Green belt does not relieve pressure on London’s urban green spaces,by Meredith Whitten
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In early March, on one of those first warm, sunny days of the year that brings hope that spring is near, I spent the day walking through countryside near the historic town of Lacock. It’s the kind of iconic, idyllic English green space in which my American friends and family imagine I find myself daily. You can picture what I’m talking about – endless fields of green, sheep lazily grazing and the feeling that Alfred Wainwright might appear over the horizon at any moment.
In a way, I can forgive my family and friends for thinking this – my research focuses on urban green spaces, and I spend a lot of time talking, thinking and tweeting about green space. Those who don’t spend every waking moment preoccupied with such things probably don’t realise that there are a lot of shades of grey when it comes to green space.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the never-ending debate about London’s green belt. This debate is rooted largely in misperceptions, the most obvious being that the Metropolitan Green Belt is, in fact, green. Organisations such as the Royal Town Planning Institute and Natural England have noted that the green belt is not actually green and is not particularly good for the environment, either (RTPI, 2005; Natural England, 2008; both cited in Thomas & Littlewood, 2010). RTPI, Natural England and others have echoed Kate Barker’s call for more flexibility regarding development in the green belt, which, they say, would provide needed new homes, lead to development that is more sustainable and offer a better fit with 21st century London (Barker, 2006).
Yet, green belt policy has achieved a “taken-for-granted” status (Thomas & Littlewood, 2010, p. 203) and is considered “unassailable,” “politically untouchable” and “one of the UK’s most renowned planning policies” (Amati, 2007, p. 579; 580; 591). Why is this? Perhaps today, as we squeeze more and more people into our cities, and these cities devour more and more land as they sprawl, we cling to the Victorian-inspired idea of unfettered countryside nipping at the city’s heels. Indeed, green belt policy has endured and gained widespread support “as an emblematic feature of the planning system” (Thomas & Littlewood, 2010, p. 219) and, thus, the purpose and aims of green belt policy have remained largely unchanged since they were set out in a government circular in 1955 (Amati, 2007, p. 580).
Yet, only 22 percent of London is designated as green belt – and only a mere 7 percent of the Metropolitan Green Belt lies within Greater London. Well, you may argue, the green belt is doing its job of containing London’s growth. But that’s not the case. The reach of London extends well beyond its bureaucratic boundaries – anyone who loses hours of their lives every week commuting to and from London can tell you this.
The argument that the green belt retains green space accessible to Londoners – a spot of countryside standing firm against the polluted, cacophonous, all-consuming city – falls flat, as well. Not only is the Metropolitan Green Belt not wholly green, but much of the 7 percent in Greater London is not publicly accessible. Ebenezer Howard’s Viennese-inspired vision of Victorian-era Londoners enjoying “all the fresh delights of the country” in an unspoilt parkland encircling the city is a myth (1902, p. 130).
Herein lies my concern, as an urban green space researcher, with the Metropolitan Green Belt. While we quibble over green belt policy, how protected green belt land should be and whether we should release any of it for development (namely, home building), London’s urban green spaces – spaces that are publicly accessible, near urban dwellers and unquestionably green – are under immense pressure. So, while arguments for preserving the green belt – 93 percent of which falls outside Greater London – are based on the erroneous pretext that the green belt is actually green space, the urban green space we encounter daily – where we eat our lunch, walk the dog, sit in quiet reflection and play football – are falling into disrepair, losing quality and, in some instances, becoming unsafe.
The pressure on London’s urban green space comes from many angles. From a supply side, very little new publicly accessible urban green space has been created in recent years. Much of London’s existing green spaces were created more than a century ago. Local councils, the primary providers of urban green space, particularly in Inner London, hesitate to take on management of new green spaces because they have seen their budgets for parks and green spaces cut to the bone through austerity measures. Indeed, non-statutory functions such as providing green space typically are the first things cut in a local authority’s budget.
In my research, green space professionals I interviewed recalled previous cycles of deep cuts that tangibly affected the delivery and management of these public spaces. Much of the late 20th century was characterised by “a widespread decline in the quality of urban parks and other green spaces” (Wilson & Hughes, 2011, p. 207). In a report on England’s urban green spaces, the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee identified a “spiral of decline” taking place in urban green spaces and pinned this largely on funding (Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, 1999, para. 63). Following this, England’s urban green spaces went through a renaissance, particularly from 1997 to 2010, highlighted by the Urban White Paper in 2000 and the establishment of the Urban Green Spaces Taskforce. The task force made prominent recommendations involving increasing the amount and sources of funding for urban green spaces. People I interviewed say this illustrates how much work and resources have gone into repairing and improving London’s urban green spaces. They point to the popularity – even the over-popularity – of urban green space in London that resulted from this renewed attention in an effort to highlight what could be lost with even more drastic cuts.
Drastic cuts to London’s urban green spaces are not that far-fetched. Some boroughs are divesting themselves of green space as well as green space staff. A 2016 report by the Heritage Lottery Fund – the largest funder of parks and green spaces after local authorities – found that 92 percent of England’s park and green space managers had their budgets cut over the last three years, with one-third facing cuts of more than 20 percent. Almost all (95 percent) expected their budgets to be cut further in subsequent years. Almost half of local authorities were considering disposing of some green spaces (HLF, 2016). The cuts are severe and influential enough that last month the Communities and Local Government Committee launched an inquiry into public parks to examine the impact of reduced local authority budgets on these spaces. Clive Betts MP, the committee chairman, said, “With councils under enormous financial pressures and with no legal obligation to fund and maintain public parks, these precious community resources may be at risk” (UK Parliament, 2016).
On the demand side, London’s skyrocketing population has not just created a need for housing, but a growing demand for parks and green spaces, as well. As we build more densely – a policy priority laid out in the London Plan and ascribed to by Inner London boroughs – private amenity space is often reduced to nothing more than a Juliette balcony with barely enough space for a potted plant. Thus, Londoners increasingly turn to their green spaces for access to nature, recreation, food growing, socialising and more. Indeed, an estimated 2.6 billion visits are made to England’s parks and green spaces annually (HLF, 2014). In urban areas, 61 percent of residents use their parks and green spaces at least once a month – 10 percent more than rural residents. Even if not a single blade of grass is lost to development, the increase in demand from a growing population means green space per capita (typically a target set by local councils) decreases. This is occurring at the same time that green space facilities across London are closing or experiencing shrinking hours, meaning we are squeezing more people into less green space.
If urban green space is under such pressure, then, doesn’t this make the case for protecting the green belt, so it can provide an escape for nature-deprived Londoners?
Research shows that for city dwellers it is “nature at the doorstep” that matters (Kaplan, 1984, p. 189). It is from proximity to nature that we derive the most benefit. Very small green spaces and even simply trees and flowers in small landscaped areas can provide opportunities for relaxation and physical and psychological escape from the crowded, hectic pace of urban life (Kaplan, 1984). We’re more likely to engage in and reap benefits from green space that is near us than we do from destination green spaces, which is what the green belt is for Londoners. But, that again assumes that the green belt is green. The reality is the green belt is not a lush field of green just a quick train journey away for Londoners. It does not alleviate pressure on London’s urban green spaces. If Londoners’ demand for green space is not met where Londoners live, no green girdle around the city will compensate for the loss of amenity, biodiversity, environmental services and recreation that our urban green spaces provide Inner London residents, workers and visitors day in, day out.
This is not to imply that as a resident of South London I don’t benefit from the existence of Hampstead Heath or Parkland Walk or any other green space. Benefits such as flood protection, climate change mitigation and economic development that green spaces bring affect all of London, which is why maintaining a system of green spaces throughout the city is critical. But, my personal use of, the benefits I reap and the demand pressures I place on urban green space will predominantly be the green space that surrounds my neighbourhood. Again, though, the green belt is no Hampstead Heath or Parkland Walk
I suspect the green belt – green or not – represents something beyond nature-based open space. It stands as a symbol of no development or no large-scale development, at least. It is comforting to know that as London experiences urban change there is somewhere in London that is untouchable. But, that fervour is misdirected, when it is urban green spaces that have a much more direct impact on our lives.
Instead of holding onto the fantasy of green space that the green belt offers, we should focus our energy on providing urban green space right outside our door and to ensuring that all Londoners have convenient access to nature and recreation in our urban green spaces.
Whether or not we should we permit developing – and particularly developing homes – in the green belt is an issue that will continue to be debated. But, arguments in that debate should not include the mistaken stance that protecting the green belt provides Londoners with needed green space. For that, we need only look outside our doorstep.
Amati, M. 2007. “From a Blanket to a Patchwork: The Practicalities of Reforming the London Green Belt,” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 50(5), pp. 579-594.
Barker, K. 2006. Barker Review of Land Use Planning: Final Report – Recommendations. London: HM Treasury HMSO).
Heritage Lottery Fund. 2016. “State of UK Public Parks.” Available: https://www.hlf.org.uk/state-uk-public-parks-2014. Accessed: 12 April 2016.
Heritage Lottery Fund. 2016. “State of UK Public Parks.” Available:https://www.hlf.org.uk/state-uk-public-parks. Accessed: 22 September 2016.
Howard, E. 1902. Garden Cities of To-Morrow. London: Swan, Sonnenschein & Co. Ltd.
Kaplan, R., 1984. “Impact of Urban Nature: A Theoretical Analysis,” Urban Ecology, 8, 189-197.
Natural England. 2008. Natural England’s Housing Growth and Green Infrastructure Policy. Policy Statement, June. Sheffield: Natural England.
Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), 2005. Town and Country Planning (Green Belt) Direction 2005: A Response to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on Its Consultation on the Draft Direction and Accompanying Draft Circular. London: RTPI.
Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. 1999. Twentieth Report – Town and Country Parks. Available:www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199899/cmselect/cmenvtra/477/47707.htm. Accessed: 19 October 2015.
Thomas, K. and S. Littlewood. 2010. “From Green Belts to Green Infrastructure? The Evolution of a New Concept in the Emerging Soft Governance of Spatial Strategies,”Planning Practice & Research, 25(2), pp. 203-222.
UK Parliament, 2016. Future of public parks inquiry launched. Available:www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/communities-and-local-government-committee/news-parliament-2015/public-parks-launch-16-17/. Accessed: 24 July 2016.
Wilson, O. and O. Hughes, 2011. “Urban Green Space Policy and Discourse in England,”Planning Practice & Research, 26(2), pp. 207-228.