retrofitted at the end of the job.’
Jennifer Gayler says that one of the main roles of the landscaping industry is sustainability, ‘and being very aware of the environment, and advising and educating clients on the value of biodiversity. And also insisting on using sustainable materials, natural rather than reconstituted products, reusing material already on site, not importing – it’s an enormous role to play.’
Gary Grant agrees that the industry is good at education, adding: ‘When you involve a contractor in the design process it’s a better design; I think the industry is helping to educate the designers, who sometimes may lack the practical process and who may not know enough about plants. You’ve got to know what you’re trying to achieve, and it has to be backed by science. How does the plant trap pollution? And how does it do that? We need to do it step by step and take the scientists with us.’
However, he adds that ‘we can’t not do it because we’re waiting for a scientist to tell us exactly what to do: We already know trees are good, we already know that green roofs cool buildings, we already know certain plants absorb air pollution… but there’s no reason not to put as much soil and vegetation as we can, because we know it will make the city a better place. There’s no reason not to do more planting on new projects, and retrofitting on older buildings. If we can vegetate walls, (the Reubens Hotel’s ‘living walls’), then we can do almost anything really.’
Janine Pattison adds that recent methods of trying to put a monetary value on large trees in London may yield some positive results. ‘The big tree by the Dorchester in Park Lane is apparently worth £750,000 in amenity value and biodiversity. If a developer wants to take a tree down to, for example, put up a bigger building, they have to understand the value of what’s been lost, and the value of it.’
And Paul Cowell suggests ‘a better language’ is needed to get the message across, and join up all the various policies; ‘there’s no key driver or necessity to say it has to be checked … No inspector to look at the green spaces to say yes, that’s acceptable – you’ve met the initial design and access statement, you’ve met the planning, it’s not just the bare essentials.’

Perhaps, as Gary Grant put it in the Introduction to his 2012 book: ‘Better cities will come with a new philosophy, which understands our place as part of nature, not as deluded creatures pretending to operate outside of it.’

References:
Green Infrastructure. An integrated approach to land use. Landscape Institute Position Statement. Landscape Institute. March 2013.
Demystifying green infrastructure. UK Green Building Council. February 2015.
Sadiq Khan for London. A Manifesto for all Londoners. Sadiq Khan and London Labour’s Manifesto 2016.
The Guardian, Air pollution rising at an ‘alarming rate’ in world’s cities. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/12/air-pollution-rising-at-an-alarming-rate-in-worlds-cities” http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/12/air-pollution-rising-at-an-alarming-rate-in-worlds-cities [Online] Accessed 89 June 2016.
Bournemouth bids to become world leader in green economy stakes. Posted on Friday 29th April 2016.
The Tree Council. The London i-Tree eco-project. The i-Ttree project is a recognised method of valuing the ecosystem service benefits such as carbon sequestration and air pollutant removal that trees provide; it was devised in the US and has been used throughout the world.
Ecosystem Services Come To Town: Greening Cities by Working with Nature. Grant, G. August 2012, Wiley-Blackwell.

(First published in The Landscaper magazine)

Feature page Landscaper June 2016

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