Enhancing green spaces where there is greatest need
The Mayor’s £12 million Greener City Fund has already created or improved 175 hectares of green space in London. This includes wildflower meadows, community orchards and food-growing areas, community green spaces and school grounds, whilst funding 175,000 new trees. In the new London Plan, policies on open space, urban greening and biodiversity have been strengthened to ensure that most new developments result in the greening of the urban environment.
However, more could be done to improve access to, and the quality of, green spaces that do exist in more deprived areas. There are many comparatively small plots of amenity green space, many of which are underutilised and of poor quality. If these were improved, they could play a much more valuable role as places for relaxation or play for local residents, especially children. Well designed and used amenity green space (e. g. green areas around or within estates, pocket parks) could have enormous benefit to people who have no access to private green/outdoor space and have not been able to use large parks either due to lockdown restrictions, lack of access or pre-existing constraints. The Mayor has already provided guidance on redesigning public spaces to make them more suitable for children. This work could be expanded, or extended to other sections of the community. Increasing access in areas of most need could also involve temporary measures during times of crisis such as a pandemic, e.g. making private school playing fields and golf courses publicly accessible. The London Green Spaces Commission will publish their report later in 2020 making detailed recommendations on this issue. Temporary interventions are currently being installed by Transport for London (TfL) and London’s boroughs to expand walking and cycling provision as the capital emerges from lockdown, under the banner of the Mayor’s ‘Streetspace for London’ programme. The London Sustainable Development Commission (LSDC) welcomes TfL’s plans to review opportunities to make some of these permanent. One particular opportunity could be to create a network of greener civic spaces and links, especially where proposed Low Traffic Neighbourhoods coincide with Areas of Deficiency in Open Space. This would be subject to feasibility and impact studies, and consultation with the public and boroughs.
Enhancing London’s green spaces would have several environmental co-benefits. It would help ameliorate the urban heat island effect (both via tree shading and the cooling effect of water evaporating from plants), enhancing the city’s resilience to the effects of climate change. For this reason green and blue infrastructure should be integrated – e.g. by irrigation with waste water. Green and blue spaces improve sustainable urban drainage, reducing the risk of flooding. It would also enhance local air quality, whilst increasing bio-abundance and biodiversity. The financial value of these combined environmental benefits – ‘ecosystem services’ – from London’s trees alone is £132.7 million per year.
This work should be done in close collaboration with the communities who use the spaces. Local residents should be empowered (formally and informally) to take ownership of these plots – initially through helping to design them, and subsequently via volunteering roles in stewardship and light maintenance. This would ensure that spaces are not generic but tailored to their particular communities (including cultural needs and age ranges), designing-in inclusion. The London Friends of Green Spaces Network has also advocated this approach.
Co-designing spaces cannot happen in a vacuum and requires capacity-building. Communities need to be given the training and skills to enable them to participate meaningfully in decision making. They should also be paid for their involvement in co-design, as contributing time for free is a luxury that is not available to all – particularly low-income households, or those with significant caring responsibilities. However, many of the environmental NGOs that would ordinarily work with communities to carry out this type of work are under significant financial pressure due to the impacts of COVID-19, with some facing an existential threat. Investing in a green recovery should also include financial support for these NGOs to ensure their long-term viability and capacity to support community action.