Edinburgh: a half green city

Ben DolphinA friend of mine once told me of the time she was showing a Parisian client around Edinburgh and how, as a proud Reekie resident, she made a point of taking her visitor to all the best vantage points and sights. At the end of the day, eager for his opinion on the city, she asked him what he thought. To her surprise the man remarked that he had never seen such a tree-less, park-less, stone clad city.

As someone who knew Edinburgh’s parks and greenspaces very well I was as taken aback by the story as my friend was at the time. It now seems, however, he’d have got a better impression of the city’s composition if my friend had treated him to a flyover in the International Space Station, for it was from a similarly lofty location that a recent survey conferred a prestigious title on Scotland’s capital.

Edinburgh from Salisbury Crags. Sandstone jungle or green capital?

Using sophisticated image analysis tools that allow users to detect live vegetation, mapping company Esri UK pored over recent satellite imagery of the UK’s ten largest cities and calculated that Edinburgh had the highest proportion of greenspace of any of them. A whopping 49.2% in fact, very nearly half of the city area. The good news for Scotland was that Glasgow came second with 32%, some way ahead of Bristol, Birmingham and Greater London, with poor Liverpool way down at the bottom with just 16.4%. But what exactly is greenspace, and what kind does Edinburgh have?

What is greenspace?

Greenspace Scotland describes greenspace as ‘any vegetated land or water within an urban area’. It includes things like private and public parks and gardens, cycle-ways, rivers, cemeteries, railway cuttings, school grounds, sports pitches, meadows, grassland etc. The City of Edinburgh regularly audits what it calls ‘open space’ in the urban confines of the Council area, and although it doesn’t include derelict land or farmed fields, it generally correlates to the greenspace that the Esri survey looked at.

Urban Edinburgh is therefore found to have 131 public parks & gardens, forming 17% of total greenspace. 1% of the total is bowling greens and another 1% is made up from 1690 allotment patches. 20% of the total, an impressive 7 km2, is semi-natural greenspace such as Holyrood Park, 8% is green corridors such as the cycle ways and paths, and a massive 9 km2, more than a quarter of Edinburgh’s total greenspace, is golf courses. Add to that 109 football pitches, 30 rugby pitches, a surprising 24 cricket pitches plus all manner of other spaces and, in all, over 1400 individual greenspaces have been identified in the city, totalling more than 3500 hectares. If like me you have no idea what just one hectare looks like, picture the grass pitch at Murrayfield and you’re in the right ball park.

Midmar Allotments – 1% of Edinburgh’s greenspace is allotments, with waiting lists of up to 9 years!

That’s 41.5 m2 of greenspace per Edinburgh resident, which is more than four times the minimum of 9 m2 recommended by the World Health Organisation. And because Edinburgh is a relatively compact city, 80% of all homes are within 400m of a sizeable greenspace. But why should that matter? What function does greenspace perform?

It’s good for our health

The most obvious benefits are as recreational spaces for walking, cycling, sunbathing, dog walking or simply relaxing, or as an educational resource for schools. Not everyone has the time or the means to escape to the countryside in order to unwind, so it’s handy to have accessible greenspaces closer to home. If the world outside your door is actually a nice place to spend time, you’re more likely to venture outdoors, which helps encourage physical activity at a time when health services are struggling with epidemics of cardiovascular disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

The Union Canal in January 2010. A place for the community to come together… provided it doesn’t fall through the ice!

Greenspace can also aid community cohesion by being a focal point for socialising, and can have a positive impact upon mental health. Studies abound of how kids fare better emotionally if they or their school are using a local greenspace, and how exercising in ‘non synthetic’ environments is more effective at reducing feelings of stress, anger, fatigue and feelings of depression than doing so in environments with little or no greenspace. It’s reminiscent of something I’ve mentioned in previous articles – the phenomenon called Biophilia, which is the theory that proximity to living things makes us feel happy.

Living things can also help clean our urban environments. Trees filter airborne pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to lower pollution levels in streets and buildings, and can even help reduce incidence of asthma. Greenspace also helps to cool cities down during heatwaves, although I’m not sure anyone is going to say that searing heat is a common problem in Scottish cities?

Vegetation reflects sunlight and tree canopies keep people and buildings in shade, but because vegetation uses much of the sun’s energy to evaporate water from leaves and soil (in a process called evapotranspiration), there is considerably less energy left over to heat its immediate surroundings. Conversely, manmade surfaces like tarmac and concrete are dry, and are less reflective than vegetation. The sun’s energy therefore mostly heats the air above those surfaces, and any heat they absorb during the day is slowly released into the air at night, keeping the city warmer than it might otherwise be. If you’ve ever walked into a woodland on a hot sunny day you’ll be familiar with how marked the difference can be, and in cities the cooling effect can be felt some distance from a greenspace boundary.

Goodness knows who counted them all but Edinburgh has 638,000 trees to assist in cooling things down, but only a tiny proportion of these can be found lining streets. I think this might be why Mr Parisian got the impression that Edinburgh is a sandstone jungle devoid of trees. The city doesn’t generally have leafy boulevards, instead its trees are found in large concentrations in places like Princes St Gardens or Corstorphine Hill.

Regent Gardens on a sultry evening during the 2009 heatwave. Trees help to cool the city down.

It’s good for wildlife

Most established greenspaces in our cities came into being chiefly because they suited our own needs, but such spaces are no longer managed purely for our own benefit. We have always shared them with a wide variety of other species, and although almost always trumped by economic or political concerns when planning decisions are made, the well-being of those plants and animals factors into urban planning now in a way that was unthinkable just a few decades ago.

Edinburgh in particular is home to an impressive array of natural wonders. Not including the immediate coast and the Forth, the city has six Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), seven Local Nature Reserves, a 12 mile walkway along the Water of Leith, a foothold in the Pentland Hills Regional Park and something very rare in the Lothians, a naturally occurring loch at Duddingston.

The city is home to nationally rare species such as Sticky Catchfly, a beautiful wildflower that has a preference for volcanic soil and is restricted to a few crags on Arthur’s Seat. Several species of bat patrol the night sky, otters have re-colonised the city’s rivers, and a sizeable population of badgers manages to flourish in the western suburbs. In fact I saw my very first live badger at Corstorphine Hill, and my very first kingfisher at Dean Village.

Water vole, barn owl, lapwing, skylarks, they all still manage to find a home in and around Edinburgh, but having individual greenspaces isn’t enough in itself. They need to be connected together to enable wildlife to move about, to expand and contract their ranges in reaction to changing environmental conditions and to prevent the genetic diversity of a species becoming too limited. Wildlife conservation complements human health and well-being in that regard, and vice versa. If you create greenspace for wildlife and then connect it all together via green corridors, whether those be cycle ways, paths or rooftop gardens, we all benefit together.

The future of Edinburgh’s greenspace

There’s an acknowledgement from Edinburgh City Council that while open space provision is above average in relation to the city’s size, the quality of those spaces can always be improved. 50% of Council greenspace is close-mown, which generally creates a poorer habitat for wildlife than if it was left alone in a semi natural state. The problem with ‘semi-natural’ is that people generally still prefer their greenspaces to look tidy and clipped rather than wild and unkempt, even though the latter is every bit as managed as the former.

But initiatives like the Edinburgh Living Landscape Partnership are seeking to soften the mowing regimes of some parkland so that it is more enticing to wildlife. A 10% increase in wildflower meadows is expected as a result, which will benefit pollinating insects among others. The Council also has a target of creating between 50 and 60 hectares of new greenspace in the next few years, and of increasing woodland cover from 17% to 20% over the next decade.

But set against these lofty aspirations is the fact that Edinburgh’s population is forecast to increase by between 25% and 28% in the next 25 years, and the city needs in the region of 15,000 new homes just in the next two years to accommodate such an increase. There are a number of derelict or brownfield sites, although it should be noted that brownfield land (land that was once developed and is now disused) can sometimes be of greater value to wildlife than some of our traditional greenspaces.

Nevertheless, substantial developments on existing greenspace or greenbelt are planned for Cammo, Balerno, Gilmerton, Brunstane and South Queensferry. Over the next decade or two the central city will likely expand fully outwards to the bypass with only political will standing in the way of it spilling over to the other side before too long. And in an increasingly urbanised society, one where towns expand rather than contract, wildlife can be pushed out if it is unable to adapt to the rapid change in its environment. Some species thrive in human environments but most don’t, and so factoring greenspace into any new developments is essential if we’re to halt any decline in both habitats and species.

Innovative greenspace. A new sustainable urban drainage system (SUD) in operation in the English Cotswolds.

Greenspace will of course feature as part of any new developments, partly for recreational and aesthetic reasons but also because it helps with flood prevention. Unlike impermeable man-made surfaces, grass and soil allow water to seep into the ground, from where a huge proportion is taken up into root systems. The surplus water takes longer to reach watercourses and this makes cities more resistant to flash flooding. Natural-looking grassy depressions, channels and ponds called Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS) are now incorporated into new developments, designed to slow or even hold back rainwater’s progress into watercourses. And the longer the water is held back, the more pollutants such as heavy metals from vehicle exhausts are filtered out and prevented from contaminating the environment and harming our wildlife.

Where private gardens don’t feature as part of new housing, Edinburgh’s local development plan will require that ‘a minimum of 20% of total site area should be useable greenspace’. It’s good that a minimum is set but it would be unrealistic to expect the city average of 49.2% of land to be set aside as greenspace in all new developments, and it therefore seems likely that Edinburgh’s impressive figure of 49.2% will decrease over time rather than increase. So while there is undoubtedly good reason to celebrate Edinburgh’s greenery and the benefits it brings to the many species that call the city home (us included!), it definitely cannot be taken for granted.

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