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PART ONE: Dr Helen Hoyle discusses futureproofing green spaces

In the first in a series of three articles, Dr Helen Hoyle Senior Lecturer in Healthy Built Environments, Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments, UWE Bristol discusses futureproofing places through climate-adapted planting for people. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the value of private gardens, public parks and green spaces. At the beginning of lockdown, when outdoor exercising was the only outing from home ‘allowed’, we spent an increasing amount of time outdoors in these spaces. Those with their own gardens planted seeds and vegetables, eeking out any remaining compost when garden centres were still closed. Some even walked or jogged in their own gardens. But many households have no access to a garden, so the value of our public parks and green and blue spaces for both physical and mental wellbeing was at last realised.

Yet the temperatures were very warm, little rain fell, and many of our green spaces started to look brown and worn. Although we described the weather as ‘unseasonably warm’, longer term climate data confirm that temperatures are increasing. Parts of the UK are suffering increasing summer aridity, with a negative impact on the planting designed for a cooler, more temperate climate. It is time for us to ‘futureproof’ our valued parks and green spaces by looking to warmer climates to source our urban trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. This has been happening in the UK for some years. 

The London 2012 Olympic Park in Stratford incorporated South African planting with species such as Kniphofia used dramatically in a prime position near to the stadium. Whereas subtly-coloured perennial meadows were sown in the more naturalistic North Park, vibrant annuals dominated swathes of banking around the stadium. The bright oranges of Eschscholzia californica, (California poppy), gave way to the golden Coreopsis tinctoria (Plains coreopsis) in time for the Paralympics. Such ‘futureproofing’ should happen everywhere. It is happening now on a former mini golf site in Wardown Park, Luton(1), where I am working closely with the Parks Service and Riverbank Primary School to introduce an ‘air-quality arboretum-meadow’. Working with the support of the Landscape Institute and specialist meadows consultant Pictorial Meadows, we have introduced nine trees, particularly selected to be adapted to a warmer future climate. The annual meadow sown at the beginning of lockdown, including Coreopsis tinctoria, will provide welcome aesthetic delight to local park visitors throughout the summer.

Why don’t we plant more climate-adapted species in UK parks and gardens? This is probably due to a lack of understanding amongst some policy-makers and practitioners, assuming all non-natives to be like Japanese knotweed. To the contrary, many non-native species can make a significant positive contribution, for example, Coreopsis tinctoria, provides late season pollen and nectar to generalist invertebrates after native UK species have finished flowering in September. It also provides a welcome late season burst of sunshine for park visitors. People also like exotic, climate-adapted planting. My previous research(2) has shown that 75% people would be happy for non-native climate-adapted planting to be introduced in UK parks and gardens if it were better-adapted to the changing climate than present-day species.

As we appreciate the physical and mental wellbeing benefits of spending time in our gardens, parks, green and blue spaces, through the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, ‘futureproofing’ them should be a priority.

(1)Futureproofing Luton: https://blogs.uwe.ac.uk/sustainable-planning-and-environments/futureproofing-luton-co-producing-an-arboretum-meadow-with-local-eco-warriors/
(2)https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169204617300683

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