Last week, in amongst the headlines about the heatwave, the new Prime Minister and his new cabinet, you might have missed the announcement that London became the world’s first national park city.
Beginning on 22 July, the city made official its commitment to preserving and expanding London’s existing pockets of greenery, from green roofs to historic parks. Coinciding with soaring temperatures across the country, we were reminded both of the vulnerability of London's natural spaces, but also of the vital role greenery can play in mediating the worst effects of the urban heat-island.
Automatically seeking out avenues of shade as I made my way to and from the HACT office, while the temperature reached the late thirties, I experienced the often-unheralded role trees and parks play as a refuge in heatwaves. As human-induced climate change continues to disrupt natural systems, cities are at risk of becoming ever more hostile environments, especially for more vulnerable residents.
Rising temperatures are more than a nuisance, they present a real health risk to the young, elderly and other vulnerable demographics. Street trees are one essential organic system which, along with creative design solutions, ensures that our public spaces can remain inclusive even as high temperatures become the norm rather than the exception.
In a high-density city where space comes at a premium, private garden access, or proximity to parks is unfortunately not a guarantee. However, this does not have to mean that social housing cannot integrate access to nature within its design and functionality. Just spending time in proximity to trees has been linked with reduced stress, hence the rise of the phenomenon forest bathing as a restorative practice.
From health benefits associated with increased walking, to the mental health benefits of hobbies such as gardening, community investment in outdoor projects and green spaces can lead to a wide range of positive outcomes. Investment in community projects that connect residents to these experiences can open up the health and social benefits of a national park city to all of London’s residents.
Historically, these benefits have been reserved for a fortunate few. Extensive research has shown that marginalised groups tend to have less access to green spaces, a historic, global, relationship that has tended to dislocate environmental disseminates from industrial spaces to motorways, away from wealthier areas.
To combat these historic injustices, we need to get better at mapping and understanding the myriad social benefits of urban greenery, and build these learnings into the way homes, streets and cities are designed and retrofitted. Insight into the social benefits of time spent outdoors also provides evidence for the need to invest in community projects that open up the natural world, from allotment groups, to tree planting initiatives, or sports clubs.
Using tools developed in partnership with Simetrica, research and perspectives such as HACT’s Social Value Calculator and Value Insight tool, we are becoming increasingly aware of the links between outdoor access, neighbourhood quality and wellbeing. Understanding and communicating these benefits move us towards a future where access to green spaces becomes a right, and not a privilege.
If you are interested in better understanding the social benefits of investment in these outcomes, HACT and its range of products and expertise can help.
National Park London needs to serve all, and to ensure that the city, and others across the country move towards an equitable and integrated network of accessible nature, there is a need to centralise social value in decision making.
Social dynamics of London’s trees, woodlands and green spaces: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/718113/100000FCGuidanceSocialDynamicsofTreesinLondon.pdf