Investing in green spaces and levelling up the UK

On behalf of the Landscape Institute and The Parks Alliance, Laura Schofield and Theo Plowman look at the role of green space in levelling up opportunities across the country and the potential they have to boost well-being the value that residents attach to their local community

The current government was elected on a pledge to address regional inequality and to level up the country. Yet the actual policy framework that will deliver these changes remains nebulous. The central idea is to bridge the North-South divide by increasing productivity in underperforming cities.

Levelling up the economy should be about helping struggling places, the old-school ways of doing this could be investment in public works, grey infrastructure and creating jobs. When in Hartlepool Boris Johnson described it as ‘more jobs and investment, better public services.’ However, the real hints of the government’s policy so far have a mishmash of agendas, from defeating the scourge of chewing gum and making McDonald’s take charge of its litter to devolution deals for cities.

With nothing concrete in policy terms, there is still chance to think differently and avoid treading the same paths. We cannot afford to invest in carbon-intensive projects. With the end of the lockdowns and re-opening of the economy finally in sight it’s tempting to wish everything would just get back to normal. However back to normal is not an option. ‘Back to normal’ is a return to communities starved of green space. ‘Back to normal’ is a return to terrible health inequalities. ‘Back to normal’ is a lurch back into climate and biodiversity crisis.

Build back better
Strangely, the pandemic has showed us that change can happen. We’ve seen a massive drop in air pollution and carbon emissions - albeit briefly and involuntarily. We’ve seen people work through isolation and find new ways to convene and collaborate. We’ve seen the world come together to develop a vaccine. We have learnt a remarkable amount about Covid-19 in a very short time. People working in many branches of science and all corners of the world have gathered and analysed information with astonishing speed.

We have an opportunity, both here in the UK and around the world, to ask what ‘build back better’ truly means. To build for justice as well as sustainability. To build a better future—to create a new economy and a new normal. Humanity urgently needs to devote as much effort to addressing our fractured relationship to nature. Unless we repair it, humanity will face consequences even worse than this pandemic. 

A huge part of this will be protecting and enhancing the landscapes we already have and ensuring that new spaces maximise their benefit for health, climate and nature. Greener Recovery, the Landscape Institute’s landmark Autumn 2020 policy paper, urges the UK government to seize a ‘once-in-a generation chance’ to invest for a truly green recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

It describes the role the landscape sector can play in delivering a sustainable economic recovery, whilst also tackling climate change, and what more the government must do to facilitate this. Furthermore, during the Covid-19 lockdown, parks and green spaces provided a lifeline for millions. Rightly championed as crucial assets to maintaining people’s physical and mental health, they became a vital part of the national response to the pandemic. But they need support. Therefore, there is also a supplementary paper; Green Recovery for Parks and Green Spaces.

Parks and green spaces need significant investment which matches their role as vital national assets. These places are pivotal in helping to build our resilience to climate change: cooling our cities, stopping air pollution and reducing health inequalities. Making Parks Count – The Case for Parks outlines how parks can tackle these 21st century challenges. There are projects that are both ‘shovel-worthy’ as well as ‘shovel-ready’, and a huge number of existing places in dire need of funding. Investment of £1 billion annually over the next five years would ensure existing green spaces and new ones deliver for people, place and nature.

Following the most recent meeting of the Parks and Green Spaces All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), centred on the Five Year Review of the Select Committee Inquiry into the Future of Public Parks, the chair Liz Twist MP wrote to Clive Betts MP, chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee, formally requesting that the select committee be reconvened ‘in order to assess what has changed since the inquiry and where things are still failing or going backwards rather than forwards’ and noted that it would ‘also be an opportunity to hold the government to account in respect of the commitments it made as a result of your Committee’s inquiry’.

Five principles
To achieve a truly sustainable recovery, government investment and regulatory reform following the pandemic should: take a natural capital approach to new infrastructure and housing investment; invest in maintenance and renewal of existing places; set higher and fairer standards for green space; invest in natural solutions to climate change; and create a step-change in green skills, digital, and data.

In practical terms, these five principles set out to:

  • Accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy, with natural capital in decision-making.  
  • Re-orientate targets and incentives for Local Planning Authorities towards a broader set of placemaking outcomes, and ensure that the new planning reforms help deliver these.  
  • Extend net gain policies in the Environment Bill to cover a broader range of outcomes and development types, including infrastructure.  
  • Rebalance infrastructure spend from capital to operational to ensure places and buildings can be greened, managed, and maintained.  
  • Embed requirements for living roofs and walls into national planning policy and consider financial incentives for their provision, including equalisation of VAT rules to encourage retrofit of existing buildings and infrastructure.  
  • Enable a step-change in sustainable drainage by mandating sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) as the default option for all new development - especially those supported through public investment.  
  • Support data standardisation and integration in the built environment, including for embodied carbon.

Cator Park in Kidbrooke Village
To further develop these principles, in March this year the Landscape Institute held its Greener Recovery Festival, a week of online CPD sessions demonstrating how landscape practice can combat the climate emergency, increase biodiversity, and restore the natural environment.

A Landscape Institute Award winner in 2020, Cator Park in Kidbrooke Village is a recent example of how the right kind of investment in parks and green spaces can lead to a fantastic array of positive outcomes, for climate, the local community and for nature.

The project was an ambitious HTA Design LLP led reshape of an 8ha park in Southeast London. It returns nature to the city and challenges the perception that urban brownfield development cannot contribute to the wider ecological and biodiversity network, while creating successful spaces for the community. The new park offers a legacy for the local community and the wider area that will bring people together and form a sense of identity. The proposals introduce a diverse habitat mosaic with destination sculptural play space, while creating corridors for wildlife and people through the site.

Mitigating the environmental impact was a key driver for the design and delivery of the park, from the early concept stages throughout the detailed design, as well as the sourcing of materials on site. The utilisation of 30,000m3 of demolition material in sculptural mounding reduced waste and reduced inputs.

Prior to redevelopment, the park was dominated by buildings, roads, amenity grassland and scattered trees. Now the same area boasts ponds, meadows and native hedging. The baseline habitats and new habitats post completion were showing a 161 per cent biodiversity net gain.

We can see how with the right investment these previously neglected places can provide a myriad of positive outcomes. Furthermore, the pandemic has shown us that parks and green spaces are key resources and deserve more investment and recognition. In May 2020, the boards of The Parks Alliance and the Landscape Institute agreed in principle to bring their organisations closer together. The goal: to create a stronger voice, avoid duplication of efforts, and better support the parks and green space sector. Recognising the huge potential of urban green space, we have brought together more than 40 partner organisations and leading practitioners to create the new Parks and Green Space Network. The new Network will support parks leaders to provide a stronger and clearer voice for parks in the UK, and work towards the LI becoming the ‘professional home’ for parks.

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