Blank Canvas: How can we work with communities to make urban green spaces more resilient?

June 2023

Artwork: Alice Creasy

The challenge

In 2022, as the UK experienced its hottest year on record, urban green spaces wilted.

In the normally leafy London suburb of Kingston, local authority teams resorted to much more frequent watering to keep plants alive, even topping up ponds, and watching as trees were impacted by pests and diseases. “It was definitely a challenging year for maintaining the green landscapes,” says biodiversity officer Elliot Newton. “I’ve been doing this stuff for about ten years, and this is something I’ve never experienced before.”

At the same time, the borough’s green oases are more valued than ever by local residents. Since 2015, the number of community groups dedicated to looking after local parks has grown from two to 31. The Covid lockdowns in particular brought a dramatic increase in engagement as people rediscovered the nature on their doorsteps, and also the boost to their physical and mental wellbeing that spending time in it could offer.

"We do need help from the community and local businesses, but we can’t just leave it up to them to do everything"

“The high street itself is quite green with lovely hanging baskets, but it’s really important to have the kind of public space that people can interact with and use for different activities,” says Nkechi OkekeAru, Kingston’s high-street recovery lead, charged with rejuvenating its public spaces to meet local demand. “Even on one of our town centre projects, while it’s a very urban space, it’s becoming a kind of outdoor community centre.”

The conundrum for Newton and OkekeAru is how to meet the ever growing task of maintaining Kingston’s green spaces as local authority budgets are going in the other direction: how can they be made more resilient to the extremes of a changing climate, and what’s the best way to harness local enthusiasm to meet the shortfall?

“In a challenging funding environment, we do need help from the community and local businesses, but we can’t just leave it up to local people to do everything,” says Newton. “We have to think about how we are going to facilitate and support them, and find the right balance between empowering people to take ownership and shifting responsibility.”



Team UK /  Grassroots groups are great — but working with local institutions is more sustainable for the long term

There are many ways we can make urban green spaces more resilient as the climate changes. Drought-tolerant species, improving soil quality to help retain moisture, rainwater collection systems and green walls and roofs will all play an important role in mitigating extreme heat. Increasing rainwater absorption will also help to tackle the risk of flooding during warmer, wetter winters.

While there are lots of solutions out there, the main challenge for many local authorities is how to resource resilience measures. Public participation and local volunteering opportunities have an vital role to play. Not only can participants provide their expertise and fill resourcing gaps but facilitating engagement can help to empower people, and reinforce community connections. Small-scale nature-based, neighbourhood-level interventions can also be cheaper and more sustainable than heavy engineering solutions.

"When you don't have a mechanism to engage with local businesses, it tends to be the big players that get all the benefit, which dilutes the opportunity to create local jobs"

But while meaningful community engagement and volunteering opportunities are important, given the scale of the challenge, it’s often not sustainable to rely on volunteers. From a practical perspective it means there are a lot of people for local authorities to coordinate, which can be complicated and time-consuming. It’s also not fair to place the burden of responsibility on community members.

As an alternative, working with existing local institutions is potentially more stable and ensures that the benefits of greater spending are captured locally. Strengthening relationships with local universities, colleges and schools, for example, could help to turn green spaces into places for education and learning and help to address future green skills shortages. We’re currently working with Capel Manor College in Enfield, one of the UK’s leading horticultural institutions, to set up projects with a local authority. The students will be training towards NVQ qualifications, and they will be able to apply their learning on real projects — such as coming up with ways to reduce water runoff in urban areas, or better water-harvesting measures to help plants thrive in drought conditions.

One group that is often overlooked is local businesses. There is an opportunity for local authorities to engage them more actively by working with local chambers of commerce or SME associations. It doesn’t have to be through a call for funding, it could just be a communication exercise, to let them know that this is a long-term programme so that they are prepared to adapt to it. When you don’t have this kind of market mechanism or engagement, it tends to be the big players that get all the benefit. When local authorities release tenders for a contractor to help develop their green assets, the applicants often come from somewhere else, which dilutes the opportunity to create local jobs.

Larger organizations have to comply with increasingly ambitious ESG requirements. A lot of organizations are looking for projects that can generate biodiversity offsets, to comply with fiduciary standards or regulations that require a biodiversity net gain. In cities with limited land, converting a grey asset like a parking space or part of a pavement into a green space can provide numerous environmental, ecological and social benefits. We are currently working with Islington council in London on a project to develop a model for channelling private and public-sector green finance to fund urban tree-planting and pocket-park projects.

Grassroots initiatives are definitely a part of the solution, but they need to be part of a larger framework. Moving towards more resilient forms of horticulture will create demand for new skills, products and greater funding. We need to make sure that the market can respond accordingly.

From WSP in the UK

Alice Creasy / sustainability and climate change consultant / Edinburgh
Adarsh Varma / technical director, economics / London


Team Australia / Using a space isn’t the same as taking responsibility for it — maybe a bit of friendly competition can help bridge the gap

The community became more connected to urban spaces through the pandemic, and they saw more value in them, but that doesn’t necessarily create a feeling of responsibility for maintaining them or the responsibility to think long term, to ensure that the next generation can benefit from them too. One of the biggest challenges we see in urban settings, not only here in Australia but in our international work too, is the loss of a sense of what community means.

In Australia, we deal with quite a lot of disasters in our urban areas, both intense heat and intensive flooding. We’ve found it’s important to work with the community because it helps them to better understand the climate risks associated with their local urban spaces, so they don’t get too disheartened when there are periods of drought, and it means they can support the response too.

The UK could adopt the Landcare model we have in Australia, a grassroots movement that started in the 1980s. It was originally about helping agricultural land recover from drought, but has now expanded to other biomes like Coastcare, Dunecare and Forestcare. Community groups get together to weed or to plant trees, facilitated by one or two skilled members of staff who share their knowledge of conservation. This creates a sense of ownership for participants — if you understand the tree you’re planting and why, you’re more likely to want to go back and check how it’s going.

"If we’re sharing the load, we also need to share the vision and ask people what their expectations for our shared urban spaces are"

A lot of it is about making people feel empowered to do something. There’s often a divide between those who’ve been involved previously and those who haven’t but who want to. So, you might have a group of university kids that care about climate change and can see that a park is struggling, but they don’t feel they can do anything about it. Local government needs to get that message out, and we need to make sure we’re including everyone who might want to be involved, even if they don’t have access to certain engagement platforms or English isn’t their first language. They may use those open spaces for very different reasons than we would understand. If we’re sharing the load, we also need to share the vision and ask people what their expectations for our shared urban spaces are.

As cities grow, there will be more people using urban green spaces than ever before, as well as more climate events than we’ve experienced in the past. We need to engage not only with the current community, but the future community too. The council could set up an engagement programme for new members coming into a community, perhaps as part of any new development, so they can understand how they can be involved.

In a city like London, as in many Australian cities, there are many ethnic minority groups who have relocated from places where there is more of a tradition of communities banding together to look after local assets, or whose ancestors may have passed down those connections to the earth. Often these are the people who are prepared to give their time and invest in their community if they have the chance. We could also learn from communities who already know how to create drought-tolerant green spaces, so you could set up a multicultural garden project where the local Sudanese or Ethiopian or Bangladeshi communities create their own gardens. Friendly competition is a great motivator — whether it’s a challenge to see who can shovel the most mulch to help soil retain water, or a climate-resilient version of the Tidy Town awards.

From WSP in Australia

Sally Bamber / climate change and resilience consultant / Newcastle
Ben Gibbs / associate director, sustainability / Brisbane
Nicholas Vachon / senior climate change and resilience consultant / Brisbane


Team Sweden / Capture people’s imaginations, and don’t forget about winter  

There are 1,001 things you can do to make a society more resilient towards climate change, but if you want local people to take care of something and develop it, then you have to involve them from day one, and ask them what’s they think is missing and what they’d like to do about it. Then you have to make sure that they stay connected. There’s a lot that happens between an initial idea and a finished product, and if people are part of that process, they’re more likely to understand why their favourite idea wasn’t realized.

This kind of citizen dialogue can also focus attention on the specific characteristics of different sites, and how they will be affected by climate change. A yearly event where every citizen gets to plant a tree could raise awareness of how our actions affect public spaces and what we need to do for future generations. If you have a garden, you could plant it there, or if you live in an apartment you could plant it in a public space. Then, the next year, you take the seeds from the tree and plant them somewhere else.

Like climate change, water is something that connects us all — we all need water to survive. So you could create interactive hands-on experiments so people can discover for themselves how much water is collected over time and how it affects different types of soil and materials. Or you could approach specialist groups within the community, like birdwatchers, and invite them to come up with improvements that are directly related to their interests — for example, improving habitats for hibernating insects. There will always be conflicts between different groups, but if you can engage them in discussion about a longer-term goal, it can help them to see that it’s not a zero-sum game and that everybody can gain from making spaces better.

"There will always be conflicts between different groups, but if you can engage them in discussion about a longer-term goal, it can help them to see that it’s not a zero-sum game"

In Sweden, housing is managed in quite a different way to the UK. We tend to have a lot of coop housing, where tenants actually own the building and are involved in making decisions about it, as opposed to just buying an apartment within it. Most apartment buildings in Stockholm have an inner courtyard or garden, and those spaces are really valued. So people tend to have a better awareness of communal urban spaces too and an interest in how they’re managed. Generally here, planning decisions that involve building on green areas are much more heavily scrutinised. People will stand up and say they don’t want something, or that it should be done in a certain way.

There are a lot of conversations in Stockholm about making streets more democratic — on an ordinary street, there are more pedestrians than motorists, but cars take up maybe 80% of the space. We could capitalise on this by inviting people to anticipate how we’ll move in the future, and how we could rearrange the space. Perhaps you could hold a workshop to encourage people to think of new ways of using the materials we already have, in a more climate-friendly way. So instead of hard surfaces everywhere, you might stack some concrete slabs to make a wall and then combine that with planting.

If we want to capture their imaginations, we should think about different seasons too and what works best at different times of year. In the northern parts of Sweden, it’s winter for much more of the year and people are much more focused on that. So if you want to engage people in the redesign of a park, you need talk to them about how it’ll be used in winter. Maybe in England, you could focus on what a park would be like on a rainy day?

From WSP in Sweden

Rebecca Deutsch / head of landscape architecture department
Anna-Maria Pershagen / assistant landscape architect
Fredrik Schönfeldt / group manager, landscape architecture
Noa Stryjan / assistant landscape architect
Michael Vipond / senior landscape architect

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