By Professor Chris Baines

06 November 2017 - 17:14

Urban Flora

People have always recognised the value of nature on the doorstep. From the fabled hanging gardens of Babylon, through medieval monastic gardens to the green courtyards and roof gardens of modern office blocks, people with choice have seen the benefit of green spaces close to where they live and work.

In the 18th century the Scottish landscape architect Joseph Loudon championed the need for breathing places in Britain’s burgeoning industrial towns and cities, and the Victorian philosopher John Ruskin saw access to nature as essential to the mental and physical health and wellbeing of hard working urban communities.

In the 1970s and 80s I worked as a landscape architect in a range of tough inner city housing estates, encouraging communities to green up their environment. This was a time of extreme urban tension, but at the end of the infamous Brixton riots, when whole neighbourhoods had been trashed, no one had touched the sunflowers on the Tulse Hill Nature Garden. This small wild oasis among the tower blocks, created and cared for by local children, was clearly respected as a living symbol of personal empowerment, peace and sanity.

Since then, a great deal of scientific research has confirmed the health benefits of urban greenspace. As little as three minutes spent in natural surroundings is known to reduce stress and tension to a measurable degree and this means that accessible wild spaces right on the doorstep can make a significant difference to healthy living. Furthermore, green routes to school and work encourage journeys on foot, whilst a green outlook from the workplace can increase productivity, reduce absenteeism and boost economic efficiency.  No surprise, then, that homes, schools and offices in natural green surroundings command a premium.

The appreciation of nature in the city is a worldwide phenomenon and there are many inspiring initiativesDenver, Colorado has 25 square miles of urban wilderness on its Arsenal sanctuary, with white tailed deer, coyotes and bald eagles among the more spectacular residents. In New York the planting of a redundant elevated railway line has established a traffic-free green walkway, the High Line, though the city.

In London’s King’s Cross the Camley Street Nature Park has been inspiring local people for more than 30 years. Most spectacular of all has been the removal of a six-lane highway from the heart of South Korea’s capital city, Seoul. This Mayoral initiative has revived a 10 km stretch of the urban Cheonggyecheon River as a recreational riverside walkway, a lung of clean air for the polluted city and an aid to more effective urban storm water management.

In the UK we are beginning to see increasing recognition of the practical environmental, social and economic benefits of greener towns and cities. This is being translated, in part at least, into a more structured approach to the protection of existing green networks such as railway lines, canals, public parks etc, and there are signs of investment in natural systems that can yield far greater value from ecosystem services. 

As one example, absorbent green spaces are now being recognised as vital contributors to urban flood defence. Canalised and culverted streams and rivers are being restored to their more natural form. Waterside parks and open spaces are being reshaped to serve as temporary rainwater storage lagoons, and the whole idea of sustainable urban drainage is beginning to emerge as a practical way of protecting property in the face of increasingly severe weather patterns. As an added bonus these working wetlands also create a rich tapestry of wetland wildlife habitat between the buildings.

One extremely important aspect of the city greening movement in the UK and elsewhere is the opportunity it provides for public engagement. Of all the people on the Earth today, almost one in a hundred live in the British Isles, and the great majority - about 90% - live and work in towns and cities. This can make access to the rural countryside inconvenient and expensive, so the wild spaces close to home are very important. Indeed they are the only easy option for the great majority of children and old people.  

A more naturalistic approach to the management of urban green spaces has given many people opportunities to enjoy access to nature on a daily basis. There are a great many examples of natural teaching areas within school grounds whilst some urban parks are encouraging local communities to help with the management of wildflower meadows, bee and butterfly gardens and nest box schemes for birds.  

Domestic gardens have probably been the element of Britain’s towns and cities where that change of emphasis has had the greatest impact. Forty years ago, wildlife in the garden was generally seen as a threat – a pest, a disease or a weed. Now that attitude has changed, and many families actively manage their private gardens, courtyards and balconies with the aim of attracting more birds, butterflies and other wild creatures. 

The annual Chelsea Flower Show takes place in London every May, and is recognised as an international shop window for gardening fashion and horticultural excellence. In 1987 I was brave enough to create the very first wildlife garden at Chelsea, planting daisies in my lawn, and digging a pond with soft natural margins, lined with mud and fringed with native wildflowers. The Royal Horticultural Society was so shocked by the concept that they mistakenly inscribed my Chelsea medal “To J C Baines for his Wildfire garden”.  Thirty years later that same Society has published a new edition of my wildlife gardening book as an RHS gardening classic.

For the first time in the history of the world, more than half the population is now urban, and by 2050 that proportion is expected to rise to 70%. We will need to work with nature if towns and cities, and the billions who live there are to remain healthy. In the past, access to wildlife close to home may have appealed only to a few naturalists, and to those who chose to live in leafy green surroundings.

From now on we need to put green infrastructure at the heart of every urban environment, and to redefine it as our natural life support system. 

Professor Chris Baines

Chris Baines is regarded as one of the UK’s leading independent environmentalists.  He is a horticulturist and a landscape architect by profession. He is self-employed and works as an adviser to senior executives in the water, minerals, energy and housing industries. He is also an adviser to the UK government and is a highly experienced facilitator and public speaker.  He is frequently employed as a broker of creative partnerships between the public, private and voluntary sectors.