Green wedges and urban commons

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Contiguous building development or contiguous green spaces? This is the question when plans are drawn up to make Stockholm the most attractive metropolitan region in Europe. Green commons for which residents have a joint responsibility are another solution.
The contiguous green structure of the Stockholm region, especially the green wedges, is an issue that has again come to the fore. A new plan, RUFS 2010, is now in the course of preparation for the future expansion of Stockholm County. In this it is assumed that the region will continue to grow, and the aim is that it should be the most attractive metropolitan region in Europe. A somewhat polarised debate is in progress which may be described as a discussion between the advocates of a contiguous building development with elements of park environments and those who plead for the preservation of contiguous “untamed” green spaces.
In the following, I will give some examples of how my Formas-funded research may broaden this perspective and help bring about a more sustainable urban planning process of Greater Stockholm’s green wedges.
Greater Stockholm’s green wedges
The Stockholm region has lost much of its green structure, and this can be associated with an impoverishment of plant and animal life. In the beginning of last century, buildings were concentrated in the city, but over time they have been developed along the radial communication routes, and now they resemble fingers spread out in all directions. In the spaces between these there is a relatively rich and contiguous green structure which is referred to as green wedges (see the box on p. ).
The need for more housing outside the city centre has, ever since the 1960s, been in conflict with the green wedges as good recreational areas and corridors for biological dispersion as far in towards the city centre as possible. In twenty years, the population of Stockholm County is expected to increase by a number equal to the entire population of Göteborg. Stockholm City alone will have grown to one million inhabitants. This poses stringent demands for the development of new housing and infrastructure. The question is no longer “whether” there shall be building development in the existing green wedges, but “how” this shall be done.
Integration of ecosystem services in urban planning
In recent years, ecological research has increasingly focused on ecosystem services. These are all the goods and services which the ecosystems supply to people, and on which human welfare and economic development directly depend. Examples of goods from ecosystems are timber, fish, fruit and medicines. Services from ecosystems comprise water and clean air, attenuation of water flows and erosion, pedogenesis, biological control and pollination of both wild plants and crops, as well as cultural and aesthetic assets.
The concept of ecosystem services has not been analysed before with reference to how they can be used to promote a more sustainable urban development. In the research project Integration of ecosystem services in urban planning within Formas Urban-net, I will, together with colleagues, investigate how this concept may generate new administrative insights and instruments to incorporate resilience in the urban landscape. The term resilience, or buffer capacity, refers to the ability of a system to incorporate changes and various types of disturbances in such a way that the system retains its capacity to maintain essential functions and services. For example, when a city grows, many of the ecosystems are utilised and converted into paved urban surfaces. There is then a risk that many of the ecosystem services will be undermined and will gradually disappear, reducing their capacity to cope with different types of changes, for instance to buffer climatic or socioeconomic changes.
Within the framework of the project, urban planners cooperate with urban ecologists from Stockholm, Istambul and Wageningen (Netherlands) to identify the limitations in the current urban planning strategies which undermine critical ecosystem services. In Stockholm we will, inter alia, analyse how the concept of ecosystem services can be applied in the green wedges during future urban expansion so as to promote urban development that is more sustainable in the long term.
Urban commons
Another aspect that will be studied in this Urban-net project is how greater local participation in ecosystem management can be promoted in cities. Since much of today’s debate concerning urban development in Stockholm relates to the construction of parks in new housing developments, I believe it is is essential to give emphasis to other types of urban space which more specifically promote the generation of urban ecosystem services and are, at the same time, important educational arenas to strengthen urban residents’ insight into their dependence on ecosystem services. We have decided to call these arenas “urban commons”, a name that refers to green spaces which a large group of people are jointly associated with, are responsible for, design and care for on their own as an area of common interest. In contrast to parks and the gardens of villas (which are mostly municipally or privately owned and managed), urban commons constitute different applications of common property systems. This has been found especially successful for sustainable care and management of nature resources in rural and local communities. I therefore believe that it is very important to develop this property system so that it can also contribute to sustainable urban development.
Commons in green urban spaces
In some cities, the yearning to bring nature into the urban space is so great today that people occupy demolition sites in their local neighbourhoods and create “community gardens”. In American cities such as New York, Seattle and Detroit, these garden oases have become increasingly frequent and are being developed wth the intention that the city should buy or lease land for the establishment of community gardens. In Seattle, this kind of land is incorporated into structure plans, so that people should be able to grow vegetables and create green urban spaces on a more permanent basis. Research demonstrates that community gardens contribute to biodiversity, promote physical and mental wellbeing, reduce segregation in housing estates and enhance neighbourly cooperation. In this way they provide important socio-ecological arenas in the urban landscape.
Another example can be seen in London: the green belt which has been rigorously protected from all building development since 1944. Because of economic decline, much of the green belt has become overgrown and inaccessible for recreation, since the adjoining communities cannot afford to look after them. As a solution, “community forests” have been created in parts of the green belt, where the neighbourhood residents were given management rights and where they cleared growth, looked after the natural space and made it more accessible.
These examples show that the design and upkeep of periurban green spaces need not, at all times, be run on a national or municipal basis, and that, when urban landscapes are created, natural spaces should not only be in the form of parks. What should be endeavoured instead is to create a multiplicity of green spaces, some of which should also have elements of “virgin” nature. In a recently published investigation from Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences SLU, Alnarp, it was demonstrated that it is precisely green spaces with great biodiversity that most effectively reduce people’s stress levels and thus promote wellbeing. Research also shows that people develop their understanding for complex natural conditions when they are given an opportunity to till the land themselves. From a psychological perspective, this creates a perception of participation and a feeling of a meaningful relationship – an important aspect in the ongoing health debate.
A third example of urban commons are allotment lands. In previous research, colleagues and I charted the ecosystem services which allotments in Stockholm generate. Because of the management practice of the allotment holders, these constitute particularly important oases for the retention in the urban landscape of pollinators which are in great decline in the world today. Birds which control insects are also favoured by allotments. In Sweden it is also possible to draw up “management agreements” between the municipality and a stakeholder group in a housing estate. This enables the residents themselves to manage and look after a nearby green space.
Civil responsibility
The examples of urban commons which I have referred to illustrate a more flexible attitude in the urban development process, where not only ecological values but also social factors are given greater attention. For example, urban commons promote greater public participation in the design and care of urban spaces and promote increased civil responsibility. In the research project we will therefore study how and to what extent it is possible to scale up urban commons in the urban landscape. As a model, the property rights of allotment holders might, for instance, be applied also to the management and active use of green spaces in existing and new multifamily developments. Development of urban commons would probably also be an economically favourable option for the community, since it requires resources to look after and enhance the biological values of periurban natural systems. In the research project we will therefore study urban commons from a national economical perspective.
New rules for green wedges
In the project Green wedges as urban commons, which is funded by Formas, we will investigate by means of case studies in the Stockholm region and in Melbourne, Australia, how institutional capacity for resilient management of ecosystem services can be incorporated into physical planning and urban landscape design. In view of the fact that Melbourne has been greatly affected by large scale changes caused by climatic impacts, planners there have for a long time adopted strategies which unite economic management of the region’s ecosystem services and their protection. Stringent restrictions have, for example, been introduced as to how Melbourne’s green wedges can be used, and the city has been nominated by OECD as a model of sustainable urban development. We therefore believe that insights from urban planning in Melbourne may contribute to the development of more effective rules for future urban development in Stockholm’s green wedges, the aim of which will be to secure more actively the socio-ecological values which these green spaces generate.

Green wedges according to RUFS
“Periurban regional green structure that is closely integrated with building development and infrastructure is referred to as green wedges. The inner parts of these wedges are near the buildings and adjoin the local green structure. The outer boundaries of the wedges often coincide with the boundaries of areas that are of national interest for nature conservancy, cultural heritage or outdoor activities and the assets that these represent. The green wedges consist of wedge areas and valuable green cores. Valuable green cores are areas that contain several of the assets referred to above. Wedge areas link the valuable green cores in the wedge. A wedge area should be at least 500 m wide. Vulnerable sections are areas in the wedges that need special care or action to strengthen the wedge as a contiguous area.”
This is an article writen by Johan Colding who is a researcher at Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, KVA/Stockholm Resilience Centre

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One Response to “Green wedges and urban commons”

  1. rlinton Says:

    Despite our high density leaving and often overcroded housing circumstance, we are so fortunate in London to have access to so many large green spaces. Public parks (green commons) are so integrated into our way of life that no-one would dream of suggesting the the housing crisis be resolved by building on Hyde Park or Hampstead Health. It was sonething that really struck me when I was in Malta recently- there were few public gardens and those that existed were tiny spaces. Nowhere for children to run and play and people to have picincs and events.

    This is not to say that these parks could not be redevloped to be more commons-oriented. The idea of having fruit and vegetables growing publicly for anybody’s consumption is lovely. Ok the cynical side of me says that it would quickly become beaurocratised and people wpuld end up having to have to buy some sort of membership in order to pick fruit and vegetables, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not and idea worth exploring.

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