Joining the Green Dots
Not everyone noticed, but in the 1980s we had an industrial revolution. Based on liquid silicon, this revolution was every bit as far-reaching and disruptive as the 19th century’s industrial revolution based on coal. It was swift and clean rather than ugly and polluting. The economy flourished, often in discreet business parks near attractive market towns, leaving behind rust belts and urban decay.
Our cities had increasingly been shunned by the suburb-dwelling middle class. Downtown areas were on the brink of becoming like many of their American counterparts, deteriorating into shabby ghettoes. Fortunately, a variety of government initiatives together with shedloads of EU funding enabled widespread regeneration of rust belt areas. City centres became hip, and were rejuvenated as cultural and information hubs.
Landscape professionals have made a major contribution to this process of regeneration. Whereas early schemes aimed mainly to upgrade amenity, latterly the focus has shifted to creating large-scale green networks which will become complex and important landscapes of the future.
It is widely agreed that our conurbations should now be underpinned by green infrastructure, complementing the traditional grey infrastructure of transport and mains services. This involves embedding large-scale landscapes which have similar qualities to those created by nature: that is, they display ‘emergence’, whereby desirable properties occur spontaneously. This can happen when new landscapes are not the product of blueprints but, rather, of skillful designs where landscape professionals set initial conditions for future evolution.
One key aim of green networks is to re-establish connections that have been lost to urban development. Building sites have eradicated habitats, roads have severed animal pathways, hard surfaces have impeded links with groundwater systems and residents have lost psychological connections with the countryside. Recovering these links is critical to future landscapes and the communities that inhabit them.
An equally important aim is to enhance resilience. Current concerns about natural hazards such as flooding remind us that human settlements are vulnerable to environmental change. Our traditional approach has been to engineer defences against extreme events but, whilst these are often still essential, by themselves they are insufficient. Increasingly, we are building spare capacity into human-environment systems – moving from ‘failsafe’ solutions to more resilient, ‘safe-to-fail’ designs.
Key aspects which can be supported by green networks include ecological processes, land productivity, water management, health and fitness, sustainable transport, local economy and air quality. These are not mere ‘optional extras’. For example, if we fail to reverse decades of habitat loss and fragmentation we could lose critical processes such as pollination; if we do not pursue ‘soft engineering’ approaches to river management we could exacerbate flooding and groundwater depletion.
Social aspects of green networks are equally important. They provide healthier ambient conditions, improve mental health and wellbeing, and enable children to connect with nature. ‘Active’ transport can be encouraged by improving the connectedness and quality of cycle routes and footpaths. There is also evidence that landscape enhancement can attract and retain economic investment and indirectly add value to local foodstuffs and products.
Establishing green networks is difficult because they need to be retrofitted into built up areas. Despite our legacy of parks and gardens, the crucial connections between green spaces have often been lost. Government policy to build on brownfield sites has in places led to ‘town cramming’. However, many local authorities have identified where connectivity can be recovered by judicious creation of new corridors during urban redevelopment or by improving remnant spaces associated with old railway lines, canals and gap sites.
Since retiring from Sheffield I have lived in central Scotland where there are numerous initiatives to establish green networks. Outsiders often view this part of the world as having abundant fine countryside, where new greenspace is scarcely necessary. However, the central belt is heavily urbanised, leaving much of its remnant countryside fragmented and unattractive.
One signal initiative is The Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN), which has incorporated the former Central Scotland Woodland project and embraces the Glasgow and Clyde Valley Green Network. Stretching from Ayrshire to the Lothians, the current National Planning Framework cites it as a strategic development, integral to long term economic growth. Proposing a step change in environmental quality, woodland cover and recreational opportunities the CSGN seeks to deliver multiple functions such as residential and business spaces, CO2 absorption, biodiversity, active travel and healthier lifestyles.
Inevitably, many CSGN projects are making slow progress and rely on modest – and possibly, in the light of Brexit, insecure – funding. However, there is cause for optimism. For example, one current project is the Seven Lochs Wetland Park south of Cumbernauld which coheres and links existing sites within a regeneration network.
At the edges of the metropolitan area, the Futurescapes programme of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is creating habitats and corridors to achieve landscape scale conservation. The Garnock Valley, at the west end of the CSGN, stretches from a major wetland reserve at Lochwinnoch to the estuary at Irvine. Another project seeks to enhance habitats in the mudflats and marshes of an industrialised section of the river Forth east of Stirling. Once more, these are areas which have been adversely affected by industrial change but which are highly accessible and potentially hugely valuable.
To finish on a timely but controversial note, green networks may prove relevant to current debates over the future of the green belt.
Some commentators argue that we should release green belt to provide more houses in areas of greatest demand. Yet, the green belt is a highly valued resource and should never be sacrificed lightly: when it is gone, it is gone. However, much of it is of mediocre quality and, with carefully planned and adequately funded green networks, we could possibly concede some green belt and still be left with a superior resource. The desirability of such a proposal is highly political, but the landscape profession has a unique contribution to make to the debate.