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08/11/2019

Unbuckle the belt and create a green web for the west of England

Words:
Aerial photo of Bristol

Martin Jones argues for a fresh approach to planning through the West of England's Joint Spatial Plan

So planners across the West of England region have been back at the drawing board for over a month now following the inspectors’ rejection of the hard fought Joint Spatial Plan (JSP).

They have a formidable task. The city’s housing delivery plan outlines a need for 33,500 new homes for Bristol by 2036 – over half of which need to be ‘affordable’. We also need space to support a big proportion of the 80,000+ new jobs expected across the JSP.  

Whilst the city’s housing and development community is now working much more creatively and collaboratively to maximise the use of space and the local authority is identifying major strategic sites for new homes, land remains in short supply. There can be no doubt: we all need to get used to living closer together. We are facing a climate emergency and a growing need for more healthy lifestyles. Therefore, jobs and homes need to be close together, allowing active travel – walking, jogging, cycling.  

My colleague Yuli Cadney-Toh, who has spent much of her career working on liveable cities around the world, is a specialist in city densification and argues that when designed right, tall buildings can contribute to the solution. But that doesn’t mean the only way is up. It’s not a binary choice. We can balance the move up with a move out – and we have to look beyond Bristol’s boundaries. We must be braver and far more creative in relation to the green belt in a way that respects its original purpose but helps to accommodate growth.

"Using a ‘sieve-mapping’ technique, he argued for an overlaid approach, taking into account everything from topography and flood risk to agricultural assets and special or heritage interests"

The Bristol-Bath green belt accounts for some 48 per cent of the land across the JSP area. Its primary goal was to prevent coalescence of the two cities and it has certainly been successful in that respect. In exceptional circumstances land can be taken out of the green belt. It is within the local planning authority’s gift to adjust its green belt. Indeed, substantial tracts of land were taken out of the South Gloucestershire green belt to allow the development of Aztec West in the late 70s and early 80s.

Most of the employment within the plan area is in its cities and city fringes. Logic suggests that the long-term growth in housing and jobs needs to be near existing hubs or along sustainable mode transport corridors. This is where we need to release the land.

Naturally, we must target the areas with the least environmental impact and most sustainable location. As far back as the 70s, Ian L. McHarg (1920-2001), one of the most influential environmental planners and landscape architects of the century, defined the concept of landscape planning as working with rather than against nature. Using a ‘sieve-mapping’ technique, he argued for an overlaid approach, taking into account everything from topography and flood risk to agricultural assets and special or heritage interests.  Building up this layered picture informs where the no-go areas are whilst the white space illustrates areas with potential.  A web, as opposed to a belt, emerges, a web which should also penetrate the city.

This will allow us to protect open space inside as well as outside the city. These are the green lungs and vital to the population’s health and wellbeing. That is why we need an intelligent conversation about redefining the greenbelt to unlock sustainable growth.  Bristol can lead the way for the rest of the UK – and we can start by defining the green web.

Martin Jones is landscape and urbanism director in international architects BDP’s Bristol studio

Photos | BDP

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