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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 September 2006, 11:22 GMT 12:22 UK
Breathing space

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Parks without grass? It sounds absurd, but in the future climate change is likely to transform our urban green spaces. Think pine trees and wind turbines.

What springs to mind when you think of the local park - grass, flowerbeds, roses, squirrels, horse chestnut trees, conkers?

The parks your great-grandchildren will play in are far more likely to have pine trees, palms and wind turbines, experts believe.

As climate change takes hold - with a new Met Office study suggesting humans have fuelled a one-degree Celsius rise in British temperatures in just 45 years - parks will have to undergo drastic changes if they are to survive.


They will also play an increasingly vital role in helping to mitigate the effects of global warming. Such issues will be the focus of discussion at a conference in Manchester on Tuesday looking at climate change's likely effect on parks.

As the summers get hotter, grass and traditional flowerbeds will become more and more difficult to sustain
Guy Barter, RHS
Historically, the biggest threat to parks has been funding cut-backs which had led to a serious decline at the end of the 20th Century.

That they became so undervalued is perhaps remarkable considering that on a sunny day a popular park can notch up as many as 10,000 visitors, according to Cabe Space, the national champion for better parks and public services.

Historic parks - which account for just 9% of the total number of parks in the country - such as Kew Gardens in London, attract an estimated 400 million visitors a year.

But parks are again moving up the political agenda and receiving more funding. The decline in quality of green space - including squares, parks and nature reserves - has been halted in most areas, according to a recent report from the National Audit Office.

Mile End Park
Mile End Park has a green bridge
And they have strong public support. A resounding 91% of the population believe parks improve people's quality of life.

This renewed enthusiasm is reflected in the regeneration of parkland in recent years - with large sums of lottery cash being pumped into many projects. But the work has largely been about restoring parks to their Victorian glory, rather than projecting them forward to the future.

Delegates at Tuesday's conference will be told one of the biggest challenges they face is not neglect and budget restraints, but global warming.


As temperatures rise, the familiar flora and fauna of the local park - even down to the grass - is likely to change. The ubiquitous horse chestnut and oak trees will die off and, experts believe, pine trees will probably be dominant.

"While all the restoration work is very important, it is all about historical landscapes and we need to be looking forward to our needs in the 21st Century," says Martin Duffy from GreenSpace, a registered charity dedicated to parks and public spaces, and the conference organiser.

But planning for a future which no one can accurately predict throws up problems.

People paddling
Will fountains be in short supply?
"We are facing some huge challenges," says Mr Duffy. "We can make predictions but no one really knows what the weather and climate in the UK will be in 100 years time."

And when you're planting trees that will be around for years to come, a wrong decision could be hugely costly for future generations.

"Obviously, what trees we plant now in parks now are expected to be around in 50, 60, 70 years time," says Guy Barter, head of horticultural advisory services with the Royal Horticultural Society. "If we get it wrong it will be a very costly mistake environmentally."


The extremes of weather are also likely raise big problems, with plants needing to be able to take hot summers and extremely wet winters.

"As the summers get hotter, grass and traditional flowerbeds will become more and more difficult to sustain," says Mr Barter. "We have seen it this year, with huge swathes of scorched ground in many parks. Then in the winter we are likely to see more flash flooding, so drainage will be an issue."

The challenges not only include choosing the plants that can withstand predicted changes in temperature, but also the new pests that warmer and wetter weather will bring.

Shade will be a vital role of parks
Parks will also play an increasingly vital role in helping to mitigate the effects of climate change - helping drain increased rainfall in urban areas, says Mr Duffy.

And there will also be changes in how they're used - rising temperatures will drive more people outdoors, but they'll be seeking cover from the sun's rays.

"What people will be looking for is an oasis of shade to take cover from the heat," says Mr Barter. "They are going to become really important to the average person on the street."


One park looking firmly forward is Mile End Park in east London. With a history that dates back to 1381, it is undergoing a 25m transformation into an ecological, sustainable urban park. Innovations including earth-sheltered buildings and a wind turbine that generates electricity for - among other things - go-karts.

Manchester City Council is also at the forefront of tackling the issue. It has a devoted climate change officer as part of its Greener City programme, which is aimed at making it the greenest city in the UK. It is also about to launch its tree strategy for the future.

"This is not the result of woolly, green thinking, it is imperative that we take action about climate change and the impact of our public open spaces, it is a huge challenge for the future," says Sarah Davies, director of the programme.

But she adds that not everything is bad news when it comes to the impact on climate change on parks. More exotic species of plants and tree which would not have been viable previously could become common sights across the UK.

Add you comments using the form below.

Agree with this absolutely - there is no question that a) parks are indespensible and, b) that they need to be adapted to the on-going climate changes. But what is being done to achieve the same adaptation with golf courses, which have to be the greatest recreational drain on water resources?
Toby Woolrych, Velez Malaga, Spain

Parks are under immense pressure not only from environmental factors but from over use and the vandal factor too. Realistically we need more parks, plenty of water and where applicable from desalinated sources and a change in our grass stock. If Florida gardens can stay green then so can we.
Dave, Chatham Kent

I can't imagine the 'park of the future'... No grass, Pine trees, dead or dying oaks and chestnuts?!?! Yet another appeal to the blinkered suburbanites to start behaving responsibly... And yes, maybe one of the upides will be the more exotic range of plants here, but they will be accompanied with a more exotic range of disease carrying insects. Great!
Heather, Wolverhampton

Native trees can survive in warmer climates too, so no need to ditch them for the sake of a few degrees. As for grass, you can get different varieties with longer roots that survive better in hot spells yet look the same. Then with the flowers, if we planted good, solid and better looking shrubs such as roses, fuschias and salvias instead of silly, gordy and temporary 'bedding' there wouldn't be a problem at all - plus it would be better for wildlife like bees, butterflies etc.
David, Ashford, Kent

The lack of greenery in the form of grass is going to make the air quality in cities even worse. You only have to walk a few metres into a park like Regents Park or Hyde Park and notice the immediate effect of better air. However we could grow ivy on walls in the city. There is no lack of walls, after all! The city could be transformed from grey concrete to a living green space with insects and birds everywhere and more oxygen. This would generally cool the air in Summer too as hot walls reflect a lot of heat but ivy would absorb the heat.
Z Rizvi, London

Why is it that the BBC blames everything on global warming and climate change? Why is there never a counter argument? Was there global warming in the 1800's when thousands of chimneys were visible in every town and city during the industrial revolution? According to you there wasn't. Why does everything have to be exagerated? 'The hottest summer ever' (which incidentally is not true, 1976)and then blamed on the motorist, which seems to be a favoured trait of the BBC. You say climate change is caused by CO2 from cars. What about the billions and billions of tonnes released every time a volcano erupts and the huge amounts caused by the respiration of humans, trees and animals? Why not tax us for breathing? The government seems happy enough to tax us for everything else. Please think about my comments, your bias for everything to do with climate change really does peck my head.
Stephen Livesey, Warrington

Isn't it about time that we started to re-forest some of our moor land areas? We constantly tell third world countries not to cut down their trees in upland areas as it will cause flooding in the valleys and yet we do exactly the same thing here. If we stopped subsidising sheep farming and upland drainage schemes, we could have huge areas of forest, which could be our new parks, remove massive amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere and help prevent flooding.
Paul, Leeds, UK

Please oh please stop writing articles that are based on opinions without any science behind them. The article quotes lots of statistic but no source for them. More fact, less fiction please.
Alex, Bristol

"Shade will be a vital role of parks". Great caption, shame the person in the picture doesn't subscribe to the idea!
Jim, Aldershot, England

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