The news that Edinburgh has lost green ground equal to the size of Holyrood Park is truly staggering. According to a recent report from the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) much of this loss has been from private gardens, as driveways or extensions are built or former gardens are turned over to paving to reduce garden maintenance. Because that happens in such a piecemeal way, bit by bit, it is not as noticeable as it would be, were it in one large area like a park or an area of greenbelt land. But added together it is the same space as 15 football pitches. That’s every year, over the last 25 years.
Overall that amounts to 282 hectares or more than a mile square: about the total size of Holyrood Park, including Arthur’s seat. I am fairly sure that if the council had said in 1990 that it planned to allow building on the entire space of Holyrood Park that would have been controversial, to say the least.
In the report the researchers distinguish between “urban creep” – building in and around existing homes – which accounts for close to 60% of the green space loss and “urban expansion” – typically building new estates on land, which accounts for just over 40% of loss.
So why does this matter?
Green ground, even if private like front gardens, is critical to how the city works. Gardens act as soak-up for rainfall, particularly intense bursts of rainfall. With Climate Change already predicted to increase rain intensity in Scotland, water which is not soaked up by trees, bushes or other vegetation is rapidly going to flow into our ageing surface water gullies and drains or into the main rivers like the Water of Leith. The city has already had to spend millions in developing the flood resilience of the rivers, but it may not be enough if the goalposts are changing too.
So gardens are a defence against some of the impacts of climate change. In a double twist, they are also good at preventing climate breakdown. Trees are just as good at soaking up carbon dioxide as they are at soaking up rainfall.
And gardens are homes for the birds, insects and animals which share our city: from deer, badgers and foxes to song-birds and to the bees and worms which pollinate the plants and till the soil on which we all depend. We tend to think of species decline as something which affects the African plains or the tropical rainforests but half of Scotland’s species have fallen in number since 1970. Of course, there are bigger forces at play than what happens in domestic gardens but gardens are part of the picture too. Formerly common garden birds like house sparrow, song thrush and starling are all much more seldom seen than in earlier decades.
So what can be done?
As individual householders, let’s cherish our gardens and back-greens. Council policy has a role to play in supporting this. The current local development plan requires a minimum amount of green space per new house or flat. For existing homes, guidelines recommend that any new hard surface allows rainwater to soak through or provision of a soakaway. Creating a driveway off a public road requires permission from the council. As ever, however, the challenge lies in making sure these rules are observed and taking firm action if they aren’t.
At a meeting of all councillors last week the council’s planning convenor said that he recognised the issue and the city had to strike a balance between development within existing spaces versus yet more pressure on new space. But he also acknowledged that the scope of council powers should be looked at by Planning Committee.
Meantime, if we want Edinburgh to be home to green space and better manage urban creep then it lies in our hands.