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Brownfield land: barren, or buzzing?

Updated Tuesday 18th September 2012

Pioneering environmentalist Chris Baines discusses the value of brownfield sites for wildlife

In this extended interview from Saving Species, Chris Baines discusses brownfield sites. Past their use and no good for anything, or some of the wildest places in our neighbourhoods?


A brownfield site in Cambridgeshire Creative commons image Icon Photo by Hugh Venables / CC BY-SA 2.0 under Creative-Commons license A brownfield site in Cambridgeshire Copyright open university



Interviewer:  Joining me in the studio now is Chris Baines, an environmentalist and a pioneering advocate for wildlife in our towns and cities.  Hello Chris.

Chris Baines:  Hello there.

Interviewer:  Chris, it might be a surprise to many people, especially non-naturalists, that these brownfield sites are so good for wildlife.

Chris Baines:  Well I think people who think about it for two minutes know that they are.  Actually most people I suspect grew up playing on what we now call brownfield sites.  I know my walk to the primary school involved crossing the hills and mountains, which I now look back at as a wonderland, but actually a small patch of dumped on land which was where I saw my first woolly bear caterpillars and, you know, a whole range of wildlife that was living there.  So people are very familiar with how special these places are.  It’s just the label is so negative.  You know, they used to be called post-industrial derelict land, and then wasteland, now brownfield land, they’re all very negative things, but actually they’re some of the wildest places in most of our urban neighbourhoods.

Interviewer:  I want to talk about the name a little bit later on, but how long has the concept of brownfield in the sense of our planning system and the way we look at it been around?

Chris Baines:  Well I think the thing that really triggered it all was Aberfan, and when the coal tip slipped and suddenly there was this great move to reclaim so- called derelict land, all over the industrial landscape machines moved in, and that was when I think naturalists began to say well hang on a minute, this is where the great crested newts live, this is where we see most of our common blue butterflies, these kind of landscapes are more interesting than is suggested by the idea that they’re just derelict wasteland.  And ever since then I think there’s been this kind of mixed feeling about them.  Particularly from the conservation point of view, I think they just don’t fit.  Well it’s very interesting listening to the list of plants that you were seeing out at Canvey Wick, the perennial sweet pea for instance, a garden escape, the kind of thing that on a real nature reserve, a real naturalist would be saying we need to get rid of this kind of thing.  You’ve got ragwort there - well it’s a notifiable weed in the countryside.  And so these places don’t conform, and these are the places where you can still build a den, where you can still let the dog off the lead, you know, from people’s point of view they’re really special.  And they’re all the more special because they have this very mixed human history to them.

Interviewer:  The other thing is though of course that during the last government it was decided that 60% of new development will be on brownfield sites.  So the idea was to target development on brownfield sites to protect quite reasonably the green belt and protect areas of green countryside.  And so brownfield sites then came under focus for development, and of course any wildlife they got would go, and so there’s a presumption that brownfield sites really are really not good for anything for conservation.

Chris Baines:  It’s all about labels isn’t it, and the assumption that if it’s got an industrial past it must be boring, dull, concreted over.  And equally if it’s green, if it’s greenfield, then it must be full of wildlife.  Well the opposite can be very true that many greenfield sites have almost nothing living in them, they’re green deserts, and many of these so called brownfield sites are hugely rich.  And what matters really is that we actually take away the label and look and really think about what these individual sites can contribute.  And the very special ones like Canvey Wick of course might be protected because of their rare species; others might be protected because they’re a really good place for storm water to gather and then to trickle away slowly, so they might have a role to play in flood defence.  Lots of them will be the most important play space for local kids.  So we just need to actually think about the quality of them rather than just do they have a brown or a green label.

Interviewer:  Well Sarah said she’d got a really difficult job because she had to promote invertebrates, which a lot of people don’t like, and also urban sites like this which aren’t necessarily regarded as prime natural history sites.  And the feeling tends to be, I get the feeling that amongst the movers and shakers sometimes that brownfield sites are seen as just right for development and nothing more.  The Daily Telegraph yesterday reported Nick Boles, the new Government Planning Minister, saying that not all the greenbelt is beautiful green fields, some of it’s a quarry or has some other brownfield use, and it’s important to focus on bringing forth those sites first before thinking of anything further.  So the impression is amongst politicians and developers that anything brownfield has to be built on.

Chris Baines:  Yeah, it’s interesting isn’t it?  I mean the majority of wetland nature reserves in this country have an industrial past.  You know, they were brownfield sites.  I remember talking to the late Miriam Rothschild, great naturalist, and the most interesting site in her rural Cambridgeshire countryside surroundings was the abandoned aerodrome which was about half a mile away, which is where she would go to see bats in the evening, fantastic place for insects.  So we just mustn’t categorise things quite so bluntly.

Interviewer:  So we’re not talking here though Chris are we about eroding any of the greenbelt; you believe that the greenbelt is very very valuable; but it’s simply about appreciating brownfield sites more importantly.

Chris Baines:  And particularly seeing how they fit into the broad mosaic of open spaces within urban areas.  So the parks are important, the private gardens are important, and so are these wild places.  And very often it’s the wild bits of derelict land that form the critical link between some of these other sites.  So we need to think about the whole thing across the piece really.

Interviewer:  I mean you could argue we should be boosting wildlife in greenfield sites instead of worrying about brownfield sites, because they’re only good by default, some might argue.

Chris Baines:  Well we need to do both, and we are doing both.  There is a lot of activity going on in the Wildlife Trust to expand on our existing rural nature reserves by taking green fields around there and improving their biodiversity.  Essex is a very interesting place from that point of view, because it’s got some of the wildest very urban landscapes.  It’s also got some of the wildest coastline and some of the most potential in agricultural landscape.  So we’re beginning to think much more creatively I think about how we create living landscapes across the piece, how we weave the landscape back together, and these brownfield sites have an absolutely vital role to play.

Interviewer:  So in a way this distinction between green and brown is a false one; they actually merge into one another.  Do you think in future, it’s a bit of a leading question I know but should we be concentrating on where the wildlife is?

Chris Baines:  Well, of course, but not just the wildlife, where the people want to be as well.  And I think if we can get a richer mixture of different kinds of landscape that will make it better for people and for wildlife, and there’s no doubt that some of these old industrial sites have huge value for wildlife, but they also have an archaeological history which is interesting for people.  And they are the place where you can relax, you know, they have a spiritual value, which we really need in our urban landscapes particularly.

Interviewer:  While brownfield sites obviously have an important value for wildlife, and for human recreation as well, we’ve got to build somewhere Chris, so what do we do, how do we get the balance right?

Chris Baines:  Of course we’ve got to build somewhere.  I mean I earn my living working with developers and builders.  You know, I’m passionate about the need to just get it right more often, to actually not just assume that a site is automatically going to be worthy of preservation for nature conservation or of development.  And I think it’s certainly true that there is a lot of so called brownfield land which is right for development genuinely.  Just up the river, just up the Thames actually from that bit of Essex, is Barking Riverside, and I spent four years working on the development proposals for Barking Riverside.  That’s an area of demolished power station and landfill, with almost nothing living on it, where there is already planning approval for 11,000 new homes.  So there’s not a shortage of land, that’s not what’s stopping the development process; that particular site has a wonderful foreshore on the estuary which does need to be protected.

So all over the country I think you can look at the landscape and say actually that piece of land there is critical to the jigsaw, the connectedness, and we must try and keep it as a green space; that bit of land over there is contaminated, has problems with it, and development would be the best thing to solve some of those problems.

Interviewer:  Who’s taking this overview at the moment from an ecological point of view?

Chris Baines:  Well from an ecological point of view very little going on actually.  I think it is down to people like the Wildlife Trust, for instance, who have the knowledge if you like.  But so often they’re in a position where they only get engaged in a kind of reactive way.  It’s only when somebody applies to build on a place that you suddenly think oh god we’d better look at what the records are like, we’d better get some people on there and fight it.  What we should be doing I think is thinking much more strategically about what the planners call green infrastructure strategies so that we actually know where the important sites are ecologically, how we can keep the river corridors complete, how we can actually make better use of the derelict railway lines and the canals that run through urban Britain and make sure that they really do lace together the parks and the school grounds and the hospital grounds and the leafy suburban neighbourhoods of housing and gardens.

If we begin to think in that strategic way, you very quickly begin to throw up those sites that would improve that network of green space through development.  We have to remember that actually if you take a big sheet of concrete, or a big sheet of winter weeds, and you cover it in houses and gardens, from a biodiversity point of view you will improve it.  That’s not to say that you necessarily want to do it everywhere, but actually we just need to be a bit more intelligent about the process of change in these landscapes. 

Interviewer:  Now assuming we’ve got our brownfield site – we’ll call them that for the moment – and we’re managing it, there are complications there I would imagine.  Because the way that brownfield sites have arisen is, well, there’s a pattern of change there, there’s a pattern of let’s face it abuse a lot of the time: people go round them on motorbikes; they dump rubbish on them or whatever; all sorts of things.  The minute you start to manage it for wildlife it formalises that access.

Chris Baines:  Part of the problem is that very often nobody knows who owns these sites.  So local authorities don’t manage them at all, they’re kind of just a gap on the map really.  And one of my concerns certainly is that when you actually do manage to label a site as important rather than unimportant, you then feel obliged to do something about it.  Suddenly somebody has to be responsible for health and safety, so those really interesting collapsed cellars begin to be death traps, and it’s really challenging.

I remember years ago campaigning in the Black Country to get local nature reserve status for a wonderful claypit, ecologically really rich, a place that you know, Dalton’s Claypit.  We won the campaign, immediately countryside rangers were appointed, and one of the really ecologically interesting things about this place was that every school holidays the kids used to set fire to it.  So ecologically you had this burned area which was really good for some species, the rangers moved in, no fires was the policy, and that landscape really became poorer as a result ecologically.

So it’s challenging.  And actually I just think we need to start to take these sites seriously.  We need to treat them with respect of the best kind.  And I’m not sure that the nature conservation movement has any more of the good experience than anybody else in terms of dealing with these places. 

Interviewer:  Well the nature conservation movement talk about pristine habitats; they talk about native species as well.  Now there’s nothing pristine about most of the habitats at CanveyIsland, although they’re very very good for wildlife, and there’s quite a lot of alien species which would be grubbed out on nature reserves, so it strikes me we have to rip up the rule book here as well.

Chris Baines:  Yeah, we have to be more flexible.  I mean in Birmingham, there’s a lot of brownfield land around the centre of Birmingham, in late summer fantastic colourful display of lupins - absolutely breathtaking.

Interviewer:  Good for bees.

Chris Baines:  Absolutely alive with insects, lupins?  You know, lupins on a nature reserve, this is just - it’s a really challenging thing for the purists.  Thank goodness I've never been a purist.  But I think people recognise that actually the diversity is interesting and it’s important from the wildlife point of view.  It’s also an important part of the history.  It’s actually, it is part of the fact that old abandoned allotments for instance, that’s why you’ve got great stands of raspberries.  Which as far as the blackbirds are concerned they don’t give a toss whether it’s blackberries or raspberries they’re feeding on in the autumn.  So the wildlife and the people I think generally can recognise quality when they see it.  I just think that the planners and the naturalists and the developers have a bit of a blinkered view of landscape.

Interviewer:  So just to wrap up very briefly, Chris, Mark Houghton talked about the importance of getting people out onto Canvey Wick, how  important is it to involve local people in their local brown, we’ll call them brownfield sites for the moment?

Chris Baines:  I think local people have a key role to play, they already do.  I mean most of these sites will be very familiar to local people; it’s just they won’t have a name for them.  I've been involved over the years in three or four campaigns where you couldn’t rally local support to protect these sites, and then it gradually dawned on us that nobody knew where we were talking about.  They all knew it as the place they took the kids at the weekend or the place where they walked in the evening, but they’d never had it as a named site.

So people know these places intimately, it is where you go and pick the blackberries at this time of year, you know, it’s the place where you actually do take the kids pond dipping because you know that there’s a pond there with great crested newts on it.  But actually I think unless we engage local people you won’t have the social pressure to control the fly tipping, the dumping of washing machines, the burned out cars, all the bad stuff that takes place on brownfield sites.  So these are the places where the best of times and the worst of times take place, and we just need to shift that balance.

Interviewer:  And finally very briefly Chris, what would you call them then if you don’t like the word ‘brownfield’?

Chris Baines:  Well Richard Mabey talked about the unofficial countryside didn’t he 40 years ago; I tend to talk about them as urban wild space.  But most people just think of them as the place where I take the dog in the evening, or the place where I feel the kids can build a den, or, you know, the place where I hear skylarks.  It’s that kind of sense that we know what these places are, they don’t need a label to know whether they’re valuable or not to us.


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