Dunnett On ... Radical greening needed to build healthy cities

Much of the winter of has been a perfect realisation of the climate change predictions made for the UK - more mild, wetter winters. Whether this is a one-off or a taste of the future, who knows? But whatever the outcome, the reality is that an increasingly volatile and extreme climate poses severe challenges, particularly in urban areas, where the economic impact may be highest.

The fact is that many, if not all, of these challenges (catastrophic flooding is the most obvious one) are enhanced or even caused by the lack of soils, nature and vegetation as an integral element of how urban areas are planned and developed.

To meet these challenges, we need to massively increase the amount of green, nature and soils in cities. But it's not quite so simple as making new parks and gardens - space may be limited on the ground. That is why I have spent so much of my time looking at the potential of rooftops, pavements, streets, car parks, walls, urban meadows and rain gardens as opportunities for new planting - places that once would have seemed off limits to serious horticulture but now provide exciting potential.

However, tinkering around at the edges with the odd bit of innovative green here and there is not going to do the job. Proper climate change adaptation needs wholesale, radical greening. Not just a few more street trees, but complete green streets that deal with excess rainwater, shade, habitat and human well-being, for example.

Parks and gardens need to deliver ecosystem services as well as leisure and recreation. Irrigation-dependent landscape planting needs rethinking to deal with routine water-use restrictions. Landscape planting must move from being a cosmetic or functional add-on to something essential for healthy cities and liveable places.

Thinking properly about climate change adaptation will not only make a radical and challenging visual transformation to our surroundings. It will also severely challenge individuals and organisations, who will have to think, plan, maintain and manage places in very different ways to how they do now.

Nigel Dunnett is Professor of Planting Design at the University of Sheffield

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