Land of change

Climate change is altering the landscape. Those who care for public green space, says CIWEM executive director Nick Reeves, will have to adapt

Britons are obsessed with the weather. But maybe we should be talking about it even more. The spectre of climate change is with us and is changing the look of the landscape. And, when it comes to looking after publicly owned and accessible land, the weather determines what is done, when it’s done and why.

Extremes of weather will make landscapes behave differently, determine how they will be used and require new ways of management. The impact of new weather patterns is now being considered by local government, the Crown Estate, the Royal Parks Agency, the Environment Agency, Natural England and others responsible for recreational land as a whole. And landscape managers should be aware of what this might mean for them.

Climate change is the biggest threat to mankind, it’s official. Government chief scientist Sir David King has said that action on global warming is urgent. Other respected opinion formers are saying it’s too late – that we’ve missed the boat by miles and that, despite best efforts, Britain will soon look very different. Hotter, drier summers and wetter winters are the order of the day. Sea levels are rising too, combining with other climatalogical and social factors to create more frequent flooding, stronger winds, storms and droughts.

A changing climate is leading to changes in biodiversity, loss of species, increased watercourse flows, more vigorous vegetation growth, coastal retreat and other changes to the natural environment, including pest invasions. The changes in the weather will bring economic and social demands. It may be, for example, that greater use is made of public open space for longer periods, requiring different management and maintenance regimes, and changes in the way we think about our public spaces.

About 350 of the 468 local authorities in this country have responsibility for thousands of parks or gardens. Typically, a district council manages 100 or so different sites and a number of staff and contractors who care for them. Let’s take an average authority: a district council with around 450 hectares of amenity land to maintain. Its parks department will have a budget of around £2.5M, and spend around half of this just to keep on top of vegetation growth. During the growing season, from April to September, the authority will cut its 450 hectares approximately every fortnight, perhaps 12 to 14 times. And within the overall cost of around £2,500 per year per hectare for its amenity areas it will spend around £20,000 each time it needs to cut the grass.

It has recently been stated by the UK Climate Impacts Programme that “the thermal growing season is now longer than at any time since 1772”. So, if this dictates that regimes must be extended by at least another two cuts each year, our typical authority must meet this cost from budgets that are already too low and in many cases still falling.

Take another area of expenditure – the floral beautification of town centres. The cost to the average district council of just watering its hanging baskets is around £30,000 a year. Sports areas also require effective grounds maintenance. This land is additional to general amenity land and costs around £500,000 each year to maintain. And, again, changes in weather patterns could change the costs of doing so.

In contrast, spending on allotments is relatively low. The average district council may have around 2,000 plots. While the sites, overall, must be maintained, the opportunity for people to grow their own food comes at a low price.

So, demand for allotments may increase. There is a growing interest and new initiatives exploring the value of local food production to local economies. This provision, far from being gradually run down with sites sold off for housing and other development may well be something that authorities should plan to increase in future. Besides heritage restoration, there has been very little scope for capital investment in maintenance solutions that mitigate against climate change by saving energy and reducing carbon emissions.

Environmentalists have had much influence over the last couple of decades on issues such as recycling, conservation, reducing pesticide use and other environmental practice but we now need to think more about how to adapt to coming changes in the weather. As yet, there has been little assessment made on how authorities may adapt to changing environments and even to the opportunities that may arise.

So how should landscape managers now adapt to a possible change in climate? Firstly, the changes we experience will vary across the UK. Secondly, we may experience more extreme episodes and therefore have to consider the risks associated with them. Thirdly, and most importantly, we are facing uncertainty. There is not one single solution and we should resist lobby groups that claim modish fixes. What is required is a strong policy and decision-making structure that is open and can respond to the changes demanded.

There is alarming ignorance about climate change and its impacts on the landscape. But, with the establishment of the parks agency Cabe Space, with support from the Environment Agency, SEPA, Natural England (and other environmental agencies), and with the Green Flag Park Awards promoting and celebrating best practice, landscape professionals now have every opportunity to ensure their plans for our public green spaces are prepared to meet the challenge.

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