Apparently, according to various studies carried out by several different bodies, London is one of the greenest cities in the world, being placed in the fifth position by one and third position by another but how can one city be compared to another. There is no proper way of measuring how green a city actuallty is and no officially recognised list naming the top greenest cities.
Having said that London is undoubtedly a much greener and leafier city than it once was having moved on in leaps and bounds since the smog-filled days of the past and now works extremely hard to plant more trees, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep its open green spaces.
In fact, forty percent of the capitals surface area has green spaces that are accessible to the public covering thirty-five thousand acres of gardens, public parks and woodlands, not only making it one of the best places in the world to visit but to live and work in too.
This has many economic benefits including the thousands of tourists who visit our green spaces each year thus boosting the local economy, along with green spaces also encouraging people to be much more active, therefore, more healthy which results in reduced costs to the NHS!
The City of London Corporation is responsible for managing nearly eleven thousand acres of green spaces that are either in or around the capital, including Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest along with over two hundred gardens, parks, churchyards and plazas while local councils are responsible for many more green spaces along with the National Trust.
London’s parks and Green Spaces
There are eight Royal Parks in London, all of which are open to the public and together cover around four thousand eight hundred acres, namely: Richmond Park, Bushy Park, Green Park, Regent’s Park, St James’s Park, Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and Greenwich Park.
Some of the large parks which were developed during the middle of the 19th century to the start of the Second World War are Battersea Park, Crystal Palace Park, Alexandra Park and Victoria Park.
The other main spaces can be found in the suburbs but these tend to be somewhat semi-rural in nature as opposed to manicured parks due to their having once been part of the countryside, eventually being given protection against the surrounding urbanisation. These are the commons of Wimbledon, Putney, Barnes, Clapham, Wandsworth, and Mitcham. (in fact, there are over one hundred registered Commons in London all of the various sizes ranging from subtle to broad swathes), along with Hampstead Heath, Epping Forest, Thames Chase, South Norwood Country Park, Trent Park, Wildspace Conservation Park and Hainault Forest Country Park.
Of course, we must not forget the magnificent Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the beautiful gardens of Hampton Court Palace but do expect to pay an entrance fee when visiting either of these two places.
We have the Victorians to thank for many of our beautiful parks and our mature trees found in both the parks and our city and suburban streets. The age of the Industrial Revolution, which saw a rise in squalid city slums, led the well- to-do and the authorities to ensure many public gardens were made available for everyone to enjoy.
The reason for such generosity was that the upper classes felt gardens would reduce drunkenness by keeping more people out of public houses, along with helping to improve their manners. The upper class also believed that encouraging people to take up gardening would reduce social unrest!
The trees Victorians favoured and populated our city streets, towns and gardens with were English elms (of which all or most have been lost to Dutch elm disease). Common limes, horse chestnuts, sycamores and probably the most popular and widely planted of all, accounting for over half of the city’s tree population today, the London plane.
London’s Street Trees
It became and remained until recent years the London street tree of choice due to its hardy nature and high resistance to pollution at a time when London was covered in black smoke and soot due to the Industrial Revolution. With daily dirt and grime easily washed from their leaves when it rains to leave them looking fresh and clean again.
Most people will probably recognise the London plane from its unusual patterned bark of a mottled cream, olive and grey mix which breaks off in large flakes to enable the tree to cleanse itself from pollutants.
The London plane, when allowed to grow naturally, is a very handsome and large tree which can reach heights of up to 35 metres tall. This causes a real problem on our city streets, particularly for the overhanging wires, lorries and buses, necessitating in many of them having to be pollarded giving them a somewhat stumpy look and of course pruning all these trees is a very expensive business. With cash-strapped councils forever having to look at ways to reduce expenditure, the London plane is being less widely planted in our streets today in favour of smaller, more easily managed trees.
Sadly many of our mature London street trees have been lost in the last forty years, rows of English elms to Dutch elm disease, avenues of limes to the drought of 1976 and then thousands more trees in London lost in one night to the Great Storm of 1987. Disease, along with global warming or climate change is also damaging and killing off many of our much loved mature trees, making it even more important to continue to keep planting trees.
Thankfully, with people now realising just how necessary trees are, particularly in cities and towns. This is for multiple reasons from providing shade, removing pollution from the air, reducing temperature, helping to prevent flooding and being necessary for people’s health and well-being amongst a few, many tree planting schemes and initiatives have sprung up, particularly after the devastating storm of 1987.
In his first term as Mayor, Boris Johnston pledged to plant ten thousand street trees in London which he duly did. He then went on to commit to a further planting of another ten thousand street trees by March 2015 which again was adequately fulfilled when the two hundred thousandth street tree was planted on 4th March 2015 and in case you are interested, it was a Prunus ‘Royal Burgandy’.
With the loss of so many trees and the replanting of new ones comes a massive change in landscape and many of our London streets look very different from that of forty years ago as the choice of trees to plant today has changed dramatically from those favoured by the Victorians. Now you will see strawberry trees, olive trees, maples, magnolias, cherry trees, dawn redwoods, flowering ash, evergreen oaks, ginkgo, rowan, hornbeams, field maples, Himalayan birch, hawthorns, alders, and Chanticleers pear trees. The Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has about one hundred and sixty different species of trees planted along their streets!
A lot of this diversity is down to councils having huge decisions to make in deciding what is best to plant for the future. Climatologists have claimed that by 2050 native trees such as the beech could have died out in the south east of England, along with the possibility that the horse chestnut tree and other urban trees could be subject to branch drop and root die back if we suffer any drought conditions in the future.
Obviously, this could cause health and safety issues for both people and property with councils possibly facing expensive litigation claims. Along with this is the realisation that many of our stalwart trees from the last century are now actually no longer viable due to the enormous costs involved in having to “Pollard” and remove the limbs from these large growing trees such as the horse chestnuts, London planes and common limes.
In 2007, the Forestry Commission reported that due to climate change and warmer conditions many of our trees would be under attack from foreign diseases and pests such as red band needle blight, horse chestnut leaf miner and sudden oak death.
Today, the diseases mentioned above and pests are now causing our trees serious problems along with ash dieback, horse chestnut bleeding canker and sweet chestnut blight to name just a few, these having now resulted in the deaths and felling of many of our own native British trees. All of these facts have meant that Councils now have had to think long and hard to choose more suitable, sustainable and easier to manage trees when undertaking new plantings.
Here lies a dilemma, these much smaller trees are never going to give the coverage and shade or remove as much pollution from the air as our much bigger trees, as just a couple of examples, (it will take about fifty smaller trees to do the job of one big tree). So while councils may save money in the short term, what about the long-term costs if more people end up in the hospital with respiratory problems, skin cancer through not having enough shade protection when walking the city streets or more flooding happens?
Perhaps councils should continue to plant large trees and underplant with smaller ones, the smaller ones would also give us diversity should the worse happen and our few species of large trees be wiped out through the foreign strains of pests and diseases this country is now being beleaguered with.
Along with trees and parks being important in keeping London green so to are the Commons and green belt which have always been protected areas until now but all that protection seems to be going out of the window under the current government.
As far as Commons are concerned, development has always been strictly controlled with the government stating that common land should be open and accessible to the public with the law restricting any kind of works that can be carried out on them, including in every case new solid surfaces such as access roads.
Wandsworth Council purchased for £350,000 land on Putney Common from the Conservators who are meant to protect it. They were told that if they did not sell it to them, they would take it using a compulsory purchase order but I doubt very much that would have been possible so why did the Conservators give in so easily?
This land is to be tarmacked for 120 yards as a road, lined with bollards, street lighting, tarmacked footpaths and electronic barriers thereby urbanising the common – so how safe is any common??
The green belt which was introduced in 1955 is also vital for trees and is found mostly in the major cities. Being open space kept in reserve to prevent urban sprawl, it gives people living in towns such as London access to clean air, open spaces and somewhere for them to pursue outdoor activities, along with combating many environmental problems and significantly improving air quality.
Building on them is not permitted although in some instances buildings needed for agricultural use or for sanitation purposes would generally be allowed, with the government, in the past, actually encouraging Councils to protect the land around their towns by creating green belts.
David Cameron has very sneakily and quietly published plans to permit councils to allow small scale sites within the green belt to be used for starter homes, this sees the largest ever relaxation to planning protection for about thirty years.
I expect we will now see developers hopping up and down with glee as they have long wanted to get their hands on this precious, protected green belt land. I can only image that this is the thin end of the wedge and will not stop until no green belt remains, particularly if David Cameron remains in charge.
It is very much worth noting that the Tree Council, who have since 1975 held an annual National Tree Week to encourage the planting of trees and to teach people the importance of their care and maintenance, invites each Prime Minister to plant a tree at Chequers.
In 1975, the then Prime Minister was Harold Wilson, who planted a holm oak at Chequers. Since that time every Prime Minister has responded to the invitation to plant a tree at Chequers during National Tree Week, with the very notable exception of David Cameron, who has yet to respond.
I would gladly rant on about Cameron and his very non-green policies. He is clearly a man who loves nothing more than concrete jungles, tarmacked roads and more planes in the sky and who would gladly build over everything beautiful and green but I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.
One thing is very clear, if we wish to remain one the greenest cities in the world and we want to continue to enjoy our trees and open green spaces, then we all need to be far more proactive in opposing the government and local councils when they try to remove them from us.
Article was written by Karen Arnold
Article Source: http://www.graftingardeners.co.uk/london-greenest-cities/