Achieving a healthy green recovery – the essential role of green infrastructure

The past 18 months have highlighted that parks and greenspace close to home have been critical in helping people deal with the challenges of lockdown and other impacts from Covid 19.   But less than a third  of people in England live within a 5-minute walk of greenspaces.  Lack of  access to good quality greenspace particularly impacts communities without private garden space and where there are existing health inequalities.  The evidence shows that  people living in these areas benefit disproportionately more from access to greenspace.

Green infrastructure (the parks, street trees,  green roofs, lakes, canals and green walking and cycling routes etc) that extends through our towns and cities and out into the countryside, has  enormous potential to help  the country  to recover from the pandemic.  It not only improves health and wellbeing, but has wider potential benefits for education, creating green jobs, addressing climate change, and reversing biodiversity loss through a nature recovery network.

The potential of green infrastructure to help achieve a healthy green recovery was the focus of an online conference on 6th July, attended by over 500 people.  Natural England and the Town and Country Planning Association organised the event on behalf of the national Green Infrastructure Partnership, a network of people and organisations that support the creation, enhancement and promotion of green infrastructure in the UK.  Please see a link to the presentations here.

Rebecca Pow MP, Minister of Environment  for Defra opened the event and talked about the role of green infrastructure in the Government’s agenda to build back better and greener from the pandemic.   Minister Pow described progress with the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan such as green social prescribing projects that are improving mental health and wellbeing in communities hardest hit by coronavirus,  and exciting  new policy initiatives such as mandatory Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) which could provide a key investment mechanism for green infrastructure in the future.

Marian Spain, Natural England’s Chief Executive, set out why green infrastructure is so important – for health, climate, nature and the economy, and highlighted the inequalities in access to greenspace. Public Health England’s Professor John Newton put forward evidence for the vital role of green infrastructure for health and wellbeing and Joanna Averley, MHCLG’s Chief Planner, identified green infrastructure as being integral to good design.

A key theme through the day was the need for green infrastructure stakeholders to break out of silo working and collaborate to develop and deliver green infrastructure at the heart of place making.  Such collaboration can lead to better funding solutions and make better places to live, learn and work.

One particular initiative that aims to catalyse collaboration is Natural England’s new Green Infrastructure Standards Framework (to be launched in 2022). It includes a core menu of green infrastructure standards that can be applied at different scales, and the first national green and blue infrastructure maps for England, to help local authorities plan green infrastructure strategically for their areas.  The draft maps will be released to Local Planning authorities in autumn 2021 and can be used to support the evidence base for refreshed local plans.

These new Standards are referred to in the Government’s recently published Build Back Better High Streets strategy which describes  how green infrastructure can  help drive more footfall to high streets, improve air quality, increase opportunities for active travel, and drive economic recovery; and in the National Model Design Code.

Jane Houghton is a Project Manager at Natural England focusing on Green Infrastructure Standards.

For recordings of Natural England’s July 2021 Green Infrastructure Standards conference, click here.

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