Aspects of the link between urban nature and city planning in northern European Countries
© Anne Beer, 2000, Environmental Planner, Professor Emeritus, University of Sheffield

(paper given at the Workshop on the Flemish Long-Term Vision of Nature Conservation in Urban and Suburban areas - Brussels 7 Nov 2000)

The European Research Network - Greenstructure and Urban planning

Since 1991 a group of practitioners and researchers have been working together on the issues relating to the role of "nature" and more generally "greenspace" in cities. In particular, we have been interested in how a city's greenspaces could be used to enhance the environmental sustainability of urban areas.

The emphasis of our common research has shifted over time:

  • We began by considering the role of urban greenspace in developing ideas about ecologically sound and sustainable urban planning, which of course inevitably encompassed the role of nature in cities;
  • We then moved on to an interest in the impact of urban densification on a city's greenspace and its capacity to enhance the environmental sustainability of a city;
  • Now our emphasis has shifted to the mechanisms by which ideas about the possible role of greenspaces in urban areas might be incorporated into the land use and land management planning processes - we are looking in particular at Greenstructure Planning (through a COST Action funded by the EU - see diagram-COST 11 Map) and at how ideas about greenspace and its functions can be communicated between the professions involved and the other "actors" - the public, the politicians, the educators and the workforce who ultimately must implement the ideas on the ground (through a research project comparing five case studies in Houten, Cergy Pontoise, Tampere, Gothenburg and Aarhus, funded by the EU - GREENSCOM).

As our research interests have become more focused on the link between greenspace and urban form and spatial planning, so we have taken to calling our group the European Research Network on Greenstructure and Urban Planning (see diagram Network Map). Over the decade that we have met together, membership of the group has kept evolving to reflect the changing emphasis of our research interests. Through the work of this group we have begun to gain some understanding of how researchers and practitioners in the different European countries are tackling the investigation of the link between greenspace (which includes remnants of natural habitats as well as recently created naturalistic habitats), built form and spatial planning.

In the main the members of the group have been ecologists, landscape planners, urban planners, architects, social geographers and experts in planning and managing a city's open spaces and recreation areas. We have also been joined when necessary by water engineers, waste engineers and traffic engineers. The multi-disciplinary nature of this group has been important from the start: we recognised early on that many of the problems we are identifying and many of the strategies we are considering require the involvement of a whole range of expertise. It has concerned us that the slow progress in recognising the vital role that a city's greenspaces play in enhancing a city's environmental sustainability has, to a great measure, been due to the lack of any widespread appreciation of how the knowledge and skills of each profession have to interact with that of other disciplines if effective solutions to enhancing urban environmental sustainability are to be identified and implemented.

One simple example of this lack of communication between different professions concerning urban greenspaces is that Grounds Maintenance Teams continue to strive to produce neatly mown lawns everywhere and do so by mowing the grass at great expense, often as many as 13 times a year. At the same time, the same city's ecologist is probably looking for areas of land to extend the area of naturalistic long grass and herbs so as to increase local biodiversity - a much cheaper solution for any city, as such a land cover only needs cutting down once a year.

Practices are changing fast in many countries - as you will see from the good practice examples presented later in this Workshop. There are, however, many towns in those same countries where local authority officials are still at a loss to decide what is best done locally to enhance environmental sustainability - evidence that information about best practice is not moving around Europe fast enough. National policy and planning guidance is too often vague, as are regional and local planning statements. At the local level, the level where things really happen on the ground, more and better guidance is needed by Green Departments, town planners and city engineers, as well as local politicians.

In every country within our group, there are examples of national policies containing statements in relation to nature in cities and enhancing biodiversity. Similarly in all these countries there are local planning documents stressing the importance of applying such policies. But at the same time there is a lack of a cohesive approach to greenspace in cities. Almost without exception the policies and planning guidance deal separately with "nature", public open space, recreation, water management and the other issues which relate to how a city uses its greenspaces. I believe that these policy statements have been drawn up in this way mainly because it is easier to deal with such issues individually, rather than because of any intention to ignore the links between them.



Before going further it is essential to explain what I mean when I'm using certain phrases. There is evidence of a great deal of confusion and cross-purpose talking about the "green" in cities within the literature, which in part at least stems from the different interpretation we each put to the terminology. I have put together some definitions which I hope will be helpful- they are of course open to debate and modification.

Greenspace - Greenspaces are "places" - areas of land with mainly unsealed surfaces within and around the city - these "places" carry human activity as well as plants, wildlife and water and their presence influences quality of life, as well as local air and water quality.

See Greenspace Diagram - this diagram differentiates the Formal Provision of Open Space in a city (that which appears on planning documents and in England would be called Public Open Space) from Actual Greenspaces, which are often far greater in area. The latter is the land which is composed of unsealed surface (not covered by buildings or paved surfaces) and so has the capability to support plants and therefore wildlife. It is the total Formal Provision plus other Actual Greenspace that forms a city's greenstructure (see Stocksbridge and Broomhall Maps). It is only when a city's greenspaces are considered together as a unity composed of many different spaces with varying "green" characteristics, that the planning process can begin to identify local appropriate actions towards a more sustainable way of coping with nature in cities, water management and waste management, as well as the experiential aspects of human life in cities. Greenspace is of essence multi-functional.

For instance:

  • - 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;
  • - lastly, 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.


© A.R.Beer and COSTC11 research group, 2000


Therefore it can be argued that greenspaces are essential to the maintenance and enhancement of the quality of life in all urban areas. They cannot be neglected, nor can they be eradicated without profound long-term damage to the potential quality of human life in urban areas and their immediate surroundings - a factor not yet recognised by the planning process. The way in which a city's greenspaces are managed in the built up urban area and how these link through suburbia into the surrounding rural landscapes is a vital topic for the planning process, as cities are not islands which can be dealt with in isolation - rather they create economic, social and environmental "footprints" which extend into their immediate hinterland and often far beyond.

Greenstructure - This word is not used in the UK, French or Italian planning systems. Where it is used in northern European countries it can have differing meanings in different countries - sometimes referring only to linking that part of a city's land area which is Formal Open Space and the City Fringe so as to form greenways.

The word greenstructure is now used by our group to allow the development of concepts relating to the role of a city's greenspaces in the planning, designing and management of urban areas. The word is taken to encompasses the linking together of greenspaces and to signify that the spaces involved have the potential to support "nature in the city".

There is a noticeable lack of planning theory in relation to the overall role of greenspace in cities; instead only specific greenspaces with specific attributes have been considered as worth mentioning (i.e. public parks, historic urban gardens, recreational open spaces and ecologically valuable sites). This has led to the "island" approach to both Parks and Nature Areas - each element is seen in isolation, a factor that has been disastrous for many natural habitats in cities. When the so-called "ecologically valueless" spaces around the designated "valuable habitats" have been built over, or had their drainage changed, or their vegetation removed, the area of land subject to preservation has deteriorated, often beyond repair. In contrast, our concept of greenstructure recognises the interaction that must exist between all greenspaces if biodiversity is to be preserved and enhanced. I take greenstructure to be concerned with the organisational aspects of a city's greenspaces - how such spaces are best conserved, extended, planned, designed or redesigned and how they should be managed in relation to the other land uses of a city.

Greenstructure Planning - The concept of Greenstructure Planning has been adopted in some northern European countries (notably Norway and the Netherlands) as a means of linking consideration of the quality of life in the present day city to the presence or absence of greenspaces and the special and varying qualities of such spaces. Greenstructure Planning is proposed as a mechanism which could deal with how a city's greenspaces might be planned in a spatial sense, and then how they might best be designed, managed and maintained for the benefit of the local population.

A properly functioning urban greenstructure is as important to the quality of life of urban dwellers as a city's infrastructure and needs to be recognised as such by the planning system.


Some examples of aspects of Greenstructure Planning in several European Countries

During the past decade our group has noticed an increased understanding in how a city's greenspaces can be used in multi-functional ways to manage water, increase levels of biodiversity, improve air quality, reduce windspeed, grow biomass and even to grow fresh "organic" food. There has also been evidence of a growing realisation that developing this multi-functional use of greenspaces creates a much richer range of "experiences" for local inhabitants, including the possibility of more diverse local recreational activities. However, only in the Scandinavian countries, and in Germany and Holland has this understanding begun to be translated into developing Greenstructure Planning as part of the official City Planning System. Even then, what "Greenstructure Planning" is taken to mean, varies from country to country, although in all cases implicit in the term is planning for the conservation of any existing "nature areas" and the enhancement of biodiversity.


In Norway and Sweden the national government level has progressed further than others by putting Greenstructure Planning on a par with Infrastructure Planning within urban areas. This is a very interesting development for those of us struggling to explain the value of developing an approach to Greenstructure Planning to our own officials.


There are other speakers here from the Netherlands who know far more than I do about developments there, but one of the earliest examples I came across of Greenstructure Planning was the work done by the "Green" Department in Breda in the early 1980s. There the staff of the Green Department tried to show how a restructuring of the greenspaces could save the city money, while solving some local environmental problems and creating a wider range of naturalistic habitats. I understand that the ideas were enthusiastically accepted by the city planners until it was realised that adopting such an approach would eventually mean that the greenstructure determined the urban form. Many people involved in the Breda experiment went on to work in Wageningen at the research unit which has now become known as Alterra - they continued developing those initial ideas about urban nature and the links with water, traffic and built form planning.


You will be hearing later about the very impressive work done in the Emmscher area of Germany, but there is another piece of work in that country which it is well worth your investigating - that is the "urban nature" study of the City of Munich undertaken by the late Fritz Duhme and his colleague Stephan Pauleit at the TUMünchen. In the late 1980s they undertook a detailed ecological study of all the unsealed surfaces within city - that is the land surface most likely to carry vegetation and therefore to support a range of wildlife. They mapped this data in GIS and analysed it to show the full range of habitats occurring within the urban area and its immediate surrounds. They went beyond that survey and proposed which areas of land should be preserved in their present state for ecological reasons and which might be enhanced for the benefit of the local people's recreational and other requirements. As you can imagine the availability of such data was seen by some as political dynamite - who were these ecologists and landscape planners to suggest what the planners and politicians should do!


The research undertaken by the Danish Building Research Institute went beyond a similar detailed survey of the local ecology, which included all unsealed surfaces, not just the formally designated open spaces, by adding an investigation of local surface and storm water management, waste management and local energy production, as well as the processes by which greenspaces were maintained.

The analysis of the data has provided a wealth of information about greenspaces in a small northern city - more detailed than any other study, in my view. For instance, there is data on the link between both density and the age of development and the area of unsealed surface, as well as on the percentage of that land which is vegetated and the type of vegetation.

The study identified a need for a strategic approach to planning greenspace and the need for such an approach to deal with all the town's greenspaces, not just the official open spaces. For instance, a major part of the town's surface area was in the ownership of institutions or industry and these vast areas were ecological deserts, although they had the potential to be changed through habitat creation into a very special feature for the town.


In Sheffield there is no Greenstructure Plan. There are, however, several research projects underway relating to nature in the city and greenspace. As with all English cities there is an excellent set of data on the "valuable natural habitats" and these are all protected in the local plans. The problem for Sheffield is the sheer quantity of greenspace (see Sheffield Greenspace Map), due in part to local topographic characteristics. Sheffield is the city with the most Public Open Space per inhabitant in the UK, if not Europe (see Diagram of Sheffield Land use). Inevitably there are pressures from developers to be allowed to use some of what they see as surplus greenspace for housing and industry. The city cannot afford to maintain this land adequately. That plus the money the city could make by selling the land to off-set the enormous debts built up during the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s when its heavy industry collapsed, is creating pressure for a more holistic approach to greenspaces.

Based on an original OS map,these maps are produced with permission of Ordnance Survey
© Crown copyright. All rights reserved. Licence no AL100032925, 2001

The greenspace research projects underway at present include a detailed study of Stocksbridge (large file - long download), a suburban township within the city boundaries, a study of a late Victorian suburb which has been the subject of continuous densification over the last four decades, and another study of the capacity of the domestic garden to support biodiversity.

Although we do not have any Greenstructure Planning mechanism in England, we do have some examples of towns which have used the idea of "nature in the city" to develop and implement long-term strategies for environmental enhancement of their open space system (Leicester and Kirklees are particularly well known). Other speakers will give you details of this approach later today. There has also been some large scale landscape planning of parks and gardens in the London area - to hear about that it is suggested that you should contact Tom Turner at Greenwich University.

There are many other research projects which might be of interest to your group and I suggest you keep visiting our website, as it is frequently updated:

Click here for information on Greenspace Policies

© A.R.Beer, 4 November 2000