Green solution to city blues

Urban forests are being put forward as a means of improving the quality of life in towns and cities, reports Catherine Early.

The importance of trees in towns and cities is hardly a new idea. The proliferation of plane trees in London is down to the Victorians, who planted them to offset the air pollution of the Industrial Revolution.

But the current approach to green infrastructure requires planners to think more proactively. The National Urban Forestry Unit (NUFU), a charity working in partnership with the government, the corporate sector and environmental groups, aims to create a more tree-rich environment to improve the quality of life for the UK's town and city dwellers.

The message is not "trees are pretty, so we should have more of them", insists NUFU marketing manager Mark Dixon. "That wouldn't cut any ice with anyone. Increasingly, there is recognition that trees provide a whole variety of benefits. We are a very urbanised society - 90 per cent of us live in towns and cities and that's where the benefits of trees and woods can have the most effect."

Although the NUFU has been up and running since 1995, Dixon still finds a great misunderstanding of what urban forestry is all about. "People in this sector are slightly held back by the use of the word 'forestry'. They have very strong ideas of what a forest is, but that's not what our work is all about. It's about providing a network of green space."

The "urban forest" is the collective term for trees and woods in towns and cities. The description covers trees in streets, gardens and parks as well as existing woodland, areas of natural regeneration, new planting and even trees beside railway lines. The network of urban and community forestry across an area creates a functional green infrastructure.

More than 130 years ago, Frederick Law Olmsted Sr, chief designer of New York's Central Park, commented: "No single park would provide people with all the beneficial influences of nature." Instead, he believed, parks should be linked to one another and to surrounding residential neighbourhoods.

The application of this approach is quite new in the UK. Urban forestry differs from conventional approaches to open space planning because it looks at conservation values and actions from the perspective of land development, growth management and built infrastructure.

"To be successful with green space planning in the 21st century you need to be proactive," says Dixon. "Instead of building everything first and then using whatever is left over as green space, you actually look at it from the start and integrate it into the whole process."

The NUFU argues that just as growing communities need to upgrade buildings, roads and sewers, they should also expand their green infrastructure. Its philosophy assumes that trees, woods and other green space are a basic community necessity that should be planned and developed as an integrated system.

This is already happening in some areas. In the Northern Way growth corridor, green infrastructure is being promoted by urban and community forestry projects as an important contribution to the quality of life in communities.

Last year NUFU chief executive Nerys Jones was seconded to the ODPM to work on the Thames Gateway's "Greening the Gateway" strategy. "It's impossible to be prescriptive with such a large area, but this document sets out intentions and aspirations for other organisations to sign up to," says Jones. "The ideas can be used at sub-regional level in green grid plans and local authority green space strategies."

Green infrastructure can be used with a variety of strategies to enhance the value of investment directed towards improving quality of life and economic prosperity. It can be part of forward planning, informing local development frameworks and regional spatial strategies. Good green space can create a positive reputation in which growth strategies can be framed.

Improvements required under area-based initiatives and land reclamation programmes can be achieved through the green infrastructure approach. The concept can be used in housing renewal programmes to help prevent future market failure. It can harness the potential of strategic development sites and provide the strategic framework for green space enhancement in investment plans.

Community and urban forest organisations are working to drive forward this agenda. Dixon says success depends on the commitment and support of partners in the public and private sectors, including planners. "It cannot just be done by environmentalists," he maintains.

Landscape assessments can provide the basis for strategic environmental policy and green infrastructure planning. This should be promoted as an integral part of forward planning in the same way as transport and communications infrastructure, Dixon advises. The planning system is vital to ensuring that delivery is linked to development, he insists. "It's important that you're not just doing this to an urban landscape," he adds. "You have to take into account that local people know their landscape better than you."

Urban forestry exponents believe that planning an area's green infrastructure should reinforce priorities and targets identified in local green space audits. That makes it important to liaise closely with local authorities, they recommend. Urban greening initiatives are easier to achieve when integrated into local government planning tools. Having urban forestry adopted as supplementary planning guidance (SPG) encourages developers to incorporate such principles into proposals.

The NUFU has been working with East Staffordshire Borough Council and the National Forest Company to integrate urban forestry into the planning policy framework for Burton-upon-Trent. Although the largest town in the National Forest already had substantial tree cover, all parties acknowledged that there was considerable scope for expansion.

The project sought to enhance Burton's image, help attract inward investment, improve environmental quality and create wider public interest in the National Forest. East Staffordshire recognised that a planned framework for all involved was essential to realise the full potential of the urban forest. Its local plan supported this approach.

The NUFU was commissioned to produce an urban forestry strategy for the town. This identified opportunities to plant 250,000 trees in five years, including woodland beside the railway, gateway schemes on the main routes into town, planting in pub gardens, recreational woodlands and local community projects.

The draft strategy was publicised through a public launch and direct consultation with interested groups and the public. The council adopted the strategy as SPG, which has helped it to negotiate extra National Forest-related support from developers. Section 106 agreements have been used to bring forward planting schemes elsewhere in the town in partnership with developers.

Dixon says that although central government supports community forests, it is not managed in an interconnected way. "There is large-level support. But, from a government point of view, green space gets pigeonholed as just part of the environment and is not used as something that can help other policies like health, social work and regeneration," he says.

He points to a number of measurable quality of life benefits. "Studies have shown that if a person is in a green area for just three minutes, their stress levels are significantly reduced. Research also demonstrates that patients in hospitals who can see trees recover quicker than those who cannot," he claims.

A good deal of research has also been performed on the costs of green infrastructure. Land Use Consultants carried out a study to compare the cost of managing a variety of urban grassland and woodland types. In general, it found that woodlands are considerably cheaper to manage than mown grassland. Large areas of gang-mown grass are no cheaper than woodland to manage but contribute far less to urban environmental quality.

Furthermore, only 60 per cent of woodland maintenance costs are attributable to vegetation management, with the rest going on visitor management. "It's about getting the right tree for the right place," says Dixon. "The sort of trees we advocate can be planted cheaply, will grow quickly and will look after themselves."

He explains that although there is often money available for capital investment in green space, it is the ongoing maintenance than can make or break an initiative. If funding is not maintained, it results in a cycle of neglect and wasted money. "A little more thought about the long term can make things more cost effective and sustainable as well as being accepted by the local community," he contends.

One way to maximise the visual impact of new woodland is to concentrate it where as many people as possible will see it. This gives a good first impression of a town. Focusing on land adjacent to trunk roads, motorways and mainline railways brings the added benefit of contributing to the improvement of air quality in areas particularly affected by traffic pollution.

Although many local authorities are implementing this approach, Jones complains that many others are not yet up to speed. Understanding practical opportunities can lever in more resources, she suggests. For example, if a green site is promoted for improving people's health, primary care trusts may be a source of funding. "It begins to make green space look good value for money when you look at how much cash is spent on dealing with illnesses like stress," she argues.

"The green infrastructure approach is not difficult, it just requires a different way of thinking. If your strategy only looks at green space as a recreational function, that's one thing. But if you are looking at flood plain control, air quality, health and so on, you can see a whole mosaic with multiple layers of benefits."

Dixon, who is running a series of seminars on the subject for local and regional planners, is optimistic about the future of green infrastructure. "With the increasing regionalisation of government, we have a big opportunity to influence planning at a regional level," he says. Planners should recognise that trees provide an important function and are not just a cost on top of everything else, he urges.

Quality is important, concludes Dixon. "Planners should not accept quick-fix solutions. Some projects might look good at the beginning but will die out after a couple of years, so long-term sustainability needs to be looked at. If planners accept the value that trees and woods can bring they will see that it is a very inexpensive way of improving the quality of people's lives. There is lots of expertise out there that local authorities can tap into. The resources are there."

BENEFITS OF URBAN WOODS AND TREES

- Trees can save up to ten per cent of energy consumption through their moderation of local climate, stabilise soil and reduce erosion, air pollution and water run-off.

- Planting helps to create jobs, encourage inward investment and increase property values.

- Trees play a vital role in the urban ecosystem, providing homes for wildlife.

- Trees can reduce the negative impact of motor transport by filtering pollution and noise.

- Planting more trees can often offer a much more cost-effective approach to urban greening.

- Trees soften the landscape of towns and cities, making them greener and more attractive.

- Trees have a positive impact on incidence of asthma, skin cancer and stress-related illness by filtering polluted air, reducing smog and shading out solar radiation.

- Trees strengthen communities by allowing people to work together for the benefit of the environment.

- Well-placed urban greening can reduce visual impact of housing developments and make city living more attractive.

- Trees help to absorb excess carbon dioxide and counter some of the effects of global warming.

- Trees make important landmarks, help to reinforce local character and strengthen sense of place.

- Woods are living laboratories and can make inspiring outdoor classrooms.

THE WOODLANDS BY THE MOTORWAY PROGRAMME

The Woodlands by the Motorway programme aims to enhance environmental quality by maximising woodland cover within sight of a 26km stretch of the M5 and M6 motorways in the West Midlands. The programme has delivered more than 63ha of woodland on 56 different sites.

Woodland has been planted on parks and public open space, school grounds, derelict land, surplus industrial land, development sites and residential areas. Ground conditions varied from deep fertile organic soils to landfills and contaminated land.

The scheme began with a land-use survey to identify suitable sites. The project team handled talks with landowners as well as community consultation and participation.

Planting designed by the National Urban Forestry Unit was carried out by specialist contractors, local authority labour teams, volunteers and school children.

Management costs, including a dedicated project officer, amounted to £40,000 a year, contributed by the Highways Agency, the Countryside Commission and Esso. Another £500,000 was raised from other sources. Initial investment in the core management costs levered in more than four times as much money.

A three-year maintenance budget was built into the cost of each project. Long-term management is the responsibility of each landowner, but involvement from local people ensures continuing community involvement.

THE ADVANTAGES OF ADVANCE WOODLAND PLANTING

Most landscape planting on development sites is implemented after building work. This leads to neglected pockets of bare land. When planting is eventually carried out, it can be costly and have little impact.

Woodland planting is a cheaper way of greening development land. Advance planting can enhance the environment and provide shelter, air pollution filtration and wildlife habitat while land awaits development.

Some woodland may need to be regarded as temporary and sacrificed when building begins. However, any advance planting that can be retained will provide relative maturity and reduce the cost of post-development landscape treatment.

The National Urban Forestry Unit worked with house builder William Davis Ltd and East Staffordshire Borough Council to create a green setting for Manor Grange, a housing development in Burton-upon-Trent.

Construction started in the mid 1980s but will continue until 2006. The builders are working to a council masterplan that demands retention of as much of the natural landscape as possible. A substantial tree belt will be created and hedgerows will be reinforced with native shrubs.

The integration of the new woodland and existing hedgerows has created a development in which small individual neighbourhoods are woven into the landscape. The scheme has won a New Homes Marketing Board Greenleaf Housing Award.


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