The Society's first talk of 2019 kicked off one of the main themes for this year - the capital's parks and open spaces. Our thanks to Studio Egret West for hosting and to Madeleine Gohin for this report.
From Abercrombie’s 1944 Greater London Plan to Sadiq Khan’s 2019 vision of London as a “national park city”, the idea of creating a network of green spaces through London has been a recurring aspiration in the urban policy context of the city. With inputs from Jerry Unsworth, Colne Valley Regional Park, Sue Morgan, Wandle Valley Regional Park Trust and Peter Massini, GLA, this evening has been about exploring the way this ambition is reflected across the London green grid.
Jerry Unsworth, lead consultant on Colne Valley Regional Park, sees the challenges faced by his team as a battle between ‘the beauty and the beast’. Giving us a few tips about where to meet the beauty – the Staines Moor area for example, a beautiful site of ancient countryside – he described certain aspirations of developers around Heathrow as embodiments of the beast. Covering a thousand acres – three times Hyde Park – the Heathrow airport expansion illustrates the development pressures faced by green spaces in London. The negative effects of these pressures can be linked back to what Jerry calls a ‘disrupting planning system’, in which planning is not carried out strategically and in an integrated manner.
In this context, six objectives have been defined for the park: maintaining and enhancing the landscape, safeguarding the countryside from inappropriate development (or at least ensuring good design), conserving and enhancing biodiversity, providing opportunities for countryside recreation, achieving a vibrant and sustainable economy, and encouraging community participation.
Community participation is all the more relevant to the park given the way its management has evolved. After starting out as a local authority initiative in the 1960s with the aim of enabling inhabitants to enjoy the countryside on their doorstep, the Colne Valley Regional Park is now managed by a Community Interest Company with a wide diversity of partners involved (local authorities, parish councils, community groups, resident associations, farmers, landowners, charities, businesses, user groups, etc.). A telling example of this evolution: the Chair of the community is a farmer and businessman, and the vice president is a legal representative of a council in the area.
Community members provide seedbed funding necessary to the implementation of the organisation’s objectives, which is then used to get match funding and to apply, through groundwork, for grants and awards. Over the years, its activities have included the development of several path networks, as well as other projects responding to the many challenges that come with development proposals in the area.
A great challenge for the sustainability of the organisation is to ensure continuous funding sources that can allow long-term strategies. Jerry also insisted on the fact that the organisation has very small ownership of the park and quite restricted management rights. There is according to him a need for a complete step change in the management system of the park, in order to ensure better coordination and avoid land to be misused.
In this regard, the Colne Valley Landscape Partnership Project constitutes a recent success. The wide range of organisations involved in the Colne Valley put in a bid for National Lottery funding, which resulted in the Park receiving a package worth £2.5m. This brilliant initiative covers a series of projects, which include the preparation of a Green Infrastructure Strategy across the Colne and Crane valleys. The project focuses on the development of a map-based strategy that ties together and builds on the existing infrastructure and environmental plans, in consultation with key stakeholders and local communities. Its aim is to ensure better management of the landscape and environment of the two valleys by guiding future partnerships towards better-coordinated responses to the pressures of development and providing a long-term vision for the future of the area.
Our exploration of London’s green spaces then took us down south, in the Wandle Valley. Sue Morgan started by pointing out the historical roots of Wandle Valley Regional Park Trust logo. This beautiful floral motif designed by William Morris works as a symbol for the strong industrial heritage of the area. From melting copper – including the Royal Mint! – to dying William Morris’ famous Liberty Print Works, the water mills powered by the River Wandle have played a crucial role during the Industrial Revolution in Britain. As a result of this industrial heritage and unlike Colne Valley, Wandle Valley has developed into a very urbanised area.
Defined in Abercrombie’s Plan as an industrial corridor, the Wandle Valley still features in today’s London Plan as a “growth corridor”. In fact, despite its post-industrial decline in the 1960s, 20% of London’s manufacturing businesses are located in the valley. A number of watermills are still active along the river, providing energy for microbreweries and other flourishing businesses. This area is also expected to grow much faster than any other London area in the next few years, which puts even more pressure on existing green spaces and complicates the task of linking them together. In this regard, the Wandle Valley Regional Trust has been working hard on developing the arguments and the evidence base needed to demonstrate that a sub-regional green infrastructure plan is needed to build sustainable economic growth. This argument is also used by the trust as main basis for attracting investors.
Aside from its beautiful green spaces, an important feature of the Wandle Valley is its 15 miles of river. In the 1960s, the River Wandle had been completely written off due to its pollution and even classified as a sewer. Since then, a lot a work has been invested into cleaning up this very rare chalk stream (one in 200 in the world) and restoring its diverse habitat. Its industrial past has however also left the banks of this river quite deprived from green spaces. Bringing nature back to life along this beautiful stream and providing better access to it is another challenge on which the Wandle Valley Regional Park Trust is currently working.
In this regard, an interesting and yet challenging project is currently being carried out on Beddington Farmland in Sutton. Combining mixed-grass areas and wetlands, this old landfill site is also home to over 250 bird species. With a size equivalent to two to three Hyde parks, it has the potential of becoming a fantastic public amenity. Linking it up to other commons across the Wandle Valley and facilitating its access would constitute a significant improvement for all Londoners, but doing so involves unresolved questions: who manages it? Who get access to it? Overall, how do we invest in these spaces? The Wandle Valley Regional Park Trust is also bringing more attention to these important questions.
Unlike most other regional parks that have been set up through significant investments or laws that went through parliament, it was a bottom-up movement that triggered change in the Wandle Valley. Local authorities supported this community initiative and a trust was set up in 2012, which became a charity in 2013. Four boroughs are represented by eight councillors on the organisation’s board, which in itself represents quite a challenge due to their different administrative structures.
Since 2014, the organisation has been focusing on improving access alongside the Wandle River and providing physical links to these fragmented open spaces. For example, a lot of work has been put into convincing its partners in highway teams of the four boroughs that highways interventions do not need to be just straightforward highways engineering projects, but can also include more sympathetic designs, as well as better access to Wandle trails and other green spaces.
With a clear strategy guiding current and future projects, the Wandle Valley Regional Park Trust provides a focus for a number of stakeholders and interest groups and raises the voice of the Wandle Valley. The organisation has been rather effective at delivering projects on the ground. Several walking trails have been built across the Wandle Valley and a strong branding identity has also been developed. This proactivity has attracted nearly 4 million pounds of investments. With a rather limited financial support coming from local authorities, the Wandle Valley Regional Park Trust has indeed been quite effective at seeking sponsorship from the private sector, for example by working alongside the Wandle Partnership Funding, which brought 2.7 million pounds to the organisation. This successful arrangement is the first landscape partnership managed by the Lottery Funding that is ‘urban’.
Another ‘first’: Sports England, Public Health, four boroughs and the National Trust all put funding into the organisation’s “Get Active Wandle Valley Programme”, which focused directly on disadvantaged communities living in the Wandle Valley, encouraging them to get out and use the open spaces for various activities (for example by joining a cycling programme). These investments in the social value of green spaces can be linked to the investments made in capital projects. In fact, being able to walk uninterrupted from Croydon to Wandsworth is an easy-hanging fruit when it comes to achieving the policies of the London Plan around active travel and healthy living. These projects also have a positive impact on the economic value of the area as they contribute to its growth.
Looking into the future and in a context where local authorities have varying administrative opportunities and challenges when it comes to funding and investments, the Wandle Valley Regional Park Trust will continue to follow its strategy, progressively developing into the main strategic leadership organisation for the Wandle Valley Regional Park. The particularity of its approach is essentially to have recognised that if parks and open spaces are to be funded properly, working in partnership and collaboration across sectors and with a shared vision and common values is essential. In fact, in order to achieve its aims, the organisation works hand in hand with a wide variety of actors, such as housing associations, private sector developers and students from the university of East London and UCL.
Greater London Authority and the London Plan
Peter Massini then provided valuable insight into how the London Plan relates to London’s regional parks and to the overarching goal of stitching together London’s green spaces.
An important reality to keep in mind is that London is a growing city, currently inhabited by 8.5 million people and possibly 12 million by 2050. Since no politician is advocating for London to spread outwards, the city has to become denser. Although London is generally rather good at protecting urban space, threats on the quality of these spaces will increase as the city becomes denser. The way we affect the relationship between new developments and London’s network of open spaces needs to be thoroughly taken into account.
In fact, the policy agenda around green spaces recently evolved from one of protecting and preserving these spaces to one of thinking about how they work and what they contribute to. Aside from fulfilling their basic functions of recreational heritage, green spaces can also provide solutions to many challenges London is currently facing. Among them stand the multifaceted and negative effects of climate change (air pollution but also longer term issues such as higher temperatures and flooding) as well as an overarching need for healthier living. How these green spaces are designed, managed and used will determine how much they can benefit Londoners with regards to these challenges.
Furthermore, providing long-term solutions to environmental and health issues also has strong economic benefits. There are for example on-going discussions among retailers in central London, to whom the prospect of rising temperatures in central London is a reason to worry about the future of their businesses. When it comes to local authorities, inhabitants’ health issues stand among their biggest financial burdens. While encouraging Londoners to walk and develop healthier lifestyles, improving the network of green infrastructures across the city also contributes to reducing flooding risks and brings down temperatures.
Overall, the new London Plan focuses on the concept of “good growth”. While the meaning of this notion can be debated, when it comes to the London Plan, it essentially means growth that improves lives, makes the city healthier, and increases the efficiency and resilience of the city. In this context, policies promoting green infrastructure also need to take into account the future of London’s regional parks. This includes recognising cross-borough issues that come with the management of these parks. How can collaboration across boroughs be improved so that these parks function well, in a connective way? Colne and Wandle Valley provide inspiring examples of how to answer this question. In this regard, the new London Plan also has a less prescriptive approach to way the principles of the London Green Grid should be implemented, especially when it comes to the sort of partnerships that can be put together to achieve its aims.