Too often, discussions about planning are dominated by a focus on the need for more houses and a desire from politicians to speed up the system. There is an urgent need for more homes that meet people’s needs and are truly affordable, but rather than fixating on housing numbers, we need to focus, in both policy and practice, on planning and building high-quality new places and revitalising existing ones. A crucial element of a high-quality, prosperous place is green infrastructure – which refers to parks, gardens, green spaces, and street trees, for example.
In addition to wellbeing benefits, green infrastructure provides a range of important environmental benefits including reductions in air pollution, flood management and space for biodiversity. But, historically, these benefits have been hard to quantify. Consequently, placing a value on green spaces has at times focused on the increase in house prices for homes located next to parks. Last year, the Office for National Statistics reported that houses and flats within 100 metres of public green spaces were an average of £2,500 more expensive than they would be if they were more than 500 metres away.
In terms of the economic benefits, research commissioned by Natural England and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs went further and concluded that “well designed and maintained green infrastructure helps to make an area more attractive, thus bringing in more residents, visitors and businesses, all of whom are likely to contribute to an increase in spending on local goods and services. Additional jobs may be created through this extra spending.”
A focus on house prices, tourism and jobs vastly underestimates, however, the importance of green infrastructure. Work to place a value on the services provided by the natural environment has improved the understanding the importance of the many environmental and wellbeing benefits offered by green infrastructure. The Parks Alliance recently estimated that the annual economic value of the benefits provided by parks in England was £6.6bn, and for every £1 spent on parks they provide between £7 and £10 of quantified benefits. These benefits include, for example, an estimated £680m in value to the economy from the 1,500 species of UK pollinators in species-rich urban green spaces.
The social benefits of green infrastructure are also vital in supporting places to be prosperous and attractive places to live and work. Outdoor spaces can be used for educational purposes, such as forest schools. Bringing people together in green spaces can help bind communities and tackle loneliness. The government’s 25 Year Environment Plan recognises these benefits and in relation to the commitment to green towns and cities, stating that “better green infrastructure will promote local social interaction and help to develop strong community networks through participation and shared achievements”.
Investment to establish successful green infrastructure is essential. If places are to be attractive and prosperous, however, so too is consideration of, funding for and a commitment to the long-term maintenance of the assets created. There is a need for a maintenance plan for each element of the green infrastructure, and within that clarity about who is responsible for implementing it over time. Different elements of green infrastructure will require different plans – street trees will have different maintenance needs from, for example, a new community green space.
But this must be considered from the start, not as an afterthought. Green infrastructure is a crucial element of prosperous places. It is far more than simply access to local green spaces for communities, although that is also important. When planned, implemented and maintained it provides people and places with a wealth of economic, social and environmental benefits.
Fiona Howie is chief executive at the Town and Country Planning Association.