Nature – the forgotten ingredient

This article by Building Green appeared in The Living Coast newsletter this month, and can be found on their website.


When we talk about creating safe, accessible and attractive towns and cities, we often forget one thing: Nature.

Well, stop and think about this: our species evolved for 2 million years on the African Savannah. That means us humans are hard-wired, physically and mentally, to interact with nature. The Victorians figured out that we feel better when we are amongst it, and build stronger communities when we have access to natural environments around us. We know and love our Victorian parks and the street trees that continue to enhance our city. Even as far back in time as 1750, Lewes’ own Richard Russell (aka ‘Dr Brighton’) published the first book to connect health with sea bathing!

Now, as you may have heard, we are on the cusp of a sixth mass extinction of biodiversity on earth and it’s our fault. We have both rare and everyday plants and animals in our city – and our gardens, parks, allotments, nature reserves, coast and farmland all have a role to play in protecting this biodiversity. But does it really matter? Isn’t biodiversity just for the ‘bird nerds’ and ‘flower fanciers’? Aren’t we apart from nature, not a part of it? What does nature in cities do for us? Well the evidence of how we depend on nature is now quite overwhelming.

Take health, for example. Being active in the natural environment is good for us. The annual cost of inactivity to the NHS in England is £8.2bn. For England as a whole, people living closer to green space have lower death rates and less heart disease. The importance of local green space for kids and poorer communities is especially important for health. Accordingly, doctors are beginning to prescribe a dose of nature in some parts of the country such as Cornwall for example.

There are also functional benefits of course. Greener cities are cooler (our current heatwave temperatures are predicted to be the average by 2050), with better air quality (Brighton & Hove has twice the national limit of harmful nitrous oxides), and better storm water management (we are one of the most at risk locations in the country for surface water flooding).

And what about community? Recent work has estimated that ‘neighbourliness’ delivers a £28bn saving to the UK from increased social connections and demand on policing, social care, welfare and environment. Creating and managing green features is an opportunity for community activity and cohesion, and the greener our places, the less crime we are likely to suffer. For example, one major study in the US recorded 48% fewer property crimes and 56% fewer violent crimes in green Chicago estates.

Green roofs at the University of Brighton’s Checkland building, Falmer campus (James Farrell)

But what about the places in between the green spaces – the buildings themselves that define ‘city’ in the first place? Long gone is the traditional mindset of preserving nature behind fenced off reserves. Nature is out and proud – on green roofs, green walls, balconies and terraces. The local voluntary initiative of ‘Brighton & Hove Building Green’ believes that we can do better with these often under-utilised and ‘wasted’ spaces, and bring about many more of these benefits.

Thanks to imaginative planning policies in places like London, the UK ‘green roof’ movement is growing at 17% annually – the fastest growth in Europe! Here in Brighton & Hove, a recent study identified 87 football pitches-worth of roofs in a 9km2 area of the city centre that were suitable for greening – providing benefits for urban drainage, avoided air conditioning and urban cooling. And hey, they look great – certainly better than boring felt or shingle ballasted roofs, or much of our blank city wall space. Brighton & Hove City Council does have supportive planning policies and it’s not difficult to find great examples of green roofs and walls in Brighton without too much standing on tip-toes: The Level cafe for example, the Crew Club in Whitehawk, the garden in Regency Square that covers the underground car park, the green walls in the New England streets behind Brighton Station, and the wonderful wildflower roofs on the Phoenix ‘container housing’ at the old Cobbler’s Thumb site near Preston Circus.

Green roof on the Velo Café, Brighton, created by ‘Organic Roofs’ (James Farrell)

At Building Green, we believe that creating a better Brighton & Hove is not just worthwhile, but achievable. We also know that evidence is not enough – people change when they feel as well as think, and we need green spaces for people to experience and interact with personally, as often as possible.

So here’s an idea. Take a walk down Duke’s Mound from Marine Parade to see the green wall – our long, leafy wonder. You may notice how it cools the air, and how the greens perfectly offset the sea and the buildings of Regency Kemptown. You may see butterflies, bees and birds and maybe catch the scent of wallflower or Spanish gorse. You may notice figs, gladioli and ferns, and how much slower and calmer people seem as they walk along. Why not try it at the weekend – I’ll bet you will feel a difference!

Green wall on Madeira Drive, Brighton (James Farrell)

So let’s remember that key ingredient and cherish our most important landscapes, sites and wild places, both in the city and without. But let’s also take down those metaphorical fences and bring nature into the very fabric of the city and into our everyday lives. After all, we may very well depend on it.

Advertisements

The Brighton High Line?

So why not a Brighton High Line at Madeira Drive?

Flying high above New York City’s Meatpacking district is the High Line. You’ll have heard of it – it’s in the top 5 most Instagrammed sites in the world, receives over 7 million visitors a year. The cost was $273m. The additional tax revenues alone are estimated at $900m, with some $2bn additional local economic activity.

According to GreenPlay LLC, “The High Line district (including the Chelsea neighborhood), long back-on-its-heels, is now one of the hottest markets for upscale residential, retail, and office-center development.

DSCF3873.JPG

A recent visit by Building Green left us even more impressed than we expected to be. Run entirely by a Trust and a volunteer workforce, the place was packed with happy, strolling visitors. Gardeners moved through the planting, leaving wafts of mint and other fragrances in the wake of their secateurs. There were shops and stalls – all profits back to the Trust – as well as public art, recliners and all around the activity of cranes and new development in progress. As the sign on a new apartment block put it “Think the High Line is Cool? Check out our Roof Deck and no fee rentals“.

DSCF3888.JPG

Now to Brighton. We already have a high line – it’s Madeira Terraces, created by the Victorians for similar motives to the modern New Yorkers. Work is underway to source funding for their repair and restoration, and we have the marvellous backdrop of the Madeira Drive Green Wall for visitors to enjoy again in future as they walk the regenerated seafront.

IMG_2493

But what if the terrace deck itself was greened? Planted with attractive, fragrant and salt tolerant plants that were a reason for walking the terrace itself? The terrace as a destination, not just a roof for new businesses or a viewing platform for occasional events? It can be done technically. It has access including a mid-level lift at the Concorde. It may well provide an additional avenue for funding, and add value to the offer the restored terraces provide through increased footfall, marketability and environmental quality.

What do you think? Here at Building Green, we will be promoting this vision and encouraging the Council to adopt it. Can you help? Here’s a collage that provides some food for thought.

Building Green web

 

Building Green – the Bible

Tucked away on the resources section of the Building Green website is a broken link that tells the story of how this group came about.

London Ecology Unit published a highly influential book in 1993 called ‘Building Green – A guide to using plants on roofs, walls and pavements’. It was a prescient tome – heralding techniques and approaches from across Europe and the world that came established only years later in the UK, Building Green was a systemic, ecological approach to urban nature. It became the name of our community group.

When at the Greater London Authority, I created an electronic version of the out of print manuscript – the broken link referred to. Well, here it is in all its free, downloadable glory. Go crazy.

Johnstone and Newton – Building Green

In particular note the appendices which list plants for different locations – walls of different aspects, balconies, roofs etc. Check it out, it’s great – all credit to the originators Jacklyn Johnston and John Newton.

Depave our city? A lesson from Portland, Oregon

We know that some parts of Brighton & Hove are ‘risky’ when it comes to flooding and depaving may provide part of the answer. Don’t worry, we aren’t advocating digging up the whole city! 

Building Green was speaking on the subject recently at a Hove Civic Society meeting, and reflecting on the July 2014 floods – 100 properties flooded in Portslade and 300 emergency calls to East Sussex Fire and Rescue in a single morning. Now, this is ‘surface water flooding’ we are talking about – the kind where very heavy rainfall runs and collects in the hollows in the hard surfaces in our towns and cities.

Cities tend to be impermeable places – and we know that where we can increase permeability at scale, for example through landscaping, retaining front and back gardens, green roofs and other ‘sustainable drainage’ approaches, we can reduce the risk of flooding.

Come and learn more about it all this weekend – and how you can help by ‘doing it yourself’ at the workshops run by Building Green, Organic Roofs and Brighton Permaculture Trust. Not too  late to book a place!

Portslade is home to two of the first ‘rain gardens’ in Brighton & Hove. Building Green and partners have completed a study that has found enough flat roofspace in 9km2 of central Brighton – 87 football pitches worth in fact – to hold back 100 Olympic swimming pools of rainwater that our street drainage networks might struggle with during heavy rainfall events.

As we’ve reported before, there are other places that do this much, much better. Let’s learn from them.

st20marys20school20at20vic20rec20rain20garden20portslade

Victoria Recreation Ground rain garden, Portslade

One such place is Portland, Oregon – and in this blog Dusty Gedge writes about a new initiative to ‘depave Portland’ – ripping up the hard surfaces and planting stuff.

Good for sustainable drainage – but also good for visual amenity, and even crime rates potentially. A study in Chicago Illinois in 2001 in one public housing development found that robberies were down by 48% and violent crime by 56% in areas where buildings had been ‘greened’ with green walls and landscaping. Poster below. Those are big numbers – what if we could achieve 1 or 2% – still worth doing? Building Green thinks so.

greenstreets_notmeanstreets_000

 

‘Do it yourself’ a green roof this weekend!

Hurry to grab one of the final places on this weekend’s Green Roof course, led by Building Green and Organic Roofs with Brighton Permaculture Trust.

Learn the why and what, and practice the how by making your very own green roofed bird box to take away. Enjoy the harbourside location in Shoreham and view the green roof lab and installations there. Question the experts, and use the opportunity to get some consultancy on your project. Visit some inspirational sites in Brighton & Hove to get you fired up for ‘doing it yourself’ this year!

We will also cover green walls – and can tailor the content of the teaching to your needs.

This is the 10th year of the course, and always popular. Bookings can be made through the Brighton Permaculture Trust here.

Green Roof DIY weekend – bookings open

Get ready to build your own green roof!

There are some spaces still available on our Green Roof DIY weekend – 13 & 14 May 2017.

Here’s what people have said about the course:

I just wanted to write to thank you for the inspirational Green Roof course this weekend; I feel ready (and keen) to start my extension roof and confident that I can!”

“I know that a feedback form will be coming but I just wanted you to know just how much I appreciated all the effort that you put into the course which hit the right note on so many levels.”

Bookings can be made through the Brighton Permaculture Trust here. Lee from Organic Roofs and I look forward to seeing you there!

11036370_152695211753272_6912507055592606007_n.