An ever-growing case for Green (and Blue) Infrastructure

Since moving to Milton Keynes from London two years ago my family and I very quickly grew to love the city’s park system. And over the last seven weeks our affection for it has continued to increase as the linked network of open spaces have been a loyal companion through the challenges of the Covid-19 controls for running, cycling, dog-walking and general adventuring with our 2½ year old son.

I have found that the limitations of a single trip out of the house focuses the mind into making a plan in order to extract the maximum benefit from the trip out – getting a good amount of exercise, seeing different things, watching for wildlife and enjoying the ephemerality of the seasons. And of course, avoiding places with concentrations of people.

Since lockdown measures became our way of life I have seen a marked increase in the number of people using the open spaces between dawn and dusk but the park system has come into its own. The nature of the linear parks of MK, which often follow water courses such as the River Ouzel or Grand Union Canal, provide an ideal environment for outdoor exercise under lockdown. I see the key reasons being:

They provide a comprehensive network of routes incorporating national trails and cycle routes, city red ways, recreational paths and bridleways. These accommodate a range of modes, speeds and purposes for travel opening the spaces up to all of society. Their linear format has been a valuable characteristic in helping to disperse people, avoiding concentrations which occur in ‘destination’ spaces.

The open spaces are well connected as part of the overall park network and, also, importantly, to adjacent areas of housing. The convenient and safe connectivity facilitates easy movement between home and landscape without the need for vehicular movement.

The scale of the city’s park system, planned and designed holistically, boasts a huge variety of open space typologies from river park to canal broadwalk, local gardens to neighbourhood parks, lakes, woodlands, wetlands, historic moats and remains, meadows and even fields with grazing livestock, all within the boundary of the city. This variety gives people choices for where they go and what they do appealing to a wide demographic and helping to keep society active.

The range of landscape types have created a tapestry of habitats enabling visual and physical contact with nature and water through hearing birdsong, seeing the Cherry blossom appear and then fade or watching flowing water. Such contact with nature is well documented to provide restorative benefits for our mental wellbeing, particularly important during these times.

These characteristics are helping the residents of MK to keep exercising safely whilst the green and blue infrastructure continues to perform the diversity of other invaluable functions such as stormwater collection, storage and conveyance, wildlife habitat provision and associated biodiversity benefits, improving air quality and reduction of the urban heat island effect. Much praise and thanks must go to the Milton Keynes Parks Trust for their ongoing work in maintaining vast swathes of MK’s open spaces even throughout the pandemic.

Milton Keynes clearly illustrates the value in holistically planned, well-designed open spaces which are considered as part of a network and wider system. As we look through and beyond the murky world of Covid-19 restrictions I hope society’s new-found or increased appreciation for walking, cycling and exercising in our towns and cities can be maintained and allowed to grow through the application of these principles.

(Photographs of the Ouzel Valley Park and Grand Union Canal Broadwalk, Milton Keynes)