Sharing a vision for high quality green infrastructure..

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By Helen Hoyle….

Organised by our own Hannah Hickman and Sarah O’Driscoll (Bristol City Council), the inaugural joint Bristol City Council – UWE Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments (SPE) Symposium on Green and Blue Infrastructure took place at Bristol City Council’s Cash Hall on Monday 11th February. This provided an excellent opportunity for planners and researchers to come together to share policy and practice experience relating to the delivery of high-quality green infrastructure (GI).

First up was Bristol City Council’s Richard Goldthorpe, from the City Design Team. Richard focused on “Policy towards delivery” and highlighted some of the gaps and new developments in place-shaping policy. Richard introduced the need for a West of England Green Infrastructure Plan to bridge between the West of England Joint Spatial Plan (JSP) and the Bristol Local Plan. The JSP will set out a prospectus for sustainable growth to help the combined authority meet its housing and transport needs for the next 20 years, to 2036. He also emphasised the need for the Local Plan to link to the provision and design of specific parks and green spaces. Richard closed by emphasising the need for good research data to inform GI policy and delivery.

Richard Goldthorpe (BCC) presenting on “Policy towards delivery”

Next on the floor were Liz Kinsey (South Gloucestershire Council) and Kathy Derrick (Bristol City Council) who introduced “The Frome Reconnected” a collaborative project focusing on future-proofing the river Frome, involving Wessex Water, the Environment Agency, South Gloucestershire Council and Bristol City Council. They described the specific challenges facing the Frome and its catchment: urbanisation and an increase in impermeable surfaces increasing flood risk; diffuse pollution; heavily modified sections involving culverts and restrictive fish barriers and fragmented habitats. Possible positive strategies to address these challenges included river restoration to facilitate fish passage, with an increasing focus on health, recreation and the possibility of introducing green prescribing activities on the Frome.

Introducing “The Frome Reconnected”

Our own Associate Professor Danni Sinnett was the next to present the framework that underpins the RTPI award-winning “Building with Nature: a national benchmark for green infrastructure”. https://www.buildingwithnature.org.uk/. This was developed through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust funded by Innovate UK and the Natural Environment Research Council. Danni explained how developers’ and policymakers’ lack of understanding of the characteristics of high-quality GI had driven the development of the benchmark. She went forward to explain how the framework can be used to deliver high quality GI, setting out the core principles, (distinguishing a GI approach from a more conventional green space approach), and those focused on achieving benefits for health and well-being, water management and nature conservation. Danni highlighted specific case study projects including Elderberry Walk, awarded a Building with Nature Design Award for the entire Masterplan for 161 new homes on a brownfield site in Bristol, and Gloucester Services on the M5 motorway. The services (both N and S-bound) incorporate an outdoor picnic area, play facilities and habitat provision.

Danni Sinnett presents the framework underpinning “Building with Nature” the national benchmark for green infrastructure

The final presentation by Dr Helen Hoyle (SPE) focused on co-producing urban meadows in green spaces with local authority land-managers in Bedfordshire. This was part of a larger Natural Environment Research Council-funded research project, Urban BESS http://bess-urban.group.shef.ac.uk/ (Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service Sustainability). Researchers from the University of Sheffield and Cranfield University introduced native perennial meadows of different floral content and heights to areas of amenity mown grassland in contrasting urban contexts in Luton and Bedford. This was done to gauge public reaction and invertebrate response to increasing biodiversity on the sites. Helen worked in the bridging role between researchers and practitioners on the ground and reported on research focusing on the land-manager perceptions of the challenges and opportunities of making such changes. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1618866716305489 Findings highlighted the key factors as: Economic resources; Aesthetics, or the appearance of the meadows, and specific Locational context. Land-managers were aware that introducing floral meadows could make some areas of green space much more attractive for the public. Nevertheless, disposing of meadow cuttings at the end of the growing season was expensive, currently ruling out the possibility of introducing meadows as a cheaper management approach than mown grass. They were also aware that although many people now accept messier urban planting, there were still those who prioritised tidiness directly outside the front of their homes.

Helen Hoyle highlights land manager perspectives on introducing urban meadows

Watch this space for news on the next joint Bristol City Council – UWE Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments Symposium.

Delivering high quality green infrastructure

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By Danni Sinnett

Globally, more people now live in towns and cities than live in the countryside. With urbanisation projected to increase into the future, and pressure on land for housing, we need to find a way of creating healthy places where both people and nature can thrive. This can be achieved by incorporating high quality green infrastructure into new and existing places.

Providing trees in each front garden in Edinburgh provides benefits as soon as people move in

Green infrastructure is a relatively new term that has gained traction in planning over the last 15 years or so, and differs from previous approaches in that the emphasis is on the creation of a coherent network of green and blue features that provide multiple functions, instead of focusing on individual spaces. These components are varied and include, for example greenspaces, parks and playing fields, street trees and landscaping, allotments, private gardens, wetlands, streams and other water bodies, as well as green roofs and walls. A critical function of this network is to provide connectivity within the urban environment and between the urban and rural.

Barking Riverside includes a network of high quality green infrastructure providing benefits for people and nature

There is now a wealth of evidence of the benefits, or so called ecosystem services, that green infrastructure can provide. For example, it can improve health and wellbeing by providing spaces for play, exercise, rest and relaxation, enhance the quality of development, and reduce air and noise pollution. It can also increase our resilience to the consequences of climate change by reducing flood risk and the effects of the urban heat island. Many of these can also save money, including through protecting communities from flooding, reducing ill health and improving quality of life. Ultimately, green infrastructure brings nature into the city, overcoming the ‘extinction of experience’ where increased urbanisation coupled with a reduction in time spent outdoors has decreased our contact with nature.

New development in Bristol combining a high quality walking environment with sustainable drainage

Despite all the evidence for green infrastructure and its apparent importance in our quality of life there are significant challenges in its delivery and management. Our research has been examining some of the reasons for this and has found that those working in the planning, design and creation of green infrastructure are struggling. For example, many are still unsure of what green infrastructure is, or should be, due to a combination of a shortfall in resources, knowledge or skills (Sinnett et al., 2017; Calvert et al., in press). In addition, developments often regarded as sustainable do not provide high quality green infrastructure. When we reviewed some of the systems that are used by developers to assess the sustainability of new places and buildings, we found that although many do include some measures of the quality of green features like parks and green roofs they rarely consider these features as a coherent multifunctional network (Calvert et al., in press). This can lead to missed opportunities to protect or enhance the existing green infrastructure or create features as part of new development.

High quality green spaces in the regeneration of a social housing estate in Lyon provide opportunities for rest and relaxation

A significant challenge is the current uncertainty over funding for long-term maintenance and management, with many local authorities unable to commit to this once construction has finished and people have moved in. This means there can be a tension between new developments being expected to provide green infrastructure, it being a desirable feature for potential residents, but the funding to manage the assets being precarious or uncertain, particularly over the timescale that vegetation takes to mature.

 

We have used these findings to develop a framework for high quality green infrastructure through a collaborative project with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. The framework consists of a set of principles informed by the literature, a review of existing standards for assessing the quality of green infrastructure, and consultation with stakeholders. The framework aims to overcome some of the challenges outlined above, addressing characteristics such as the creation of a network, local relevance and providing for the long-term management, as well as those aimed to deliver benefits for health and well-being, water management and nature conservation. This framework underpins Building with Nature, a new benchmark for green infrastructure (www.buildingwithnature.org.uk). This benchmark has been tested on a suite of planning applications and policies, and initial results are extremely positive. The framework is effective at ensuring a green infrastructure-led approach to new development, clarifying the expectations for green infrastructure early on the development process, and providing a starting point for conversations between stakeholders.

We hope to see this approach used to improve the quality of green infrastructure across our towns and cities so that people and nature can flourish.

Sinnett, D., Jerome, G., Burgess, S., Smith, N., Mortlock, R. (2017) Building with Nature – a new benchmark for green infrastructure. Town and Country Planning 86(10): 427-431. Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/33406

Calvert, T., Sinnett, D., Smith, N., Jerome, G., Burgess, S., King, L. (in press) Setting the Standard for Green Infrastructure: the need for, and features of, a benchmark in England. Planning Practice & Research. Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/38013/