Jamie Dean works on the Greater London Authority’s regeneration investments in north-east London, the GLA’s High Streets programme and the Mayor’s Design Advisory Group. With the GLA’s Environment and Planning teams, multiple agencies and the London boroughs, Jamie established the East London Green Grid and the All London Green Grid with the aim of creating a pan-London green infrastructure.
London’s parks are famous but they are only one element of an environmental circuitry sustaining the capital. We need to get better at protecting, connecting and developing London’s green infrastructure.
Cities are made by their infrastructure. London’s growth was enabled by its rivers, roads, sewers, airports and power stations, and strengthening London’s infrastructure will be essential to sustaining the city’s success in the future.
Alongside its triumphs of planning and engineering, London’s natural infrastructure of rivers and green spaces can be easily taken for granted, seen as what was left over after the city was built. But this infrastructure is just as important – for climate change adaptation, for leisure, for connectivity, for biodiversity – as the roads and railways that criss-cross the city. London’s green infrastructure also offers the possibility of shaping and supporting a more sustainable form of growth in London.
After an initial phase in East London, the Green Grid initiative has brought together partners (including the Mayor of London, the boroughs, the Environment Agency and Natural England) to map, link up and plan London’s green infrastructure – from the great squares, avenues and parks of the city centre, to the wild spaces, marshlands, wild woods and river corridors that thread through suburbia. Some of these have been transformed by the city’s growth; some are preserved intact. In the post-war period, initiatives like the green belt have sought to preserve the character of outer London’s landscape, but many elements of green space in and around the city are fragmented, disconnected and denuded, with no clear function or role.
London’s green infrastructure does many things: it helps us cope with the impact of climate change, supports biodiversity, enhances the quality of our urban lives and offers opportunities for exercise and leisure. The All London Green Grid (ALGG) is designed to form a network of interlinked, multi-purpose open spaces, connected to the places where people live and work, accessible by public transport, and establishing a fine mesh of green infrastructure linking the green belt to the Thames and everything in between.
Many Londoners still lack access to open space and natural habitats. Generally, it is the poorest communities who have least access, reflecting the historical dislocations of the industrial revolution. Green Grid projects aim to enhance access by defining and delivering new open spaces and linkages.
Area-based partnerships have been established across London, reflecting the diverse characters of London’s different landscapes and river catchments. Each partnership has developed a plan, identifying ways that green spaces and assets can be enhanced and connected in light of the rapid changes being seen in many London neighbourhoods, and setting priorities for the short, medium and long term.
The ALGG on the western rim
In the west, London meets the spectacular Colne Valley, the ancient woodlands of the Ruislip Plateau, the reservoirs of the Thames floodplain, and the emerging Crane Park and Yeading Brook Meadows – the natural rim of London. Channelised, shallow and, in places, hidden, the quiet Crane differs greatly to the fast-flowing and many-channelled Colne. But the two rivers are interconnected by a series of constructed waterways. Much of the mosaic of farmland, woodland and waterscape is in private ownership but there is a network of paths, primarily the Colne Valley Trail, that link the larger areas of public access and open up the countryside.
ALGG Area framework 10 (The River Colne and Crane) sets out a distinctive and coherent approach to the management of these diverse landscapes for the benefit of people and wildlife as a whole. Developing the framework brought together adjacent authorities and neighbouring counties with the two established cross boundary initiatives, the Colne Valley and Crane Valley Partnerships. In a time of change for the urban fringe, with the green belt under more pressure than ever, the ALGG has bolstered existing efforts, forged new partnerships and provided an enhanced structure for delivery.
Proposed scheme for Walthamstow Wetlands, including visitor centre
Walthamstow Wetlands are Europe’s largest urban wetland and an important element of London’s water infrastructure. Located in the Lea Valley, which historically mixed agricultural with industrial production, the Wetlands are flanked by growing communities in Tottenham and Walthamstow, areas of which are badly provided with access to open space. The vast site affords huge opportunity not only to provide space for local people, but also to nurture the rich local habitat, to celebrate the historic infrastructure that sits alongside it and to draw in visitors to boost the local economy.
Over £8m of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Thames Water, LB Waltham Forest and the Mayor of London is focused on a series of careful landscape improvements, designed by Kinnear Landscape Architects, and on the refurbishment of the Victorian pumping station, Marine Engine House, by Witherford Watson Mann architects.
These interventions will allow public access and provide a missing link in the Lea Valley. The aim is to continue to ensure safe drinking water supply, working with the natural and built heritage of the site to nurture biodiversity and reveal the site’s unique, quiet character to its users.
Works are currently underway and the new public space will open to the public in Spring 2017.
Managing Flood Risk and Overheating
While London is currently adequately defended from floodwaters, climate change will increase the probability of flooding from tidal, fluvial, surface and sewer sources.
London’s existing green infrastructure already mitigates fluvial flooding by absorbing storm water. Green spaces provide temporary storage and release excess water slowly into streams, canals and rivers. Expanding and remodelling London’s Green Grid will increase flood storage capacity and reduce the residual risk to London’s communities.
Rainham Marshes is a constructed landscape, established in the Middle Ages, drained by ditches and dykes for grazing and, in the more recent past, used as an MOD munitions testing area – activities that have served to shape and preserve an extraordinary set of landscapes on London’s eastern edge. It is now beginning to realise its potential as London’s next premier outdoor destination – a 4 sq km piece of multifunctional landscape anchoring the Green Grid to the Thames at its easternmost fringe. The plan is to reconnect local settlements to the marshland and to attract visitors while safeguarding the natural habitat.
New links are planned from Rainham village to the Thames waterfront, supported by new bridges, pathways, way-finding, signage and seating, all based on detailed analysis of individual paths and landscape features, as well as of hydrological and ecological conditions. In resolving the relationship between development and marshland, the project resists the traditional pattern of isolating and drying out land for development. Instead it seeks to manage water levels across the marshland to build resilience and adaptation to climate change.
The ambition is to create a regional destination of international significance with over a million visits per year. A range of projects will provide access, recreation and learning opportunities to local neighbourhoods, while protecting and enhancing the cultural and natural heritage of the site.
Climate change is also likely increase the frequency and duration of periods of very hot weather, which will intensify the ‘heat island’ effect that makes urban temperatures much higher than those in surrounding areas. People who live in overcrowded and poor quality housing with limited access to green spaces will feel the greatest impact. Vegetation helps cool urban areas. Green spaces help to cool the city and provide places where people can find respite from the heat, making living in London more appealing.
Making connections – for Londoners and visitors
Many of London’s big green spaces are still relatively undiscovered. Despite their scale, they are hiding in plain sight. These landscapes deserve to be more widely enjoyed. The Green Grid is rekindling interest in London’s green spaces to enable them to enter the imagination of modern Londoners in a way that festivals like the Fairlop Fair did for previous generations. To get as many Londoners as possible into the network quickly and easily, the Green Grid network will link key public transport hubs to a number of long-distance paths for walking and cycling.
At Beam Parklands in Dagenham, the Green Grid’s landscape works have enhanced flood prevention and provided new access to the Thames for 40,000 local people, providing 53 hectares of multifunctional green space with 430,000 cubic metres of flood storage, and reducing flood risk to £1.5bn worth of commercial property.
Making it Happen
The existing green space network in London provides a firm foundation for realising the Green Grid’s ambitions. Londoners value their public spaces, from traditional urban parks to wild grazing marsh, from city squares to wildwood, but they can easily be overlooked as the city grows.
The Green Grid is being implemented not only through large-scale projects, but also by direct influence on the London Plan and borough plans; it is reflected in the London Infrastructure Plan, which sets out London’s future infrastructure needs. The Plan recognises that London’s green infrastructure is as integral to London’s future prosperity as London’s grey infrastructure of pipes, roads, cables, and rails. However, it also acknowledges that the concept of green infrastructure is not well understood and that there are difficulties in properly accounting for its economic value.
Consequently, the Mayor has established a Green Infrastructure Task Force to help address these issues, acknowledging the multiple benefits of green infrastructure and strengthening the case for green space creation, protection and management. The Task Force will publish a report in December 2015.1www.london.gov.uk/priorities/business-economy/vision-and-strategy/infrastructure-plan-2050/progress/green-infrastructure-task-force
London’s growth will put unprecedented pressure on space in the capital in coming years. To cope with these pressures while preserving quality of life and biodiversity, we need to preserve and enhance our Green Grid of natural infrastructure.
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