What Good Is The Green Belt? Asks The Building Centre: Review

Beyond The Green Belt, The Building Centre ★★★★☆

Sarah Jayne Bell
By Sarah Jayne Bell Last edited 74 months ago
What Good Is The Green Belt? Asks The Building Centre: Review Beyond The Green Belt, The Building Centre 4
Could the green belt better integrate city and nature? Designs for Walthamstow Wetlands. Image from The Building Centre.

London's green belt was meant to divide the city from the countryside. Now it divides opinion.

Is it essential to protect agriculture and biodiversity against urban sprawl? Is it an artificial constraint on land availability, driving London's housing crisis? Is it just a big golf course and pony club, inaccessible to most Londoners?

Beyond the Green Belt is the latest exhibition at The Building Centre. It aims to inform debate about the green belts that surround 14 cities, accounting for 13% of all land in England.

London's green belt, we're told, was originally intended to prevent urban sprawl. It was planned to stop London engulfing nearby towns and villages, and allow space for agriculture, recreation and nature. The exhibition traces the history of how the green belt came about, looking at how well it is working, and what might happen next.

This is important stuff; the future of the green belt is central to debates about housing in London's mayoral elections. It is also a hot topic in proposed reforms of the English planning system, which could see historic changes to how development happens in this country.

The exhibition is not afraid to criticise: the green belt's 'green' credentials, it says, are highly questionable. We're shown a number of once-abundant green belt species, now endangered. It might be a good place for recreation — if you like golf and can afford to pay for membership to the many green belt clubs. OK, it has constrained urban sprawl, but it's also criss-crossed with roads and railway lines.

An architect's design for an underground clubhouse for a golf course in Surrey. Is this what development on the green belt should look like? Image from The Building Centre.

But while the green belt might have its problems, the exhibition doesn't propose it should be abandoned.

Ideas for the future focus on improving ecological functions and integrating housing and other development. After the robust account of the arguments against the green belt, this part of the exhibition feels timid. There are some agreeable propositions for green buildings and wildlife reserves. What is missing are more provocative scenarios for change.

The big question of course is: would opening up the green belt to development solve London's housing crisis? The exhibition shies away from answering this, but The Building Centre promises to tackle it in a debate on 19 April.

Rather than 'green belt or houses?' the exhibition prompts discussion about how the city might improve relations to its surrounding landscapes. It raises plenty of questions and ideas about how to better integrate nature and the city — moving beyond the idea of a green belt to divide them.

Beyond the Green Belt is on at The Building Centre, Store Street WC1E 7BT, until 27 April (free, just show up).

Is the Green Belt a luxury we can't afford? will be debated at The Building Centre on 19 April (free, prebook, 6.30pm)

Last Updated 20 March 2016