Greening the Grey – making the most of our urban green spaces

Over recent years we have seen strong evidence that suggests investing in green infrastructure can promote economic growth as well as human health and well-being, not to mention support a diverse range of plant and animal species. But as habitat loss continues to be extensive and rapid with agricultural intensification and increasing land take for housing and infrastructure development, we need to up the ante on how we plan our cities of the future to optimise green spaces and protect them within our urban centres. 

Research to make a difference

In 2014/15 I undertook an MSc in Conservation Ecology. As with most degrees, it required undertaking a thesis study. Determined to do a project that was in line with current affairs, easily interpreted and replicable, I looked carefully into the issues local to me. As a volunteer and member, I sought collaboration with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust (GWT). We discussed urban connectivity and the hope for GWT to have a stronger voice over the Joint Core Strategy – 30,000 homes being proposed throughout Gloucestershire before 2031 (now on its way to public consultation after councillors agreed the latest version of the strategy).  I got to work identifying solutions, building partnerships and designing a study that would be valuable well beyond my MSc grade.

Aware that wildlife doesn’t always get the airplay it deserves, I chose to investigate the combined impact of habitat connectivity across our cities for both wildlife and human well-being. Working in collaboration with both Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust (GWT) and Gloucester City Council, I developed a project that met key objectives for both, along with criteria within the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). I utilised the Natural England Accessible Natural Greenspace Standard (ANGSt) whilst considering a landscape and ecosystem approach to urban green space management.

Greening the grey 02 Connectivity

Creating a dual-purpose approach to urban green space

By combining both habitat fragmentation for wildlife and green space accessibility for people, I sought to identify how well a single set of targets could deliver effective green space generation. It was based on a GIS mapping platform that delivered outputs that were simple to understand and implement – an important consideration when wanting the scientific world to be interpreted by the average Joe and within everyday practices.

Health and well-being were measured through accessibility to green space using the ‘Accessible Natural Greenspace Standard’ (ANGSt) by Natural England, with Gloucester as my study city.  I used pollinators as my indicator group for biodiversity, using their average foraging distances to measure their connectedness across the city.

Greening the grey 03 Methods_.png

The mapping software utilised was ArcGIS. I set up my data to provide simple cartographic visual recommendations for areas requiring improvement by highlighting key zones of green space deprivation throughout the city. Further analysis looks into the flight foraging distances of bees, to determine city connectedness – with a focus on key habitat types of high biodiversity value; allotments; nature reserves; and temporary wildflower seeded patches.

Small, nearby, frequent

It was interesting to see the visual impact of the mapping that the temporary wildflower seeded patches had on the connectance of the city for wildlife. A simple money-saving initiative by the council, now loved by residents, can also be having a dramatic impact on the viability of our wildlife and their potential reach and provision. This is a result that was emphasised to the council as to the high value that should be placed on smaller pockets of biodiversity across a city, from window boxes to wildflower strips, green walls and roof, to appropriately planted roundabouts and roadsides.

One outcome displayed a clear set of visual target areas to deliver improvements for health & well-being, with further mapping combining the result of the ANGSt recommendations analysis and the pollinator foraging analysis highlights to represent a dual priority zone across Gloucester as areas to prioritise for green space implementation. Action taken in these areas will strongly benefit both objectives for health and well-being and pollinator habitat connectivity. Bringing together two objectives into one strategy and outcome, saving time, space and money.

Limitations and ‘best case scenario’

Greening the grey 10 Limitations.png

However, let’s remember this was a project undertaken with only a couple of months to collate and compile my data. Therefore, there are going to be a whole plethora of limitations to consider. It is important to understand the complex matrix of an urban environment and try to complement habitats to ensure there are areas for nesting, shelter, feeding and other life resources.

The cartographic outputs highlight the ‘best case scenario’, as only simple Euclidean distances and a homogenous landscape has been taken into consideration, ignoring the impact of landscape features. Should the study be taken in further depth, landscape composition must be considered. For ANGSt, the 300 metre distance could be substantially longer if there is not a direct route of access from the home. Pollinator foraging distance would also be impacted due to buildings, roads and other natural or man-made obstacles. To gauge this impact, a form of viewshed or cost-distance analysis could be conducted, taking into consideration building obstructions and their height.

Ultimately, these limitations would result in further green space provision requirements to obtain connectivity throughout the city. Nonetheless, this study has provided a robust body of evidence for further developing a sustainable open space strategy within the city, applying a wider, landscape-scale approach to determining target areas and providing goals for a programme of improvements.

The outcomes support the objectives of promoting open spaces as places to sustain and improve health and well-being, increasing the amount of open space under a wildlife management regime, and identifying areas that are in great need of investment. Delivering a citywide campaign for both access to nature and spaces for nature.

Mutualistic benefits

There are mutualistic benefits to be obtained by people and wildlife when considering, creating or increasing the quality and quantity of green space in urban environments. By applying a combination of methods to investigate the natural potential of our complex urban environments, we can begin to harness the full potential of underappreciated spaces, becoming drivers of change, providing an enhanced living environment for both people and wildlife.

Fancy getting your teeth stuck in further? You can read my thesis by clicking here.


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