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cedric Donating Member (291 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Jul-23-08 02:00 PM
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A recession will give ecological development a new life

The show homes at the end of a winding, unfinished road feel isolated, stuck in a corner of what remains of Telford's fragmented countryside. The rain is pouring down and there are few builders working. The infrastructure of a major housing development is uncannily silent, and so too is the building site further up the road - and the ones after that. It's not the weather that's holding up work, it's the slump.

This story is being repeated on hundreds of development sites around the country. The economic climate may be as dampening to spirits as Britain's rainy season, but it might not be all bad if you're a lapwing or a bee orchid. It could be an opportunity for people, too.

"This is an opportunity to think strategically about development," says environmental adviser Chris Baines. "Sites where biodiversity is being lost may have a reprieve, and this breathing space is the opportunity to think about establishing a green infrastructure ahead of a restart in building and to analyse the social implications to families of such high-density housing without significant green space. There are opportunities for tree-planting, wetlands for flood management, energy crops, adventure playgrounds."

John Handley, director of the Centre for Urban Regional Ecology at Manchester University, says: "A green infrastructure provides a flow of essential services that are as important as energy, transport and information flows. We are only just beginning to understand the functionality of the green infrastructure in terms of climate change: its effect on urban heat islands, rainfall, surface-water flooding."

Within the fences of building sites in limbo will be fragments of urban grassland or land that will quickly revert to habitats that support a rich diversity of plants, breeding populations of ground-nesting birds such as skylark, grey partridge and lapwing, and hold large numbers of invertebrates, noticeably butterflies.

Landscape ecologists are interested in land that acts as corridors - such as those around roads and railways - linking a matrix of green patches, which can be parks, gardens, industrial or clearance sites. Brownfield sites are very varied, providing opportunities for animals and plants, particularly the invertebrates essential to ecological communities, and often in far greater numbers than on agriculturally improved farmland. "We can think of these brownfield sites like lights in the city, blinking on and off, constantly changing," Handley says.

John Everitt, conservation director for the Wildlife Trusts, says: "It's important to keep a critical mass of brownfield land to maintain the connections between nodes of conservation importance within a wider network. There is an opportunity ... in a recession, to rethink the economic model and do some forward thinking about housing development, rather than be stuck with the stack 'em high approach."

Baines adds: "There is a mismatch between the government's aspirations for new homes and the actuality, and there should be a conversation about new opportunities to invest in green infrastructure and reduce housing density in brownfield sites. Without the ecological management of open space, we are creating unliveable communities. But the problem is that there's no one to have this conversation with. The house builders are downsizing, and government and government agencies are not showing leadership."

Temporary reprieve

Wildlife may be getting a temporary reprieve on some brownfield building sites, and conservationists are daring to hope for some rural sites, too. The plan to build houses on a traditional wildflower-rich hay meadow teeming with wildlife in Crossgates, Radnorshire, may be in question. "Fields such as these, outside nature reserves, are as rare as hen's teeth," says Julian Jones, manager of Radnorshire Wildlife Trust. "It's a tragedy that Powys planning committee could not see the value of it ... I was told by a Welsh assembly civil servant: 'There are only two things that will stop this field being turned into houses - plague or total economic collapse.' While none of us would want either of these things, we hope the downturn may save one of Radnorshire's last remaining hay meadows."

There are bigger projects showing signs of faltering. Julian Branscombe, chief executive of Gwent Wildlife Trust, hopes the new M4 project across the Gwent Levels site of special scientific interest, near Newport, may be a victim of recession, and that the levels gets a reprieve. He says: "The scheme - predicated on a car and lorry-led economy, with stable, low oil prices and no priority on reducing carbon emissions - fails to realise the economic benefits that would stem from marketing south Wales for its high-quality environment."

Stephen Joseph, director of Transport 2000, says: "If we get a recession with high oil prices, the Department for Transport may have to go back to the 90s, and a lot of schemes won't happen. The parent company of BAA has had to borrow heavily and may be less keen to build runways. The downside is that will not make Heathrow airport more bearable. The campaign for 'better not bigger' may get neither. The problem at the moment is institutional inertia."

High oil prices may also benefit the marine environment. Richard Harrington, of the Marine Conservation Society, says, "Marine diesel and heavy fuel oils used in shipping contain bad contaminants. If high fuel costs mean consumers can't afford the products, a reduction in shipping will reduce marine pollution." He adds that "the economic downturn may also mean people take British beach holidays instead of going abroad. Although this might result in more rubbish, it means local authorities and tourist boards have more money to clean up and improve local beaches."

A benefit of not travelling so much could be a new-found appreciation of the local patch. "This is an opportunity for people to take a second look at what's on their doorstep and see how remarkable it is," says Tony Burton, director of strategy and external affairs for the National Trust. "Instead of visiting wild lands in national parks, people can celebrate the wildlife and archaeology of their local patch. But they need support, and the National Trust is looking at ways to become more relevant to the local experience. The obvious example is the purchase of Seaton Delaval, near Newcastle, which apart from being an architectural gem is a cultural hub and will only succeed because Northumbrians and Geordies love it. To champion local importance, the trust is working with partner organisations to secure green space and public access in Plymouth, Birmingham, London and Sheffield."

Handley says: "If the National Trust gets the best bits of Britain to protect and provide access to, then the Land Restoration Trust gets the worst bits to do the same. There is the potential for very positive opportunities to restore landscapes ancillary to development to ecological health and manage them as community assets."

The hand-wringing about the economic downturn, it seems, could be turned into a very important, and overdue, conversation about opportunities for communities and the environment.
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XemaSab Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Jul-23-08 05:15 PM
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