European Cooperation in the field of Scientific and Technical Research -

COST Action C11

The need for Greenstructure Planning in the UK

© Anne R. Beer, 2000
(draft for comment -
email comments)

The need for Greenstructure Planning

Greenspace in too many urban areas tends to be almost bare of vegetation, characterless and hardly used by local people; designated at the time of original development of the area of settlement as public open space it was often only supplied as lip service to the prevailing landuse planning legislation (the open space standards of provision which operated from the 1930s to 1980s). Such spaces are not surprisingly seen by outsiders as useless and, therefore, much of our greenspace is constantly subject to threat from development pressures. The present state of greenspace in many urban areas is a sign of a lack of thought about the importance of greenspace to the general quality of life in cities (see Chapter 7-Environmental Planning for Site Development- 2nd edition, A.R.Beer & C.Higgins, Spons 2000). Perhaps as a direct result of this there has been a lack of public resources to care for such spaces - many have severely degraded over the last two decades of the twentieth century becoming almost wastelands.

A strategy which aims to regenerate such spaces, with the aim of using their full potential for enhancing local biodiversity, as well as enhancing the quality of local people's lives, can give local community groups a focal point- so playing a major part in enhancing the quality of life.

Good quality local greenspace enhances the quality of life and the sustainability of the local land uses in many ways (see Chapter 7 -Environmental Planning for Site Development- 2nd edition, A.R.Beer & C.Higgins, Spons 2000). For instance, through increasing the range of local recreational opportunity, which in turn reduces the need for car usage in leisure-time.

Good quality greenspace also enhances the visual environment, creates educational opportunities for children, allows the development of efficient local water management schemes and grows biomass for use locally). It has even been seen to have a direct economic impact through the way its presence can influence the decision making of entrepreneurs making decisions about where to local new and expoanded enterprises.

Greenstructure Plans - City and Local

I argue that there is a need for Greenstructure Planning to be added to the Town Planning process which operates in the UK. Without proper emphasis given to a city's greenstructure its greenspace can never play the very significant role in helping enhance the environmental sustainability of a city which a full understanding of their capacities would ensure.

For instances:

  • - through the flora and fauna they support, greenspaces are crucial to the survival of any level of biodiversity across a city;
  • - greenspaces have a measurable impact on local as well as city-wide air quality and can ameliorate the temperature within a city;
  • - by providing "natural" places through which water runs and within which it can be stored, greenspaces can have an impact on water quality and on the management of surface flows and, therefore, on the reduction of local flood hazard;
  • - greenspaces provide settings for a wide range of human activity and, therefore, influence people's perception of their quality of life;
  • -greenspaces have a profound influence on how local people and visitors experience a city and therefore on the social and economic life of a city.

Greenstructure Planning needs to parallel Infrastucture Planning and Land Use Planning in planning urban areas. To be effective as an instrument to improve the quality of life in a city and that city's level of environmental sustainability Greenstructure Planning needs to be of equal weight to all the other aspects of that decision making process commonly termed Town Planning.

Without Greenstructure Planning we in England are not going to be in position to solve our present flood problems. Vast acres of housing, industry and commerce have been built on river floodplains just because of the low level of priortity given to greenstructure issues by the British Planning process (the only exception was the New Towns of the 1950s to 1970s all of which ahad "Landscape Plans' which identified a coherenet greestructure and used the local floodable land as part of that.

Greenspaces are:

  • those parts of our cities which are the unsealed surfaces - those areas of a city where water can enter the soil, where it can be held back in times of heavy rainfall and slowly released into the water courses.
  • those parts of the city which support the plants and insect life which in turn support the birds and animals that populate cities alongside humans.
  • those parts of the city (in public and private ownership and including the domestic garden) which we use in our leisure time and look at as we travel through the city or as we sit in our homes or work places. The aesthetic as well as the natural qualities of such spaces has a direct impact on the perception each of us has of the quality of our life.

By not understanding the role of the greenspaces in a city we have allowed such a sunstantial increase in the area of sealed surface that surface water flow has accrelerated and the rivers and streams cannot cope let alone the "storm water" sewers which were all that those planning the city had to allow for under present regulations.

Local communities and greenstructure planning

Through adopting Greenstructure Planning each city would have a mechanism through which it could present its goals for the local greenstructure. To be effective this would need to be done in a manner which would enable local communities to develop their own Community Greenstructure and Local Environment Plan. Local Greenstructure Plans should identifying the qualities it would like its greenspaces to have and the functions it would like each to fulfil - such spaces will often be muli-functional that is supporting biodiversity, aiding in storm water control or water collection for irrigation, helping clean particles out of the air (this has been seen to be effective in Stuttgart for instance where the wind flows through well vegetated valleys) as well as providing an attractive setting for a specific human activity - residential, industrial, educational, commercial as well as recreational.

The existance of a long term Local Greenstructure Plan presents the possibility that a community could, through its own efforts, work with a local authority as well as appropriate experts to redesign its local greenspaces. In this way greenspaces that are more supportive of the whole range of the recreational activities in which all age groups would like to participate might result. Passive recreation, the appreciation of just being in the 'outdoors' in beautiful natural surroundings, should not be forgotten in striving to increase the range of activities supported by the local greenspaces.

Where, for instance, there is a local lack of public greenspace a Greenstructure Plan should help local people identify the part that could be played by other elements of the greenstructure. For instance:

  • by utilising for recreation the river/stream corridors, which anyway need to be kept unbuilt to allow for storm water management,
  • by enhancing access to the less vulnerable "natural areas"

Identifying the existance of all the elements and "spaces" of a local greenstructure and then working out possible multi- functional uses for each space is one method of arriving at a coherent greenstructure? The greenstructure is composed of its existing and potential greenspaces and the open land outside the boundary of the built up area.

Local communities have an important role to play in identifying the need for different types of play and recreation and encouraging the regeneration of any existing unimaginative and poorly planned playspaces as well as creating new opportunities for recreational activity. They also have a vital role in preserving and enhancing biodiversity in a locally appropriate manner.

Rethinking openspace, who plans it, designs it and who maintains it and how this could be financed is something that could encourage the direct involvement of local groups. There is even the possibility, if local financial arrangements can be rethought, of developing schemes whereby local people could be paid to be involved in caretaking and maintaining their local greenspaces. In such circumstances the local authority's role could become that of providing the land and the professional design and management skills while the local people evolve their own sustainable approach to local greenspace.

Local policies and their implementation

Each area for which a community level plan is developed is inevitably different and, therefore, the policies that you develop for your area should be unique to it. The following are examples only of policies relating to local water management, biodiversity and greenspace; these are illustrated as they are the range of policies most likely to involve local community working in groups rather than as individuals. They are not intended to be fully inclusive of all the issues which will require policies to be worked out by the local community, they are just examples to get you started when thinking how to solve your areas particular environmental problems. Problems best solved by individual or public/private agency initiatives are not dealt with here, although they would of course have to be addressed in finalising a Community Environmental Plan.

Policies aiming to encourage sustainable local water management


Increase the area of permeable surface.

Wherever possible impermeable surfacing (tarmac, paving and buildings) should be altered into permeable surfaces (gravel, turf and structurally reinforced turf, 'grass-crete', treed and shrubbed areas etc.). The surface cover types which could be considered for change by a local community include: driveways, entrance areas, public spaces, courtyards, low capacity parking areas, some industrial areas (although due to the need to contain spillage of toxic material and liquids some of these areas must remain impermeable), school yards and sports pitches.


Open some river banks to re-create the old flood plains where appropriate and develop new ponding areas along the river to reduce down stream flooding.

Implementing such a policy would require liaison with the local Water Board, industrialists and the local authority.


Promote rainwater storage through improvement and creation of retention ponds and surface drainage systems.

Parks, golf courses, cemeteries, lawns, "dead" left over space, school grounds and communal open space are all suitable locations for retention ponds. Man made water channels (shallow valley forms operating like ditches) can be introduced or improved and extended into a system which can channel water from the gardens as well as any open land to the retention ponds. Storage in ponds allows the eventual development of valuable ecosystems and wildlife habitats. Plants, fish and other aquatic organisms can colonise; this helps to filter the water and maintain the stability of the habitat. There is a need to liaise with the Water Board and the Local Authority.

Two types of retention ponds can be considered:

• Permanent storage ponds, which are appropriate where a continuous supply is available and where inflow and outflow and soils permit a stable condition.

• Temporary storage ponds are only full during and after storm events, and are allowed to dry out. This type is less suitable for development in recreation areas but the boggy land, which will ensue is still a wildlife resource as it creates a habitat too often eliminated from rural as well as urban areas.


Store and use rainwater and grey water for household and irrigation purposes.

Individuals can organise for rain water to simply be collected from the roofs and other impermeable surfaces, and stored on site in rain water storage tanks or communally in larger pools. It is easier to do if a whole community is involved in the purchase of the necessary equipment and can share its plumbing skills. This water can be used in vegetable growing and general gardening, car washing and for any other outdoor use. Such a system also helps alleviate flash flooding except in times of the heaviest rainfall.

Grey-water too can be collected for recycling, it contains soap and dirt which can act as a mild fertiliser, so it must be treated before use to avoid contamination. This is easier to arrange in new build than in existing housing areas.


Improve recreational access to water courses and local reservoirs

Many parts of water courses are often inaccessible and hidden away, and sometimes sections are culverted. The full potential of the water courses needs to be gradually realised through a series of local environmental improvements. There is a need to liaise with the Water Board and the Local Authority.

Policies aiming to enhance biodiversity through the management of local landuse

Too often current 'nature conservation' policies are ineffective, they have not achieved even 'weak sustainability' as far as bio-diversity is concerned and loss of biodiversity continues. Even in areas where the loss has not been catastrophic a precautionary policy almost always has to be recommended, whereby the concept of enhancing bio-diversity through every landuse and land management action is integrated into all areas of development.


Maximise locally appropriate genetic diversity

Genetic diversity is the sum of genetic information contained in the genes of individuals of plants, animals and micro-organisms. Within all urban areas a major problem for biodiversity is that many of the newly planted plants are cultivated; the plants used are often clones and, therefore, genetic copies of the 'parent' plant. To ensure genetic diversity, native plants should be used wherever appropriate in all urban greenspaces, if possible they should be from seed grown stock, preferably from local provenance (developing a local plant nursery to supply the public greenspaces could be part of a local job creation project for a local community). Where possible, soil importation should be avoided, and where improvement is required, this should be carried out in the form of locally collected organic composts. Educational material should be developed within the larger community to encourage any residents who are interested to do the same in their gardens.


Maximise locally appropriate species diversity

Species diversity relates to the number and diversity of species regarded as populations, within such populations gene flow occurs. In urban areas species rich communities are generally taken to be more 'stable' than those that are relatively species poor. It is, therefore, desirable to implement planting and management schemes that promote species rich communities. For instance, meadow grassland rather than mown turf and mixed rather than single species hedgerows.


Maximise locally appropriate habitat diversity

Habitat diversity is important, it relates to the variety of habitats, biotic communities and ecological processes in the biosphere as well as the diversity within ecosystems. Diverse, naturalistic communities of the type which can be found in urban areas can withstand change and should be encouraged to develop. It would make sense, therefore, to target areas of low diversity within the case study area such as the schools and playing fields and some parkland as areas within which to encourage the development of new naturalistic habitats appropriate to the local conditions. Implementing such a policy would reinforce the current planning commitment to providing more nature like plant communities in greenspaces.


Adopting such policies should do much to reverse the continual erosion of bio-diversity which has occurred over the past century within the urban area particularly. The loss has been the result of a combination of the following factors:

• Conversion of land from natural/semi-natural vegetation to agricultural or other uses

• Pollution, pesticides or other chemical contamination

• Introduction of exotic species

Local communities gradually need to become aware of these factors and to consider how to eliminate the worst effects as it implements changes in land management practices.


Increase biodiversity within private gardens and other private land

The possibilities of enhancing local bio-diversity through the way in which private gardens are managed by their owners or tenants are substantial. Success in doing this could make a real impact on local bio-diversity. It would do much to compensate for its loss in the more densely developed urban areas (Beer, 1998).


Increase biodiversity in the wider urban fabric

There are many small 'corners' within the built up parts of any settlement which are in effect 'spaces left over after planing' - spaces with no real function. These spaces too often attract rubbish and litter and are an on-going cost to the community to maintain; transforming them through community environmental 'actions' into small scale 'nature reserves' is one way to cope with them - and it can have the advantage of enhancing bio-diversity as well as eliminating an eye-sore.

Policies aiming to enhance the sustainability of greenspace

Greenspace - the unifying element

Greenspace can act as the unifying theme for a Community Environmental Plan. All unbuilt land within the urban boundary is part of the urban green even when it is privately owned. Locally appropriate policies are needed for changing what the greenspace looks like, how it is used as well as how it acts to support urban biodiversity.

For greenspace to fulfil its full potential in relation to Community Environmental Planning it is important to develop policies relating to:

• the availability of greenspace and openspace within 400m of every home for use by, in particular the elderly, disabled, young children and young adults.

• adequate footpaths and cycle routes and links between greenspaces. These can be provided in the form of green corridors with associated refuges for wildlife within the urban area. Safe usable paths with plenty of seating throughout the study area's greenspaces are needed but, in particular, where people have to go up and down hills on their way to their homes, the shops, schools and workplace.

• the recreational uses reflecting the local 'carrying capacity' of that greenspace and its habitats. For example, an area with a fragile habitat or supporting relatively rare wildlife should not be design so as to encourage boisterous activities.

• the creation of rich and ecologically varied local environments designed to maximise the generally desired feeling among urban dwellers of wanting some contact with nature. In areas where people's interest in specific activities rather than nature are to predominate skilled designers will need to be used to meet people's requirements.

• stimulating local interest in greenspace by using them for educational purposes and encouraging community involvement


This is a draft paper for comment


See also Sheffield case Study




Geology and biodiversity

Planning process

Biodiversity in domestic gardens

Greenspace policies

Basic facts -

Greenstructure history

Historic gardens and parks


Greenspace planning

Botanical gardens

Other UK greenstructure plans

Sheffield Greenspace Atlas

Statistics on Sheffield's greenspaces

Sheffield Wildlife Trust

Greenspaces of Stocksbridge District Sheffield

Greenspace Management in Stocksbridge District

Need for Greenstructure Planning in the UK




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©ARB 18 Nov 2000