For the most part, there is broad consensus on the Platonic ideal of liveable spaces in the built environment. Most of us can agree on the conditions that make a neighbourhood, city or region a desirable place to live: a diverse range of economic opportunities, good connectivity, ample space for recreation and socialisation, and – perhaps most importantly in increasingly dense cities – easy access to nature, whether that be through parks, community gardens or unspoilt countryside.

Of course, in any country there are areas where the reality falls far short of the ideal. Rapid urbanisation, pollution and post-industrial decay are common factors making it difficult to protect and expand green spaces and the public’s access to them, even as the threat of climate change makes them all the more necessary.

The Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN) wants to play a leading role in encouraging green space and infrastructure in the modern world. With an operational area running across Central Scotland, encompassing 19 local authorities and the country’s two most populous cities, and dozens of projects on the go, the CSGN has become Europe’s largest green space initiative.

The network’s robust government support – it has been built into Scotland’s National Planning Framework since its second iteration – puts it in a strong position to achieve its vision of transforming the region into “a place where the environment adds value to the economy and where people’s lives are enriched by its quality” by 2050.

Landscape architect and the CSGN Trust’s head of development Sue Evans discusses the network, its recently-published book ‘Growing Awareness’, and the process of rehabilitating public spaces to make them greener, cleaner and more economically valuable.

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Chris Lo: How did the Central Scotland Green Network come to be established within Scotland’s National Planning Framework?

Sue Evans: It’s been in development since the mid-2000s. It first appeared in the second iteration of the National Planning Framework, and we’re now on our third iteration, which is called NPF3. The first time around, it was recognised because there had been a number of initiatives attempting to address environmental issues in Central Scotland, really dating back to the 1970s and 80s, with various land renewal programmes.

The Central Scotland Green Network represents the first time an environmental initiative has really been built into the national planning policy, so it’s very significant to us in that context, because it’s a requirement now for local authorities to consider the development of green networks.

CL: What kinds of modern spaces do you think are the most harmful to local communities and economies?

SE: I think we should be trying to move on from spaces that have only hard elements in them, so where nature and green space has been lost. Through accommodating nature, but also [using nature] as a building block – so if a new development builds upon existing topology and hydrology, it’s going to be far more effective. So if we want to create places that don’t flood and that are attractive to people to live in and provide places for nature, then using the existing landform, existing water courses and the like as part of a masterplanning process rather than thinking that these things need to be added at the end, means you have something that is far more relevant in terms of building what exists already.

CL: What sorts of improvements have you found to be the most effective and simplest to implement for cities looking to enhance their local spaces?

SE: Well, some of it can be very simple. Just looking after public parks better – many cities have parks that are already there; they should be celebrated and looked after. The Green Flag process seeks to do that so parks can look at their management and maintenance, and improve the quality of that over time.

Getting people involved is key. This shouldn’t be a passive thing – people want to volunteer to help look after their parks; there are examples of individuals and volunteers – guerrilla gardening is something that has come about, but also things like de-paving. In Philadelphia, there are examples of communities that are actively going around, looking at where they can remove hardstandings and put back gardens. That has benefits for urban run-off, so done at scale that could have a seriously positive effect on the amount of water going through our sewers after rainfall.

CL: When you reflect on the years of work since the CSGN got started, are there particular projects or policy shifts in Central Scotland over the years that stand out for you?

SE: There is very good supportive policy at the national level in Scotland to enable a green network to happen. What we’ve seen since the launch is that local planning policy has been developing as well, and we have 19 local authorities that are starting to develop their own green network strategies.

The city of Glasgow is about to begin a programme of street improvements, which will see sustainable urban drainage systems integrated. There’s a major project in Sighthill, a big chunk of [Glasgow] north of the urban motorway, which is a Transformational Regeneration Area. Existing housing has been removed, new housing is going in with a major piece of green infrastructure at its heart, linking that part of the city back into the city centre.

And then there is a project called the Seven Lochs Wetland Park, which sits across two local authority boundaries and is an area with very high-value wildlife and cultural heritage assets. We hope, through a process of development involving the private sector, this will over time be developed as a major resource where the arrangement of housing is such that the water bodies can be retained and become part of those new housing areas, so they’re a major asset for the local people.

CL: What made you decide to collect the research and perspectives of CSGN speakers in the ‘Growing Awareness’ book?

SE: We hope to do two things. One is to raise awareness in Central Scotland of what’s happening elsewhere in the world. The forum that we hold every year provides an opportunity to bring people from across the globe; we’ve had speakers from America, Korea and from Europe. But it’s also a possibility to start to showcase what’s happening locally. So it’s a two-way process.

We talk about the Millennium Link; we have a piece from Richard Millar from Scottish Canals, which explains how the canal had become completely derelict, and from 2000 has been entirely regenerated pretty much coast-to-coast from Bowling in the west through to Grangemouth and also on to Edinburgh, in terms of the two canals, the Union Canal and the Forth and Clyde Canal. That shows the capacity of Central Scotland to make some of the big-scale changes that will be necessary if we’re to deliver on our vision for the Central Scotland Green Network.

CL: With so many projects on the go and such a diverse set of stakeholders, how important has it been to bring people together and co-ordinate the efforts of everyone from local people right the way up to national government?

SE: It is important, and it’s an area that we put a lot of work into. We have a regional advisory forum that brings together a number of organisations that can use their regional contacts to better connect at a local level. The reality is that with a number of public agencies and with 19 local authorities, it’s very much decision-making at a local level. So we have a vision, but it’s for local partners to decide what that means for them in their cities and towns.

CL: Do you think governments and planning authorities should be taking a more proactive role in making sure that new developments support environmental and community goals?

SE: I think it’s easy to bash planners and developers. What I would hope for is that over time, everybody comes to value the incorporation of green space and green infrastructure. That may be a bit ‘motherhood and apple pie’, but there is something about how we mainstream some of these activities so that it becomes expected; if someone is moving into a house, you expect to have these types of facilities as part of the development. We’re at a very early stage, and the more projects that happen, even if they’re small-scale, you start to get that cumulative impact. It starts to become the new normal, and that’s what the book concludes: we’re at a significant point where we’re maybe about to tip the balance and something that’s currently seen as additional will start to be seen as essential; a prerequisite for human living.

CL: Looking much further into the future, could you give me an idea of how Central Scotland will benefit by 2050 if the CSGN’s core vision is accomplished?

SE: I think at the world level, it ensures that the Glasgow-Edinburgh belt will continue to be a place of choice for people who have choices. If you think about people’s capacity to move around the world, we need to make sure that Central Scotland has the characteristics – economically, educationally, environmentally – that people want to stay and live in this area.

The Central Scotland Green Network vision is something that looks out to 2050. What we’re currently engaged with is a delivery plan that fills the gaps between what’s happening now and 2050.

We’ve also done some work to look at the costs and benefits of the initiative. We think it’s going to cost around £2.8bn overall to make the initiative happen. A lot of that is in the system, so what can we do to look at the existing resourcing and use that well? The benefits are such that even with quite modest assumptions, we think the ratio is just over 2:1, so for every public pound invested there should be at least two pounds of benefits accruing from what we do. So the fact that this makes economic sense as well as environmental and social sense is part of the message that we want to get out.