What is green space?
Green space is a generic term used for any area of vegetated land (growing grass, trees, shrubs and so on) in an urban context. Rural open areas don’t tend to be included within the description. Other definitions go further, and characterise green space as land that has been particularly set aside for recreational use or aesthetic purposes.
Typically, green spaces include parks and community gardens, woodland, meadows, graveyards, sports fields, allotments and green corridors (such as disused railways and canals).
Why is green space important?
In recent years, awareness of the multi-faceted importance of green spaces has been steadily building, and the global pandemic has only reinforced their necessity. Environmentally alone, green spaces is the ultimate multi-tasker. Outdoor areas play a vital role in urban ecosystems, help to protect and improve biodiversity and can assist prevention of worrying native species declines.
Besides the many concrete benefits to our environment, green spaces also have a key role to play in optimising human health. They promote outdoor activities, from sports to scavenger hunts, and provide places for social events, both on a large, community scale and for day-to-day interactions. As William Shakespeare said, ‘One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.’
Green spaces also give people areas in which to relax, along with vital access to nature, which has been proven to boost mental well-being. In high-density and high-traffic urban areas especially, green spaces are a refuge from noise and air pollution (with trees helping to reduce the latter, too). The World Health Organisation (WHO) has data to show that exercising in a natural environment can reduce physiological symptoms of stress and improve outcomes for those suffering from mild depression.
More than this, green spaces play a critical role in reducing the urban heat island (UHI) effect, in which large swathes of dark, man-made surfaces absorb solar radiation at high volumes, exacerbating heat waves and decreasing thermal comfort, sometimes do a life-threatening extent. Those areas with water features (‘blue space’) are particularly useful for aiding in urban cooling.
What is the future of urban green spaces?
The evidence is clear that green spaces are necessary for the health of our cities and citizens, and councils, governments and organisations are taking notice – and action.
Taditionally, ‘urban green space’ has, in effect, meant community parks. These are still vital, but the responsibility for the physical, mental and social well-being of urban dwellers cannot rest on these alone. Instead, planners are now looking at ‘green infrastructure’, taking a holistic view of an area’s entire network of multifunctional green space.
Suddenly the options are endless. Green infrastructure includes playgrounds and schoolyards, ‘pocket’ parks, roadside greenery and vegetation barriers, access to urban woodlands, green roofs and walls, green trails for walking and cycling, urban meadows and recreational gardening facilities in spaces such as community gardens or the edges of sporting fields, play areas and school grounds.
Landscape urbanism is a planning approach which prioritises landscapes. It posits that, rather than planning cities and townships around traditional infrastructure, urbans areas should be organised via the incorporation and design of landscapes. In a country where around three quarters of the population resides in urban dwellings, this may be the way forward – which is good news for landscapers!
Who is helping to promote green space?
While there are likely to be exciting upcoming opportunities for landscapers, planning green space effectively is also a heavy responsibility. Managed well, green space design can enhance quality of life for urban dwellers, mitigate the risks of both extreme weather and man-made pollution, and provide vital habitats for wildlife.
In 2020, the Landcscape Institute (LI) and the Parks Alliance (TPA) agreed to work together to create a stronger voice and better support the parks and green space sector. Together they hope to work alongside national and local government to highlight the importance of green space, disseminate research and knowledge, provide new landscape apprenticeships, and develop a learning offering and qualification for current practitioners within the sector.
Jane Findlay, President-elect of the Landscape Institute, said, ‘For some time, many parks and green space practitioners have lacked a professional home. The LI is committed to supporting all landscape professionals. A crucial step in fulfilling this aim is promoting the role parks and green spaces play in our communities, strengthening the voice of practitioners working in these important places.
‘The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has highlighted how important parks and green spaces are to the nation’s well-being. As governments and the public begin to truly appreciate their value, we need to collaborate to lead and champion the sector. Now is the time for all involved in landscape, parks and place to come together.’
Now, the two organisations have created a Parks and Green Space Network (PGCN) of more than fifty groups and leading practitioners. They have already collaborated on a landmark report, ‘Greener Recovery: Delivering a sustainable recovery from COVID-19’, which calls on the government to seize this ‘once in a generation chance’ and emphasises the pivotal role of green space.
The suggestions and frameworks provided here and in ‘Making Parks Count’ offer a concrete, practical and evidence-based rationale and pathway to making future green spaces work hard for our communities.
Green space and inequality
In addition to its other numerous benefits, access to green space is also vital for healthy child development, supporting the development of independent skills and capabilities. Compelling emerging evidence indicates that young people who spend time in green spaces reap a range of benefits including improved motor skills, better academic performance and increased concentration.
It is therefore necessary to ensure that public green spaces are easily accessible for all population groups and distributed equitably within urban areas. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the inequality of access that currently exists – availability varies depending on where you live. Greater wealth buys more access to nature and more space for physical activity, while enabling you to avoid environmental hazards such as air pollution. Without access to local parks, gardens and playing fields, whole demographic groups are denied the benefits that green spaces bestow.
There is data to suggest that those living in deprived areas will benefit more from local green spaces, compared to those in more affluent areas – and that greenspace can help reduce income based health inequality. So what is being done?
What does the focus on green space mean for landscapers?
A focus on green space has holds many opportunities for landscapers. Even outside of the public open spaces market, the newfound appreciation of outdoor space has had a knock-on effect on home buyers’ priorities nationwide. Building companies and local authorities should be taking note, since green space is increasingly becoming a fundamental selling point.
In England and Wales, houses and flats within 100 metres of public green space were, on average, £2,500 more expensive than they would have been if they were situated just 500 metres farther away – an average premium of 1.1% in 2016 and clear evidence that residents value being near to open spaces under local authority jurisdiction. After the pandemic, this premium is likely to have skyrocketed further.
On the face of it, a focus on green space should mean more – and more interesting – work for soft landscapers, with a focus on creative use of space. However, the accompanying spotlight on the environment means that landscapers will need to stay ahead of the curve when presenting tenders.
Considerations may include incorporating initiatives that enhance biodiversity within proposals, such as wild flower meadows on the fringes of sports areas or playgrounds; community endeavours, particularly in deprived areas (play areas, gardening facilities and the like); and easy access to rivers, woodland and other green spaces from residential and commercial developments. The functions of green space can be diverse, from food production and social exchange to sports, increasing mobility, and leisure pursuits.
Overall, it’s clear that green spaces provide myriad benefits – from improved levels of mental health, physical fitness and cognitive and immune function (as well as lower overall mortality rates), to the protection of urban biodiversity and reduction in pollution levels.
Everyone benefits from urban green space interventions, which can promote social connectivity, foster a sense of belonging, reduce loneliness and encourage a connection to nature. However, they are particularly relevant for socially disadvantaged groups, which often have least access to high quality green spaces.
Soft landscapers now have the chance to be architects of the social and environmental recovery programme of a lifetime. For some initial ideas, take a look at our blog on natural landscaping. If you need any further information or advice, our friendly team is always happy to help.