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The Importance of Planning for Green Spaces

Sweeping change has brought back into hard focus the importance of green spaces, especially as society becomes gradually more ‘distanced’. UK-based independent environmental consultant Thomson EC explains more.

Thomson EC

Along with critical change in the UK’s troubled economy, which has journeyed its peaks and troughs in recent times, the leading UK health institutions have become increasingly aware of both mental and physical wellbeing and outdoor spaces. At the same time, UK construction is involved in creating more eco-conscious, sustainable residential areas, such as housing that focuses on green living.

The role of green spaces on public health – now and historically – has been unambiguous. Even Government policy is now trying to promote a healthier, happier lifestyle through access to green spaces. Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, recently established plans to hatch a sustainable future for the UK with “fit towns”, which will empower healthier lifestyles. Those in greener areas suffer notably lower levels of mental distress when compared to those in more densely compact urban areas. In fact, research has suggested that activities such as gardening promote happiness.

Over the next couple of years, housebuilding in the UK is poised to become more about sustainability in the future. Partly an economic incentive, especially for smaller, local areas and communities, this move, called a “housebuilding revolution”, is also about capturing new attitudes on natural conservation. As the property market boils in the easing of lockdown measures, new construction sites will commence building a cleaner future for Britain. Changes are afoot for the industry, but why is greener housing so important?

Greener housing

Back in 2019, plans unveiled a move from UK officials that promoted a sustainable blueprint for housing in the UK. The so-called “green revolution” was designed to push a revolution in housebuilding through sustainable energy sources and other eco features. New policies are placing deadlines, commitments and budgets behind this green push to front environmental issues at the heart of UK housebuilding for the foreseeable future.

Housing is one of the areas that has been identified as a way of lowering damaging footprints to the climate. Greener housing is about capturing a sustainable future vision for the UK housing sector, but it’s also a key part of the “recovery” effort. Housebuilding is now concerned with moving away from harmful and damaging environmental impacts.

What makes a green space valuable?

The value of a green space can be economically rewarding. More importantly, it’s key in curbing growing mental health issues. The limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the critical importance of quality green spaces within housing developments and the need to place greater emphasis on the provision of green infrastructure in the future.

Green spaces, in new housebuilding projects, need to balance quality with quantity. Many have suggested that quality green spaces can promote cleaner lifestyles. The features that set apart the more valuable green spaces might include access to water features or areas with better biodiversity.

Recently, research has linked parks and other communal green spaces with greater public health. Yet, in the context of COVID-19, fewer spaces than green parks and public or private gardens have been able to provide safety and respite from the global pandemic. The access to green spaces and features, such as public parks or urban trees, is part of the planning and infrastructure process that developers should be actively involved with.

The pandemic has refocused awareness to this challenge – or, how to deliver green spaces to urban areas? One of the solutions, though not a quick or easy change, is to introduce better canopy coverage from trees or use green buffers in neighbourhoods, spacing out homes within the natural environment of the area.

Is Britain heading outdoors?

Forecasts for the future, through an unchallenged and damaging footprint, suggests that the UK is getting hotter. With scarce green space, it will make it harder for UK homeowners and residents alike to remain healthy and happy throughout disruptive episodes like the COVID-19 pandemic. Green space, or lack of, can be harmful and lead to health inequalities.

The pandemic may not have renewed the interest in green spaces and housebuilding, but it certainly will accelerate the delivery of cleaner homes and neighbourhoods. The benefits of green spaces are known – decreased anxiety, depression and fatigue. Green spaces, in some scenarios, have been called a “natural capital”. This suggests that the natural environment is only growing in value, as it unfortunately becomes scarcer. But green planning has even more value.

Addressing a remote workforce

Nowadays, workforces are facing new challenges. With fewer attending traditional office spaces, workforces are becoming more remote. But technology has kept the remote workforce pulled together and, in some scenarios, more productive than before.

Those working remotely are relying more on their homes as a valuable setting to conduct official work tasks. Generally, those working remotely have found that regular access to green space, like their garden, is an essential step in reinforcing their mental health.

Biodiversity

It’s not only about public happiness. Rather, sustainability in housing will focus more on biodiversity on and off site. As housebuilding projects become more common, and biodiversity declines, the call for more sustainable construction is captured in the new mandate for the biodiversity net gain (BNG) as outlined by the Environmental Bill. This is a deadline that will refocus housebuilding into goals of sustainability and promote a greener footprint.

For developers looking to limit costly delays, slow-downs or planning refusals – which could mean expensive resubmissions and redesigns – being proactive and ambitious about biodiversity could empower their outcomes.

Biodiversity is something that can be measured and assessed. Planning policies and decisions can promote biodiversity, which is a responsibility most often assigned to local authorities and developers. Every habitat, specimen of wildlife or green space is unique. These are seasonally and regionally diverse. There is no textbook ruling for approaching the challenge and opportunity to nurture biodiversity on and off sites.

Being proactive with the BNG requirement can bring in value-added points for housebuilding constructions. Green spaces can make sites seem more attractive, not only to local authorities, but to potential homebuyers, who will likely want green scenery. After the pandemic, there is a likelihood, when assessing the renewed focus on green spaces, that access to green scenery will be a higher priority for many homebuyers too.

For developers, the planning stage is the best opportunity to include meaningful biodiversity. For housing builds and neighbourhoods, key green spaces can attract interest in your project: orchards, denser canopies, wildflower rich areas, ponds and other water features.

Green spaces are rising in popularity and not only because of Government policy, but how public attitudes are changing. Strong, resilient communities are at the heart of the UK’s thrust to build houses and green infrastructure that meet goals of optimising biodiversity. Being strategic with the planning of a residential project early on, by mapping out green spaces and features, can bring value into your project.

Contact Thomson EC

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