Having assembled a panel with purposely diverse views on London’s Green Belt, one would expect a heated, polarised debate. Indeed we did hear as we expected: Shaun Spiers made clear the CPRE view that the green belt already works hard enough, while Ben Harrison demonstrated Centre for Cities extensive research that reviewing the right pockets of green belt should be one of several options on the table alongside rent control and a resurgence in public sector building.
However the evening revealed that while the speakers and audience may disagree on the detail, all agreed we need to engage in a more positive discussion about the planning of our country’s green belts.
The London housing crisis context was seen to use green belt loosening as a distraction from potential causes, for example the argument that we have a housing distribution problem rather than a lack of supply. Densification was also scrutinised in the context of how the digital revolution and Crossrail expansion challenge the very idea of a London population cluster – a future population could be distributed very differently around the regions, meaning loosening the London belt seems of lesser consequence again.
Ultimately, we desperately need a positive and creative plan for the modernisation of the London Green Belt to suit the current and future needs of the city, as well as the diverse spaces and functions that live within the belt. Rather than asking if our Green Belt could work harder, national and local planning need to work harder to get the most out of our Green Belt. Cullinan Studio have condensed last week’s inspiring and engaging discussion into the following Five Ideas for the London Green Belt:
1. A Green Belt spatial plan
A new focus on the broader spatial and management frameworks in which the green belt sits would be much more fruitful than the negative and divisive loosen and buckle argument, which solely concerns its boundaries. Speaker Merrick Denton-Thompson of Landscape Institute insisted any plan must be one “that society can rely on”. His strategy would consist of pressing the Government for action, cross-industry collaboration to align common interests and a review of each green belt in the country as well as designating new ones where appropriate.
2. The Green Belt as a National Park
We should treat our Green Belt better! As we already do with National Park or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty designations, working in partnership with local government. True a lot of the Green Belt is agricultural and much of the lower quality landscape needs improving for access and biodiversity. Our panellist Gillian Darley posed the much-loved model of the Dutch Randstad’s Groene Hart (Green Heart) as a great example.
3. Diversify suburbia and brownfield
Not all brownfield should be developed, these are diverse sites are often creatively re-used by the young for leisure and their well-being, i.e. Kings Cross then and Peckham now. Hand in hand with this could be the improvement of suburban infrastructure and thinking differently about density in the suburbs to make a more efficient city boundary to the Green Belt.
4. Access into the Green Belt
The health and well-being benefits of proximity to green space and landscape are growing in prominence today, far more so than when the green belt was invented. The Lea Valley is a good example of how we could curate more green corridors or fingers connecting the city outwards into a good quality green belt landscape.
5. Improve Planning processes!
Much of what the panellists disagreed on came down to dissatisfaction with the quality of the planning system – we must question this. We should demand a planning system that works better, by being positive, looking ahead by at least 20 years, and most importantly has some real vision!