The Growing Tendrils of Green Infrastructure

LPGT Trustee Tim Webb explains the concept of green infrastructure and its vital role in managing both our urban environment and our mental and physical health.

London Landscapes readers have been green infrastructure supporters for years, even if they didn't know it. The phrase is a hot topic in urban development offices and is discussed and revered at international conferences on urban planning, while architecture students rush for copies of the latest research.

History is littered with examples: Napoleon's tree-lined roads and canals, Islamic gardens featuring fountains, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and Roman courtyards. At its most basic, it means building with nature.

Environmental benefits

It can be simple and it can be complex. What is no longer in doubt is the value, effectiveness and beauty of it, with researchers now confirming that humankind is way behind Mother Nature when it comes to managing our environment.

The rush to plant trees is a great example of the zeal with which we have adopted green infrastructure. Trees provide oxygen, lock away carbon, enhance and stabilise soils, provide shade from the sun, capture and slow down the movement of rainwater to reduce flash flooding and lower summer temperatures in their immediate vicinity, creating cool micro-climates. They can also act as windbreaks in streets turned into windy canyons by high rise buildings, and of course provide fruits, nuts and blossom while looking stunning too.

Finally, trees also support wildlife: more than 280 insect species have been recorded on a single English Oak, with lichen, mammals and birds also benefiting. Trees are truly magical and no engineer has yet been able to produce an artificial version that delivers as much; but shrubs and hedges are also undervalued natural resources.

Awareness of the importance of sand, gravel and soil pits where heavy rainfall can gather and slowly drain away is also on the rise. An increasing number of London boroughs are retro-fitting rain gardens to road verges and planting them up with trees, shrubs and wild flowers for pollinators. Wildflower meadows are now being incorporated into our urban parks and railway embankments. Sustainable Urban Drainage, or SUDs, is all about water management - it can mean removing kerb stones so water can drain into permeable borders, or building large ponds with reeds to filter heavy metals, particulates and microbeads of plastic.

Health benefits

A great benefit of this renewed interest in trees and greenery is that it is good for our physical and mental health. Researchers estimate that access to green space saves Londoners about £950 million a year in NHS costs due to its positive impact on our wellbeing.

Parks are taking these ideas and literally running with them, by introducing walks, activities and equipment to help people get active. Funders are putting their money where science tells them it will have a sound return on the investment. The NHS is tripping over studies showing the health benefits green spaces and parks deliver; it is time for financiers and the risk industry to do the same, and use investments to improve and expand green infrastructure, helping to reduce the impacts of climate change and poor health.

The new Environmental Bill has a focus on public good and environmental gain and our parks and public spaces have a major role to play in this field as urbanisation continues to increase. We must save and protect existing spaces and be creative in developing new ones. Without them, it's clear that city living would be harder and more akin to those dark, dystopian sci-fi films like Bladerunner. Open space and natural light are as essential to our health and wellbeing as good food and exercise. They should rank alongside energy and transport in government thinking.

The more natural life we have around us, the better our health and mental state. We are creatures of nature, and surrounding ourselves with hard surfaces and monochrome habitats is making us stressed and ill.

The disparity between those who have access to green space and those who do not is also becoming apparent. Health studies have highlighted the difference in life expectancy between deprived and affluent families, and remaining healthy into old age can vary by as much as a decade in some London boroughs. Environmental campaigning and conservation are now as much about social justice as they are about trees, wildflowers, bees, birds and landscapes.

Let's celebrate

Let's celebrate where we are. We can see the risks and have the knowledge and technology to do something about them. We have some amazing parks and spaces - London has a remarkable number of them. We can see the gains in looking after and improving what we have and the value in creating more - yet many remain threatened by unsuitable development or inappropriate events and activities.

There are thousands of volunteers who love and care for their local green spaces, working alongside dedicated parks staff and council officers, but there are many more who are disconnected from nature. The Autumn 2019 edition of London Landscapes included an article by Andrée Davies entitled Making a play garden: landscape design that gets children back outside. It detailed how children spend less time outdoors than they did a generation ago. This is at the core of our problem.

The Stockwell-based conservationist, poet and artist Judy Ling-Wong OBE believes we protect the places we love, and that connecting people with nature is crucial going forward. It's a view expressed by others too, like the RSPB and the National Trust. Both have invested in big projects to bridge the chasm that urban living has allowed to develop.

The London Parks & Gardens Trust is at the forefront of work to bring nature back into people's lives. We will be at the World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi in March to champion parks, showcase their worth and grow support for the valuable contributions they make to everyone's lives. Our inventory of the heritage and history of London's parks is filled with the stories of people who dedicated their lives to the creation and improvement of green infrastructure; but it's not enough to create it: we also need to ensure that people love and cherish nature now, and into the future.

Wild flowers
A wildflower meadow amidst housing development
© Tim Webb

Rain Garden
A rain garden in Marylebone High Street
© Colin Wing