Countryside should be at the heart of the Valleys city region

cynon valley

David Llewellyn says we need to regard the Welsh landscape as an essential source of economic renewal

Hardly a month seems to go by without news of yet more impending doom and gloom for the US city of Detroit. The statistics are by now probably familiar even to many of us here in Wales: $18 billion of debt, forcing the city to file for bankruptcy in July this year; an incredible 90,000 or so abandoned or vacant buildings; the loss of more than a million inhabitants over the last 60 years; persistent high unemployment; fractured social cohesion; and a continued soaring crime rate. All of which adds up to a dysfunctional present and an apocalyptic vision for the future.

And yet something exciting is stirring within the soul and soil of the metropolis where the motor car was king, but has long sped out of town. After extensive cross-sector consultation, a new vision to reverse its fortunes entitled Detroit Future City, has emerged, The cornerstone of this vision is for Detroit to working with its natural landscape as part of its  ‘21st Century infrastructure”.

The message from Detroit is being echoed and acted upon globally, in ailing post-industrial areas across Europe and the US. Cities such as Pittsburgh and Cleveland in America’s so-called ‘rust-belt’ are adopting the approach as a key tool in their regeneration.

Quite simply, the message is that working better, smarter, and more innovatively with our natural environmental resources is both necessary and vital for sustainable future economic growth, improving health and wellbeing, and creating stronger, more cohesive communities.

The challenge as to how we best do that in Wales was explored by nearly 200 delegates at the end of September who descended on Cardiff for an international conference ‘Rethinking the Landscape’, It was organised by Valleys Regional Park partnership in conjunction with the Centre for Regeneration Excellence Wales, Cardiff University, Cynnal Cymru/Sustain Wales, the Wales Green Infrastructure Forum, and Planet Health Cymru.

One loud and clear message was the need to learn from best practice in strategic planning and economic development elsewhere. Dr. Andrea Frank showed how the Stuttgart City Region, one of Cardiff’s twin cities, has been at the forefront in using its landscape a key tool for regional development through a statutory landscape plan and the establishment of regional landscape parks such as The Neckar Landscape Park. As well as creating recreational opportunities, this has increased the region’s competitiveness as a business location, supporting economic development, and contributing vitally to management of climate change.

Like the Welsh Valleys, Glasgow and central belt of Scotland has a history of heavy industrialisation and recent economic travails through its subsequent loss. The Glasgow and Clyde Valley Green Network Partnership is a vital regional component of the Central Scotland Green Network, identified as a ‘National Development’ in Scottish Government’s second National Planning Framework. The Glasgow’s Green Network programme manager Max Hislop demonstrated how they are integrating the region’s Green Infrastructure to provide a wide range of benefits including economic competitiveness and enhanced social benefits.

If learning from best practice was a key message from the meeting, so was building upon the successes here in Wales. Barbara Castle, who chaired the session on housing and urban renewal, detailed some recent exciting developments at Bron Afon Community Housing, innovatively using green spaces to develop improved housing environments and enhanced skills amongst residents.

On a more strategic scale, the Valleys Regional Park (VRP) partnership has been working to maximise the environmental, social and economic potential of the valleys’ natural and cultural heritage assets.

By the end of the Valleys Regional Park current convergence project around 200 jobs will have been created. In addition to that and the significant infrastructure improvements, such as those in the area’s country parks and the Valleys Cycle Network, the project has also trained over 400 community tourism ambassadors. This innovative scheme has resulted in the valleys being shortlisted for the 2013 World Travel Market’s ‘Best Responsible Tourism Destination’. In addition, the VRP WECAN project has been studying and piloting how we can work better with our natural environment to help connect business and community enterprise activities for mutual benefit.

The other major theme of the ‘Rethinking the Landscape’ conference was health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, the Valleys continue to suffer with some of the worst long term health problems in the UK. The most recent data from research at Cardiff Metropolitan University, supported by the VRP partnership, provides evidence of significant health benefits from engaging communities in outdoor ‘green’ exercise, which is more easily accessible than traditional gym-based exercise and hence overcomes many reported barriers. As in Detroit, there are also opportunities for increased and improved local food growing, again contributing positively to the health and wellbeing of communities.

The unique natural, and indeed cultural, landscapes of south Wales afford magnificent opportunities for the proposed city region. In conjunction with major projects such as the Metro, innovative strategic approaches to work with our natural assets can help address major issues in housing, urban renewal, and health. The outcome will be the delivery of substantial economic, social, and environmental benefits to help create sustainable and successful city region.

David Llewellyn is the Valleys Regional Park coordinator based out of Groundwork Wales

8 thoughts on “Countryside should be at the heart of the Valleys city region

  1. This is a timely piece. The ‘rotten apple effect’ – decaying inner cities and expanding suburbs – has been known in planning circles for decades, but reactionary local authorities like Cardiff are still expanding recklessly into green land instead of addressing their existing problems. We need, in the first place, to question whether development is necessary at all, and, where it is, it should be balanced better with the natural environment. Even when Cardiff’s expansion was at its most commercial, the city fathers preserved huge parks, reaching right into the centre, and we enjoy the benefits to this day; their current successors lack their vision. One of the arguments put forward in favour of the Welsh Assembly was that it could encourage a sub-regional strategy, co-ordinating growth between Cardiff and the Valleys. It is a pity that the Assembly has not seen fit to take on this role.

  2. Unfortunately there’s not much natural landscape in Wales, Britain or Europe any more,

    David Cameron and his party have shown that they would prefer an unbeatable atmosphere and polluted land if it means they could sell oxygen canisters and acid resistant boots. The profit model could be exported to the rest of the world.

    We have a strange economic system that no-one understands but seems dependent on debt to create money that doesn’t actually exist.

    The developed west seems to be losing money to developing countries (from where it had stolen much of the money now returning home) and it seems to be desperately trying to find methods to pretend it still has the money it’s lost.

    To me it seems we’ve constructed a system where there’s not enough money to go around. As long this stays the same it is the greatest threat to the whole of our environment and therefore our health.

  3. An interesting article with ideas that blend several approaches to the complex inter-relationship between urban growth, regenereation and the protection of natural areas on a regional basis. Several decades ago, something like this was called good Town and Country Planning with Ian McHarg’s ‘Design with Nature’ in your back pocket. But we have moved on since then – or perhaps not if I read John Winterson Richards’ comments correctly.

    A few years ago, historian John Davies wrote a book titled ‘The Making of Wales’ in which he said: “Yet there is nowhere in twentieth-century Wales which is in any sense primeval.” He then continues to develop his argument regarding the inter-relationship of man’s activities and the natural world over the generations, the effects of which we see today. John Davies envisaged the landscape as a palimpsest, which comes close to how David Llywelyn may see it.

    But ‘landscape’ is a loaded term. In Wales there are protected landscapes (National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty), historic landscapes. and slate industry landscapes in North Wales which are candidates to be World Heritage Sites. All were topics of public consultation by the Welsh Government this past summer in its review of protected landscape policy and proposed legislation regarding the historic enviornment. In sum, a mixed bag of proposals with room for improvement all round. In particular the proposed policy regarding protected landscapes was a complete disppointment. I am therefore encouraged by what David Llywelyn has to say, and hope that he generates the support necessary to make things happen.

  4. Good article. I think that something radical is needed to revive the valleys post-industry – this article offers a direction.

  5. A timely article as a follow up to an excellent conference.

    I have no doubt about the importance of ‘green infrastructure’, underscored recently by a snippet about National Parks . Indeed, an Ecosystem Assessment of Birmingham’s Green Infrastructure estimated it to be worth £12m annually or £420m capitalised over 50 years.

    I suggest though that a successful strategy requires partnerships across different sectors, authorities and geographical scales and integrating different themes in a way that provides proper understanding of the asset base of the natural and built environment.

    Certainly, this topic is relevant to policy development, masterplans and planning proposals. However, my only constructive criticism of the article lies in the title. We need to be grown up about the ‘attack brand’ of a polycentric city-region (e.g. Manchester; Stuttgart etc) and therefore for global marketing we should institute a Cardiff city-region brand with appropriate joined-up governance.

  6. Hi Rob (and indeed all)

    When I submitted the article I didn’t suggest a title. I am sure the editor won’t mind me saying that had I, then it would have been certainly been different. I personally don’t view the region as a “Valleys City Region” and I have no problem with the Cardiff City Region brand if that is what it is to be. It is about whatever makes the whole successful at the end of the day.

    I am glad to see the article is stirring some debate and thanks to all who have responded so far. Personally I believe we have all struggled to articulate a future vision for the valleys for perhaps 80 years since the 1930s and Special Area Status etc.

    I genuinely believe that this route, which we have started to work successfully upon, offers a highly positive contributory role (though obviously not the only one) that a post-heavy industrial valleys can play in the success of the whole region. The role of GI/landscape is part of the jigsaw along with town centre regeneration and initiatives such as the Metro. It is about maximizing the social and economic potential of all our assets in a sustainable fashion and in the valleys undoubtedly the natural environment offers the chance to do that.

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