BLOG: Building back better by building with nature

Building with Nature’s Carol Somper makes the case for prioritising the development of green infrastructure as we build back better from Covid-19.
Building with Nature – Carol Somper

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October 14, 2020

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Watching the recent lockdown episode of ‘Our Yorkshire Farm’ was really uplifting, seeing how the Owen family are experiencing isolation in the glorious, rugged landscape of the Yorkshire Dales, its beautiful vistas and wonderful wildlife. That’s at the ‘excellent’ end of the spatial scale. Life during the pandemic at the other end of the spectrum is undoubtedly grim.

It’s well established that regular contact with the natural world is healing, strengthening and makes us happier and more content with life. Urban development’s straight lines and geometry are not conducive to good mental health, compared to the form and height of trees, bushes and open green space.  We all need easy access to good quality open space.

The pandemic is reinforcing these truths every day.  Emily Maitlis very eloquently opened Newsnight a few months ago by making the point that Covid-19, far from being a great leveller, is starkly highlighting the inequalities in our society, with the most disadvantaged being the worst affected. Environmental inequalities are more deeply experienced by households on low incomes, because they live in areas with the most cramped housing in neighbourhoods with little user-friendly greenspace. The strictest part of lockdown, having just an hour to get outside each day was much harder on those living in urban neighbourhoods with little or no green space or at best featureless expanses of mown grass with no seating or facilities.

The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s report explains that “too many places built during recent decades fail to reflect what is special about their local area or create a high-quality environment of which local people can be proud.” This report explains that street trees are associated with cleaner air, slower cars, fewer accidents. They provide shade in hot summers and protection from winter winds and rain. They even have “a measurable effect on human health”. The Commission concluded that “it is necessary to ‘re-green’ our lives” cautioning that “a strip of grass or a couple of trees cannot rescue a polluted, ugly and profoundly inhumane place.” Covid-19 has highlighted the pleasure we get from seeing and hearing wildlife, appreciating that we need to share our greenspaces, making them better for plants and animals too.

The Government’s new consultation on the English planning system ‘Planning for the future‘ is asking for beauty and to be “far more ambitious for the places we create, expecting new development to be beautiful, and to create a ‘net gain’ not just ‘no net harm’, with a greater focus on ‘placemaking’”. The approach calls for “high-quality gardens, parks and other green spaces in between” with the ambition to achieve net positive for people, place and wildlife. There is also a very welcome emphasis on democratic engagement so that local people co-create design guides for their neighbourhoods, towns and areas. This is excellent stuff and potentially very exciting, but there is no need to reinvent any wheels, we simply need to make far better use of tools that we already have. Building with Nature is one such excellent tool, comprising a well-researched compendium of principles and criteria presented as effective standards for creating new, and improving existing, green infrastructure. It is being successfully tried and tested by both local planning authorities to create better policies that developers have to respond to, and by a small group of developers keen to develop a more desirable offer to an increasingly discerning market. Building with Nature already have some good case studies, with several more emerging so it really is an accreditation scheme – covering wildlife, water and well-being – whose time has come. It is easy to use and highly flexible in how it fits into the plan-making or development planning process to encourage much better outcomes.

The pandemic and lockdown has caused a re-think of how we live and work, providing a once in a lifetime opportunity to consider how we want to use our towns and cities in ‘the new normal’, how we make them more functional and accessible, becoming more inclusive, more attractive, safer and greener spaces. Crucially, we can do this in ways that better fit how we want to use our working and leisure time more effectively. Building with Nature has a huge part to play in realising this ambition.

Whilst government policy is increasingly driving this, more can be done by business, to utilise these requirements to access the economic, societal and environmental benefits of nature. Which is why UKGBC and Building with Nature have partnered to deliver a masterclass on how the Government’s upcoming Biodiversity Net Gain requirement can be used to do just this. The course ‘Maximising the commercial benefits of Biodiversity Net Gain’ is now open to sign-ups.

References:

Bijnens, E.M., Derom, C., Thiery, E., Weyers, S. and Nawrot, T.S., 2020. Residential green space and child intelligence and behavior across urban, suburban, and rural areas in Belgium: A longitudinal birth cohort study of twins. PLoS medicine17(8), p.e1003213.

Clay, R.A., 2001. Green is good for you. Monitor on Psychology32(4), pp.40-42.

Lee, K.E., Williams, K.J., Sargent, L.D., Williams, N.S. and Johnson, K.A., 2015. 40-second green roof views sustain attention: The role of micro-breaks in attention restoration. Journal of Environmental Psychology42, pp.182-189.