Monday, 28 September 2015

Hobson's Choice? Town Planning & Biodiversity

One rainy winter I was living in a Somerset village just outside Bristol, without car or cycle. My preferred route to the shops was straight across the fields, slipping through cowpats and hoof-prints full of water. I climbed through a barbed wire fence, dropped down into a stream and scaled the bank. Emerging into woodland, the rustic territory gave way to signs of habitation; an enticing boardwalk led the way from here. Accompanied by brave ripples of robin song and artist's palette of fungi and fallen leaves, I returned the same way laden with shopping but lighter of mood (and carbon footprint to boot).

Desire lines map the places where town planning and free spirits meet. They are the paths made by man or beast that developers didn't foresee. Shortcuts across grass or municipal flowerbeds are sometimes eventually paved, but planners are perhaps getting better at imagining the routes humans - and hedgehogs - might want to tread. Conservation charity the RSPB is working in partnership with Barratt Developments to give nature a home at new building sites by implementing ideas such as hedgehog highways (access built into housing plans such as holes in fences, and hedgerow corridors). The charity has a Head of Sustainable Development responsible for Urban Recovery (looking at urban bird species of concern), and will soon recruit a Swift Ambassador.

RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) offers a Designing For Biodiversity guide. When I visited Phase 1 of local premium development Ninewells Cambridge, a quick sketch of bat and swift boxes had only recently been added (admittedly a bit of an afterthought). Their luxury literature states: 'Ninewells is as much about the natural world as it is about the connection with the city... did you know that Ninewells takes its name from a local nature reserve? Nine Wells, a historically important source of the Hobson Conduit, once provided Cambridge with its drinking water'.

The human inhabitants of Ninewells are lucky. Paths and cycleways will lead to Addenbrooke's hospital and bus station and open countryside via 'green fingers' landscaped with flowerbeds, trees, hedgerows and allotments. Quite utopian really. The idea of the cul-de-sac is old hat, and thank goodness for that. There's one near me that swallows people up and never lets them out. The far perimeter of their housing estate was planted with trees to disguise the point at which the development met the greenbelt. A high fence still reaches all the way round. Desire lines to the public footpath across the fields next door never had a chance.

Greenbelt, Sawston, Cambridgeshire. Photo Jo Sinclair

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The Cambridge Greenbelt, Bitterns & Hippos

'Little egret, green sandpiper, coot, house martin... hippo.' Wondering if any passage ospreys had been spotted, I was checking out the birdwatchers' list in a bird hide. The joke contribution from what I imagined was a bored kid reminded me of the time I climbed a ladder to a hide in Newnham, Cambridge and facetiously pencilled 'bittern'. This was in the days when such a claim was almost as outlandish as hippopotamus. Decades later, thanks to conservation efforts nationwide it's perfectly feasible.

Right Move describes Newham as urban and rural living side by side. Nature is employed as the USP for a £2.5 million new-build for sale near Bolton's Lake:
Just a stone's throw from Cambridge City centre. Newnham is unique in Cambridge in the way that the urban and the rural sit side by side. Interesting local shops are just one street away from meadows, wildlife and woods. Newnham was named Overall Winner in the Sunday Time's Best Places to Live in Britain 2015.
The purchaser can apply to become a member of the Bolton's Pit Company Ltd. This gives rights to the owners to use the lake for boating, swimming and fishing.

The 'meadows, wildlife and woods' are described by a local conservationist in an Ecological Survey. I signed the petition to Save The West Fields. I hesitated, as I live in a home that was built on arable land in 1972, and it seems a little hypocritical to campaign against new housing when I know how desperate the need is for new social housing. But Cambridge is a hotspot for investors who will never live in the houses they buy (in 2015 30% of new-builds are reported to be owned by buyers from overseas), and many are standing empty.

Cambridge University's wealth has provided a greenbelt so rich that green is turning to gold - but the gold may soon be concreted over. The Save The West Fields campaign aims to preserve the network of gardens, playing fields, footpaths, hedgerows, lakes, ponds, ditches and woods. As a child playing with friends and family in those places I navigated the green spaces, secretly trespassing and exploring swimming pools, lakes and nature reserves, much of it owned by the University. As an adult I believe it is essential that green corridors (or blood-red arteries) are retained for wildlife biodiversity and to connect urban residents to green networks. Kingfishers, water voles, even bitterns know every niche that connects Cambridge city centre to the edge of the greenbelt and beyond.