London's housing estates, infill development and loss of green space

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By Alice Roberts
6th October 2021

Infill development on housing estates should not lead to loss of green space and play spaces

Often councils look to build much needed homes for social-rent within existing council estates, and sometimes this is precious green space. Because they own the land, it tends to be easier and more financially viable than other options.

Councils point to ‘urgently needed homes’ and ‘thousands of families stuck in overcrowded accommodation or bed and breakfasts’ to justify building on green spaces. But at CPRE London we can’t accept the argument that this is a zero sum game. We need both.

CPRE London believes estate regeneration has a role to play in providing new homes in London, especially homes for social rent. Infilling, where new housing blocks are built within existing estates, either refurbishing or leaving the existing blocks, is one means of delivering estate regeneration, however it can involve loss of green spaces on the estate, potentially leaving residents without adequate provision. We advocate that:

  • Infill blocks should be built on ‘grey space’ i.e. car parks, superfluous roads, hardstanding, garages or derelict or disused buildings OR the estate reconfigured to retain the same amount of green space if that makes more sense
  • Overall the intention should be that the quantum of green space is retained and the quality improved / amenity value increased
  • Reference must be made to the borough green space standards when estates infilling is proposed i.e. the intention should be to ensure the standards are met within the locality
  • Infilling designs should focus on retaining green space especially where it is well used e.g. ball courts BUT Where green space is not apparently well used, it should be reconfigured, redesigned or repurposed to make it more useful / better used (rather than making an assumption that it is of no use)
  • There may be some estates where residents feel it is appropriate to use some of the surrounding green space for development. This could be shown by organising a ballot.

And as a recent Guardian article said, boroughs are now “facing resistance … as council residents fight the destruction of communal gardens in dense and polluted areas.”

Recently we have been asked to support a number of campaigns to save green spaces in housing estates. We have supported these campaigns because green and play spaces are vitally important and because we feel there are other, better ways, to enable the building of homes for social rent.

There may be some estates where residents feel it is appropriate to use some of the surrounding green space for development. This could be shown by organising a ballot. In other cases, alternative sites or grey space can and should be used instead.

We also believe that the context – for example the continued loss of council homes under Right to Buy – needs to be brought into the wider debate on this issue, to avoid the over-simplification which has led some to believe we simply have to build over green spaces.

Green spaces are essential for everyone and all Londoners should feel the benefit. Estate gardens, parks, trees and play areas should be protected, improved, cherished and not built on.

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MORE

• Why are estates a soft target?
• The benefits of green spaces in cities are well documented
• Local campaigns against estate infilling

Why are estates a soft target?

Looking at the layout of buildings on council estates, often it feels like there is a lot of green space which isn’t really doing much. So it becomes a soft target, despite the initial conception of the estate being that the surrounding green spaces would be well-kept communal spaces, attractive for residents to enjoy.

We believe there are ways we could make better use of grey space and previously developed land within and surrounding many estates, as we argued in our report Space to Build. But green space should be protected and even extended as a key principle of any regeneration scheme.

Parks, gardens, allotments and play areas improve quality of life and help to establish the character of an estate for recreation, sport, gardening and social interaction. Many estates were specifically designed that way and infilling can detrimentally affect their layout. Community cohesiveness is improved when trees, grassy areas and ballcourts surround estates, rather than being a long walk, bus or car journey away. For some elderly and vulnerable residents, estate green space is the only natural environment they have easy access to.

Over the years, the upkeep of these spaces may have been whittled down to the absolutely basic minimum of simply cutting the grass. Various attempts have been made to reverse this, for example the Neighbourhoods Green programme, or more recently one London borough’s move to take the management of estates green spaces in-house into the parks service.

Often these spaces need to be restored to much higher quality amenity spaces which will help to ensure they are used, valued and protected into the future. CPRE London is in part seeking to address this problem through our work with others on the London Urban Forest Plan. That said, we are acutely aware that many of the estates sites coming under threat are already well-used and valued by local communities. One way this could be addressed is by requiring a ballot of all residents when it is proposed that green spaces should be used for new development much like the current requirement for schemes that involve the demolition of social homes.

The benefits of green spaces in cities are well documented

Trees and green areas on estates can provide health benefits including longer life expectancy. Studies have shown that access to green space can reduce stress and anxiety and improve mental health. Indeed, research has found that early childhood exposure to green space leads to fewer mental health problems in adult life. Green spaces and trees on estates can improve air quality and help reduce the likelihood of asthma attacks and other breathing difficulties. Grassy areas, five-a-side pitches and ballcourts on estates can also encourage residents to take exercise and participate in sport which reduces obesity and heart disease, alleviates stress and improves mental health. The World Health Organisation recommends that everyone has a green space of at least 0.5 hectares within 300 metres (around 5 mins walk) of their homes. However, many people don’t, particularly in poorer areas of London.

Green spaces and trees on estates can help make London more resilient to climate change risks by lowering local temperatures (by reducing the urban heat island effect), improving air quality and mitigating flooding. They also create ecosystems and improve biodiversity, allowing a diversity of insect and bird species to flourish. Urban trees sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and serve as long-term carbon sinks. Planning cities to include green spaces wherever possible will make urban areas healthier and less vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Particularly troubling is that some of the city’s poorest residents, living in the most overcrowded, polluted and heavily concreted areas, suffer most from lack of green space.

Local campaigns against inappropriate infilling

In Southwark residents are running campaigns to protect green spaces and trees at Peckham Green, Bells Gardens and Kingston Estate and many more. On the Elmington Estate, development is planned on a grassy woodland area that is a haven for wildlife and a valuable ‘green corridor’ linking Burgess Park with Camberwell Green. Southwark Council are also planning to remove, five-a-side pitches, play areas and ballcourts such as the one at Elim Estate.

In Lewisham the are plans to build at Mais House, Dacres Road Estate, Valentines Court and Greystead Road Estate. In Brent, mature trees, a playground, a football pitch and a green space will be removed as part of a development planned for Kilburn Square. And In Islington, mature tress and a beautiful communal garden have been lost at Dixon Clark Court (see photo).

Southwark:

  • Peckham Green @peckham_green
  • Bells Gardens @SaveBells
  • Kingston Estate @SaveKingstonEst
  • Elmington Estate, Lomand Grove. 22 new council homes on a grassy, woodland area the council describes as ‘walled off’ after locking it up itself Petition
  • Lindley Estate. Lindley estate development next to Bells Gardens has just been granted planning for 44 social rent units, demolishing a low rise and building over the adjacent green space. It’s also the 2nd new homes development using green space on their estate.
  • Elim Estate: plans to tear down a community sports area to build new social housing @BallcourtGarden Article

Islington:

  • Dixon Clark Court lost 7 mature trees (spring/summer 2020) & its beautiful communal garden

Lewisham:

  • Mais House @OfMais Article
  • Dacres Road Estate @GreenerySave
  • Greystead Road Estate @SaveGreystead,
  • Valentines Court Article

Wandsworth:

  • York Gardens is one of the very few green spaces left in the SW11 area. Wandsworth Council plan to concrete over part of this green area and destroy about 50 trees for a leisure centre and expensive residential blocks. @saveyorkgardens
https://www.change.org/p/save-bells-community-park-from-southwark-building-development