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 initiatives. Denver, 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.