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What makes a great place to live? As we understand more and more about the importance of nature to everything from tackling the climate crisis to improving health and wellbeing, it’s clear that successful, thriving communities are places where nature and people coexist in harmony. 

Achieving that balance is easier said than done, though. It requires not just a technical understanding of skills such as urban design and ecology, but an approach to sustainable urbanism that’s underpinned by a focus on social context.

WSP and Bright Blue’s Nature Positive? research shows that while 46% of people would choose to invest in improving the natural environment in their local area – defined as their neighbourhood, town, city or village – only 11% of people feel that urban green space and parks are the most valuable natural environment. 

Ashley Dunseath, Head of Masterplanning at WSP, said: “What could explain this discrepancy? Among the reasons could be that many people feel urban green spaces aren’t designed for them so their value isn’t realised.” 

Research by design agency CABE, for instance, found that people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds were less likely to use urban green spaces, and that ethnicity was a stronger factor in park use than income. 

If we want to bring the benefits of the natural environment into our cities, we need to think about how we can create systems that work not only for biodiversity net gain and carbon reduction but also, crucially, green urban spaces that work for people too. You could say it’s not so much a case of ‘the right trees in the right place’, but – considering the demographics of the local community – it’s actually a case of ‘the right trees in the right place for the right people’. 

There are many types of green space that could be incorporated into the urban environment. In some cases, it might be a rain garden rather than trees – green and blue infrastructure are important elements of climate adaptation in cities. With a better understanding of social context, we can co-design places with the communities who will use them. 

Can densely packed urban environments also accommodate more of the natural environment? 

According to Caroline McParland, Technical Director for Ecology at WSP: “Well, it doesn’t take much nature to have a measurable benefit – research collated by Terrapin has shown that as little as 5-20 minutes in a pocket park or tiny forest can provide mental restoration and other benefits. In addition, when you start to look around, there’s more space for nature than you might think.” 

In Scotland, the Clyde Climate Forest will see 18 million trees planted in both urban and rural parts of Glasgow City Region. That’s ten trees for every person living there and it will increase tree canopy cover in urban Glasgow from 16.6% to 20% – with the associated benefits for capturing CO2, cutting stormwater run-off and reducing the urban heat island effect. 

In addition, the Scottish Land Commission has mapped 11,000 hectares of derelict urban sites across the country. Many of these sites have the potential for redevelopment that puts nature at the heart of the local community: as natural spaces, as local food production, or as habitats for pollinating insects that are critical for biodiversity and for our food security.

The potential for redeveloping these brownfield sites sheds light on the need to carefully balance biodiversity and social context. As derelict sites, they do few people much good but once they’ve been abandoned for decades, they could be home to thriving communities of plants and animals. That leaves planners and designers with a heavy responsibility: to create places that welcome local people and benefit nature, alongside other amenities. If we can get this challenging dynamic correct, we will create places where both nature and people can thrive.

Caroline is Technical Director for Ecology at WSP and also the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management’s Vice President for Scotland. 

Ashley is Head of Masterplanning at WSP and a Director on the Board of the UK Business Council for Sustainable Development.

The views expressed are those of the authors, not neccessarily those of Bright Blue.

You can watch Bright Blue’s Conservative Party Conference 2021 event, in partnership with WSP, here.