Time to reconsider our green infrastructure, says academic

Creativity fostered by green space more crucial than ever

Prof Simson of Leeds Beckett Uni advocates engaging communities with landscapes [Credit: Tim  Green]
Prof Simson of Leeds Beckett Uni advocates engaging communities with landscapes [Credit: Tim Green]

Part of the economic value of trees and green space is the creativity they help foster, which is critical in a modern economy, Professor Alan Simson of Leeds Beckett University has said.

"My university has done research with Danish colleagues on where creative types grew up," he told HW. "It turns out that almost all of them, in all fields, grew up in relatively green environments, not in 40-storey tower blocks. We know that the link with green space is critical."

The 1984 Ulrich study, on hospital patients' improved recovery times when given views of greenery, is well known, he pointed out. "But it also applies to school classrooms - children with views of green space can be, developmentally, a year or more ahead.

"While most of this had been done in Denmark, I also looked at successful bands of the 1965-75 era and none of them came from dense city centres, not even The Beatles", he explained. "We know it's something people respond to but you have to get them young - you can't wait until university."

He added: "The EU is reviewing all green infrastructure stuff - they call it 'nature-based solutions and re-naturing cities'

- and they might start making directives to member states. Europe needs creative people for its economic well-being. We can't just funnel people into mills any more."

Simson said of his title, professor of landscape architecture and urban forestry: "Colleagues have told me that being that means I'm the only one anywhere bringing those two things together." As a founder member of the European Forum of Urban Forestry, he has led European research projects on behalf of the UK and is involved in a number of international and regional initiatives.

"The urban forest exists in five dimensions - the three of space and one of time, but also a fifth, which is culture. We have worked with communities including the Roma of Stara Zagora, Bulgaria and Obilic, Kosovo where over 10,000 trees were planted in public spaces including 15 orchards.

"If you're a Muslim woman you get credit in heaven for planting fruit trees. There are all sorts of corners where the women will plant and look after trees. So community involvement is a critical part of green infrastructure and you need money and training to set it up," he said, pointing to work closer to home with minority communities in Yorkshire.

"You can't put the ecological clock back. You need a 21st century vision from a cultural and spiritual point of view, and that will be different for different areas," he said. "Streets don't need to be dominated by cars. They should be more like parks because it's where the young people are.

"We have to appreciate others' skills and work together," he said. "No one has all the answers.

I told the Institution of Civil Engineers that they were the first people to put street trees in London, before any landscape architects or arboriculturists were in sight. They didn't know." Simson was among those delivering the Landscape Institute's Jellicoe Lecture in Leeds last week, entitled "From Capability Brown to the Incredible Edible Network - new ways of engaging communities with landscape".

"Brown wasn't just about the view from the mansion. He used native and exotic elements to engage with people," said Simson. "Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe was also aware of the landscape as somewhere to live and recreate."

Also at the event, Sarah Main and Rachel Parkin of Chatsworth House's Capability Brown project explained their work on engaging deprived communities and refugees with the landscape of Capability Brown, while Todmorden's Incredible Edible Network founder Pam Warhurst discussed how the initiative has helped create urban farmers and reduce health inequality.

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