Joanna Watson28 Aug 2019
London is a vast and sprawling city. In the decades I have lived here I’ve seen building developments come and go, eating up pockets of green space and mopping up the little wild spaces where nature tries to maintain a foothold.
Despite this, London is still a very green city with wonderful parks, mature street trees and lots of open water. And thanks to the foresight of earlier planners in the 1930s and the 1950s London is surrounded by a buffer zone of open green space — the famous green belt — which restrains urban sprawl.
Reforesting the green belt
Friends of the Earth is launching a campaign to double tree cover in the UK. Trees are good for air quality, wildlife, our health and wellbeing and ultimately for the climate, by taking up carbon. We want to encourage tree planting to help restore nature, rewilding and natural regeneration. We are interested in finding out the potential for planting trees in the edge lands of the green belt and understanding more about the barriers and the benefits.
Most Londoners will have heard of the green belt but they may not realise that by taking the tube to the end of the Piccadilly Line as we did, you can quickly find yourself in open grassland with views of woodland, fields and rolling hills.
A couple of weeks ago a group of us left our office in the heart of urban Stockwell to see for ourselves. In less than an hour we were walking amongst trees and grassland in Enfield’s Trent Park with early bluebells poking through and the sound of birdsong in our ears.
The park has a rich heritage. The grounds of the old Hall once housed the campus of Middlesex University and the farmlands adjacent to the park are part of Enfield Chase, the old hunting grounds of King Henry VIII. The London Loop, a 150-mile route which orbits London following public footpaths runs through the park.
Planting trees to help prevent flooding
We were there to meet a council officer from Enfield Council to discuss his pioneering proposal to reforest 100ha of council-owned land in the green belt. Although he is a civil engineer, he is no advocate for concrete. With a deep knowledge of ecology, he is a big advocate for trees as an aid to natural flood management.
What we found inspiring is how the interests of one council department (Structures and Watercourses) could be a way-in to releasing funding, consolidating budgets and providing other goods that benefit different departments, such as Heritage or Parks. For example, Edmonton, a deprived area of Enfield is at high risk of flooding. Tree planting and leaky dams across streams and ditches can slow the flow of water downstream and let tree roots and soils absorb more water before it becomes a flood.
Meanwhile more trees can help promote biodiversity, improve the experience for leisure visitors, contribute to diversifying income streams for the rural economy and sequester carbon.
What is the green belt for?
Of course, there are lots of questions about what the green belt is for. Is the land more valuable as farmland even though it is fragmented and farms are isolated? Could some of it be given over to re-wilding whilst introducing rare breeds to do conservation grazing of some fields? Might this allow for the natural succession of trees and by preserving acid grassland attract more species? Could iconic species like beavers be introduced — to help flood management whilst attracting many more visitors? Could managing better public access to existing public foot and bike paths encourage more people to the surrounding countryside and help connect them with nature?
We were excited by the potential of this joined-up thinking. We left inspired by the vision of the local council, farmers and local community volunteers working together to plant thousands of trees and enhance nature for people and wildlife alike.
If you’ve got an idea for really greening the green belt, or would just like to know more, get in touch.
Check out Friends of the Earth's Trees campaign and tell the government to double tree cover in the UK.