As long as cities have existed, societies have had to grasp with the question of how far they should be allowed to grow.
Green Belt - an idea for the ages
The American historian Lewis Mumford noted that Aristotle could claim to be the first to conceive that “there is a right size for a city, big enough to encompass all its functions but not too big to interfere with them”. Plato had already suggested that a city shouldn’t exceed 20,000 people, in order to “permit the holding of public meetings with all of the citizens present”.
The growth of industry, and developments in transport and communications, gradually allowed cities to function on a much larger scale, but at the cost of putting those people at the centre further away from the open green spaces beyond. In England, the dramatic rise of industrial sprawl prompted James Silk Buckingham’s 1849 plans for a model settlement that would allow views of rural beauty to “be commanded in the environs of the town itself”. After the 1851 census revealed a predominantly urban society for the first time, keeping the countryside close at hand became the mission for a succession of social reformers who understood that maintaining the close physical relationship between town and country was vital to the prosperity of both.
John Ruskin had been particularly influenced by Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s 1339 frescoes, The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, depicting the “good” as a vibrant city of handsome buildings and bustling markets closely ringed by beautiful and productive countryside. Citizens are shown passing, effortlessly, from town to country and back; but Ruskin found such journeys were increasingly rendered impossible by England’s “festering and wretched” suburbs. By 1875, Ruskin seemed to have given up on halting the growth of London, fearing it was “as utterly doomed as Gomorrah”. But his proteges - including the National Trust’s co-founder Octavia Hill - clung to his vision of a city contained by “a belt of beautiful garden and orchard”.
Countless plans for realising Ruskin’s plan were floated and dismissed over the next half-century, leaving the outward spread of the capital unchecked until, in 1924, the London County Council resolved to create a “green belt” as “an inviolable rural zone around London.” Though this breakthrough laid the foundations for the Metropolitan Green Belt Act of 1938, CPRE’s founder Patrick Abercrombie felt that the need for action was “almost universal”. Arguing that efforts to create Green Belts in places like Sheffield, Birmingham and Oxford also deserved Government support, CPRE’s campaigning resulted in the Green Belt Circular, the 60th anniversary of which we marked with the launch of Our Green Belt campaign this summer.
A small, double-sided sheet, the circular is a masterpiece of succinct policymaking and possibly the most important single piece of paper (or vellum) in terms of shaping the country since the Magna Carta, also enjoying a major anniversary this year. Within months of its publication, Green Belts were being established by local authorities around the country, and by 1964 the leading planner (and future CPRE President) Colin Buchanan warned against eroding “by a single acre the one planning concept which above all others has established itself in the public understanding and which, in the case of London, may yet prove to be the wisest intuitive planning measure ever devised” .
In introducing the 1955 Circular, the Housing Minister Duncan Sandys had showed great courage in his conviction that “we have a clear duty to do all we can to prevent the further unrestricted sprawl of the great cities”. He also showed great foresight in realising Green Belts were necessary “for the well-being of our people and for the further preservation of the countryside”; recent evaluations of the effectiveness of Green Belt have proved him right in both cases. Looking back on the impact of Green Belts in 2014, Ray Mears hailed their creation as “one of the most successful acts in the history of British conservation,” noting that their protection had seen previously endangered landscapes “maturing into internationally important habitats”.
At a time when so many column inches and hours of air time are given to people who want to build on it, it is encouraging that public support for the Green Belt remains so strong. While CPRE’s recent poll revealed there is work to be done in promoting greater understanding of the benefits of Green Belt, the willingness of 30 leading public figures to sign a letter of support for CPRE’s Our Green Belt campaign suggests that there are plenty of advocates ready to make the case. One signatory, the naturalist Chris Packham, warned that “the need for a buffer of natural landscape” around our cities “has never been more critical - not only as an essential refuge for wildlife…but for us all to be able to access for the benefit of our health and wellbeing”.
The Green Belt is a concept that can adapt to the needs of the modern world. If Green Belts didn’t already exist, we would need to invent them just to help tackle the impact of climate change through their natural ability to defend against flooding and absorb carbon. And with one of the key social problems of the age being the shortage of affordable housing, strong protection for Green Belts will focus energy and investment on unlocking the brownfield land that can provide over a million such homes across urban England, close to jobs, services and public transport.
We must resist the temptation to give up on an idea that has served us so well in the past; one that future generations will thank us for defending, just as we salute the actions of Duncan Sandys 60 years ago. In the words of Chris Packham, “the Green Belt acts as a ring for life, to lose it would be an act of dangerous short-termism”.
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Share your memories, photos and why Green Belt is important to you on the Our Green Belt website
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