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Bottoms up in Madrid and London

By Ruth Slavid
Improvements in climate resilience and biodiversity in two European capitals will come about through numerous incremental changes rather than a top-down approach.

Two projects by Arup that were recognised in this year’s LI Awards look at cities and behaviour within them in a fascinating and strategic way. The Crown Estate London Ecology Masterplan, which won the science, management and stewardship award, is the first part of a larger initiative, Wild West End, that aims to promote green infrastructure across London’s great estates. Madrid + Natural, highly commended in the communications and presentation category, comprises a series of relatively small but practical and community-driven initiatives that together are designed to build resilience incrementally over time across the city to help to mitigate the effects 
of climate change on the Spanish capital. 

What is particularly interesting about these projects is that they sit between the design work that Arup has done and is continuing to do, and the theoretical reports that it has produced under the Cities Alive banner. Tom Armour, who heads Arup’s landscape business, said, ‘It’s fine doing reports but we also have to make things happen. We will carry on but we want to work from the ground up as well to demonstrate how change can happen. We are looking to change people’s perceptions about city space. We have to make cities better places for people.

Both these projects are aimed at involving local people in initiatives, and in monitoring how they work to make sure that there are results as well as just talk. In London there is already a presumption in favour of greening and biodiversity in the form of the All London Green Grid. Tom Armour said, ‘The All London Green Grid is a brilliant piece of planning. But I don’t know how well it is being enacted. Top down planning is essential but you have to find ways of being able to deliver these projects. We also need to think about how we can do it in a more universal way. With a vision, strategy or plan, you can focus effort and money and expense.’

The London project benefits from the fact that large parts of London’s West End are still in the ownership of a number of ‘great estates’ of which the Crown Estate is one. They are therefore large enough to make a difference in their own area – in the case of The Crown Estate the area of Regent Street and St James’s. While there are already three great parks on the edges of the estate (Regent’s, Green and and much of St James’s) the aim is to link these with a green network. And, expanding beyond The Crown Estate, in the long-term, the vision is to create a network of green spaces through central London, to not only improve biodiversity, but also to improve the local environment for residents, workers and visitors, contributing to better health and wellbeing and creating a more attractive place to be.

Emily Woodason, who is leading the landscape architecture component of  this project at Arup, explained that The Crown Estate Ecology Masterplan was the starting point and from there grew the idea of Wild West End, partnering with Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, Shaftesbury, Howard de Walden and the Portman Estate to cover a far more significant area of London.

Effectively, the work at The Crown Estate will set the pattern for the wider network. ‘Arup,’ Emily Woodason explained, ‘is the technical partner working with the estates to make a wider strategy, that aims to improve the wellbeing of workers and residents, and will enhance biodiversity and ecological connectivity whilst promoting the benefits of green infrastructure.’

There is a lot of detail in the documents, spelling out exactly what is wanted, in terms for instance of how the masterplan should encourage specific flora and trees, bats, invertebrates and urban birds. There is documentation addressing how these targets should be achieved both for new developments and for the refurbishment of existing buildings with the introduction, for example of biodiverse and green roofs, as well as for the public realm. The masterplan encourages the integration of green infrastructure early on in the design process and sets ambitious targets for the area and type of green space to be included on each development project to maximise the value. There is a target objective to create a significant area of green space (100m2 or more) every 100m.

The communications strategy is a vital part of Wild West End. The earliest communications have been largely with key stakeholders – including the GLA, London Wildlife Trust and Westminster City Council, but the website is relaunching this spring following a 2016 baseline green infrastructure survey, and, says Emily, ‘we are looking at how we can set clear targets to achieve the vision, and engage with local residents businesses and (just one) community groups.’ The aim is to enable all those living and working in the area to get involved in learning about, creating and experiencing the benefits of green spaces.

The local community has an even more central role in Madrid + Natural. This follows the massive Madrid Rio project by West 8, which put the major roads underground. ‘This is one of the really courageous things that has been done in cities,’ Tom Armour said. ‘It deals with pollution and makes the city more attractive and better for tourists.’ The idea of Madrid + Natural is that it 
is an incremental plan which, Tom says, ‘draws in everybody who wants to make a difference so that  slowly we can incrementally build up resilience. You can have big top-down ideas, but you can also have a vision and a plan so that anybody can take up the ideas.’

For example, one of the ideas for making buildings more resilient is to paint the roofs white. This simple, inexpensive idea reduces energy consumption by air conditioning because the light and heat are reflected back upward. ‘The important thing,’ Tom said, ‘is that people realise that their individual contribution can make a difference. We concentrated not just on the aesthetic but also on the highly functional side of landscape.’

The process was incredibly important, since it was necessary to stimulate ideas from the local community and to evaluate and sift them before adopting some. In its submission for the awards, the Arup landscape team wrote, ‘This was principally a landscape-led project working with 
a multi-disciplinary team in Arup to develop the best approach for the project. Arup’s landscape architects worked closely with the research team in Arup to run a series of client workshops. These were vital to understand the constraints and opportunities in the city and understand the way the city works politically to enable the development of practical and achievable solutions for the project. This collaborative way of working enabled a practical and achievable range of solutions and ideas to emerge and form the basis of the project. The incremental plan features a series of nature-based solutions to create a linked network of green and blue infrastructure, interconnecting open spaces, parks, nature areas, streets and buildings with green roofs and façades across the capital.’

It is the nitty gritty of these projects that makes them work – or not. Gathering information and writing a strategy can be intellectually stimulating, but there will not be change unless there are commitments to delivery and a way to make them happen. What Arup has done through these projects is to set up a process that should result in a lot of incremental changes – a process that 
it cannot control, but that it can stimulate, steer, communicate and, crucially, monitor. They do 
not have the glamour of the big ‘design’ projects but their impact on our cities may in the end be greater. Arup is to be commended but so, equally, are the city of Madrid and the Crown Estate 
in London.

Madrid + Natural
Landscape practice: Arup; 
client: Ayuntamiento de Madrid (City of Madrid) – Energy Agency and climate change department

The Crown Estate London Ecology Masterplan
Landscape practice: Arup; 
client: The Crown Estate

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