moody greenspace (photo Miles King)
As some of you may have guessed, I’m not the biggest fan of Policy Exchange. This is the think tank the Tories love most – its ex-treasurer is the new Natural England chair, Andrew Sells, about whom I have written a number of times. It has made a “visiting scholar” of climate denier and general anti-environmental pundit (and former chair of Northern Rock, at the time when its demise helped trigger the longest recession in a century) Matt Ridley, who is also brother-in-law and personal think tank to “get rid of all this Environmental crap” Secretary Owen Paterson.
This is the think tank that told Owen Paterson about Biodiversity Offsetting. So I was pleasantly surprised to see PE making sensible suggestions about urban greenspace late last year. In their report by Kat Drayson entitled “Park Land” they call for a national urban greenspace map, and point out the barriers to using existing data sets such as OS Mastermap or CEH’s land use cover map. I do find it a bit ironic that the PE uber-neoliberals are calling for the Government (CLG and Defra) to lead on this initiative, rather than business; maybe that’s why I like its proposals.
I do quite a bit of GIS work now in my job at Footprint Ecology. I have been learning how to use the free GIS system QGIS. I used to use Mapinfo (badly), which was very expensive to buy. I have to say QGIS is easier to use, albeit it has more limited capacity for spatial data analysis (or so I am told by people who know.)
I have just finished work on a contract for Natural England, where we surveyed and mapped vegetation communities on strandlines and shingle around the Solent. I was mapping polygons down to just a few metres (using handheld GPS), as the vegetation was patchy at an extremely small scale. Natural England had provided Mastermap data for us to use. It is also extremely expensive to buy – as Park Land points out. Actually it was pretty useless on the shoreline because it’s such a dynamic system. So I used Open Street Map instead. Open Street Map is a free map to use with GIS. It’s the wikipedia of maps. People just update it so it is getting better and better. Using Open Street Map, handheld GPS and QGIS together, the public could create a very good quality national urban greenspace map for all to use.
One of the other things Kat Drayson recommends is a standard typology for such a map; and using green flag style quality assessment, combined with a tripadvisor approach, getting the public to score their local greenspaces. It’s an interesting idea. Another area which Footprint does a great deal of work in is around visitor pressure on high quality nature sites (such as heathlands.) Getting the public to use openstreetmap to mark areas where dog-walkers empty their dogs in urban greenspaces and high quality nature sites could be really interesting and a valuable source of evidence for policy makers. There is also a risk that by publicising some greenspaces, the map may inadvertently increase visitor numbers and cause a higher level of disturbance to their wildlife. But I can see such a map being used to show which greenspaces have exceeded their wildlife’s carrying capacity, providing information that car parking spaces are being reduced, so discouraging visitors from going there.
Urban greenspace isn’t just about parks: it’s also areas of encapsulated countryside, nature reserves, post-industrial sites that have developed important wildlife habitat; and a whole host of other stuff, including back gardens, road verges and greenspace within housing and industrial estates. It all adds together to create Green Infrastructure.
An ever stronger base of evidence is pointing towards green infrastructure and greenspace specifically, as having a major positive effect on people’s health. Just yesterday the BBC reported the President of the Royal College of Physicians stating how important greenspaces, with biodiversity, are for both mental and physical health.
What I do not see (yet) is the link between mapping greenspace and protecting it. House-building is continuing to see the loss of urban greenspace as local plans identify greenspace areas for new housing within their areas. How would a wiki-greenspace map feed in to Core Strategies? Green Infrastructure Strategies are not regarded as especially high priority within the Local Development Framework.
Perhaps when the public can easily access a local greenspace map which shows which greenspace areas are included in the strategic housing land allocation area (ie targeted for housing), they might start getting on the backs of their local councillors.