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.