What are greenbelts and do they benefit the economy?

A green belt is an section of undeveloped land which encircles a city. Building on it is forbidden or severely restricted. Greenbelt land isn’t necessarily wild or natural; lots of it is given over to things like farms and golf courses. There are also so-called ‘greenways’ and ‘green wedges’, which are identical to greenbelt in purpose but not in shape. 

Greenbelts are an old idea (the Bible mentions a version) and can be found all over the world. The UK is particularly keen on them: about 13 percent of all of English land is part of a greenbelt. Their purpose is to give town-dwellers easy access to large natural spaces, protect the environment and prevent urban sprawl (stop cities becoming uber-large, basically). 

These are all worthwhile aims that, if achieved, would benefit people and their economy. Science has shown that being in green spaces make people happier and healthier. That means lower healthcare spending, less sick days and higher productivity.

Meanwhile, environmental destruction disrupts food supply chain, increases the severity of disasters like drought and flooding, and leads species we rely on for food and medicine to the brink of extinction. Urban sprawl correlates with more air pollution (which damages human health) and pressure on public services like hospitals and schools.  

But some people don’t think greenbelts do a good job on some or all of these areas. Some environmentalists, for instance, say the notion they help the environment is laughable because lots of greenbelt land is farmland. Farms are pretty useful - they produce our food, after all - but not great for the environment. Farming creates vast amounts of nitrous oxide (from fertilisers) and methane (from burping cows), which are both climate-change-causing greenhouse gases. In the UK, two-thirds of greenbelt land is farms. In contrast, just 0.5 percent of it belongs to National Nature Reserves, where at-risk wildlife lives

There’s also disagreement about whether greenbelts give people access to the great outdoors. Greenbelt land is often privately owned (all those farms tend to be someone’s business) and a lot of it therefore doesn’t have any public right of way. Basically, that means ordinary people can’t get onto it without being guilty of trespassing. And of the land that is accessible to the public, not much of it may be worthwhile seeing: just 9 percent of England’s greenbelt land is designated as ‘areas of outstanding natural beauty’

But perhaps the biggest criticism of greenbelts is that far from solving the problem of mass urbanisation they make it worse, by increasing commuting and pushing up house prices. Greenbelts don’t make cities any less desirable a place to live or work. But they do stop a city whose population is rising from expanding outwards. Critics say the result is that they depress housebuilding by limiting the space available for new homes. 

When more people want homes than there are homes available, they financially compete to secure what accommodation there is. This pushes prices up and forces poorer people out of the area. Alternatively, city workers who can’t find affordable housing in town may move to ‘commuter towns’ which are built just outside the greenbelt. This makes people’s journeys to work longer than they could be, which is bad for productivity (no one feels pumped for the workday after two hours sitting in traffic) and the environment (transport releases greenhouses gases too). 

Greenbelt advocates agree that a lack of housebuilding in the UK has made property too expensive, but say greenbelts aren’t responsible. They point out that UK cities are often half as densely populated as other European equivalents like Paris and therefore have plenty of room for new homes without building on the greeenbelt. Existing inner-city ‘brownfield’ sites could support one million new homes in the UK, and the country could also build up and well as out (London currently has just 13 skyscrapers compared to New York’s 273.) 

The reason this doesn’t happen, some suggest, is that the status quo benefits a lot of influential groups that politicians don’t want to annoy. Homeowners and landlords financially benefit from rising house/rent prices and often have a NIMBYist attitude to proposals for new homes that would block their views and create more people using local services. Housebuilders can also make lots of money from rocketing prices of homes and the land they sit on.  

Regardless of who is correct in the debate over greenbelts, there is little doubt that they are often incredibly popular. In Britain, 62 percent of people who live in cities want to keep them. This alone is reason for democracies to keep them.