Forget forests, an urban jungle is what we need

Plans to create wildflower meadows in Leeds are already being realised but experts now want to see many more.
Plans to create wildflower meadows in Leeds are already being realised but experts now want to see many more.
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Could spending five minutes a day in the local park really prolong your life? Neil Hudson meets one man who says it can and talks to two scientists who want to see more wildflower meadows across the city.

Stand in a field for three minutes and you could lower your blood pressure. Walk through a wood and you could heal faster. These aren’t magical powers, they are part of a symbiosis which exists between people and plants and which an increasing number of scientists and academics are discovering could help us to redesign and redefine our urban landscapes.

Among them is Alan Simson, a reader in landscape architecture and urban forestry at Leeds Metropolitan University, who has some rather unconventional views on how we should make use of trees and meadows.

He is in favour of more radical management of woodlands and forest and wants to use wood to power public transport schemes - something he says would actually benefit the environment and lower carbon emissions; and he says the Government ought to ditch expensive projects like the high speed rail link (HS2) and instead spend on the money on putting urban motorways [major roads] underground. He also says council leaders in Leeds should be more radical in their thinking on how we use trees in cities and believes that planting more could lower skin cancer rates and even get people to spend more.

But, first, more about lowering your blood pressure...

“Trees help us in all sorts of ways - they help to create a sense of pride on the local area, they are focal points, they increase property prices and even help reduce crime but one of the more interesting things they can do is have a positive impact on people’s mental and physical health.

“Various studies have shown that if you stand in patch of greenery for just three minutes, you can lower your blood pressure. Other studied have proved a link between healing rates and people being given access to trees.”

He’s not wrong either. Numerous studies, notably by Terry Hartig and Roger Ulrich, who advised the NHS on the development of new hospitals, have helped make the link between good health and trees an accepted fact.

A report by the Forestry Commission in 2009 suggested a link between mental wellbeing and patients who were given regular access to a countryside setting, while the NHS Forest website states: “research has shown that patient recovery rates improve even if they can only view trees from their hospital window.”

Using trees to make ourselves more healthy is one thing but Mr Simson believes they have a multitude of other uses.

“Our forests aren’t working,” he says, matter-of-factly. “What used to happen many years ago was that large areas of woodland would be cut down and people would see these bald patches on hillsides and think they looked ugly. What happened when forestry came down from the hills was this approach was not considered popular and so a different approach was taken, to take out individual trees here and there.

“The only problem was forests are like us - as they get older they get slower, and their ability to store carbon dioxide (CO2) decreases. If you have a young patch of forest growing quickly, it absorbs more co2. We don’t have time to plant native oak trees.

“When it comes to our cities, trees can be used to reduce windspeeds, filter dust, they can help reduce the ‘heat island’ effect, they provide shade, lowering temperatures by up to eight degrees and that makes people more retail friendly.” Mr Simson also says it could help reduce skin cancer rates.

“They are much more aware of this on the Continent,” he says. “In this country, we tend to have plain white pavements and in the summer that reflects the heat. Studies have proven a link between higher skin cancer rates in the urban environment. Planting trees is one way to help tackle that.

We need to get away from the idea that trees are just cosmetic, they can and do help improve our lives, even in cities like Leeds.

“We have to start re-evaluating what our green spaces are used for. If someone said to me now, let’s build a new park, I’d say, ‘what is a park?’, because it’s not what it used to be.

“City leaders might want to consider how much it costs to mow all that open grass and then compare that to how much it costs to manage a patch of woodland. Add in health benefits and you are talking about saving millions.

“There’s a lot of talk about the need for more houses - there’s a shortage of something like 216,000 - but some people are now starting to question the idea of the ‘compact city’. I would like to see more open green spaces near people’s houses. It’s the notion that if you give people a bit of space, they are better workers.”

Mr Simson called on city leaders in Leeds to take a leaf from proven green projects around the world, among them the New York High Line, a mile-long elevated ‘park’ built on a disused section of the railway.

He said: “It cost something like £115m to create but it has since generated around £2bn in revenues.

“The same thing is happening in Emscher Park, Germany, once one of the most polluted and industrialised regions in the world - it has been reborn by the planting each year since 1989 of over 1,000 hectares of trees and is now a major recreational area and a major centre for eco-commercial investment..

“Bristol has a project called TreeBristol, where they want to increase the number of trees by 30 per cent.”

If you thought that was the extent of Mr Simson’s radical views, think again. He has one more parting shot.

“The cost of HS2 keeps rising and the timetables get longer. Will we ever see it? Cities like Madrid have proved roads can be put underground, Boris Johnson is even considering this in London. Do we want to spend billions on HS2 or do we want to sort out public transport in Leeds

“It’s a shame Leeds has no underground trains.”