This green and pleasant land

Owen Baker, technical officer for Policy and Research at the British Association of Landscape Industries, explains what the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan could mean for local areas

The offices of the British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI) are in Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire and, from where I sit, remnants of Stoneleigh’s link to the once famous Royal Show are still evident. Sadly, the pavilions, hospitality suites and bandstands erected to cater for thousands of visitors and businesses now lie largely derelict, with many demolished to make way for new business ventures. Over the next few months several more of the older buildings at Stoneleigh Park will be demolished and a portion of the park lost as the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail project in this part of the Midlands gets underway.

A part of me is unnerved by land uses with which I am not familiar – particularly when it means losing a part of the natural ‘green’ environment. I am forced to acknowledge, however, the changing needs of our population; the buildings built today must cater for the growing population, just as the HS2 rail link will (hopefully) meet the transport needs of future generations.

But what role will the environment play in the future?
Just as the government has ambitious plans to cater for the growing pressures on existing housing and infrastructure, together with the changing needs of business, surely there must also be a wider plan for the environment? Something is needed to mitigate habitats lost to changing land use and to ensure high quality green spaces are available to our growing population.

Earlier this year the government launched its ambitious 25-year Environment Plan. It was in front of a difficult crowd – a large proportion of the media and commentators had been riled by the recent BBC documentary Blue Planet, which highlighted the issue of plastic pollution. Consequently, newspaper headlines focused heavily on how the plan would tackle global issues such as climate change, marine pollution and reduction of plastic in packaging. But beyond large scale pollution issues, what is the likely outcome from the 25-year plan for projects and issues closer to home: housing developments, public open spaces, wildlife areas and air quality?

As a landscape professional I was reassured to see provision in the plan for initiatives such as green infrastructure standards, tree planting and green planning principles. Whilst these are already on the radar and being implemented by many local authorities under a different title, recognition in the 25-year plan will hopefully ensure they are given greater consideration. Connectivity of landscapes is a key theme, and I hope the ambitious plan of linking green spaces will benefit both the environment in terms of habitat creation and enhancement, and the public in terms of access, in equal measure.    
It is comforting to see environmental measures mentioned in a plan that extends to 25 years and beyond - but action with measurable outcomes is needed now. Furthermore, initiatives must be consistently supported by each successive government to ensure a genuine beneficial impact. I write this article in the hope that all initiatives are universally supported.

Over the past few months the need for a better appreciation of mental health and physical well-being has been the focus of many public and private organisations’ awareness campaigns. Green spaces and all manner of managed landscapes are increasingly cited by healthcare professionals as an excellent long-term solution to a myriad of conditions, including type 2 diabetes, hypertension and depression.

The less obvious benefits of green space have been recognised for many years. A study in 1984 recognised the value of a natural setting to hospital patients and revealed those who were assigned beds with views of a natural setting recovered far more quickly from surgery than those who were not. Similarly, studies have shown that exposure to any green space can provide stress relief, increase social interaction and even stimulate recovery from more serious mental illnesses.

Lost habitats
Outside of the healthcare profession, a positive link has been established between tree canopy cover and house prices. Whilst this isn’t news to the majority of house builders, who now include elaborate planting schemes within the gardens of show homes and are required to invest substantial sums of money in mitigation planting, more could be done to ensure mitigation of lost habitats reflects wider environmental targets. The use of green walls and roofs is a relatively recent practice in the UK and has grown significantly in urban areas helped by support from planning authorities who recognise their potential to manage air quality, reduce the urban heat island effects and promote more sustainable drainage. These green infrastructure systems are now favoured by savvy developers who recognise the potential for enhanced sales or rental value.

I hope this type of high-quality landscape continues to grow in popularity. It is promoted in the environment plan, which I hope leads to new ways of integrating planting into a wide range of projects. In terms of HS2, the short-term environmental cost is likely to be high and, from my perspective at least, I hope planned mitigation works (a bat house and wetland area have already been constructed at Stoneleigh) are backed-up by robust management strategies.

The success of green roofs and walls is heavily reliant on good design, implementation and maintenance.  A good maintenance programme is essential to ensure the aesthetics of the system are retained for the life of the building and to ensure the environmental benefits are sustained. As with all landscape schemes, there is no short-term solution to the creation of spaces that make a genuine contribution to environmental targets, nor is there an economic shortcut to the effective management of high-quality green spaces. To meet the targets outlined in the government’s 25-year plan will require good design, implementation and long-term management, all of which require adequate and appropriate funding.

As the role of green spaces broadens to meet functions now identified as essential by stakeholders in environmental, healthcare and planning organisations, the pressure on green spaces is likely to grow significantly. Large green spaces can absorb huge numbers of people and hide neglect more readily than smaller ones but as the size of green spaces declines, particularly in urban areas, their ability to absorb pressure is reduced and must be mitigated by greater intervention to preserve human enjoyment and continued environmental benefits. Thanks to the government’s 25-year Environment Plan the ease with which the green space box may be ticked by delivering ill thought-out mitigation works looks set to end.

Further Information: