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Manchester Garden City - Victoria Street - courtesy of CityCo Manchester

Public Health and the Great Green Uplift of our Urban Ecosystem

Green space and waterways are tangible, emotive and uplifting (when in good condition!); and up until the last few moments of our evolutionary history, formed the backdrop to our everyday existence.

Turning this positive perception of urban greening into real world improvements to our cityscape, as a genuine tapestry of healthy, welcoming, biodiverse, ecologically productive places and spaces can prove difficult, however. Its delivery requires a network of connected and enthused individuals, organisations and decision makers, literate of the full evidence base of benefits that green space can bring, evidence that is always needed to justify, promote and plan the future of our city as a green urban centre.

In short we have to show that green can pay and then energise people to deliver it.

In 2013 a series of interesting reports, position statements and research papers were published, which we can utilise to add further strength to the argument for protecting, enhancing and promoting urban green space and waterways in Manchester.

The publications relate to the health agenda, which is the subject of this blog, but they sit as part of the wider suite of evidence for an 'Ecosystem Services' approach to both justifying and implementing healthy natural spaces and systems in our Cities.

Three such publications are highlighted below:

From an urban design, policy and planning perspective both the Town and Country planning association (TCPA), and the Landscape Institute (LI), published documents concentrating on the health connected Eco System Services benefits of healthy natural urban spaces and systems.

The Landscape Institute position statement on Public Health and Landscape, entitled Creating Healthy Places, describes 5 principles of healthy places.

Whilst none of these principles may be new to the community of activists, informed professionals and practitioners, it’s encouraging to see an institution whose members are responsible for the design of much of our urban environment, promoting an evidence based, Ecosystem Services approach to delivering healthy natural spaces. The key message I take is in the system build approach. When planning new landscapes and places, consider maximumEcosystem Services benefits, and then utilise the components that deliver: In summary the whole should be greater than the sum of the constituent parts. I’ve provided a quick summary of the 5 key principles of the reports below;

Principle 1 deals with the management and mitigation of Climate Change through creating healthy places; utilising green space and systems to improve air quality, attenuate and clean storm water, cool our cities in summer and restore contaminated land.

Principle 2 deals with health inequalities and lifestyles, be it physical activity, mental wellbeing or urban food production (and all the additional benefits that brings). The Biospheric Project in Salford is a great example of a local project addressing these issues both from a research perspective and in delivery.

Principle 3 considers the reductions in stress, isolation that can be realised by reconnecting our urban settings, and therefore much of our daily interactions, with nature.

Principle 4 looks at learning and development, both in the context of urban play and learning for children, but also for the rest of those of us who work in cities, and who desire access to naturalistic landscape settings to refresh and reconnect us during the working week. Manchester Garden Cities Victoria Street project delivered the first park in Manchester City Centre.

Principle 5 considers the direct connections to mental health conditions; detailing the output of a landscape perceptions study, amongst others, in demonstrating the benefits of access to green space to our wellbeing.

The TCPA publication, Planning for Healthier Places, applies the principles of reuniting health with planning - developed through research and consultation - to places. The report is aimed as those who both make and implement policy. The scope of the report is far wider than the 'greening' agenda, but provides context, evidence and examples of urban greening, including creating a framework to allow community groups to create and maintain their own green spaces, within the planning framework. This is something which I certainly feel would allow more community led greening projects to flourish in our City.

From an academic perspective, Mathew White and his colleagues from the University of Exeter Medical Schools European Centre for Environment and Human Health published a paper in Physiological Science entitled 'Would you be Happier Living in a Greener Urban Area'. After adjusting for other influences the research demonstrated that living in greener urban spaces had tangible benefits on mental health and wellbeing. At an individual level the impact was relatively small, but the cumulative benefits at a city level could be substantial.

After adjusting for other influences the research demonstrated that living in greener urban spaces had tangible benefits on mental health and wellbeing. At an individual level the impact was relatively small, but the cumulative benefits at a city level could be substantial. 

Part of the work the Green and Blue Infrastructure Group of Manchester a Certain Future, which I chair, will be undertaking this year will be to facilitate coordination, promotion and dissemination of research and the evidence base (generated both without and outside of the city) to help catalyse the maintenance, improvement, enhancement and increase of Manchester’s Green and Blue places and spaces .

In these times of scare resources evidence for the economic, social and environmental benefits of urban greening and the waterways is more important than ever if we are to improve our environment. The Green and Blue Infrastructure Group forms a part of Manchester a Certain Future, the Cities stakeholder led Climate Change Strategy 

If we are to achieve the great 'uplift' in health that our urban ecosystems can offer us, the principles above will help guide its delivery; what’s clear however is that however you frame the question, the vast majority want to see us create a greener Manchester for the future.


Main image of the Manchester Garden City project at Victoria Street courtesy of CityCo Manchester