The health benefits that come with green cities inspire landscape architect Chris Rance to find creative solutions.
Everyone wants to live in a ‘green’ city – but does that mean parks and play areas? Bike lanes and traffic bans? Or the efficient use of energy and water resources? Is it realistic for Birmingham to evolve in that fashion?
Chris Rance is principal landscape architect at Atkins. Based in Birmingham, he was tasked with “greening” a city where Victorian structures don’t necessarily lend themselves to a makeover.
“A true green city is not just environmentally sustainable but is also visibly green,” he says.
“It’s all about livability – with most of us living or working in urban areas these need to be pleasant and healthy places to be.
“But retrofitting existing cities to incorporate ‘green infrastructure’ is a challenge when you don’t necessarily have the luxury of knocking down and starting afresh.”
The health benefits that come with green cities, he says, inspire him to find creative solutions, even where there is limited space for the more traditional approaches of street trees and open spaces.
“A network of high quality parks and open spaces provide the opportunity and encouragement for people to exercise. The obesity crisis is well publicised, and the more people have the incentive to move around and be more active the better.
“The same applies at the street level – an attractive green environment will encourage people to abandon the car and walk and cycle more. A recent study by Exeter University showed that people who moved to greener urban areas experienced a sustained improvement to their mental health.”
Like many cities, Birmingham has a largely grey centre, albeit with some imposing streets and buildings, and a somewhat greener periphery including a number of leafy suburbs such as Edgbaston and the garden village of Bournville. Between the centre and the suburbs is a ring of land, much of it underused, including vacant plots and derelict sites cut by major radial roads and the city’s middle ring road.
“The idea is simple: to transform an existing piece of grey infrastructure – unattractive highway pedestrian guard railing along the central reservation – into a piece of environmentally beneficial green infrastructure which would help trap air pollutants.”
Among these are particulates from diesel engines and nitrogen oxides. Vehicle emissions are a serious problem for public health in urban areas and are thought to cause as many as 50,000 deaths per year in the UK.
“Potentially the ideas developed here can be applied to the wider outer city centre, possibly creating a green infrastructure ring around the centre.
“Any ideas we can develop for relatively low cost greening by retrofitting in existing dense urban fabrics could be applicable to many other cities. If Birmingham is able to transform itself into a ‘green city’ in the widest sense, that will be an achievement worth following.”