A recent report exposes the collapse in green space provision in new development but the reason is not what you might expect, writes David Rudlin

David Rudlin_index

We were recently working on a masterplan for a new settlement, one of the aims of which was that it should be “landscape led”. This is a term that comes up all the time in our world, either as part of briefs or in the way that schemes are sold. I therefore feel like I should know what it means, but I’m afraid I have no idea, and talking discreetly to other urban designers and landscape architects it seems that they don’t either.

This came to mind reading the recent report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) exposing the collapse in green space provision in England and Wales. They have put together three data sets to show that the amount of open space in housing development completed since 2000 has declined by a third, resulting in nine million fewer trips to green space. I can’t help thinking that this must be something to do with us not understanding what “landscape led” means.

The report reaches this conclusion by combining ONS data on green spaces with data on the average age of housing and a national survey by Natural England on attitudes towards local green space. It shows that the average size of a local park has declined from 8.5 football pitches in the 1930s to five football pitches post the year 2000.

Over the same period the land area devoted to green space in new development has declined from 13% to 9%, with a similar trend for private gardens.

Landscape and open space is something that no one would argue against, which is why those questions about “landscape led” needed to be asked discreetly

Comparison with the 1930s is slightly unfair. That was a time when councils were planning huge suburban extensions and when they were able to set aside land for generous open space provision. The majority of housing sites today are a lot smaller than 8.5 football pitches and certainly not big enough to accommodate a new park.

Nevertheless, landscape and open space is something that no one would argue against, which is why those questions about “landscape led” needed to be asked discreetly. The NEF report reviews research that convincingly demonstrates the value of open space for wellbeing, health and even educational outcomes. It blames the lack of open space in new development on planners allowing developers to prioritise profit over the long-term wellbeing of their residents.

All of this is true, but it is also worth pointing out that 2000 was the year, following the Urban Task Force report, when the Labour government set out a new urban policy agenda. The aim was to reduce the amount of car-dependent sprawl, increase the density and walkability of new development and promote the re-use of brownfield land. These are also good things.

It is a policy that has been supported by subsequent governments and has been reasonably successful – in the first 10 years of the century the average density of new housing rose from 25dph to 45dph. It is not therefore surprising that the amount of open space fell. It is just that this was a result of policy rather than grasping developers.

Many councils continue to use what used to be called the National Playing Fields Association six-acre standard (now the Fields in Trust Standard). This specifies six acres of open space per 1,000 population and was the standard used in all of those 1930s developments.

It sounds reasonable but, when you apply it to a site, you realise that it results in a huge amount of open space. Let’s assume an average household size of 2.4, meaning that a scheme of just over 400 homes would require 2.43ha of open space. If the scheme is low density (say 30dph) this means 17.5% of the site is open space, which is fine. However, if your density is 60dph, this rises to 35% and at 120dph it means that 70% of the site has to be green!

I have long advocated an alternative approach that focuses on the quality of open space rather than the quantity

The question is where the balance of good lies? Is the fact that open space has declined by a third a sufficiently bad thing to question the benefits of increased density and brownfield development? I would suggest not.

Sometimes the phrase “landscape led” just means as much landscape as possible. But this just serves to increase walking distances, reduce the viability of public transport and local services and of course also requires the development of more greenfield land.

I have long advocated an alternative approach that focuses on the quality of open space rather than the quantity. This prioritises recreational value and biodiversity while creating landscape that is safe and overlooked.

So, let me offer up a definition of “landscape led” – rather than meaning extensive areas of landscape within a new development, my suggestion is that it should mean compact development integrated within the landscape.