Think of an urban environment and what springs to mind? Concrete? Pollution? Traffic congestion?
It is fair to assume that “greenery” would not be at the top of your list.
London is a green city by global standards, yet even with our parks, waterways and heaths, the city and its inhabitants are still battling social and environmental challenges that could be reduced significantly if we were to better connect the city and its inhabitants with nature.
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Let us start with a problem that has hit headlines over recent months: mental health. Studies have shown that city dwellers could have a 21 per cent greater likelihood of developing anxiety disorders, and a 39 per cent increased risk of mood disorders, compared to those living rurally. However, these studies also suggest that integrating more green into our urban environment could present a solution, with proximity to nature shown to ease mental fatigue. This means that greening our cities would improve the quality of life for residents, helping reduce the strain on mental health services. What’s more, with employee mental illness costing London’s employers £1.89bn to date, this can also play a role in improving business performance in our capital.
The business and economic benefits of urban greening do not stop here. Certain approaches to urban development and expansion are quite literally paving the way for increases in urban flooding, as the rollout of impermeable surfaces prevents rainfall from soaking into the ground and accelerates runoff, placing increased pressure on drainage systems. Urban vegetation has the opposite effect, reducing runoff time and holding ground water to help prevent flooding and its numerous social and economic consequences, such as damage to homes and infrastructure, and workplace absenteeism.
While urban greening’s benefits extend far beyond the aesthetic, a more visually attractive city can help encourage the arrival of new businesses, and increase the value of local property. Glasgow’s recent Green Renewal Project provides a fitting example. This led to multiple socioeconomic benefits, including a marked increase in council tax receipts. A green and pleasant London will surely encourage inward investment and increased tourism, with visitors injecting more money into local businesses.
Known to improve air quality by over 20 per cent, urban greening could also present a creative solution in the fight against air pollution in London, and improve our chances of meeting impending EU deadlines.
So, how can local authorities, planners and developers embark on “greening” London? Instead of the creation of a park from scratch costing millions, we need to think about how an incremental approach could work. Developing a patchwork of smaller projects could help us to reach the urban green ideal, without over-stretching finances. Embracing 360 degree greening and the untapped potential of the city’s surfaces could provide the answer.
This was the concept behind Nigel Dunnett’s Arup-engineered “Greening Grey Britain” garden at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Designed to showcase the benefits and multiple applications of urban greening, the garden featured a “living wall” designed by Arup: a lightweight, vertical facade embedded with a variety of grasses and wild flowers that can be connected to scaffolding and temporary hoardings on building sites.
This is, in our opinion, what urban greening should be – nature-led, low maintenance and easily achievable. This is about turning what is often considered a nuisance – construction – into something positive.