In the final article of the Environment Network blog takeover, Adam Dyster makes the case for further investment in green spaces.
Each one of us had a different lockdown experience, but for too many the feeling of being trapped in poor accommodation was common. Being asked to stay home was a stark reminder of the inequalities of the UK’s housing crisis, and the realities of our substandard homes. No more so was this evident than in access to your own garden, with 1 in 8 households having no outdoor space of their own. For minority ethnic households the figures are even starker: if you’re black, you’re 2.4 times less likely to have a garden than if you’re white. With no green space of your own, lockdown often made our homes feel more like prisons.
Salvation for many came in the form of the humble park. They became our common living rooms and our outdoor gyms, whilst mentally the therapeutic sight of spring’s green shoots helped in darker days. Although few would argue against the importance of access to green spaces, lockdown made the argument tangible, highlighting the importance of accessing nature and open space on your doorstep, for both our physical and mental wellbeing.
Yet even here inequality reared its ugly head. As people rushed to use their local green spaces, services sometimes buckled under the strain, exposing the perilous state of our public amenities after years of austerity imposed on local councils. With limited green space per household - typically worse in poorer, denser areas - some felt unable to use their local parks for fears of overcrowding. Likewise, whilst many extolled the wonders of a restorative walk, this ignored the many deprived communities that are grey deserts, with no trees or accessible green space. There were efforts during the pandemic to tackle these inequalities - including an impassioned campaign to open up closed urban golf courses in the middle of London - but often private interests won out over public demand.
Now as we begin, tentatively, to look at the future, we have an opportunity to act on the lessons learned during lockdown. We can remember the vital role that parks and green spaces played and commit to tackling the inequalities of access that were simultaneously exposed. Crucially, we can start treating green spaces as the vital infrastructure they are, and admit that it’s no more possible to have a thriving community without them as it is to have a neighbourhood without good transport.
An investment programme to level up access to urban green space would unlock vast benefits. Access to good quality green space has been repeatedly shown to improve our health and wellbeing, with investment in green infrastructure unlocking a huge 20:1 benefit to cost ratio for public health and the NHS. The greener a town or city is, the more likely it is to be attractive for businesses to invest in, boosting competitiveness. Leafier streets and roads also help to encourage active travel; whilst the recent investment in cycling and walking infrastructure is welcome, there is little point building it if it’s not attractive. This is without even mentioning the environmental benefits, boosting habitats for biodiversity and increasing climate resilience as our towns and cities warm. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the benefits, investment would also be extremely popular: nearly two thirds of adults in England want green space improvements to be a greater priority post-lockdown.
Without investment, the alternative path is bleak. Public green space funding has already suffered years of cuts due to the pressures forced on local authority budgets. The high cost of Coronavirus for local councils risks the loss of yet more services; Labour recently warned of a public parks ‘meltdown’. With parks a non-statutory service, councils will face a hard struggle to keep things running, let alone improve and expand access.
The Conservative’s planning changes present another ominous threat. Firstly, changes to ‘permitted development rights’ rushed in via ministerial powers just before the Summer Recess make it even easier for developers to convert commercial buildings to flats. These are built without the usual obligations to pay for local amenities, including green spaces. Yet the Government’s own commissioned research has warned that these developments rarely have outdoor spaces of their own, thus increasing demand on this very kind of infrastructure.
An even greater threat comes from the Government’s ‘radical’ changes to the planning system, which proposes dividing the country into three zones, and removing the ability for local residents to object to development in two of these. Environmental groups have warned that this could mean only the ‘crown jewels’ of designated sites such as nature reserves and the Green Belt is protected, whilst the everyday nature near people is sacrificed in ‘Growth’ or ‘Renewal’ zones.
Talking about ‘the environment’ can sometimes feel like a lofty ideal. It evokes pastoral scenes or grand challenges far-removed from daily life. In contrast, local parks and green spaces are tangible, popular and sit at the heart of local communities. The solutions aren’t grand or high tech, but they matter. Our parks saved us during lockdown. As we set out the case for a green, fair recovery, we can’t afford to forget them, or else risk a grey future.