For many people living across the UK, easily accessible, high quality green space has become more important than ever in recent months. Ben Kite, managing director and principal ecological consultant at Ecological Planning & Research, says this must drive a commitment to healthier environments for all
The Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of high quality green space in supporting human wellbeing, both mental and physical. Essential social distancing measures and the requirement to work from home where possible implemented to slow the spread of the virus has thrown the issue of access to green space within our communities into sharp relief.
There is a wealth of benefits to be gained from ensuring that green space plays a key role in every built environment in the UK in terms of boosting the desirability of an area for people to live in, supporting public health by encouraging people to spend more time outdoors and in improving the country’s biodiversity.
To increase the quality of the country’s available green space and ensure that it is not just accessible to communities but central to them, housebuilders must make ecologically informed decisions about how they design new developments and the planning process must support them in doing this. Besides, enhancing biodiversity and protecting environment is not just a “nice thing to do”, it will soon be mandated as essential to most new development via the Environment Bill.
Green space and human health
The links between spending time in high quality green space and improvements to human health are well documented. In terms of physical health, access to green space has been proven to encourage greater levels of exercise, which in turn helps to protect individuals from heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. An active person will need to visit a doctor 5.5% less than an inactive person, who is also likely to spend 37% more time in hospital than an active person.
Likewise, accessible, high quality green space is associated with significant improvements in mental wellbeing, with people living in greener areas reported to experience notably lower levels of mental distress than those living in areas with limited access to green space.
Free access to green space also improves the sense of connection individuals feel to the people and spaces that make up their local community, increasing social engagement.
Overall, the physical and mental health benefits that come with access to green space are linked to shorter hospital stays and quicker recovery, which some estimate saves the healthcare system £2.1bn per year.
Improved air and water quality
Integrating high quality green spaces, new habitats and tree and shrub planting into communities, if done correctly, can also lead to improved air quality and water quality. Air pollution is estimated to have a role in 36,000 deaths every year in the UK with an increase in the long-term average of PM 2.5 (particulate matter) of just one microgram per square metre having been found to increase the likelihood of death from Covid-19 by 15%. However, by creating living buffers between traffic and public spaces and even directly absorbing certain substances from the air, trees, hedges and other habitats can ensure people are less exposed to harmful pollutants.
Clearly, building resilient and healthy communities is of paramount importance as the world looks beyond the Covid-19 pandemic. The biodiversity net gain requirements set out in the emerging Environment Bill will be an important driver in shifting development in the environment’s favour. Leading housebuilders have already begun to embrace the new challenges the bill presents, such as the requirement to ensure their new projects generate a 10% uptick in biodiversity – and they are already reaping the rewards in the form of streamlined paths to planning consent and higher quality developments. Revising Local Plans to ensure that they place greater emphasis on the provision of green and blue infrastructure is also critical.
Currently, national policy requires Local Plans to ask for adequate green space provision from new developments. However, this is undermined as legislation requires LPAs merely to “have regard” to the findings of plan-level environmental assessments, without the obligation to choose the options that result in the best environmental outcome. This can load the dice against developers and make it harder for them to deliver, by overlooking allocations and policy options that have the greatest potential for environmental gain. To drive better environmental outcomes, we must change legislation to build a planning system front-loaded both with the consideration of environmental information and also an expectation that this should direct development towards environmentally preferable designs and locations right at the start of the process.
Likewise, in order to ensure the benefits of green space are achieved for our communities, biodiversity must be considered from the outset of each new development as an essential ingredient for any stimulating, vibrant and healthy place. This includes designing housing projects around protecting or improving existing biodiverse green spaces or creating such places from scratch while ensuring that sustainable and active transport is encouraged – this will reduce car dependency, increase opportunities for people to be active and improve air quality.
Admittedly, in high-density urban areas improving access to green space requires a creative approach, particularly where it has been neglected for decades. As such, it is important to be strategic and plan urban developments for the long-term, to ensure that pockets of green space are connected for the benefit of the wildlife that use them, as well as local communities.
The commercial benefits of rich and biodiverse green space can also be a powerful incentive for housing developers looking to add value to their new projects. Some 96% of homebuyers are looking to purchase property with access to parks, paths and natural green space, and well-planned, attractive green infrastructure and community spaces can deliver a substantial sales premium for nearby homes. Overall, there is a positive relationship between property value and residential properties overlooking or being close to high quality green space, with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimating that green and blue space adds £2,813 to the price of the average house in Great Britain – equivalent to £77.9bn.
It’s important to note that creating high quality, green, healthy environments need not be expensive – particularly when considered from the genesis of a housing development – likewise, that new housing developments are not ‘competing’ with green space. Quite the opposite. They can, in fact, be an essential driver for land use change, turning brownfield sites that are biodiversity poor or not meeting their potential, agricultural monocultures and otherwise inaccessible land into thriving green communities for the benefit of the country’s wildlife, as well as the people who live and work there.
As the UK looks beyond the pandemic, our relationship with the natural environment surrounding our homes – as renewed and regenerated by lockdown – must drive a positive shift towards guaranteeing access to high quality green space and, in the longer term, a permanent shift in how our communities are designed, built and maintained.
Managing director and principal ecological consultant
Ecological Planning & Research
+44 (0)1962 794 720