Mapping local greenspace: will it help protect these green lungs?


moody greenspace (photo Miles King)

As some of you may have guessed, I’m not the biggest fan of Policy Exchange. This is the think tank the Tories love most – its ex-treasurer is the new Natural England chair, Andrew Sells, about whom I have written a number of times. It has made a “visiting scholar” of climate denier and general anti-environmental pundit (and former chair of Northern Rock, at the time when its demise helped trigger the longest recession in a century) Matt Ridley, who is also brother-in-law and personal think tank to “get rid of all this Environmental crap” Secretary Owen Paterson.

This is the think tank that told Owen Paterson about Biodiversity Offsetting. So I was pleasantly surprised to see PE making sensible suggestions about urban greenspace late last year. In their report by Kat Drayson entitled “Park Land” they call for a national urban greenspace map, and point out the barriers to using existing data sets such as OS Mastermap or CEH’s land use cover map. I do find it a bit ironic that the PE uber-neoliberals are calling for the Government (CLG and Defra) to lead on this initiative, rather than business; maybe that’s why I like its proposals.

I do quite a bit of GIS work now in my job at Footprint Ecology. I have been learning how to use the free GIS system QGIS. I used to use Mapinfo (badly), which was very expensive to buy. I have to say QGIS is easier to use, albeit it has more limited capacity for spatial data analysis (or so I am told by people who know.)

I have just finished work on a contract for Natural England, where we surveyed and mapped vegetation communities on strandlines and shingle around the Solent. I was mapping polygons down to just a few metres (using handheld GPS), as the vegetation was patchy at an extremely small scale. Natural England had provided Mastermap data for us to use. It is also extremely expensive to buy – as Park Land points out. Actually it was pretty useless on the shoreline because it’s such a dynamic system. So I used Open Street Map instead. Open Street Map is a free map to use with GIS. It’s the wikipedia of maps. People just update it so it is getting better and better. Using Open Street Map, handheld GPS and QGIS together, the public could create a very good quality national urban greenspace map for all to use.

One of the other things Kat Drayson recommends is a standard typology for such a map; and using green flag style quality assessment, combined with a tripadvisor approach, getting the public to score their local greenspaces. It’s an interesting idea. Another area which Footprint does a great deal of work in is around visitor pressure on high quality nature sites (such as heathlands.) Getting the public to use openstreetmap to mark areas where dog-walkers empty their dogs in urban greenspaces and high quality nature sites could be really interesting and a valuable source of evidence for policy makers. There is also a risk that by publicising some greenspaces, the map may inadvertently increase visitor numbers and cause a higher level of disturbance to their wildlife. But I can see such a map being used to show  which greenspaces have exceeded their wildlife’s carrying capacity, providing information that car parking spaces are being reduced, so discouraging visitors from going there.

Urban greenspace isn’t just about parks: it’s also areas of encapsulated countryside, nature reserves, post-industrial sites that have developed important wildlife habitat; and a whole host of other stuff, including back gardens, road verges and greenspace within housing and industrial estates. It all adds together to create Green Infrastructure.

An ever stronger base of evidence is pointing towards green infrastructure and greenspace specifically, as having a major positive effect on people’s health. Just yesterday the BBC reported the President of the Royal College of Physicians stating how important greenspaces, with biodiversity, are for both mental and physical health.

What I do not see (yet) is the link between mapping greenspace and protecting it. House-building is continuing to see the loss of urban greenspace as local plans identify greenspace areas for new housing within their areas. How would a wiki-greenspace map feed in to Core Strategies? Green Infrastructure Strategies are not regarded as especially high priority within the Local Development Framework.

Perhaps when the public can easily access a local greenspace map which shows which greenspace areas are included in the strategic housing land allocation area (ie targeted for housing), they might start getting on the backs of their local councillors.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in biodiversity offsetting, greenspace, housing, Policy Exchange and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Mapping local greenspace: will it help protect these green lungs?

  1. Mike says:

    Any greenspace mapping must be combined with greater effort to rid us of this vindictive, destructive, anti-green government.

  2. Steve Hallam says:

    I’m interested in your reference to ‘high quality nature sites’. How could the wildlife quality of a site be defined / estimated / captured in a mapping exercise such this? Particularly if such a project involves data capture by ‘citizen scientists’ (such as me), as well as by proper scientists (such as you).

  3. Miles King says:

    thanks Steve. I was thinking of already known high quality nature sites like european sites, sites of special scientific interest and county wildlife sites. However, it could also be used for members of the public to report in sighting of things which could then be checked, verified and could be used to identify new high quality nature sites. Citizen science has traditionally involved sending in records (with voucher specimens) to recorders (eg in local record centres or learned societies) who will confirm your record. Social media means it is very easy now to take a photo on your phone, post it on twitter and in a few minutes or so someone will have identified your sighting, either to species, or genus, depending on how difficult the taxa are to identify. If you have to dissect out the genitalia of an insect to ID it then twitter cannot help! You can then pass that info on to your local record centre or conservtion NGO and post the sighting onto a wikimap. You can do this already with google earth but it’s not co-ordinated. Having a dedicated map for greenspace (and why not all interesting places, not just urban ones) would bring all the info together.

  4. Mark Fisher says:

    Getting into GIS, and at your age!

    Many Local authority areas mapped their open/greenspace on the basis of the typology that was proposed by the Urban Green Spaces Task Force, and given in PPG17 Planning Policy Guidance 17: Planning for open space, sport and recreation (see Annex: Definitions)

    Click to access ppg17.pdf

    and it was also given in the ill-fated consultation document for the proposed PPS:Planning for a Natural and Healthy Environment – see Annex A & B

    Click to access 1498981.pdf

    What about the Local Greenspace Designation? Admittedly, its trailing in the Localism Bill promised more than has been delivered in giving form to this “designation”, but it is a way for communities to identify areas for protection from development in Local Plans and Neighbourhood Plans.
    Get the green space you want: How the Government can help. Localism Act 2011
    Local green space designation
    #77 in Promoting healthy communities, NPPF

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Mark. Looks like PPG17 no longer exists, if you look on the new CLG planning practice guidance website. Where does this leave its typology? I was always deeply sceptical about LGS – I agree with Kate (below) it was a ruse to get rid of that pesky town green designation.

  5. I think you have something here. We concentrate too much on defined natures reserves of SSSIs ect. It seems that these tend to be defined as “protected sites” only after they have been threatened by some form of development, resulting in frustration for all parties concerned as the process progresses through the beaurocratic loopholes. Perhaps we could progress beyond the concept of citizen science and just have public involvement in identifying green spaces thorough the freely available mapping systems available. Then when these green spaces have been identified then the more professional approach can be followed. But we have to bear in mind that value of a green space is often subjective depending upon what you are expecting to see. There are still small areas in urban environments that have not yet been developed and if added together these grey sites could amount to an appreciably large land area. So perhaps let’s get as many people involved as possible without the tag of citizen science.
    I also agree to a point about “dog emptying”. We were walking in a country park last year, created from reclaimed coal tips in South Wales. The area is still young and developing in relation to biodiversity. However, the amount of dog …. was amazing. OK it wasn’t on the paths! but a number of fools seem to think it acceptable to bag it! then hang the bag on fences or branches. Damn it made my blood boil with the laziness!

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks Paul. This Govt does seem keen to play the localism card (at least when it suits their purposes) and this may be one way for local communities to highlight the places they value, for whatever reason. It could feed into local plans through the right to identify assets of community value. Also – people showing how much they value places already in public ownership is a great way to bring pressure to bear on local politicians thinking about selling them off.

      I will return to the dog emptying issue in another blog.

  6. Mark mentions Local Green Space which was promoted by government as compensation for making it almost impossible to register new village greens, but how does it work? Who has examples of LGS which has actually be designated and how was it done? The Open Spaces Society would like to produce a good-practice guide to encourage people to make use of this opportunity in neighbourhood and local plans.

  7. Miles King says:

    Thanks Kate. I would add in a question about how many communities have gone down the route of identifying assets of community value in their areas, for the purpose of protecting open space or other greenspace.

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