Claire Wansbury

UK & Europe

Claire is an ecologist with particular interest in pragmatic solutions to project issues, HRA, biodiversity gain and Ecosystem Services. She is a Fellow and Chartered Ecologist of the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, is a Chartered Environmentalist and a Chartered Landscape Architect.

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The government had previously committed support to seven garden cities. The change in policy is to draw in smaller developments, each delivering between 1,500 and 10,000 new homes. It is easy to assume that these ‘village’ developments must, by definition, be smaller scale than the garden cities originally envisaged by Howard, but in reality the largest will be similar in numbers of dwellings to Howard’s original theoretical proposals.  

A key challenge in delivering the quality of living spaces envisaged under the garden cities movement comes from the density of each development. Howard’s vision involved cities supporting 32,000 people across 2,400 hectares. In modern developments the density of dwellings is far higher.  

In any new garden village, the greenspaces should be multi-functional, benefitting human health, social cohesion, wildlife, and flood management. The benefits that people gain from the natural environment are termed ecosystem services. Obvious examples include food and fuel, but less obvious benefits are provided by services such as pollination and the contribution natural habitats make to flood control. Some of these services are effectively ‘free goods’, which people benefit from without paying for them overtly – the cost only becomes apparent when an ecosystem is degraded and the service declines.

Ecosystem services valuation attempts to take account of these services in cost-benefit analysis. Some services can be valued by direct pricing (e.g. food and fuel); others are valued by proxy, such as willingness to pay for recreational use or the increase in house prices in areas with green space.

True vision is needed in planning these developments, standing back and looking at the tangible and intangible benefits of the natural environment, truly combining urban development with the “beauty and delight of the country”, as Ebenezer Howard envisaged.

Economic viability of greenspace provision and long term management is enhanced if cost-benefit analysis can recognise and value the benefits from less obvious services such as pollination, soil protection and water resource management, some of which could be captured financially through actual ‘payment for ecosystem services’ systems.

An ecosystem services valuation exercise can also involve in-depth consultation with stakeholders, allowing their priorities and concerns to influence the valuation exercise and therefore decision making. This is likely to add real value in the cases where there are local concerns about the proposals, such as sites where existing villages and hamlets will be surrounded by new development areas.

Ecosystem services valuation is not sufficient in isolation to provide a final answer to questions such as the size and form of a new garden city, town or village. However, it has the potential to fundamentally change the way we think about the environment in economic and political decision making, helping deliver a low-risk, high-return future, and new garden cities, or villages, which provide ecosystem services to their residents could surely be part of that future.

This article was first published in Building


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Having enjoyed the whole series, I was delighted to see the recognition of our wild urban neighbours received in the final episode. I was particularly pleased to see the peregrine falcon feature as, for those of us in the UK at least, such inspiring programmes can sometimes leave the viewer with a feeling that all the ‘proper’ wildlife is somewhere else, only accessible to them through the television.

While the programme showed us the surprising resilience of nature, there were also plenty of examples where human’s impact on the world has been too drastic for species to adapt to, making survival increasingly difficult.

Looking around London, it is essential to also recognise and celebrate the fact that making space for nature benefits the people of the city as well as the wild animals that colonise our green spaces. This is being increasingly recognised by industry, as well as policy makers, but we still have a lot of work to do.

As part of the London Assembly’s inquiry into the future of the capital's parks this year Atkins’ contribution of evidence found that parks are still thought of as a cost rather than natural capital assets, despite increasing evidence of the many benefits they deliver to society and the economy. For real change, and in order to protect our natural assets in a time of a housing crisis and economic constraints, we need to measure the value natural spaces contribute to our cities in a more tangible way. 

Earlier this year I was part of a study of Camley Street Natural Park in Camden, where the London Wildlife Trust had invited Atkins to measure the cost benefit the park delivered to the local area. Incredibly, this site smaller than a hectare in size was estimated to deliver £2.8 million in benefits to the local community per annum. As well as contributing to the protection of the site, I know the study has also inspired colleagues to explore the park, conveniently located close to our head office, for the first time, which is a wonderful added benefit. 

Planet Earth II has been a brilliant series and got us all to re-engage emotionally with the animal kingdom. I hope that, as a society, we can start to bring the value of nature into our decisions in a more meaningful way. As individuals, for the sake of our own physical and mental health, we should adapt make time for wildlife in our daily lives. Small changes made on a city-wide scale can make a real difference and, while a daily dose of the nature on our doorstep may not have the same awe-inspiring impact of the stunning imagery of Planet Earth II, in its own quiet way it does us all a power of good!

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Atkins has just undertaken a study for the London Wildlife Trust: an ecosystem services valuation of Camley Street Natural Park. On the site of a former coal yard adjacent to the new Eurostar station at St Pancras, Camley Street is 0.8 ha in area but welcomes between 15,000 and 20,000 visitors a year. The site is the middle of a huge regeneration project which will see new offices and blocks of flats constructed.

Children pond dipping at Camley Street Natural Park

Camley Street is an exceptional site, small but with interactions with people enhanced by its urban setting; the site is a hub for volunteering and important space for education projects. The summary (PDF) shows our findings, and how we have tried to balance the message of monetised and non-monetised values:

The financial bottom line turned out to be a value of £2.8 million per annum for benefits to people (e.g. directly and indirectly). This is not simply a theoretical exercise, as the London Wildlife Trust is now investigating whether this study can influence potential investment.

People derive enormous benefit from the natural environment including clean water and air, food, fuel, pollination and the contribution of natural vegetation to flood control. Traditional cost benefit analysis doesn’t take account of the benefits bestowed on people and the economy by the natural environment. But we find our clients increasingly recognise that accounting for natural capital, and the ecosystem services it provides, can help manage risk and add weight to arguments for designing biodiversity enhancements. Recent projects Atkins has advised on have covered areas from Jersey to Philadelphia.

Economics is designed to take account of financial and material capital, including goods, machinery and labour. The added value of intellectual capital is also understood now and captured, to a degree, through systems such as patents and licences. There is a growing realisation among some businesses and policy makers that economics has failed to take account of a third form of capital, natural capital.

Snake’s head fritillary at Camley Street Natural Park.

Ecologists can still be wary of placing a financial value on nature, concerned that a value or ‘price tag’ can be used negatively. However, when ecologists actually talk to economists, we start to understand two things. The first is that economists are very comfortable with the concept that habitats and sites can have a value with aspects that can be monetised and others that cannot. The second is that ecologists and economists can work together to develop values and therefore influence decision making.

The economy and society rely on the services of the natural world. Taking account of this natural capital in economic decisions will make those decisions more robust.

*Images supplied by London Wildlife Trust

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In an article in the Times (paywall) on 9 March, the Future Spaces Foundation commented on government plans to build three new ‘Garden Cities” of about 15,000 dwellings each. The Foundation’s report claims that 67 garden cities, each with a population of 30,000, would be needed to meet a projected shortage of a million homes in London and the home counties over the next 25 years.

In 1898 Ebenezer Howard introduced his vision of a garden city: “The advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination”.

However, Ken Shuttleworth, the Foundation’s chairman, says: “Before we even consider bulldozing greenfield sites, we must explore every option possible to densify what we’ve already got.” They say dense “vital cities” must be the way forward. So, in setting the direction for UK housing are we facing a decision between quality of life in a garden city idyll and quantity of dwellings in a high rise dystopia?

In practice, different people prioritise different things in their search for homes, and failing to take this into account will result in a mismatch between what is built and society’s aspirations. It is also essential that we consider people’s interaction with nature. People need access to natural greenspaces.

There is a nod to the value of parks and other greenspaces in the Foundation’s report, but it is illustrated by stereotypical lollipop trees in settings of concrete or lawns that have little more wildlife value than Astroturf. Scientific studies have shown that a daily dose of nature is more than ‘nice to have’. It has a direct and measurable impact on both physical and mental health. This in turn translates into economic benefits to society. For example, the health benefits of living overlooking greenspace are estimates at around £300 per capita per year. It is in the densest of urban areas that accessible natural greenspace can provide most added value.

So where does this take us in the battle of ideas between garden cities and densification? In the UK we have the skills, knowledge and opportunities to apply both approaches. There is room for, and a need for, both approaches, but they must learn from each other. Garden cities can accommodate elements of higher density living. Vital cities will only work if there is greater recognition of the factors that allow healthy humans to flourish. ‘Vital’ cities must provide what is ‘vital’ to people, and that includes interaction with the natural world.

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