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The case for space: Why planners need to focus on natural capital

A growing body of evidence suggests that green space has tangible health and economic benefits. Economist Caroline Vexler explains why now is the time for planners to focus on the case for green space

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced people globally to re-examine their relationship with the natural environment.

The ability to go outdoors, spend time in nature or go for a run is something many in the UK have taken for granted. Londoners have been particularly spoiled for choice, with nearly 10,000 parks and formal gardens freely accessible to the public.

Yet in spring and summer 2020, local authorities, faced with difficult choices and limited information, chose to close some of London’s most historic and popular parks becauase of health and safety concerns. These closures can have significant wellbeing implications, particularly for vulnerable populations.

“Studies have shown, too, that improvements to public spaces in town centres can increase commercial trading by up to 40 per cent”

Public health experts now recognise that outdoor spaces can be safe for recreation with proper social distancing, making investment and maintenance of parks for safety more important than ever.

However, the role these spaces now play in facilitating health and social cohesion has highlighted stark disparities in access across the UK. Research from Public Health England has found that people living in the most deprived areas of the UK also have the least access to green spaces.

These populations are also more likely to benefit from access to green spaces, as they may face financial barriers to other forms of recreation and physical exercise.

Moreover, the pandemic has limited the safety and feasibility of using public transportation, potentially creating further barriers to accessing public spaces.

Planning for green space

Caroline Vexler is co-author of Invest and Prosper: A Business Case for Investing in Planning, commissioned and published by the RTPI in October 2020. Invest and Prosper identifies a number of powers and duties that planning authorities have that can play a significant role in supporting planning for green spaces and protecting the natural environment.

Planning authorities are responsible for protecting national parks and gardens, existing green infrastructure and ecological assets, and the green belt. In Wales, planning authorities are required to produce up-to-date inventories and maps of existing green infrastructure and identify opportunities for growth. In Scotland, The Planning Bill 2019 makes open space strategies a statutory requirement. In 2018-19, planning authorities in England agreed to £157 million of developer contributions towards preserving open space and the natural environment.

Local planning authorities take a leading role in protecting biodiversity through biodiversity impact requirements in planning policy. All four UK national planning policies recognise that planning authorities have a statutory duty to conserve biodiversity and prevent adverse effects of development on biodiversity.

Local planning authorities are responsible for enhancing and maintaining the historic environment. As of 2016, the UK had 31 cultural, natural and mixed World Heritage Sites and England had approximately 19,854 scheduled monuments, 377,587 listed buildings and more than 46 registered battlefields.

Download the Invest and Prosper report from the RTPI website

Green assets

A wide body of academic literature demonstrates that visiting green spaces has important benefits for health and wellbeing (see below – Three reasons to go green).

These health and wellbeing benefits are widely understood, but less often is the case made that both the private and public sector benefit from investing in and maintaining green spaces.

NHS England spends more than £100 billion each year treating mental illnesses, representing nearly 14 per cent of the public health budget. Although green spaces are no replacement for healthcare services and treatments, the evidence linking green spaces to mental health suggests that better access could play a role in reducing this burden.

Moreover, green space can form part of mental healthcare treatment.

Green social prescribing practices, where GPs refer patients to non-clinical services for nature-based activities, are on the rise in the UK.

In October 2020, a £4.3 million pilot scheme was announced to support deprived communities and areas hit hardest by Covid-19 to scale green prescribing programmes. Research by Natural England suggests that these programmes can deliver significant value for money, up to £2 billion in savings for the NHS.

Green space access can also help to reduce the burden of physical inactivity, which is estimated to be responsible for one in six deaths in the UK. According to Public Health England, people in the most deprived decile are nearly twice as likely to be physically inactive (less than 30 minutes of exercise a week) as people in the least deprived decile.

"High-quality green spaces can attract people and businesses, providing amenities and infrastructure and increasing the value of local real estate"

Investing in green space amenities can lure visitors and enable physical activities, increasing the health benefits. Public spaces with facilities such as walking or cycling routes, bike racks, parking lots, paved trails, and water fountains have higher levels of physical activity. Research undertaken by Vivid Economics shows that other amenities such as toilets, playgrounds and picnic areas encourage these visitors to spend longer outdoors.

In addition to public health savings, green spaces provide economic value to developers and businesses that locate in proximity. High-quality green spaces can attract people and businesses, providing amenities and infrastructure and increasing the value of local real estate.

Eighty-five per cent of US residents identify proximity to public spaces as a key factor in deciding where to live; in the UK, Office for National Statistics data shows that residents are willing to pay up to 1.7 per cent more to buy property within 200 metres of a large green space.

The amenities, recreational opportunities and aesthetic quality of green spaces can also attract businesses and inward investment to communities. Public spaces can catalyse economic activity by facilitating links between businesses and the public, increasing footfall near commercial areas. They can connect recreational visitors to retail businesses, stimulating expenditure.

Studies have also shown that improvements to public spaces in town centres can increase commercial trading by up to 40 per cent. The role of green spaces connecting people to businesses may be increasingly important in post-Covid economic recovery.

High-quality parks and public squares can also become tourist destinations, bringing in economic opportunities and local revenues for retail and hospitality industries.

London’s Royal Parks, for example, attract 77 million visitors a year and brought in £50 million in income in 2018-2019, not including the value provided to local shops and restaurants.

Three reasons to go green

Benefits of regular, easy access to green spaces include:

  • Spending 120 minutes a week in green spaces is shown to increase life satisfaction and measures of subjective wellbeing
  • Children living in greener areas have a lower risk of psychiatric disorders later in life
  • Those using green space for physical activity have a decreased risk of all-cause mortality and a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Sources: University of Exeter; Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences;  World Health Organisation

Planning for green access

Planning system regulations are designed to protect or reduce harm to the natural environment, but do not treat green space as critical health and economic infrastructure.

The RTPI’s recently published Invest and Prosper (see box, right) report shows that the planning system can ensure good access to services and infrastructure which are critical for people’s health and the long-term sustainability of towns and cities.

The planning system is particularly important for providing access to affordable housing, active transport infrastructure and public services. However, requirements within planning frameworks are focused on conserving the natural environment, rather than promoting green space accessibility.

With increased national focus on the role of parks in fostering safe social interactions, providing an outlet for recreation during lockdown and spaces for exercise, there is a great opportunity for planners to reframe the treatment of the natural environment in planning.

Urban planning can maximise the potential health and economic benefits of green space through strategic placement which prioritises improving access for new and existing residents. This is stated as a key aim of the UK government’s recently published planning white paper, as well as planning frameworks in all four nations.

Work conducted by Vivid Economics for the National Trust suggests that ensuring access to green space in the most deprived neighbourhoods in Great Britain would increase physical health and mental wellbeing to a value of £78 million annually.

The report found that adding 156 new green spaces across various urban locations – an additional 312 hectares in total – was sufficient to provide a reasonable standard of access to 150,000 residents living in the most deprived areas in Great Britain. Moreover, doing so results in additional physical health and mental wellbeing benefits valued at £28 million and £49 million, respectively, on an annual basis.

“There is an opportunity for planners to reframe the treatment of the natural environment in planning”

Elevating access to this standard across the UK would likely result in significantly more health benefits. For example, previous estimates by Natural England have suggested that extending good levels of green space access to the entire population of England could result in savings to the NHS of £2.1 billion annually through improved physical health outcomes alone.

Similarly, improving the quality of existing green spaces with additional facilities can attract higher visitation and unlock greater health and economic benefits. Higher-quality parks that offer a variety of facilities typically attract more annual visits than parks that do not.

For example, a recent survey conducted in the city of Leeds found that 24 per cent of respondents reported lack of facilities as the primary reason why they did not visit their nearest park the most often. Significantly increasing the number of facilities in medium-to-large-sized green spaces, including public toilets, children’s play areas, and café-like amenities, could increase annual visits to green spaces in Great Britain by as much as 67 per cent.

An increase in green space visits of this magnitude would support substantial additional benefits to mental wellbeing and physical health – about £10 billion in total a year, according to research by Vivid and Barton Willmore. Analysis for the recently published RPTI report Invest and Prosper finds that a well-planned green space in a deprived area can deliver up to 500 per cent more value than a poorly planned green space.

Green spaces in the UK already provide more than £16 billion a year in value to UK residents, with further benefits to the public and the private sector. As the UK enters a period of rebuilding the economy post-Covid and planning system priorities are shifting, planners have the opportunity to make green spaces central to recovery and create places that support the health and wellbeing of generations to come.  

Caroline Vexler is a senior economist at Vivid Economics, supporting cities and local authorities in the UK and globally to use natural capital accounting tools for strategic green infrastructure planning. She was part of the team that developed the Greenkeeper Tool.

Image credit | Getty