Ellen Salter and Julia Haggstrom, Sustainability Consultants at
Arup, describe how the Wild West End partnership is setting new
standards for appropriate development in city green space.
Biodiversity is reaching a crisis point. According to analysis by the RSPB, the UK has failed to reach 17 out of the 20 UN biodiversity targets agreed ten years ago, in what has been described as a ‘lost decade for nature’. The UK has only half of its natural biodiversity left; compared to other countries in the EU, only Ireland and Malta come out worse. The UK is in the bottom 10% of all countries globally in terms of how much historic biodiversity still survives, and urban development has the potential to further obstruct the natural environment through the fragmentation of habitats and the displacement of species. To stop and reverse biodiversity loss, ambitious action must be taken to deliver appropriate development to our new and existing urban spaces through a clear partnership approach.
An introduction to Wild West End
In 2016, Wild West End was established out of a desire to protect, promote, and enhance biodiversity, as a partnership between central London’s largest property owners: the Church Commissioners for England, the Crown Estate, Great Portland Estates, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, the Portman Estate, the Howard de Walden Estate and Shaftesbury. The partnership is also supported by eight Business Improvement Districts, two Strategic Partners (the Greater London Authority and the London Wildlife Trust) and a Technical Partner (Arup). Together we are introducing measures to encourage birds, bees, and bats back into the heart of London – building greater connections with nature for residents, visitors, and workers to enjoy.
Following the project’s launch, baseline surveys were immediately undertaken across the area to establish the extent, condition, and value of green spaces; bird and bat surveys were also conducted to record the types and numbers of each species present. Since then, we have worked strategically with monitoring, target setting, specification guidance, engagement events, sharing of good practices and installations of green features to support our vision (www. wildwestend.london/vision). In short, Wild West End aims to set the ‘green print’ for appropriate development in our cities’ parks and green spaces.
Beyond simply increasing the total area of green spaces, Wild West End seeks to increase their multi-functional value. Newly created green spaces must target, as a minimum, at least two ‘beneficial functions’ in line with the Wild West End Value Matrix. These functions fall under five broad categories – biodiversity, climate, microclimate, well-being and social – and are periodically reviewed to ensure leading best practice, in line with national, regional and local legislation and guidance. Through carefully considered and integrated management, new and existing green infrastructure can provide London with enhanced climate, health and social benefits.
Protecting and enhancing biodiversity
Within the London Environment Strategy, the Mayor has taken a range of actions to help the environment towards a ‘path for a better future’; Wild West End builds on plans such as this to deliver appropriate development within green spaces, according to the Value Matrix. Projects must give careful consideration to the quantity and type of habitat provision for target species, as well including features such as bat boxes, bird boxes, and invertebrate features; habitat provision is supervised by a relevant specialist to optimise opportunities and minimise costs. Every two years, habitat surveys are repeated and compared against the 2016 baseline, to highlight how new ecology features have changed the condition of green space and its use by target species. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all approach; what constitutes appropriate development is highly dependent on factors bespoke to the location.
For example, the Portman Estate sought to improve the biodiversity value of its four garden squares – Portman Square, Bryanston Square, Manchester Square and Montagu Square. In consultation with their respective garden committees, they implemented changes including: providing extensive leaf litter areas, log piles, and bug hotels, as ideal homes for invertebrates (in turn supporting birds and mammals); and installing bird and bat boxes in potential nesting and roosting trees throughout the gardens. Monitoring has already shown evidence of birds using the squares for nesting, particularly in Montagu Square, and then utilising the other squares as feeding grounds.
The appropriate development of our parks and green spaces cannot be considered in isolation; to this end, the Partnership is seeking to establish a green corridor – stepping stones between existing areas of surrounding parkland through a combination of green roofs, green walls, planters, street trees and other green features. Through our strategic partnerships with the Greater London Authority and London Wildlife Trust, we share present publicly accessible green space data to support strategic decision-making and contribute towards ecological connectivity in the West End.
Window planters improve Mayfair’s environment for both people and wildlife (copyright: ARUP)
Creating a better place to live, work and visit
The importance of access to urban green spaces has never been more apparent than during the past year. There is increasing evidence linking access to green space with socio-economic factors, including better social cohesion, lower stress, and higher levels of satisfaction and wellbeing. Appropriate development should therefore extend beyond biodiversity benefits to consider human health and wellbeing for all who come to the area.
Applying these principles, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland has trialled a number of features to provide both environmental and social benefits. In 2019, they installed the world’s first green lamp posts in Ebury Street, Belgravia, with the aim of reducing air pollution, improving urban biodiversity, increasing evapotranspiration cooling and reducing noise. Over 3,000 new plants have also been installed to frame four of the West End’s retail streets – Mount Street, North Audley Street, Duke Street and South Molton Street – in a new initiative to improve the environment in Mayfair for retailers, office occupiers and visitors.
Amelia Bright, Executive Director of the London Estate Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, commented: “The new planting softens the West End’s harder edges while celebrating its incredible architecture and improving the environment for all. We will continue to invest in innovative initiatives like this.”
Working with the Portman Estate and Derwent London, the Baker Street Quarter Partnership also seeks to drive social engagement and promote wellbeing within existing development. With space at a premium, the careful design of George’s Pocket Park was key; our Wild West End Partner Handbook informed decision-making to create space for people to sit, enjoy, and socially engage. The decking space – created from reclaimed scaffolding boards – has seating built in; there are also regular pop-up stalls and temporary seating to encourage dwell time for events. Two years on, the seating and planters provide outdoor space for local residents, employees, and visitors to enjoy.
These are straightforward approaches to promote engagement with nature within existing development, which can often be difficult to realise in urban environments. When designed well, urban spaces can be sites of tranquillity, helping people to combat the stresses of daily life. New and existing development should therefore ensure consistent and regular exposure to nature and access to green spaces for all.
Partnership, knowledge, and engagement
Following the installation of the Reflection Garden at 25 Porchester Place on the Hyde Park Estate (Church Commissioners for England), residents were invited to provide feedback on the value of the garden for wellbeing and social engagement. This exemplifies Wild West End’s commitment to inspiring others and
facilitating a culture of knowledge-sharing. Our technical understanding of appropriate development can be enhanced through academic endeavour, and Wild West End actively engages with universities, collaborators, academic institutes and professional bodies to drive best practice implementation measures.
In 2020, a student at the University of Nottingham worked with
Shaftesbury and the Howard de Walden Estate to understand how urban planting may support the establishment of green corridors, and provide pollinator species with the necessary resources to move freely in the urban environment. The research highlighted the importance of planting variety, rather than patch size, for pollinator visitation; the findings were disseminated to the Partnership and made available via the Wild West End website to share lessons learned for future development.
The future of appropriate green space development
A step change is needed in how development approaches its relationship with the natural environment. Designing and enhancing our urban spaces requires the adoption of key principles to support an ecologically and socially restorative recovery: multi-functional biodiversity, health and wellbeing benefits for all; a bespoke approach in line with context specific factors such as location and ecological connectivity to surrounding green spaces; engagement with key stakeholders to facilitate knowledge-sharing and promote long-term stewardship; and academic engagement to further technical understanding.
To find out more and get involved with the Wild West End project visit www.wildwestend.london