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Wildlife Trust sets out Urban Planning Guidelines for sustainable development

Chris Satori

As the government makes plans for the building of 300,000 new homes a year in the UK — with 12,000 new homes planned for the Lancaster District — the Wildlife Trust has published new guidelines for housing developments that put the natural environment at the heart of planning. They warn that the destruction of natural habitats and decline in wildlife at all levels is damaging to our physical and mental health, our communities and services, with severe negative impacts on our infrastructure and economy. 

Their recent report, 'Homes for People and Wildlife' notes that "We have lost 97% of our beautiful lowland meadows in England and Wales since 1930 and the loss goes on. Recent reports show that over the last fifty years, 56% of our wild plants and animals have declined, and 15% are at risk of disappearing from our shores altogether.

"Much of this loss has been due to intensive agriculture, but built development continues to be a major contributor — often unnecessarily. This has reduced the space left for wildlife and disrupted ecological processes such as natural floodwater storage in river floodplains. As farmland has become less hospitable to wildlife, so the importance of our urban natural areas has increased."

Only by pursuing planning strategies that reconnect society with nature, they say, can the government stand any chance at all of meeting its commitment to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it, and to build new homes and communities that people enjoy living in.

Sterile planning practices, they claim, have led to more and more people living their lives with little or no contact with nature. This disconnect affects mental health, contributes to obesity and has a negative impact on life expectancy. Worse still, it may have a knock on effect, as people who don't routinely experience environmental benefits as part of their lifestyle become less adequately equipped to assess them as planning priorities. 

A 'luxury' for the well-heeled

With market incentives on developers to squeeze ever-larger numbers of homes into the available space, and pressure on councils to develop affordable homes, wildlife doesn't get much say in the matter — it doesn't vote or pay tax. Developers may complain about over-regulation — but more often than not they are able to circumvent it through impact assessments from consultants who are far from independent.  There is a constant temptation among developers and planners to kick the issue further down the road whilst reassuring each other of their 'pragmatism'.  Green spaces and natural environments are already being seen as a 'luxury' for of the well-heeled, with the majority of the North-West's future inhabitants being destined for more sterile, isolated, downbeat lives in areas of poor air and water quality and greater flood risk, experiencing our endangered wildlife and its seasonal cycles remotely through archive television footage or occasional bubble-wrapped outings to places they have little connection with.  

It's a bleak prospect. But an inevitable one if politicians, planners, developers and communities continue to fail to acknowledge the impact that unsustainable development is having on our living environment, as they continue to exclude the natural world from the picture.  Far from living in the 'real' world, we are drifting into a world that is increasingly artificial and unsustainable — nothing works for us like nature. We don't know what challenges the future will bring, but we do know that we human animals require a fully functioning ecology to thrive in — and that much of it is under grave threat.  The Wildlife Trust argues urgently that housing developments designed with environmental sensitivity and green infrastructure at their heart can deliver multiple social, environmental and economic benefits, that will help to build in a more sustainable future. 

Planning for a real world

They are calling for a number of features to be incorporated into new developments, including:

  • Wildlife corridors through development areas, preventing wildlife enclosure, which leads to extinction. Networks of natural green spaces can also provide safe and attractive pedestrian and cycle routes.
  • Wildlife-permeable boundaries between gardens and open spaces. 
  • Trees, hedgrows, water and other habitats integrated with the development. 
  • Sustainable urban drainage swales and raingardens for wildlife and flood relief. 
  • Rain permeable driveways and green verges, with restrictions on the laying of impermeable surfaces.
  • Features incorporated to actively encourage invertebrates, reptiles, birds, hedgehogs and other mammals. Trees and wildflower verges along streets to improve air quality, reduce extremes of temperature and encourage insect life. A focus on using native, wildlife-friendly trees and plants of local origin. 
  • Renewable energy and water-efficiency built in from the start, reducing carbon emissions, pollutants and water use to help minimise environmental damage and threats to wildlife.
  • Allotments and community orchards for local food sustainability and development of community and essential life-skills. 
  • Accessible natural green spaces for fresh air, exercise, socialisation and quiet contemplation, helping to lower levels of heart disease, obesity, stress and depression.

Rachel Hackett, Living Landscapes Development Manager for The Wildlife Trusts says:
“A huge challenge lies ahead — thousands of new houses are to be built yet we need to restore the natural world. We’re calling on the government and local authorities to build beautiful, nature-friendly communities in the right places. Over the past century we have lost natural habitats on an unprecedented scale. Yet nature has its own innate value. It also makes us happy and we depend on the things that it gives us.

"Our new guidelines show that it’s possible to have both, so people can enjoy birdsong, reap the benefits of raingardens which soak up floodwater, and plants that bees and other pollinators need to survive. With good design the costs of doing this are a tiny proportion of the overall cost of a housing development, but represent a big investment for the future.”

Download the full report 'Homes for people and wildlife - How to build housing in a nature-friendly way'.

You can comment on Lancaster City Council's draft Local Plan until 6 April at