Climate Change Global Digest Winter 2020

Jane Manning with Julie Futcher, Joanna Wright and Mitch Cooke
Photo Source: Knepp Castle Estate

PLANNING IN A CLIMATE EMERGENCY

The commitments that local authorities have signed up to in declaring climate emergencies are about to be tested. Client Earth has written to 100 planning authorities that are about to start a full local plan review. Planners will now be under considerable pressure to demonstrate action whilst also hitting housing and development targets. This will be a challenging test for authorities and will be a difficult tight-rope to walk. Staying true to the declaration made by councils will bite at many levels in the plan-making process. For urban designers interacting with the production of new local plans, the following are some examples of the challenges that will be faced:

Establishing the headline objectives and vision for the plan: balancing economic growth, housing provision and ecological objectives in the overarching strategy will be tricky. As an emergency has been declared, there will be increased weight given to carbon reduction in the planning balance. Local plans will have to set out a convincing new style of vision that will allow them to keep to the housing and job targets attributed to them by national government, whilst simultaneously putting the environment at the heart of any definition of growth.

Preparing a spatial strategy for the plan: the decisions on where growth is steered towards and how it is supported will probably necessitate a new level of scrutiny and a sustainability assessment at a strategic level. The approach to infrastructure, in particular transport infrastructure, will be key. A significant shift in emphasis away from car travel to walking, cycling and public transport will be needed. In many cases it will be difficult for local planning authorities to go far enough without county, regional or national support to underpin this shift.

Identifying sites: the site allocation process will need to be underpinned by a spatial strategy which finds the best use for sites informed by a carbon assessment. Allocating more space for nature conservation, flood management and biodiversity projects will no doubt compete with the need for the plan to show a deliverable stream of sites to meet housing targets.

Undertaking capacity studies: the assumptions which have traditionally been used for capacity assessments will probably need to change. Density assumptions will need to balance a wide set of potentially conflicting factors, with high densities supporting an efficient use of land, but lower overall site densities being required to properly accommodate nature and the green infrastructure to underpin a new level of sustainable masterplanning.

Setting design standards: establishing a new quality threshold for design will be essential for the local planning systems to deliver on declaration commitments. This will be particularly challenging for the first 100 councils given the need to be in conformity with national planning policy and the recent government consultation on Part L Building Regulations, which could set the bar too low.

NATIONAL CLIMATE SOLUTIONS AND REWILDING BRITAIN

Over the last two years, the role of natural habitats in mitigating climate change has been increasingly acknowledged and is gaining real traction in the mainstream media. A few key reports have been instrumental in this.

In 2017 a group of international climate experts and conservationists published an article on Natural Climate Solutions. Their comprehensive analysis of natural climate solutions shows that they can ‘provide over one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 to stabilize warming to below 2°C’. They propose a set of 20 actions that would ‘increase carbon storage and/or avoid greenhouse gas emissions across global forests, wetlands, grasslands, and agricultural lands’. By far the most beneficial actions concern forests, and the reforestation of land in particular.

Related to this conclusion, several organisations across the world have been focusing on the role of forests and trees in climate mitigation with a view to persuading governments to radically change their approaches to natural asset management.

In the UK the Rewilding Britain group published a report in May 2019 calling for much greater recognition of natural climate solutions. The approach would require the rewilding of significant areas of land across the country, supported by a new set of financial incentives. The report argues that ‘this can be achieved without the loss of high quality, productive farmland or a net reduction in agricultural output’. Indeed it is ‘the least productive marginal lands, where the opportunity cost for food production is comparatively small, that provide the best options for carbon sequestration, rewilding and other ecosystem services’.

These reports may take a little time to influence national policy but many on the ground have grasped the potential of natural climate solutions already. The Knepp Estate is an increasingly well-known example of rewilding in the UK. The 1,400ha estate, south of Horsham in West Sussex, has let nature take over the management of land and, from this, radically changed and diversified the business model for the estate. Wild-range organic meat, camping and safaris are now the focus for income. Whilst the Knepp Estate is a rare example at the moment, the approach is replicable across the less productive marginal agricultural land in the UK.

Beyond agricultural land, the Rewilding Britain report significantly ups the ante for the protection and extension of existing natural habitats in the UK. It also suggests a wide-ranging emphasis on the creation of new habitats. For urban designers, this could mean thinking very differently about approaches at the urban edge and beyond:

  • Conversion of marginal farmland to natural habitats 
  • Reconsideration of Green Belt land and its future role
  • Re-emphasis on habitat creation and natural management in coastal and floodplain environments.

The strategic approach advocated for rewilding also begs questions for how we plan, design and regenerate urban areas. Urban designers will increasingly need to draw on climate experts and ecologists to inform designs. Masterplans will need to consider how wildlife can be more significantly drawn into areas in meaningful and productive ways. The design of green infrastructure networks across masterplans will need to give greater space and emphasis to both climate mitigation and adaptation. This will be an important theme for designers over the coming years and collaboration across disciplines will be key to delivering on it.

URBAN DESIGN 153 Winter 2020 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 153 Winter 2020

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