Jane Findlay delivered the keynote address at the UK Business Council for Sustainable Development (UKBCSD) Beyond Net Zero pavilion at UKREiiF on 19 May 2022. Below is the full transcript of Jane’s speech.
Good morning, and welcome to the UKBCSD Beyond Net Zero pavilion! Thank you so much for inviting me to speak to you today.
For those who don’t know me, I’m a landscape architect and urban designer, practice director, and president of the Landscape Institute since July 2020.
Becoming the president of a membership body during a global pandemic is a strange experience, to say the least. I spent the better part of a year and a half locked in my attic, and let me tell you, it changes your perspective!
The COVID lockdowns shrunk our worlds in a way few have us have experienced in our lifetimes. And yet, in many ways, we’d never been more connected. It was a traumatic experience, but the tentative return of nature to our cities, and the respite afforded to us by green spaces, was a powerful reminder of how crucial environmental health is to human health.
My presidency at the LI comes to an end soon. And I’ve been taking full advantage of my freedom to bang the drum for landscape from every available rooftop!
The message is simple: Healthy places mean healthy people. Access to nature delivers a wealth of proven benefits to health and wellbeing. But one in three of us don’t have nature near our home. In the most disadvantaged communities, there is little or no green space at all.
So that simple message sits within a complex web of conflicting construction challenges. The question is not whether we need to deliver healthy, sustainable places, but how. How do we work together to create healthy places and facilitate healthy lives? How do we put health and wellbeing at the heart of everything we do? How do we leverage commercial opportunities to deliver real, structural change, beyond good practice and best efforts?
We’re here today to answer these questions.
Let’s be honest: our current infrastructure doesn’t deliver. The brilliant work of bodies such as the UKBCSD wouldn’t be necessary if it did. We’re all here because something in the system needs unjamming.
In the last twenty years, the amount of green space near new developments in England and Wales has shrunk by two fifths. The reason? Developers can’t afford it.
The developers are on the front foot here. A local authority might want a park. But a developer can cite economic viability, and the authority – who are under pressure from central government to build, build, build – can do little to challenge it.
At the same time, the parks that do exist aren’t protected. They’re deteriorating in quality. We’re even building on them! This is a perfect example of single-issue thinking undermining the long-term picture.
The value of green space to developers is plain enough. Even the most hard-hearted economist can’t argue with the investment and jobs that green infrastructure attracts; nor its value to adjacent sectors, such as agriculture and tourism; nor, at the very bottom line, its positive effect on asset value.
Then there’s the wider picture. The preventative healthcare offered by parks in England alone save 2.2 billion pounds per year in avoided health costs. Brand-new data from Defra puts the combined welfare value of the nation’s natural spaces at 25.6 billion pounds per year – and the most valuable are all in or around urban areas.
When you consider all of this, it’s clear that we can’t afford not to build parks!
I’ve been arguing for decades that quality green spaces aren’t optional; they’re essential. It’s time to emphasise green infrastructure over grey, in both retrofitting our cities and designing new developments.
The biodiversity net gain requirement coming into force soon will help ensure infrastructure works with nature, not against it. We’re moving in the right direction. But we can’t rely on policymaking to catch up with local needs. We need to come together to demand better, for ourselves, our clients, and our communities.
Underpinning our current model of unsustainable development is the long-standing fallacy that nature is somehow ‘external’ to human life; external to human health and wellbeing; external to economic success. It isn’t.
Our economy relies explicitly on natural resources. But our rinse-and-repeat pattern of extracting, demolishing, and polluting assumes that nature is limitless.
We must accept that natural capital places necessary restrictions on economic growth. This means that we – that companies and shareholders – need to shift our expectations from short-term profit to long-term sustainability. In a few years, when resource scarcity, deprivation, and extreme weather start to eat away at our margins, we’ll be wondering why on Earth we didn’t think ahead!
Nature is regenerative; it is restorative. With an economic model that works within the constraints of natural sustainability, that harmonises human wellbeing and environmental wellbeing, we can benefit from these qualities too.
A nature-based economy isn’t a pipe dream. There are clear and practical paths towards realising it. All it takes is a shared vision.
At its heart, landscape architecture is about creative problem-solving. Poor public health, flooding, greenhouse gas emissions, population growth, transportation, commerce, inequality… these separate problems all compete for our attention. But they’re connected in multiple, discrete ways. The best solutions can and do solve multiple problems in a single stroke.
At COP26 last year, nations rallied to agree our collective response to the climate crisis. In rising to meet this challenge, we need to realise its part in a much larger matrix of global issues.
Climate change is one of the main drivers for habitat loss. In turn, habitat loss undermines our climate resilience and accelerates the pace of climate change. This two-way process then has profound implications for our physical and mental wellbeing; on our ability to produce food; on our ability to create and protect infrastructure. We are part of this biosphere, and every negative impact we have on our environment is detrimental to our own prosperity.
We need to move towards a model of intervention that employs a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to tackle multiple issues head on.
There are fantastic examples of this approach in the world today. Guangzhou in China is a hugely important port and trading hub that last year alone contributed over 341 billion pounds to the Chinese economy. It’s also home to one of the world’s most ambitious blue-green infrastructure networks, with a master plan covering mountain, river, forest, field, lake, and sea.
By the end of 2020, Guangzhou had built 513 kilometres of ecological belt; restored 152 kilometres of shoreline; and connected 417 historical and cultural resources. In some areas, the number of bird species has more than doubled, and the number of insect species has increased almost fivefold. By making full use of these available natural resources, the project has reversed decades of ecosystem damage; preserved Guangzhou’s natural and cultural legacy; and helped safeguard its future. It’s promoted sustainable urban development and improved the standard of living for people in Guangzhou.
It all sounds utopian, doesn’t it?
All of this was possible thanks to collaboration on an unprecedented scale. Involving built environment professions, research institutions, government and authorities, communities, and volunteers, the project is a game-changing example of sustainable development done right. And the best thing: all these systems are scalable. This kind of life-changing intervention is achievable here in the UK: in our designated landscapes; along our rivers and canals; in our urban green belts.
Now that we know what the future can look like, can we really justify not striving towards it?
For this to be achievable, though, we need a solid foundation. We need a highly engaged, highly skilled green workforce.
In 2019, a sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg scalded global leaders for their inaction on climate change. It was staggering how it took the anger of one young girl to get the world to sit up and listen.
The next generation will inherit the world we’re building today. I truly believe they have the potential to realise the synthesis between human prosperity and environmental prosperity. But the burden can’t fall squarely on their shoulders; we need to make change now. And we need to arm them with the skills they need to continue the work.
The government must put green jobs at the heart of their levelling up agenda. This isn’t just necessary for our planet – it’s a huge untapped economic opportunity too. The places that struggled most with unemployment before the pandemic hit are now seeing the highest labour market risk as the economy reopens. But these areas also have the highest scope for environmental improvements and green jobs growth. An investment in our environmental resilience is an investment in our economic resilience as well.
So we need to work quickly to plug the green skills gap in this country. We need to develop cohesive standards linked to global ethics and UN Sustainable Development Goals. We need to fund accessible, world-leading training to upskill the next generation. And above all, we need thorough research and insight to understand the labour market and the gap between education and practice.
Levelling up only works if everyone levels up together. The most disadvantaged communities suffer the worst in times of crisis. They suffered the worst effects of COVID-19. They suffered, and will continue to suffer, the worst effects of global warming.
It’s far too easy to think of climate justice in terms of the developed world and the developing world. But inequity doesn’t stop at our borders. The urban heat island effect, for instance, happens here on our doorstep, creating huge implications for health and wellbeing. Tree canopy cover is a crucial defence against urban heatwaves. And in cities in Europe and the US, there’s a strong correlation between neighbourhood income and tree canopy cover. The most deprived, least green areas suffer the worst effects of urban heatwaves.
Indeed, the kind of heatwave that caused 2,000 deaths in 2003 could become the summer norm in the next two decades – making heat adaptation a very real matter of life and death.
Sadly, inequity is rampant in the built environment. One in eight British households has no garden. The richest socioeconomic group is 1.6 times more likely than the poorest to visit an outdoor green space. A white person is 1.8 times more likely than a Black person to visit an outdoor green space.
Development exacerbates socioeconomic segregation, with the people who rely most on employment and services furthest removed from them.
Poor urban design creates enclosed, poorly lit spaces that seriously undermine the safety of women and girls.
And the history of patriarchy and colonialism engrained in our designed spaces, both grey and green, serves only to alienate and estrange so many of us.
We have the potential to interrogate and solve these issues through design. But to do this, we need a workforce that represents the communities it serves. The built environment sector suffers a tremendous lack of diversity. Understanding the gap between education and practice can help us understand – and address – why the diversity of students here in the UK doesn’t translate to our construction workforce.
We must do better. It isn’t enough to change practice; we must change the very fabric of the systems, national and global, that we practice within.
System change means transforming perceptions, policies, and power dynamics. It starts with the right mixture of legislation, incentive, and investment. Without defined policy drivers to facilitate change, rhetoric about improving equity, climate resilience, and public health is purely performative.
The frameworks for these drivers already exist. The UN’s seventeen Sustainable Development Goals are the perfect benchmark to inform this system change. We’re seeing them achieve greater and greater prevalence in practice; now it’s time to see them inform policy too.
We must convince policymakers to properly invest in green solutions – not as an adornment, but as a crucial fixture, as critical as roads, rail, and drainage. We must convince them to protect our parks and make access to nature a legal right for everyone. Most importantly, we must convince them that a plurality of views – informed by the greatest variety of lived experiences – will evince the most meaningful change.
Our role goes beyond delivery. As leaders, we need to broker the alliances that will shape system change. As the designers, planners, developers, and managers who create community spaces, we need to speak to the communities we’re serving. Moreso, we need to empower communities to speak for themselves.
71 percent of people want to see the UK enhanced with more plants and wildlife. Two thirds think that looking after and improving local parks and green space should be a bigger priority. 57 percent feel more aware of the importance of green spaces to mental and physical wellbeing.
If we listened to these people, we’d have healthier communities already!
Medical and technical interventions alone aren’t enough. Hospitals treat symptoms – they don’t prevent illnesses. But there’s a well-documented link between the healthcare environment and the rate of recovery. If we can leverage this through evidence-based design – not just in our hospitals, but everywhere – we can make our entire built environment a critical part of our healthcare infrastructure, and save billions to reinvest in our communities.
Individually, our work can inform best practice and inspire others to meet and exceed the standards we set. But real change goes beyond good projects and best efforts. Only when we unite as a sector, when we all advocate for change in the same direction, can we inform the transformation we need to see.
Globally, construction is responsible for thirty-eight percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Can you imagine what a seismic shift it would be if we all made the switch tomorrow to nature-based solutions?
Human health and environmental health do not need to be at odds. Sustainable places and profitable places do not need to mean different things. A healthy economy and a healthy planet can go hand in hand.
And the principle of collaboration over competition needs to inform how we operate as a sector. We need to throw open our doors to one another, to create commercial partnerships built on foundations of insight sharing, best practice, and joint advocacy. With our combined voices, we can make a real case to policymakers for healthy, resilient, sustainable places.
In principle, the solutions are simple. Let’s move towards a fully integrated model of infrastructure delivery that maximises benefits for people, place, and nature. Let’s nurture talent and tackle the pipeline from education to practice to build a workforce that delivers for all the communities it serves. And let’s as a sector engage and empower those communities and present a united voice that policymakers can’t afford to ignore.
The time is now, and the opportunities are within reach. All we need is the willingness to seize them.
Jane Findlay, Landscape Institute President
19 May 2022