In an era of high-density urbanization, the urban green belt has taken on new significance. This is particularly true in London, where the housing shortage has prompted a heated discussion about whether to repurpose some of its green belt – parts of which are in quite poor condition – to build new homes to alleviate the housing crisis.
At the same time, cities like Stockholm and Seoul continue to expand the development of their green belts. So what’s the point of these concentric rings of green? Is it time to tighten the green belt or even let it out a little bit? URBAN HUB looks at the issues and the debate.
References to urban green belts go as far back as ancient times. For example, a decree in 7th century Medina prohibited the removal of trees in a 12-mile belt around the city. In 1580, Queen Elizabeth I banned building in a 3-mile-wide circumference around the city of London to try and stop the spread of the plague.Later, in the enlightenment of the mid-1800s, Europe embraced the opening up of narrow historic centers with broad green boulevards.
Cities like Vienna replaced rings of city fortifications with grander buildings, attractively set among parkland. These new green areas symbolized an era that promoted urban outdoor leisure activities for a new type of city and society.
In England, developments went even further. Rolling parks as recreational refuges already had already characterized Victorian cities. But in the 1920s, the term “green belt” first appeared in connection with creating a buffer zone between commercial and residential areas. Green belts were also meant to encourage the efficient use of land and prevent urban sprawl.
This video by the London School of Economics provides an overview of the history of, and debate surrounding, the London green belt. The video favors additional limited building, but is also keen to protect the green belt for future generations.
By the 1930s, London was putting words into action, and pioneering the modern urban green belt. It now encompasses 516,000 hectares, and is at the center of an intense national debate of global interest. At the heart of the debate is the question of housing. London has a wealth of undeveloped land in its huge green belt, but an intense shortage of affordable housing. Conservationists and traditionalists view the green belt as part of England’s natural and cultural heritage – to be saved at all costs. They argue that green belts were never meant to be land banks that could one day be tapped into.
Advocates of change claim that holding fast to the old ideas of the green belt stifles growth and fuels housing-price inflation. They point to cities that don’t have a green belt equivalent, but still manage to incorporate plenty of nature. They also argue that green belts don’t really work, as people simply build homes on the other side of the green belt, leading to longer commutes and additional demands on road and rail infrastructure.
Conservationists counter by saying that there are countless urban brownfield sites already available for redevelopment, and for the construction of high-density housing. They also suggest that other, less popular urban regions would benefit – and relieve some of the housing pressure in London – through government policies and incentives that directed people there.
A compromise seems the most likely solution. No one wants to deny affordable housing to a growing urban population, but nor does anyone wish to live in a purely concrete and steel city. For instance, designs for brand new cities always include parks and open, communal spaces. It seems unlikely that existing cities would really wish to take a step backwards.
The advantages of green belts are not simply aesthetic or cultural. Urban green belts provide a fresh set of lungs for urban centers, acting as sponges of carbon dioxide and as sources of breathable air. In coastal cities, they can help reduce erosion and the risks of flooding, by stabilizing soil and slowing runoff. They also provide a refuge for urban wildlife, and protect biodiversity, while giving urban residents easy access to nature.
Perhaps some of London’s green belt will eventually be repurposed for housing. But interest in brownfield redevelopment is also increasing. Paradoxically, in other parts of the United Kingdom some of that redevelopment is actually creating new sources of urban green space. Derelict sites such as a disused sporting complex in Ewell, Surrey have now been turned into nature preserves – just one of 48 such projects since 2009.
So how are other cities dealing with green belts and growing populations? Are they closing parks, or finding ways to better meet multiple needs?
In Southern Ontario, the “Golden Horseshoe” is a protected area encompassing farmland, green space and wetlands around Greater Toronto, one of Canada’s fastest-growing areas.
Ottawa – also in Canada – has its own 203.5-square-kilometer (78.6 sq mi) green belt, established in the 1950s to prevent urban sprawl. While development has expanded beyond its borders, the green and rural ribbon surrounding Ottawa is considered to be greatly beneficial to the city.
In Adelaide, Australia, the Adelaide Parklands completely encircle the Central Business District. The parks were part of the original plans for the city back in 1837, and are now national heritage sites.
Seoul, South Korea, based its green-belt policy on England’s example. The government strictly controls development in the green belt. Although this has led to higher housing prices, the public still supports the concept, citing the many recreational and environmental benefits.
Instead of a green belt, how about a green wedge? A wedge is a duct of green land that stretches from the city limits into the city center. Cities like Stockholm find that this strategy allows them to expand outward while still preserving recreational parkland and wildlife areas.
Other cities have combined the idea of the green belt with a rediscovery of their geography and the laws of nature. Dallas, Texas reclaimed its river basin, creating areas of parkland there that also protect the city from excessive flooding. And a new project in China is turning the idea of the rooftop garden into a vertical green belt. The idea is to build an entire “Forest City”, with trees planted on every floor of every highrise!
The conceptual foundation of green belt thinking is also evolving. Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, launched a grassroots tree-planting program in Kenya to address deforestation, soil erosion and the lack of water. In her vision, these measures are not simply nice to have, they are at the very heart of efforts to achieve or maintain world peace.
The green-belt debate in London is a fascinating one, as it raises so many issues facing cities and city dwellers. It is a necessary dialogue, ensuring that ideas and opinions are heard and discussed by everyone. In the meantime, urban green belts in many other cities remain widely appreciated components of a high quality of urban life.