Develop and improve urban and rural green infrastructure

Why this theme?

‘Green infrastructure’ is a term that’s sometimes used to describe a wide range of natural and semi-natural features, spaces, rivers and lakes including parks, fields, allotments, hedgerows, roadside verges and gardens, not to mention entire ecosystems such as wetlands, waterways and mountain ranges. Regardless of ownership, condition or size, the ‘green infrastructure’ umbrella covers it all.

Combined, these features provide a range of natural functions and uses. For example, by improving our connectivity through footpaths and cycle routes, we can also generate space for nature by linking habitats, establishing recreational facilities (with educational and physical health benefits), and ‘green’ our urban areas making them more resilient to the impact of a changing climate.

The ecosystem benefits that could potentially be derived from urban greenspace are substantial. In the past, the importance of these areas in terms of general health and well-being wasn’t always appreciated, meaning their potential was never realised.

Throughout our continued engagement, green infrastructure (and nature-based solutions) has been a well-supported theme with a strong, clear vision. There’s more work to be done but already opportunities have been identified, along with stakeholders keen to support the kind of green infrastructure that delivers ecosystem services for communities. For example, the multiple benefits of building green infrastructure to reduce noise pollution can also include other options such as soaking up rainstorm water, trapping air pollution, reducing the effects of heatwaves and creating places for healthy exercise.

People walking town park in Wrexham

It is paramount that we put communities at the heart of the Area Statement. It’s recognised that deprived areas often have fewer and poorer quality green spaces compared to more affluent areas in the same city. Investment in green infrastructure can, therefore, have more of a positive effect on deprived areas. Parts of Rhyl which happen to be among the most deprived communities in Wales have as little as 1% tree canopy cover. With that in mind, working with communities to improve access to green spaces can have multiple environmental and health/well-being benefits.

Green infrastructure can also help deliver against the following Natural Resource Policy priorities:

Climate change adaptation

As a result of climate change, North East Wales can expect to see more intense rainfall and flooding in low-lying coastal areas, as well as hotter, drier summers. The projections also foresee more extremely warm days together with milder, wetter winters. The people most likely to be affected by this live in our most deprived communities. Green infrastructure can make a substantial contribution towards adapting to, and mitigating, climate change.

Reverse the decline in biodiversity

Green infrastructure provides and improves wildlife habitats in our towns and cities (and can help connect wildlife populations between habitats). In the State of Nature report 2019, it was revealed that wildlife in Wales continues to decline, with 17% of species at risk of extinction. Since the 1970s, butterflies and moths have suffered a 52% decline in Wales. Species at threat in North East Wales include curlew, Atlantic salmon, black grouse, red squirrel and great crested newt.

Reduce pollution levels in our air, enhance air quality, and reduce noise pollution

In the UK, poor air quality contributes to roughly 40,000 deaths per year and costs cities/regions a combined total of over £20 billion. Green infrastructure can, in principle, help remove and distribute air pollutants. In North East Wales, air quality is affected by the major transport networks that criss-cross our landscape, along with the associated noise pollution that can have an impact on our health and well-being as well as the environment. In fact tranquil areas decreased by 10% (81km2) in North East Wales over an 11 year period spanning 1998 to 2009.

Develop resilient ecological networks

Strategically planned and delivered networks of semi-natural habitats and green infrastructure can link existing habitats, making them bigger, better and more resilient. New green infrastructure creates space for wildlife and improves connectivity between sites where wildlife exists, helping species become more resilient to the effects of climate change.

Improve the quality, and ensure the quantity, of our water

Green infrastructure improves water quality by decreasing the amount of stormwater that reaches waterways, along with removing contaminants from water that does.

Here in North East Wales, two main catchments dominate – the River Clwyd and the River Dee. The majority of the River Clwyd catchment is within North East Wales with one major tributary, the River Elwy, lying mainly in the Natural Resources Wales’ North West area. The upper Dee also stretches into the North West area, with the lower catchment spreading over the English border into the Cheshire Plain and the Dee estuary.

Nearly three million people get their drinking water from the Dee, many of them living in England. The strategic importance of the Dee as a potable water source, and the risk posed to it from pollution, has led to the river becoming one of the most protected in Europe and, as of 1999, a designated Water Protection Zone.

The Clwyd has its headwaters in Clocaeonog Forest, while the Elwy rises to the west on the Denbigh Moors. Agriculture dominates the largely rural Clwyd catchment. Part of the lower catchment is a nitrate vulnerable zone for both surface and groundwater. In 2015, 68% of all freshwater water bodies (as defined by the Water Framework Directive) were not achieving good or better overall status in North East Wales. Contributory factors included:

  • Physical modification, responsible for 22% of failures due to pressures such as barriers to fish migration (eg weirs)

  • Pollution from sewage and wastewater, responsible for 22% of failures

  • Pollution from rural areas (including land management practices as well as impacts from other uses, for instance horses/stables, golf courses), responsible for 24% of failures

  • Pollution from towns, cities and transport, responsible for 8% of failures

  • Pollution from mines, responsible for 6% of failures

The beach at Rhyl is surrounded by the town itself and located next to the mouth of the River Clwyd. Here, the bathing water designation can be subject to short-term pollution caused when heavy rain washes faecal material into the sea from livestock, sewage and urban drainage by way of rivers and streams. Since 2015, the bathing water has been designated as ‘sufficient’. It almost goes without saying that the bathing waters along the coast are vital to the local tourist economy.

Improving the management of existing woodlands and more widespread use of trees

Trees and woodlands provide an array of benefits, including:

  • Enhanced quality of life for people living and working in North East Wales

  • Promoting a sense of health and well-being

  • Increased privacy in residential roads and gardens through screening

  • Increased property values, particularly in tree-lined streets

  • Linking areas of green space for people and wildlife

  • Filtering airborne dust while also buffering noise

  • Providing shade to mitigate the ‘urban heat island effect’ (when an urban area becomes significantly warmer than surrounding areas due to human activity)

In North East Wales 1,758 large trees were lost over a seven year period reducing the many economic, social and environmental benefits that urban tree canopy and amenity trees provide. Ash dieback, along with other plant diseases, also presents a significant risk to ash woodland and ash urban amenity trees in North East Wales.

Safeguarding and increasing carbon stores in soils and biomass

Green infrastructure can provide carbon uptake and storage which help mitigate climate change. Trees, together with other green infrastructure, act as carbon sinks soaking up excess water and reducing the ‘urban heat island effect’. In his 2002 book ‘Your Parks: The Benefits of Parks and Greenspace’, David Tibbatts writes that an 80-foot beech tree absorbs the daily carbon dioxide output of two family homes.

Reducing the risk of land and coastal flooding

Many communities in North East Wales are prone to surface water flooding, common in built-up/urban areas where development such as roads, buildings and other hard surfaces prevent rain water from entering the ground. It can also occur in rural areas where heavy rain runs off steep sloping fields, compacted land and other impermeable surfaces.

Green infrastructure can help us manage the risks posed by flooding and coastal erosion, along with helping us adapt to climate change. Trees and other forms of vegetation such as gardens, parks and wetlands serve as buffers, or storage, for rainwater. It’s important to ensure the right nature-based solutions are designed for the right locations and that, consequently, the multiple benefits they provide are realised.

What would success look like?

Throughout our engagement process, it has become clear that the Area Statement needs to:

  • Engage and inspire a wide range of stakeholders (beyond the environmental sector) and communities to deliver green infrastructure initiatives

  • Develop case studies showing different aspects of green infrastructure and the benefits they provide to communities and the environment

  • Identify how green infrastructure installations can be managed and maintained once they’ve been developed

  • Successfully influence Local Development Plans, green infrastructure assessments and subsequent planning decisions

  • Encourage a joined-up approach across the three local authorities, maximising opportunities and avoiding duplication (eg one authority planting trees in another to reduce the impacts of flooding)

  • Enable collaboration between developments and sustainable drainage systems approval boards

  • Proactively identify opportunities for green infrastructure

  • Raise the profile of our local and existing natural environment near communities, and how it can be accessed for free/at minimal expense

  • Encourage robust conversations about innovative approaches to funding and delivery of green infrastructure (eg local taxation)

  • Identify opportunities to address health and deprivation inequalities by using green infrastructure

  • Engage with the private sector and seek opportunities for green infrastructure by championing the benefits of green credentials

  • Influence the planning process in a meaningful way to include green infrastructure, rather than making it an afterthought

  • Engage with communities to get a thorough understanding of where their priorities lie, while also encouraging them to lead the decision-making process

In addition, the following opportunities were also identified through the Area Statements engagement process:

Define green infrastructure at a community level

Because of its multifunctional nature, ‘green infrastructure’ has been defined in numerous, often quite complicated ways. It’s important to ensure that when we talk about the benefits green infrastructure can deliver for a community, we do so clearly and effectively. A good example of this is with the ‘Greener Grangetown’ project in Cardiff involving better ways of managing rainwater in the community, delivering multiple benefits for the environment and health/well-being.

Children playing in school grounds willow dome Ysgol Cynddelw. Glyn Ceiriog. Wrexham

Maintain, enhance and create riparian zones

Riparian zones are the margins of streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands. Healthy waterbody margins filter pollutants such as nutrients and sediment, while the vegetation helps to reduce bank erosion and maintain a stable stream channel. Vegetation also provides shade which, in turn, lowers water temperatures. Bringing nature back to our urban streams and rivers, while protecting rural stream and river margins from overgrazing and trampling, can help improve water quality.

Better management of roadside verges for wildlife

Over 700 species and nearly 45% of our total flora are found on road verges. Considering we’ve lost 97% of our wild flower meadows since the 1930s, these crucial habitats need to be properly managed. The Area Statement process will allow for the development of strong, mutually beneficial relationships with local partners to promote the benefits of green infrastructure to communities, encouraging roadside verges and other green spaces and public grounds to be managed better.

Increase urban tree canopy

The Area Statement will support communities in providing effective protection from polluted air, create a clean ‘green corridor’ for active travel and make space for wildlife, while at the same time boosting the image and prosperity of a town by enriching the environment. This can be done by increasing the urban tree canopy in deprived communities, encouraging communities to aim for the UK Forestry Standard (thereby creating ‘woodland’ towns) and responding to the ash dieback emergency/replacing lost amenity trees.

Improve opportunities for community growing

The Area Statement will encourage a community garden model that gives general practitioners the opportunity to prescribe social and low-level physical activity at gardens based in local community hubs, helping deliver the multiple benefits that ‘greening’ can offer. See ‘Grow Cardiff – The Grow Well Project – Community Health’ as an example of what can be achieved.

Sustainable drainage schemes

Sustainable drainage delivers multiple benefits including capturing diffuse pollution, slowing the flow and creating valuable wetland habitat. It’s about implementing the right kind of intervention in the right place.

Every North East Wales school to be linked to a green space and to have ‘ownership’ of that area

The Area Statement will build on existing initiatives to encourage links between schools, natural environment charities and local green spaces, with the aim of making young people want to engage more with the environment. Using Eco-Schools funding provided by the Welsh Government, Rhyl High School is taking part in a project to plant flower and vegetable growing beds, at the same time managing land by increasing water storage, reducing run-off and improving water quality. The project also reduces the possibility of localised flooding by storing/removing approximately 261m3 of surface water.

Encourage Local Development Plans to have a stronger green infrastructure presence, while ensuring trees and nature-based solutions are incorporated into new developments

All too often, the environment is regarded merely as a problematic constraint when it comes to delivering viable development schemes. The Area Statement needs to support local authorities, producing Green Infrastructure Assessments to enhance and join-up green features both in urban areas and the countryside. Links must be made between parks, coast and greenspace through biodiverse, active travel routes for people, wildlife and the environment. Wherever possible, these travel routes should aim to replace short car journeys. So far, only a small number of local planning authorities in Wales have introduced a Community Infrastructure Levy (launched as a way of helping local authorities deliver particular types of infrastructure). Consequently, its influence on green infrastructure and nature-based solutions has yet to be realised.

Story Map engagement tool

The creation of a ‘Story Map’ public engagement tool would enable people to follow progress, showing evidence and success against the theme. This, in turn, could enable further change, influence opinion and raise awareness. The maps would be designed for any audience with access to the internet.

Linking communities with green space and the wider countryside

The evidence is clear – better access to green space leads to a better range of health and well-being outcomes. However, if for whatever reason people don’t get to experience green space, then its value as a social function declines. Around 80% of Flintshire’s population inhabits 20% of the county’s land, where access to green space can be challenging. Green space needs to be close at hand and accessible to communities, something that besides the associated health/well-being benefits would also reduce the need to travel further afield in order to reach the wider countryside. Many people in North East Wales already use the A55 to head for Snowdonia, rather than seeking out countryside closer to where they live.

Family on park benches in Clywedog Valley© Crown copyright (2019) Wales

Develop case studies

Stories matter. They engage us, therefore we learn from them. We need to develop and share case studies about green infrastructure projects outlining the problems, interventions and showcasing the successes. By doing so, we can highlight further opportunities surrounding green infrastructure. These case studies should also tackle the common misconception that environmental benefits are delivered at a cost to economic development.

Who have we worked with to date?

In total, 148 people representing 68 organisations across 28 different sectors (with wide-ranging remits) attended five engagement events staged by Natural Resources Wales over the course of 2019. All but one took place at local community venues, the exception being the larger, civic setting of Denbigh Town Hall in July. We also engaged with senior management and portfolio leads of all three local authorities in North East Wales.

Dafydd Thomas, an external well-being consultant, was present at each event which featured an innovative procedure called ‘meeting sphere’ designed to encourage participants to share their true feelings, prioritise what really mattered to them, and work together to get results.

Green infrastructure always generated plenty of discussion at our engagement events, often between wide-ranging sectors including water companies, rivers trusts, local authorities and organisations representing conservation, recreation and access, health, education and the agricultural sector. Many of the organisations involved already had significant experience in green infrastructure and were able to make valued suggestions about how the vision could be delivered.

Despite many sectors being well represented, Natural Resources Wales is aware that we need to broaden the appeal of Area Statements beyond those who we routinely engage with. We would like communities and the non-environmental sector to be involved (up until now, non-environmental sector participants accounted for only 15% of those engaged). Working together with Flintshire County Council, invites were sent to approximately 2,500 small and medium-sized businesses, yet the response to date has been disappointing. We have, however, worked with the Young Wales organisation which ran a series of workshops across North East Wales that will contribute to the Area Statement and, in the process, engage and empower young people.

We have always recognised how important engaging with communities is, and we are in the process of considering how best to do that in order to make the most of the opportunities that have been discussed to date. Rest assured, Natural Resources Wales will be encouraging and supporting communities to come together to form groups that share common goals or purposes, helping them shape and deliver the Area Statement so that it benefits their localities.

People attending engagement event for North East Wales

What are the next steps?

Throughout 2020 we will continue to work with stakeholders as we start to deliver the opportunities identified through the Area Statement. We expect further opportunities to arise as the engagement process continues.

Actions for NRW and stakeholders include:

  • Looking to broaden the appeal of the Area Statement process, encouraging organisations to understand that this is something they can shape, influence and engage with

  • Keeping the Area Statement constantly under review, reflecting new ideas and evidence that comes to light, along with discussions which take place

  • Continuing to map our stakeholder engagement carefully, reaching out to sectors and organisations we have not yet talked to

  • Working with Wrexham Borough Council, Flintshire County Council, Denbighshire County Council and COFNOD, the North Wales environmental information service, to make use of their green infrastructure mapping

  • Supporting communities to come together and form groups that contribute to the Area Statement, getting more of a sense in the process about whether the opportunities being identified are in fact the right ones

  • Encouraging a diverse range of stakeholders to come together and form a ‘theme’ focus group to further develop the opportunities identified
  • Encouraging new ways of working, new relationships to be formed, and continuing to build trust with our existing partners

  • Incorporating feedback from the Youth Wales engagement sessions into the Area Statement

  • Signposting partners and communities towards funding opportunities that support the delivery of the Area Statement, including Natural Resources Wales’ own grant funding programme

  • Raising specific points and discussions around policy relating to Area Statements, in our role as principal adviser to the Welsh Government

  • Improving our use of social media, while considering other innovative ways to involve people in the Area Statements process

How does what we’ve proposed deliver Sustainable Management of Natural Resources (SMNR)?

The principles underpinning the Sustainable Management of Natural Resources (SMNR) are pivotal to the Area Statements process. At the heart of its development has been our collaborative engagement with a broad range of partners and stakeholders, both existing and new. We have tried to start conversations that matter, asking people to talk to people they don’t know, or would never normally speak to. By doing so, it became clear that many shared a similar vision of the future, one that ultimately laid the foundations for our five themes. While some of those conversations were challenging, they always proved worthwhile and productive.

This process has helped us collaboratively define the problem and gain an understanding of the opportunities and potential actions, prior to deciding what needs to be done to achieve our shared ‘vision’. This represents a significant change in how Natural Resources Wales works. In the past we may, on occasion, have gone ahead with our preferred options without engaging or seeking any kind of consensus. The challenge now is to work together with our partners, stakeholders and communities in moulding, and ultimately delivering, these opportunities.

The Area Statement will allow us all to make clear, evidence-based decisions, drawing not only on information that we hold but also evidence our partners provide. Much of the data will be made available to all through Natural Resources Wales’ new data portal. NRW has developed a spatial mapping model to support development planning, in particular in relation to urban green infrastructure, woodland creation and biodiversity. This, alongside some of the evidence that our stakeholders have gathered, should ensure that Area Statements will be a vital cog in the development of local development plans. We do, however, appreciate that there are still gaps in our evidence, but we’re working to plug them.

Furthermore, we know that we need to protect our ecosystems and the services they provide by building resilience. There is a strong relationship between green infrastructure, our other four Area Statement themes, and the opportunity to deliver multiple benefits that interlink. All these themes are designed to make our ecosystem services more resilient, to mitigate against climate change, and to help our communities adapt to a changing climate. Again, some of the detail surrounding how best to take these opportunities forward have yet to be addressed. However, we know that many are scalable either by following the North East Wales path defined here, or by taking more of a regional approach in tandem with North West Wales.

How can people get involved?

In North East Wales, we envisage that people will be able to get involved in the debate surrounding green infrastructure through further engagement. Details will be announced as the Area Statements process evolves. Watch this space, in other words. Should you wish to find out more, please don’t hesitate to complete the following form or email us at 

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