Living in the urban wild woods : a case study of the ecological woodland approach to landscape planning and design at Birchwood, Warrington New Town
There is an ever-present demand for new housing in the UK, and current government policy dictates that this is to be built on both green and brown field sites. Ecological or naturalistic woodland can be used to integrate new housing into its surroundings, and as part of the process of reclamation of brown field sites, as well as being a means of regenerating existing urban green space. There are many potent arguments in favour of using green and natural landscapes as part of new developments in urban settings, including physical, social and health benefits to humans. The evidence also suggests that many types of urban green space can contribute to the creation of a more sustainable urban environment, and can constitute important wildlife habitats in their own right. However, naturalistic woodland is often regarded as unsafe by members of the public, and the agencies involved in shaping the urban environment, suggesting that such woodland may not be appropriate within the urban fabric. This research sought to evaluate the suitability of the ecological woodland housing model, as practised at Birchwood, Warrington New Town, by means of a case study. Using a mixture of quantitative and qualitative methods, the study examined a range of perceptual factors in relation to Birchwood's naturalistic woodland environment, including issues relating to aesthetic appreciation, place identity, safety and the suitability of Birchwood as an environment for children. The study found that most Birchwood residents value their woodland environment, which has a range of diverse meanings for them, though there are some significant safety issues. The findings confirmed previous research suggesting that wild-looking or naturalistic urban landscapes often evoke simultaneously positive and negative responses: these landscapes are greatly valued and feared at the same time. In general terms the ecological woodland approach to landscape planning and design used in Birchwood has been very successful, with some shortcomings relating to attempts to integrate naturalistic woodland too closely with housing within the fabric of the residential areas; the use of tall, dense vegetation in conjunction with children's play areas as part of the streetscape; a bland, undifferentiated treatment of the woodland as a setting for the expressway and access roads; and the absence of a clear footpath hierarchy that responds to user needs. There is also a need for vegetation management strategies to be reviewed. Ways in which these issues could be addressed in future are suggested. Subject to these refinements, the study concludes that the ecological woodland approach to landscape planning and design used in Birchwood is a viable option for urban landscapes of the future.