50 for the Future – Allow soil to breathe

Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week's 50 for the Future article, Willie Towers, from the James Hutton Institute, explains why soil is under threat.


Number 23: Allow soil to breathe again by 'de-paving' unnecessary concrete, tarmac and other impermeable surfaces in every town and city.


Greenspace in and around our towns and cities provide us with many benefits, environmental, social and economic. They provide us with plants and wildlife, areas to enhance our physical and mental well-being through recreation or just ‘chilling out’ and space for outdoor events that create economic activity as well as enhancing social cohesion. 

All of these areas are underpinned by soils. Soils are the forgotten part of the environment; out of sight out of mind…..but we rely on them for our plants and grass to grow, to help store water and drain our urban environments, they store carbon and are a rich reservoir of biodiversity.

Urban expansion, such at the Elrick development near Aberdeen,
is an opportunity to show leadership in planning

But greenspaces are not just our parks and public areas, they include our gardens. Gardens provide many of the environmental and social benefits of our more extensive greenspaces and it also provides space to grow some of our own food and flowers for is to enjoy throughout much of the year. They provide a safe environment for our children (and adults!) to play and interact with each other. 

Gardens are under threat and are being converted to hard paved areas at an alarming rate. Much of this is due to a much higher level of car ownership and the perceived requirement to have hard parking space for them all. Do we really want to live in a tarmac or concrete jungle? Individual developments may have little impact but the cumulative effects on the loss of soil and all the functions that they perform are considerable.

It is perhaps unreasonable to expect newly sealed areas to be ‘unsealed’, but there are things we can do to stop or at least minimise the effects of this creeping practice:

  • Currently, no planning permission is required for such development. This should be reconsidered

  • There are alternatives to hard sealed surfaces, the use permeable and semi-permeable surfaces should be actively encouraged by the construction industry

  •  Any new development should have a non-negotiable percentage of land left as unsealed as a requirement of obtaining planning permission and this to be carried forward to individual properties once sold.

Increasingly, new developments are built on prime agricultural land

We must also be aware of the scale and locations of new developments. Scotland is building the equivalent of a Dunfermline every year, a large proportion of which is on prime agricultural land; this does not sit well with a  ‘Food from our own Resources’ initiative.

It is not a specifically Scottish problem – Europe is a building a Berlin every year – but Scotland can take the lead in demonstrating how development of land can take account of land and soil quality. Protection of prime agricultural land is already within Scottish Planning Policy – let us show that we mean it!

Let us know your thoughts by emailing thefuture@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.

Willie Towers is from the Environmental and Biochemical Sciences Group at The James Hutton Institute

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In this week's 50 for the Future article,  Willie Towers explains why soil is under threat at new and existing developments. 

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