Mak Gilchrist, Founding Director, The Edible Bus Stop
The benefits of green spaces have been repeatedly discussed and demonstrated. Most recently, a report by the charity Land Trust outlined the important functions and the ‘hidden value’ of green areas. Mainly referring to larger, natural landscape, the report claims that green spaces can not only keep us “healthy and happy” but can also help save costs for public services, such as the NHS.
But are pre-existing, natural green areas the only way to improve health and happiness? Or can green spaces be effectively created to deliver similar benefits in urban settings? Most importantly, whose responsibility is it to create them?
Local communities indeed play a fundamental role in creating functional spaces that improve the quality of life in their local areas. At Ecobuild 2017, the exhibition and conference for construction, design and energy in the built environment, Myself and Will Sandy, my business partner and co-founder of The Edible Bus Stop, will be speaking about inspiring communities to play an active role in the design of their local spaces. However, this responsibility extends to all built environment professionals, and presents design consultants a real opportunity to influence community-led urban design.
Passive vs active green spaces
Healthy places are often characterised by several factors, such as the availability of walking or cycling routes, healthy eating options and of course, the amount of greenery they offer. This last point is often overlooked for one main reason – it is generally presumed that the availability of green spaces is not necessarily in our control. However, I believe that this is a false perception, particularly when it comes to active green spaces. I also believe that the responsibility for providing active green spaces in every community is a universal one – i.e. designers, landscape architects, and developers, as well as local businesses, councils and residents are responsible for ensuring that a community enjoys living in a healthy place where the presence of such natural landscape is not a “nice to have” but a necessity and an important part of the sociocultural fabric.
Understanding the difference between ‘passive’ and ‘active’ spaces in the public realm is integral to creating – and on a community level, contributing to – green spaces that can really help enhance a community.
A city park, for instance, is predominantly a passive space, with smaller active pockets of space within it. Its green areas, such as meadows, lawns and shrubs are maintained by a governing body and the general public plays no role in its design, maintenance, or improvement. The active spaces within such passive spaces are often the recreational or sports facilities, and not necessarily garden projects, for example.
On the other hand, within the urban realm, an active space is one where the public is invited to take part in its design and upkeep and through this, feel a sense of ownership. These areas are for communities to engage and create a social circle, thereby engendering a sense of belonging and wellbeing.
Benefits of active spaces
Research by Public Health England and UCL Institute of Health Equity has shown a range of benefits that green spaces have had for local communities, ranging from improved physical activity amongst residents in areas with community-led green spaces to better environmental quality and protection from natural disasters.
Simply put, the positive impact of active spaces is not up for discussion. The advantages of such areas to physical and psychological health, environmental stability and biodiversity are too great. In addition to benefitting those who live and work nearby, accessible, design-led, active urban green spaces have a significantly positive impact on social interaction and safety levels within a community, often leading to stronger support systems for residents, a reduction in crime and long-term financial gains for local government and businesses.
It is vital for private companies whose business impacts the public realm, such as developers, architects and those involved with regeneration, to integrate meaningful active spaces into their schemes. The design of the ‘third space’ – a public space where all are welcome and equal (the ‘first place’ being the home, the ‘second space’ being the workplace) is integral to the scheme’s success. By providing areas where the local community can get involved with its upkeep / design and delivery, organisations can enable a dialogue between themselves and the local community. The existing community can in turn, feel ‘heard’ and included in the development of their local areas.
The role of design consultants
When design consultants create designs that are unique to the area, imaginatively consulting with the community, whilst listening to their feedback and generating interest in becoming involved, their schemes are far more likely to be received favourably and considered as having a positive outcome.
Running a design practice, we have developed our own approach to achieve these goals. This includes playful, sculptural design, combined with (often edible) planting areas. For instance, we look at how close the schools are to a potential scheme and try to get them involved, as we have done with our project in Nine Elms, known as the ‘Edible Avenue’. At that site, we were asked to consider what to do with a grim, nearly kilometer long wall and pavement that demarks the boundary between New Covent Garden Market and the surrounding neighbourhood. Engaging with the school that sits opposite and the local TRA, we held an event at the school, where we provided opportunities for the pupils and local residents to plant up herb in pots to take away. We also consulted a local artist to get their input on what they like to be painted on the wall. Mood boards were set up, and we let the children lead, talking with locals on a one to one basis. Art materials were provided and young and old planted and developed the ideas with us. By using this approach, rather than a questionnaire, the process was much more interactive.
New trends – the use of biophilic design
Speaking of making design a more interactive process, another growing trend which is key to our approach is biophilic design and the ‘feel good’ factor of adding biodiversity into schemes. By creating active areas that locals can tend, they are able to take part in the scheme and feel a sense of pride in their neigbourhood as a result. In turn, maintaining the garden gives people within the community an opportunity to interact with each other. The community takes ownership of the garden, rather than leaving its wellbeing to a managerial body, albeit supported financially by the organisation. The organisation is seen to have reached out with a worthwhile engagement and significant social responsibility is achieved. With so much of regeneration being seen as a form of aloof gentrification, often isolating existing communities, creating spaces where all are welcome to take part, helps to break down barriers between developers, and for instance, the community already in place.
The opportunities for communities and all built environment professionals to get involved in the various stages of design are endless, and these are some of the ideas that we will be discussing at Ecobuild 2017. Being part of the event provides an opportunity to connect with fellow forward thinking practitioners from all areas of the built environment. As this year’s show will explore sustainability as a driver to innovation and growth, and utilising regeneration as a catalyst for organisations to do better business, it has presented us with the perfect opportunity to share our views on the subject and learn more a whole range of experts from across sectors on how we can all play our part in making active green spaces a reality for all communities.
Links to the The Edible Bus Stop – Community-led Design Projects
The Kerb Garden, Landor Road, SW9 http://theediblebusstop.org/kerb-garden/
Hoopla Garden, West Norwood http://theediblebusstop.org/hoopla-garden/
Edible Avenue, SW8: http://theediblebusstop.org/edible-avenue/