Green Futures

Greenspaces and the greener recovery: the need to emphasize systems over sites.

By Carl A. Smith, University of Arkansas

The UK Government recently unveiled plans to deliver a green recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. November 2020’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution presented a suite of policies targeting various sectors, many of which affect the physical and cultural fabric of our landscapes. Although issues such as offshore wind planning and creating new areas of special planning designation are explicitly included, the plan does not mention urban greenspace; a surprise given the re-emergence during the pandemic of appreciation for the health and aesthetic benefits accrued from public parks and gardens.

Nevertheless, the Landscape Institute – the UK’s professional body for the chartership, promotion and advocacy of landscape architecture – has produced its own policy paper, Greener Recovery: Delivering a Sustainable Recovery from COVID-19,that provides actionable points to match the national recovery plan and, in the Institute’s own words “puts landscape at the heart of the UK’s recovery”. In its five-point roadmap, as supplemented by a joint addendum with The Parks and Greenspace Network, the Institute addresses the critical role of greenspaces, laying out a litany of familiar benefits: equitable public health and wellbeing; sense of place and community perception; food production; flood alleviation; biodiversity, and microclimate.

While the ambition and general tone of the Institute’s plan is laudable, I worry about the implied role of urban greenspace as a panacea, and how this might be interpreted. My unease stems from a look back to the turn of the century and sustainability’s emergence as a critical focus in UK planning and development, and the framing of urban greenspaces as multi-functional solutions to a wide range of environmental and social problems. As then, my concerns relate specifically to the lack of an overall strategic framework to guide the reasonable expectations and priorities of individual greenspaces within the fabric of our urban geographies, and the check-box approach that emerged to differentiate the green-credentials of open spaces that belied a more judicious approach.

Sustainability as a Generic Design Typology

In the UK, the burgeoning sustainability conversation of the late-90s informed and influenced critical discussions on housing provision, fossil-fuel dependence, and climate change. In response, the country saw a rash of inter-related legislative instruments, planning provisions and guidance, and think-tanks and government departments covering ambitious renewable energy targets, a British urban renaissance, national and local biodiversity action plans and so-on and so-on. Throughout, the tone was that environmental, social, and economic considerations should be equally weighted and mutually reinforcing, and – through the distant squint of policy and general-guidance – they probably were.

However, at the coalface of implementation things were a little-trickier. Although landscape urbanism – a branch of landscape architecture – was emerging with ideas on the reconciliation of aesthetic-practice and environmental-performance in the mid-to-late 1990s, there seemed to be little meaningful (and accessible) dialogue between the unmovable poles of landscape art and science (i.e., landscape design, geography, ecology and engineering), and few holistic positions at the time from which to speculate, test and disseminate development models for the new century. Furthermore, simplified ideas of sustainable best-practice were frustratingly self-contradictory and/or poorly supported by the UK planning system and development practices.

In this strategic vacuum, sustainability emerged as a generic design typology, with its own set of aesthetic modes and programme: home zones, green roofs, native vegetation, ecological restoration, sustainable drainage systems and so on. At the same time, communities did not necessarily welcome such tactics in terms of their own aspirations, nor were many sites’ inherent ecological capacities and potentials best served by their inclusion. In such cases, the designs were no more than contrived patternmaking or green value-signaling, rather than truly iterative and authentic design and planning, where the “true” nature of the site – including its authentic cultural purpose and potential – spoke first and loudest. Meanwhile, the turn of the century saw many British urban brownfield sites – noted for their extant embodied community, recreation, and biodiversity values – labelled as eyesores, and erased by the same development and planning system that claimed to promote urban environmental and social values. It seemed that the nascent sustainable development sector was distracted by the well-intentioned, if disabling, notion that its contribution was only valid when attempting to cover all socio-environmental bases at once, and in harmony, on a site-by-site basis. This contradicts a more strategic understanding, where each project is considered part of a broader, complex system with different priorities.

Learning from past mistakes

Greenwich Ecology Park, London. A site of community recreation and brownfield ecological restoration, whose design and programme is unique to the park site’s history as both a wetland, and a despoiled industrial landscape; its modern context as a site for exemplar sustainable housing; and its ongoing, skilled management by The Conservation Volunteers.

The UK public’s appetite for a greener recovery plan, and the current goodwill afforded to the civic realm, provides a platform for the consideration of greenspaces and their potential to deliver more sustainable and resilient places. However, we must learn from past mistakes. While greenspaces can, of course, help deliver many of the objectives of our post-Covid recovery, that does not mean that every project must hit every conceivable social and environmental metric as laid out in a checklist. Furthermore, we should appreciate that sustainable open space provision should not be the unnecessary and presumptive application of nature’s salve to perfectly good urbanism. Whether conserving a cherished urban habitat or protecting a well-used public space – even if it is seemingly ecologically bereft – doing nothing, or very little with surgical precision, should be considered a responsible option.

What has been missing in the past and needs to be in place before meaningful decisions can be made regarding greenspace provision, design and management can take place, is a strategic overview of urban fabrics and their embedded spaces, where the varying environmental and cultural priorities of sites are anticipated based on an ecological understanding of flows of capital, water, energy, nutrients and so-on. Furthermore, within this strategic context, the result of design need not rely overtly on a recreation of nature, but rather on a clear-eyed understanding of the site’s role in a system, where cultural history, architectural expression and community aspirations are also potential drivers of form and programme. By weighing these considerations, each space has the potential to make a unique contribution. By freeing individual parks and urban greenspaces from the obligations of being all things across the sustainability agenda and, rather, as seeing them as contributing pieces to a broader strategic system or network, park-programmes will tend to be more authentic responses to context and community needs in terms of program, aesthetics, and utility.

About the author: Dr. Carl Smith FRGS is an Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the Fay Jones School of Architecture & Design at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, USA. He is also a Visiting Professor of Architecture at the University of Sheffield, and a Chartered Landscape Architect in the UK. His work focuses on the intersection between anthropogenic landscape and urban change, and the values and beliefs of those affected. His recent honours include the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture Excellence in Studio Teaching Award; the Award of Merit for services to architecture and planning by the American Institute of Architects; the Green Medal for environmental writing from Garden Communicators International; and his election to Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Suggested further reading

Cinderby, S, Bagwell, S. Exploring the co‐benefits of urban green infrastructure improvements for businesses and workers’ wellbeing. Area. 2018; 50: 126– 135.

Roberts, Helen, Sadler, Jon, Chapman, Lee. Using Twitter to investigate seasonal variation in physical activity in urban green space. Geo: Geography and Environment. 2017, 4 ( 2): e00041


Leave a Reply or Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: