Log in | Register

RCA students offer fresh views of London’s green belt

Words: Simon Wicks
Green belt images

Imagine seeing London’s green belt mapped as a social space, rather than just a geographical one – pictured in terms of average earnings, political leanings, crime rates and actual land use.

A new report published by the London Society features work by architecture students from the Royal College of Art that provides a fresh look at London’s ‘green girdle’ and challenges assumptions about what it is and how it is composed.
Green sprawl: Our current affection for a preservation myth leads with a detailed history of the evolution of the capital's green belt, written by society member and Colliers associate director Jonathan Manns.
This is followed by the ‘Green Belt Atlas’ – socio-political maps created by RCA students for a project looking at how development can take place within the 35-mile wide band of protected space that surrounds England’s capital.
The paper – the first published by the 'reinvgorated' London Society – argues for a reconsideration of the purpose and scale of the green belt in the context of pressure to build up to a million houses by 2030 for London's fast-growing population.
“We must explore a joined-up approach to growth which once again twins discussion about the green belt with recognition of the need for development,” writes Manns. “In doing so we must dispel the preservation myth that has emerged and recognise that unless actively pursuing a strategy of national spatial rebalancing which directs growth elsewhere in the country, new development will be required in London, including in some parts of the present green belt.”
Launching the paper at a 'London’s Future Green Belt' debate, Manns explained that green belt was originally envisaged as a quarter-mile wide amenity to provide outdoor space for Londoners living in a crowded urban environment.
Through a century of official reports, Parliamentary acts and local authority decision, it had become a 516,000 hectare space that has “lost sight of its original intentions and purposes” and suffers from trying to be too many thing to too many people. 
“If you were to build 40 homes per hectare, it would require just 4.8 per cent of the total green belt area to deliver the new homes we need, assuming no new brownfield development,” Manns argued.
Map created by Jonathan Manns to show how Raymond Unwin's inner and outer London green belt concept might be applied to help us think about development today 
Picking up the theme, Paul Cheshire, professor of economic geography at the London School of economics, argued that green belt designation “provides a benefit exclusive to the relatively wealthy homeowners who live within it”.
His analysis of land use revealed that green belt across England occupied roughly one-and-a-half times as much space as all urban development. Much of this, Cheshire said, was low-quality, intensively farmed and inaccessible to the general public.
Far from providing an amenity, as its original proponents held, it was used as an instrument to prevent development in well-off areas. “It’s a policy that for more than two generations has been restricting the supply of urban space in order to prevent towns and cities merging. But if you look at the impact it’s effectively a form of very British exclusionary zone. It keeps the poor in the towns and stops them spilling wider and spoiling the home counties,” he said.
Cheshire went on to attack the logic of land designation and the irrational development decisions it leads to – such as development of the environmentally valuable Hoo Peninsular and an inability to develop close to proposed new crossrail stations in places like Taplow,  even though the land is environmentally low quality.
“The issue is not will we change our planning policies, because we are going to... The question is: will we change it in a sensible and strategic way that preserves the good things about it, that increases access to high amenity land but creates enough land to build the houses we need?”
Green belt politics 1
Maps showing the green belt's political allegiances and nighbourhood plan creation.
Introducing the RCA’s mapping project, course tutor and director of architecture research studio DK-CM David Knight pointed out that there is actually a lot more to the green belt than we tend to think. “Nobody really talks about it in its own right – only about what it prevents," he said.
“We realised that there’s lots of stuff there that transcends the rhetoric and the politics. There are leisure uses. It’s jam-packed with Victorian infrastructure, such as asylums and cemeteries. There are illicit uses, such as raves. There’s landfill – today there’s a hell of a lot of rubbish in the green belt. There’s infrastructure, such as roads. There’s a lot of grass, arable and horticultural land. It’s an incredibly fragmented and complex space.”
Students from the course conducted the mapping exercise as part of a challege to come up with developments within the green belt that respected its rules and character. In doing so, they uncovered new views of the green belt that see it a social and political space, as well as a physical one. Among the ideas they produced for development within this spacec were urban extensions in ‘offset’ green belt, imaginative developments along infrastructure corridors and redevelopment of golf courses which had closed.
Green sprawl: Our current affection for a preservation myth? is available to download as a pdf on the London Society websiteHard copies for £15 can be ordered via email at [email protected]
The London Society is also inviting contributions to the green belt debate on its blog. Contributions of up to 500 words can be emailed to the editor at [email protected]
Green belt maps created by RCA ADS2 students Amelia Hunter, Andy Matthews, Rowan Prady, Benjamin Turner and William Young.