Healthy habitats

30th March 2023

International summits warn of climate and biodiversity crises. Planners and developers are using green infrastructure to take action on the ground. Huw Morris reports

From derelict land in the east of Swindon, a neighbourhood of 239 eco-friendly homes is emerging. Although Nationwide Building Society, lead sponsor of the development, would not top many observers’ list of developers to transform the brownfield site, the Oakfield project is garnering design plaudits. Situated on a former University of Bath campus, Nationwide’s sustainable housing scheme is setting the pace for green infrastructure and showing how to deliver international aims locally.

Community spirit

Developed with Igloo Regeneration under the 15-minute neighbourhood concept, with amenities close enough for residents not to depend on cars, the homes will be intergenerational, with a mixture of tenures for people at every stage of life. Properties are arranged in terraces around communal gardens to foster community spirit and to devote more of the site to the landscape.

Rooms overlook ‘pocket parks’ where streets and paths converge. A larger park will draw people into a natural-themed play area set within swathes of native planting, meadow grassland and trees.

Formerly, the site had little ecological value, but the scheme’s design is retaining and enhancing boundary hedgerows and mature trees. New features include wet and dry meadow planting, extensive tree planting and log piles as well as integrated bat and bird boxes with gaps in garden fences for hedgehogs.

Central to the scheme’s success has been its use of Building with Nature (BwN), the UK’s first evidence-based benchmark for high-quality green infrastructure (see below). BwN director Gemma Jerome’s elevator pitch is that “we help to create better places for people and wildlife”.

What is green infrastructure?

In some places, green infrastructure includes open spaces, parks, playing fields and woodlands. In urban areas, it covers allotments, green roofs and walls, street trees, sustainable drainage systems and soils. Blue infrastructure – canals, lakes, ponds, rivers and streams – comes under its aegis. In short, Jerome says, green infrastructure is essentially how planners talk about the environment and the benefits of nature to people and wildlife.

“We understand how critical this moment is with climate, ecological and public health emergencies but they are all the same emergency,” she adds. “One of the most cost-effective and equitable ways we can respond to those emergencies is by delivering green infrastructure.

“It’s essentially a network of natural and semi-natural features in and around our built environment and it’s called infrastructure because it’s as critical to our health, wellbeing and flourishing of the economy as any other infrastructure.“

Such issues became all the more pressing with COP27 and COP15 highlighting the climate and biodiversity crises respectively. For all the horse-trading between diplomats, they matter little unless translated into local action.

Better by design

Jerome describes such international summits as “higher altitude” and “incredibly important because they set the bar, but the question is what do we need to do differently”, especially as numerous environmental targets have been missed in the past. A key issue, she says, is the development design process.

“The construction and development industries have a very significant impact on how well we respond to those emergencies, whether that is land-use and how much biodiversity is impacted through development or whether it’s about supply chains and procurement and how those materials we produce support society, the economy and humans in the built environment.”

Jerome laughs at any suggestion that green infrastructure’s time has come with last year’s UN summits, followed by recent initiatives such as Natural England’s Green Infrastructure Framework (see below) and the government’s Environmental Improvement Plan. She has dedicated the past 20 years to it.

“There is a moral imperative to protect habitats and species. It’s important because so many of the processes we rely on to live are intrinsically bound up with the health of habitats and species. We have been on a journey for the past 100 years, understanding that we need to retain the assets we have. We can have a positive influence beyond just conserving. We can enhance nature recovery networks so we’re not on a trajectory of loss, as we have been for many decades now.”

Huw Morris is a freelance journalist

Building with Nature (BwN) Standards Framework

The BwN Standards Framework has been created in partnership with planners, developers and other stakeholders to provide a shared understanding of “what good looks like” throughout the lifecycle of green infrastructure, from the policy framework to its management and maintenance.

The standards cover ‘core’ issues such as whether a scheme should deliver a multifunctional and connected network of green infrastructure in line with an area’s character and needs while minimising adverse environmental impacts. This should be considered alongside its long-term management and maintenance.

Wellbeing standards cover whether the scheme should deliver green infrastructure that meets the needs of local people in an inclusive way and is accessible all year round. It should help to reduce health inequalities and build a sense of community while encouraging active stewardship.

Under the framework’s water standards, the scheme should minimise flood risk, improve water quality, and create or enhance features that benefit people and wildlife.

BwN’s wildlife standards ensure a scheme helps reverse any long-term decline in biodiversity by being sensitive to the local ecological context, providing space for wildlife to flourish. It should link habitats within the scheme as well as into the wider landscape as part of a nature recovery network.

Green Infrastructure Framework

Green spaces in England provide around £6.6bn in environmental, health and climate change benefits a year, according to Natural England. Its Green Infrastructure Framework (GIF) is aimed at planners and developers to help increase green cover to 40% in urban residential areas.

The GIF provides a structure to analyse where green space is needed most. It aims to support equitable access across the country, with an overarching target for everyone to be able to reach good-quality green space in their local area. The GIF aims to embed nature into new developments. Increasing the extent and connectivity of nature-rich habitats will also boost wildlife populations, build resilience to climate change and ensure cities are habitable for the future.

The GIF integrates green tools, principles, standards and design guidance around five key standards:

Urban Nature Recovery

This aims to boost nature recovery, create and restore rich wildlife habitats and build resilience to climate change. Incorporating nature-based solutions, including trees and wildflowers, into the urban design will increase carbon capture, prevent flooding and reduce temperatures during heatwaves.

Urban Greening Factor for England

A planning tool to improve the provision of green infrastructure and increase greening. The standard sets a target for around 40% of residential developments to have green and blue spaces, green roofs or green walls. It aims to guide local planning authorities on the quantity and quality of green infrastructure required for a major new development. The Greater London Authority is already applying this principle.

Urban Tree Canopy Cover

Promotes more tree canopy cover in urban environments. Trees are vital for capturing carbon and can mitigate flood risk as they absorb excess water during flooding incidents. The standard sets out that major residential and commercial developments should be designed to meet locally agreed targets.

Accessible Green Space

Promotes access to good-quality green and blue space within 15 minutes’ walk from home. The framework includes an award-winning mapping tool that can help to identify places where green space is needed most. The government used the tool to ensure the £9m Levelling Up Parks fund reaches low-income areas with limited access to green space.

Green Infrastructure Strategy

Supports the National Planning Policy Framework’s rule that local authorities should develop strategic policies for green infrastructure. At an area-wide scale, it will see local authorities develop delivery plans to support the creation and enhancement of green spaces.

Image credit: Nationwide, Shutterstock

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