Urban Landscaping in the 21st Century
Dr. Michael Henze, General Secretary of the European Landscaping Contractors Association (ELCA), believes urban landscaping is essential for preserving a city’s heritage, ecosystem, and maintaining social harmony and personal wellbeing.
Developed and developing nations alike are undergoing a period of rapid transformation characterised by the expansion of cities with sustainable infrastructure and employment opportunities on the one hand, and the contraction of structurally disadvantaged rural regions on the other.
With globalisation and increased mobility further fueling population growth in cities, it is easy to understand why planning authorities are responded by sanctioning the construction of more homes, offices and public buildings: even on land once designated greenbelt (a term that is typically used to describe areas located on the outskirts of urban centres where planning regulations are used to prevent new construction).
Yet cities record our past and encapsulate the spirit of our present: two functions that can easily be overlooked by planners who are eager to meet demand for new infrastructure and accommodation in as short a time as possible.
And a longer term perspective is needed if current approaches to planning are to create anything other than the urban sprawls of the future.
Towards a saner future: the benefits of urban greenery
A city’s parks and green spaces are places for communication, entertainment and leisure.
As retreats they relieve the stresses associated with urban living and help to define cities as centres of creativity, cultural diversity and tolerance.
Their role in countering the environmental impact of urbanisation; and heat island effect in particular, has been documented extensively.
They perform multiple wider environmental functions, ranging from reducing traffic emissions and volumes of airborne micro-contaminants, to keeping fresh air corridors open; and from countering the effect of soil compaction, to supporting entire urban ecosystems which foster pollination and wildlife.
And the existence of green spaces in cities confers considerable economic benefits too by invariably increasing property values and, according to recent research, even employee productivity.
However, and notwithstanding the current fashion for creating parks as a response to the decline of biodiversity in cities around the world, significant opportunities for combining sustainable urban development with the development of green spaces in urban centres continue to be missed.
Towards better integration
Integrating developmental activities, action planning and increasing co-operation between urban planning, parks management and environmental management organisations; are all essential for sustainable urban development.
Many countries have announced plans to reduce greenbelt land allocation in response to population growth and rising demand for accommodation but have failed to establish solid internal frameworks that will address the potential economic, ecological and social consequences.
The European Experience
In European countries existing tools such as landscape planning, green space planning and land use planning are being used to create green spaces in cities and even to green entire communities.
Specific measures being taken include introducing green traffic calming measures and demolishing existing buildings in order to create community spaces.
Underlying these initiatives is the belief that self-contained urban environments that offer a range of mixed-use facilities are an effective counter against climate change; especially when sufficient greenery is included in plans.
Indeed, in the 21st century it is highly probable green areas located within walking distance of residential districts will become an important component of urban planning.
At ELCA we believe there are additional measures policymakers can consider to combat the environmental and social effects of urbanisation. These include:
- Recreating, revitalising and/or renewing existing parks and green spaces (this usually requires less investment than building similar facilities from scratch).
- Affording old parks, gardens and cemetaries the same level of protection that is reserved for historic monuments and buildings in many countries; in order to ensure they continue to be maintained and further preserved.
- Ensuring “sustainable quality management”; particularly in tree planting programmes (where research has shown time and again that plant selection and quality of soil are key factors influencing the success or failure of planting programmes within challenging areas such as roadways).
- Increasing potential for biodiversity – although a great deal has already been achieved in terms of designating protection areas, in order to maintain and manage habitats in urban areas, better planning and additional financial resources are necessary.
- Keeping children in mind - more children-friendly green space planning can play an important role in promoting future social integration and cohesion in cities.
Striking the right balance
Wise planners and policymakers will rely on a variety of different tools and methodologies to create a healthy mix of green areas in cities, and the wisest will require developers to reserve areas specifically for recreational use and intensive leisure activities but still retain almost-natural green areas that can be allowed to develop as wildlife habitats.
The German charter as model for successful green life
The Federal German Association of Horticulture, Landscaping & Sports Facilities Construction and its partners have published a model “Charter” for the future development of cities and green spaces.
The Charter’s comprehensive framework integrates all social, economic, ecological, cultural and institutional aspects of urban planning into a single framework and addresses:
- Protection against climate change
- Social functions
- Protection of the soil, water and air
- Biodiversity; and
- The economy
Looking towards our future
The challenge for urban planners today is to develop positive intermediate strategies and scenarios that will allow cities to respond to the demands that have arisen as a consequence of population growth in a way that will reduce the ecological footprint caused by new development.
At ELCA we support sustainable urban development oriented towards resource conservation and the protection of the environment. Indeed, we are committed to spearheading environmental research into the impact of urban development (particularly within the framework of the European Union’s Project Horizon 2020 initiative), and have contributed ideas that we believe will one day form part of a wider, “environmental” solution to the challenges of our time.
In the next decades, demographic change, migration, shrinking cities and increased traffic flows will all have a significant impact on sustainable urban development, since the rebuilding of cities is one of the biggest and most exciting challenges municipalities, residential housing companies and planners will be facing.
Long before then, increased government funding of research by ELCA and similar organisations will be essential for sustaining urban growth.