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Health, Happiness and Urban Nature

The publication of the Government’s white paper on the natural environment this week provides some welcome reminders of the importance of the natural environment in urban areas.

Some of the highlights include the need for more urban planting to support bumblebees (as part of the Bee Health Strategy), the importance of linked urban green spaces as wildlife corridors, of green infrastructure’s impact on pollution reduction, urban heat island mitigation, sustainable urban drainage, mental health improvement, quality of life, well-being, crime reduction and social cohesion.

This almost miraculous power of nature is couched in the language of economics. As you can see from the extract below, the under valuation of nature by markets is seen as a market failure (surprisingly focussed on the loss of playing fields under the last Conservative government).

Market failure: The values of most ecosystem services are currently omitted from national economic frameworks and local decision making. [This] results in less efficient resource allocation.’ (NEA)In the last three decades of the 20th century, high land values and demand for housing to meet the needs of a growing population contributed to declines in the quality and quantity of urban green spaces. For example, communities lost in the region of 10,000 playing fields between 1979 and 1997. Looking forward to 2060, the NEA shows that there is potential to increase the amenity value of urban green space in the UK by some £2 billion–£4 billion every year. However, this value is not effectively reflected within the market for land.

In addition, communities are becoming increasingly aware of the additional value of green space in managing risks such as the urban heat island effect, particulate pollution and surface water flooding.

Much reference is made to the Economics of Eco-systems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study and its work on putting monetary values on nature.

The links to urban regeneration are made including for example: ‘Healthy natural environments can also be used as a cost-effective way of regenerating and enhancing our neighbourhoods in both rural and urban areas. The presence of vegetation can halve the incidence of violent and property crimes in otherwise identical social housing. Crime is lower in inner-city areas with more areas of natural vegetation.’ and ‘Green spaces encourage greater social activity and more visitors than barren areas. Residents get to know their neighbours and become more concerned with helping and supporting each other.’

And there is a great chart showing the links between deprivation and poor environment. This is summarised as ‘Statistics on environmental quality published in 2010 show that the more deprived an area is, the more exposed its residents are to unfavourable environmental conditions. Around 0.2% of people living in the least deprived areas may experience four or more environmental conditions that are ‘least favourable’. This rises to around 17% for those people living in the most deprived areas in England.’

This all comes with links to neighbourhood planning, economic growth and all the other political themes of the moment. It also comes with new Quangos like the Local Nature Partnerships (which will work with the proposed new Health and Well-Being Boards) and new regulation like national Low Emission Zones and urban Quiet Areas and strategies like the Bee Health Strategy and a forthcoming Biodiversity Strategy for England.

Had the paper been written in the early years of the Blair government (which it wasn’t) the only difference might have been that it would have come with rather more public spending.

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of all of this and very easy (as property developers prove every day) to neglect the natural environment in physical development. Close to me on the south bank of the Thames in Rotherhithe is a relatively modern building that has been colonised by House Martins who are currently swooping into the river mud and soaring back up to build their nests. Passers-by comment on this to residents watching the performance from their balconies. Hearts are lifted (and insect populations controlled).

And this is where there are concerns. The proposal to allow developers to compensate for loss of green space through development by investing in green space elsewhere brings risks as well as potential rewards. There is real concern that the economist’s techniques of cost benefit analysis do not properly value the less well understood emotional benefits of nature and that this approach will unlock a door to more environmental destruction.

There is an enormous amount of good work going on in communities around the country (including the new garden at the Olympic ViewTube that opened this week) but there is a big challenge here for urban developers. Urban nature matters and we need to be working harder to reverse the declines and do our bit to make better places.

And a PS. After writing this I did a site inspection on a sunny Sunday morning. A large, edge of city centre site derelict since its infrastructure works were abandoned when its owner went bust nearly four years ago. It was teeming with wildlife. Nesting lapwings and sand martins, goldfinches, herons, geese and many more. A hive of activity and melody of birdsong. If we can achieve this when doing nothing we need to do even better when we regenerate.


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