Picturing zero carbon landscapes

As the UK moves towards net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, our landscapes could change considerably.

As well as new government initiatives, public perception of our much-loved countryside is continually evolving.

Catherine Thomas and Tom Jackson discuss and picture the zero carbon landscapes that we may expect to experience, and the opportunities for both landowners and our wider environment.

Landscape-influencing legislation

Two key drivers for forthcoming landscape change are the government’s Environment Bill and Agriculture Bill, both reintroduced to parliament in January.

  • The Environment Bill aims to recover and enhance the UK’s natural environment. It will set the process for legally enshrined air and water quality targets to replace the current EU framework, as well as ensuring that we meet our net zero target as a nation by 2050. A new body – the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – will enforce such targets, review policy, and aims to hold governments to account.
  • The OEP will also have a responsibility to enforce ‘biodiversity net gain’, which would be written into law. The concept would require developers to offset all habitats damaged during development, either through creative net gain onsite, or offsetting to other land.
  • The Bill looks to position the UK as a future leader in environmental protection, through the creation of a biennial review of leading international environmental policy.[1]
  • The Agriculture Bill looks to move to a new model of agricultural subsidies. As the UK looks to a future outside the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), payments are expected to move away from subsidies based on the amount of land owned, and towards agricultural land as a provider of socio-environmental goods. Such goods and associated payments may be through the provision of ecosystem services such as natural water storage, carbon sequestration, pollutant management and provision of public access.
  • The Bill also looks to commit to a regular review of UK food security, particularly relevant when considering recent food shortages due to the coronavirus outbreak, and subsequent panic-buying. The Landscape Institute rightly notes: “Food production and environmental preservation are co-dependent; robust food production will rely on improved soil health, climate resilience, and beneficial insect recovery”[2].

Both bills can be clearly read in the context of the climate crisis. With agriculture currently contributing to 9%[3] of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions and comprising 72%[4] of the UK’s land area, the change to familiar countryside landscapes could be considerable.

 

Landscape change

As environmental professionals, in addition to this new legislation, we recognise there is potential for further drivers of UK landscape change in the future:

  • The effects of climate change on the landscape, with more extreme weather events in some parts of the country, as well as the effects of drought. Just this year, the UK has experienced the wettest February, and the sunniest spring since records began in 1929, with increased chance of extreme high temperatures.
  • Associated national and international climate change targets, including the potential for far more renewable energy generation infrastructure and biomass fuel.
  • Increasing development in rural and semi-rural areas as well as urban extensions, linked to initiatives which will reduce carbon emissions from travel and increase infrastructure for zero carbon modes of transport such as cycling and walking.
  • Continued innovation in agriculture and diversification of agricultural practices, potentially linked to new green farming practices being trialled by landowners such as the National Trust[5].
  • People’s changing lifestyles, sustainable travel, changes to people’s leisure pursuits, wellbeing and diet. The recent pandemic-driven requirement for increased home working shows how quickly our lifestyles can alter.
  • The long-term effects of biodiversity net gain, in particular the practice of offsetting to other land and the form this may take as the policy develops.
Existing landscape condition 2020 – pre net zero carbon changes (Photograph by Nicholas Pearson Associates)

 

Potential landscape changes are quickly tested with sketches (Sketch by Nicholas Pearson Associates)

 

We took the opportunity during lockdown to study three potential landscape change scenarios for the countryside in the South West of England and explored how these changes might look.

Changes in tree and woodland cover

Forest Research has shown there is a high level of public support for tree planting as part of efforts to tackle climate change[6], and with the Committee for Climate Change recommending the planting of 30,000 new hectares of woodland every year[7] to help the UK reach its net zero target, our landscapes look set to become much more wooded. Landowners such as the National Trust are leading the way with ambitious plans to plant 18,000 hectares of woodland over the next ten years[8]. As a practice, our landscape-led approach to masterplanning seeks wherever possible to protect existing valuable trees and woodland. We also understand that this is not always possible and therefore utilise new tree planting for schemes wherever it will be beneficial for habitats and people. In addition to carbon sequestration, tree planting has many multi-layered benefits, including flood mitigation, enhancement in biodiversity and air quality, as well as positive influences on human wellbeing.

The effects of increased tree and woodland cover

What effects will large-scale tree planting have on green infrastructure and habitat connectivity? Will there be ecological benefits that landowners can share with their local communities or receive cash incentives to provide? What effects will tree planting have on landscape character, as well as views and visual amenity, and how can it be implemented sensitively whilst still retaining the benefits of the carbon capture associated with the initiative?  As professional Landscape Architects we consider which landscapes have capacity for such change, how they could change, and how our perception of landscape character might alter over time as woodland grows. Beyond this, the selection of appropriate trees, planting and management regimes will be important considerations which we can also input to.

Local landscape scenario: Testing the effects of increased tree cover on a local landscape
(Visualisation by Nicholas Pearson Associates)

In this local landscape scenario, we looked at how the landscape might evolve with a range of tree-planting initiatives. Recently announced government schemes such as the Woodland Carbon Guarantee[9] could be employed by the landowner to create habitats such as the newly planted woodland buffer shown, as an extension to existing habitat in the valley. Local action groups such as More Trees B&NES could deliver neighbourhood focused tree planting initiatives. We also considered how managed wood-pasture might develop as an appropriate form of tree planting for this traditionally pastoral landscape.

Our Landscape Architects and Visualisers have experience in testing and assessing the effects of large-scale tree planting and how its growth can be visualised over time. One example project at Plymstock Quarry near Plymouth included 2.4 hectares of new woodland within the context of the Grade I listed Saltram House and Gardens.

 

Changes in agriculture and leisure

Over the next 30 years land use is likely to evolve in rural areas as agricultural land diversifies to accommodate the UK’s net zero target, through a variety of means. An increase in visibility of renewable energy production may be seen from photovoltaics, wind turbines and bioenergy crops[10]. Extreme weather events and flooding are likely to put an even greater focus on flood mitigation, from new engineering measures to the re-naturalisation of watersheds or even the replanting of upland areas. Agriculture will continue to see innovation through new technologies, with some landscapes potentially seeing further intensification and others a diversification in farming practices, particularly where subsidies can no longer be relied upon. Agroforestry, where productive trees or shrubs are grown alongside conventional arable and pasture may become a key tool in afforestation.

The effects of changes to agriculture and leisure

Such agricultural change could have varied effects on the landscape character of the countryside. How will biodiversity be affected on agricultural land that is being diversified, or on estate land evolving to accommodate new leisure pursuits? How can habitats be created, restored, and managed successfully, alongside growing human pressure for recreation and escape to the UK countryside rather than abroad?

Local landscape scenario: Testing the effects on landscapes from changes in agriculture and leisure (Visualisation by Nicholas Pearson Associates)

In this local landscape scenario, we looked at how we might incorporate silvopasture – where a timber or nut tree crop provides a long-term product alongside a continuing pastoral income for the estate. Tree planting can provide livestock with protection from exposure[11], as well as habitat for local wildlife and reduced soil erosion[12]. We also explored how our landscape might incorporate new leisure pursuits such as camping and recreational, low carbon leisure routes.

Our multi-disciplinary team has experience of accommodating environmental and recreational change in the most sensitive of places. Our work for English Heritage at Tintagel has seen the creation of new and improved visitor routes and interpretation informed by the archaeology, landscape and ecology of the site, to complement the landmark new footbridge.

 

Changes in approach to landscape management

With agricultural subsidies expected to alter, and with deeper practical research ongoing into rewilding and the reintroduction of keystone species such as the beaver (Castor fiber), approaches to landscape management and maintenance look set to change. Landowners may look to emulate the ongoing trials at projects such as the National Trust’s beaver reintroduction at the Holnicote Estate, or the Knepp Wildland in West Sussex and the Somerleyton Estate in Suffolk, where natural processes are allowed to take the lead through naturalistic grazing regimes.

The effects of changes to landscape management

How can landowners incorporate changes to landscape maintenance whilst remaining sympathetic to its character? Where can landscapes, particularly those with ecological or cultural heritage designations, accommodate the change associated with rewilding or the reintroduction of species? Can short-term initiatives on small parcels of land be as effective as landscape-scale change in landscape management? What can we learn from experimentation?

Local landscape scenario: Testing the effects of changes to landscape management approaches
(Visualisation by Nicholas Pearson Associates)

In this local landscape scenario, we looked at the incorporation of process-led landscape management through the ecosystem engineering of beavers and grazing of wisent (Bison bonasus). Landscape management that is driven by natural processes rather than specific targets has the potential to establish a varied, continually changing mosaic of textures and patterns, as grasslands, heath, shrubland and woodland regenerate. Natural regeneration rather than formalised planting also has the potential to establish a guild of species from the local seedbank. Being steered by dynamic natural process, effects may be hard to predict, though can be controlled to a degree by altering the grazing regime. Depending on the existing conditions and the natural processes followed, a landscape’s evolution could be gradual or swift.

As a multi-disciplinary practice, we have experience in assessing, designing, monitoring, and visualising landscapes in a state of change. Project work at Tamar and Wytch Farm included photomontages, where new mudflats and heathlands were visualised for public consultation.

 

Summary

When considering zero carbon landscapes – for sites as varied as large-scale estates to small-scale areas of biodiversity offsetting – a range of expertise will be required to explore the various environmental factors in play.

 

At Nicholas Pearson Associates, as a collaborative, multi-disciplinary team of environmental professionals, we can assist by considering the following:

  • What local changes are already taking place as influenced by local policy, the NPPF and other national legislation; alongside the long-term evolution of our wider landscape, driven by legislation such as the future Agriculture and Environment Bills.
  • How to appraise a changing landscape and explore strategic, emerging options with landowners to offer the best advice on new initiatives and options for future management of a landscape.
  • How can we strike a balance between change that is sensitive to the baseline and change that is ambitious and progressive.
  • Helping to visualise dynamic, changing landscapes – over decades if necessary – so that developers, estate managers and communities can positively influence their local area?
  • The methods of communicating a changing landscape – through sketches, drawings and models, community engagement, through to fully rendered visuals or even virtual reality.

 

With the prospect of large-scale landscape change to come, we are well placed to assist our clients in unlocking the potential for positive change to their landscapes and local environment.

Do contact us to discuss how we can help design and bring your landscape change project to life.

 

References:
  1. Landscape Institute (2020) LI policy update: Environment Bill, new green watchdog, natural capital and more [online]
  2. Landscape Institute (2020) How will the new Agriculture Bill affect the environment? [online]
  3. Committee on Climate Change (2019) Net Zero – Technical report [ebook]
  4. Norton, E. (2019) Current agricultural land use in the UK [online] Savills.co.uk
  5. National Trust (2019) A positive future for green farming [online]
  6. Forest Research (2018) Public Opinion of Forestry – climate change [online]
  7. England, R. (2019) Climate change: Tree planting rise ‘needs to happen quickly’ [online] BBC.co.uk/news
  8. National Trust (2020) National Trust outlines fresh ambition in landmark speech by Director General [online]
  9. Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Forestry Commission & The Rt Hon Lord Zac Goldsmith (2019) Government launches new scheme to boost tree-planting [online] gov.uk
  10. Norton, E. (2019) Could a third of UK land area change use by 2050? [online] Savills.co.uk
  11. Agroforestry Research Trust (no date) Silvopasture [online]
  12. Soil Association & Woodland Trust (2018) Agroforestry in England. Benefits, Barriers & Opportunities [ebook]

 

Catherine Thomas

Professional Landscape Architect

01225 876990
catherine.thomas@npaconsult.co.uk
linkedin.com

As the UK moves towards net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, our landscapes could change considerably. As well as new government initiatives, public perception of our much-loved countryside is continually evolving. Catherine Thomas and Tom Jackson discuss and picture the zero carbon landscapes that we may expect to experience, and the opportunities for both […]

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