Green space in cities – when more is less

Tim Stonor‘s response to a study published today, which shows that green space in cities improves the mental development of schoolchildren. 

I welcome the study: the more we understand cities the better; the Science of Cities – the link between the design of the built environment and the way that we use it – much 20th century planning has been based on guesswork and gut instinct. 

The UK has recently embarked on a national effort to develop this science, setting up the ministerially-led Smart Cities Forum, the Government Office for Science’s study on the Future of Cities. My own organisation, Space Syntax, is a keen participant in this effort and has been pioneering the scientific study of cities for over 25 years. 

My concern is not with the study but with how the study might be interpreted by urban planners in the UK. 

The UK has had something of a love-hate affair: we enjoy visiting Barcelona, Paris, Prague, New York as tourists BUT our efforts to build new cities have given us low density, car-dependent new towns; housing developers continue to deliver this, saying this is what the customer wants; and we believe it. 

BUT go to Skelmersdale – built on garden city principles with great swathes of open green space – and speak to residents who rely on a taxi culture because there aren’t enough buses – because it’s not economically viable to cover all parts of the town with public transport when the housing is so far apart; or lonely parents in one-car families who are stuck at home because their partner has taken the car to work. 

Perhaps the most salutary fact is that the study was carried out in Barcelona: high density, mixed use – in other words, not zoned into housing zones, office zones and shopping zones – so people can walk to work, to the shops, to school – this is the sort of place we need more of. 

And, as Barcelona shows, it can be equally green and highly bio-diverse: street trees and grass verges can provide just as good access to green space as great empty swathes where you might come across more discarded shopping trolleys than people.

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