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, Trustee of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Deryck Irvine, explains why we need to adopt planning laws which ensure natural features in our developments.
Number 28: Adopt planning laws which ensure that both new and existing urban developments include well-designed natural features as standard.
The most recent Scottish Government statistics show that over 80% of Scotland’s population lives in towns and cities, with the vast majority (some 70%) living in settlements of over 10,000 people. That’s a thought-provoking statistic.
But what does this mean for our planning laws?
All the evidence suggests that it’s time for a rethink of how we plan our urban areas. Greenspaces and other natural features play an essential part in ensuring that our towns and cities are pleasant, liveable and successful places. They deliver a number of important benefits and add value to people’s lives – from providing health benefits to tackling climate change – which is why the Scottish Wildlife Trust believes planning should not just be seen as a process but a journey that can transform lives.
Planning for better health and social equality
A significant body of medical evidence shows that having greenspace nearby is beneficial for both our physical health and, perhaps more importantly, our mental wellbeing. Having nature on our doorstep offers opportunities for physical activity and respite from otherwise stressful lifestyles and environments.
Green areas (particularly woodlands and areas with water) also improve the air quality in towns and cities – capturing pollutants and reducing the temperatures in our streets and neighbouring buildings (which also reduces the need to use energy for air conditioning).
What’s more, a recently published study by researchers from the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh has shown that providing more and better greenspace is one of the few ‘health’ actions that can be seen to reduce the health inequalities that exist between the richest and the poorest in our society.
But these are not the only benefits for our wellbeing. Greenspaces are important socially and culturally – they are the places where communities come together for events and activities and the places where we are most likely meet our neighbours. They frequently play a part in defining the identity of a place. What would Edinburgh be without Arthur’s Seat at its heart or the Water of Leith flowing through it?
These benefits are real and significant. But to realise them, involvement of a broad coalition of experts and meaningful community engagement will both be essential.
Combating climate change with nature-based solutions
Greenspaces don’t exist in isolation. When well-designed and located, they combine to make up green corridors and networks linking spaces and creating connections between urban settlements and the wider countryside. In the fight against climate change, this is important on a number of levels.
Well-connected greenspaces provide vital routes for the movement of wildlife through an otherwise sterile urban environment. This permeability to wildlife is particularly important when considering the potential impacts of climate change, as species need to move in response to environmental change. These corridors and networks can also be the framework for walking and cycling routes, which help to reduce carbon emissions from traffic in addition to improving air quality.
Finally, naturalised rivers and well-designed greenspaces can dramatically reduce the risks of flooding in urban areas – particularly by reducing the amount and speed of water that flows into our sewer infrastructure. This ‘green infrastructure’ is increasingly recognised as an important part of the design of new developments but there are real challenges still to be addressed when it comes to ‘retrofitting’ green infrastructure into existing streets and neighbourhoods (and a significant proportion of the housing that people will live in in 2065 is already there in 2015).
The Scottish Wildlife Trust’s two urban Living Landscapes projects (in Cumbernauld and in Edinburgh) are already playing an important part in improving Scotland’s urban environment. They are developing practical approaches to enhancing, restoring and reconnecting greenspaces and to managing urban greenspace at a landscape scale – effectively coordinating the management of the whole green network. The Edinburgh project is also working on ways to identify, capture and quantify the benefits delivered by the city’s greenspaces.
Combining these practical projects with calls for change to planning laws – including making current guidance mandatory and considering green infrastructure as an integral element of places from the outset of the planning process – will improve our understanding of urban greenspace and should strengthen the role of natural systems and features in the future planning and management of Scotland’s urban areas.
Let us know your thoughts by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.
Deryck Irving is a Trustee of the Scottish Wildlife Trust. In his day job, he is Programme Manager at greenspace scotland and leads their work on greenspace and placemaking and on greenspace and climate change.