Leading Article: The triumph of green over grey

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FEW THINGS matter more to people than their surroundings. For those in towns and cities, a hint of nature, some vestige of countryside, is precious. Tiny gardens and slivers of greenery amid dense building calm the soul. Parks and the feel of turf underfoot are rejuvenating. Yet the shabby greyness of many urban areas continues to assault and deprive the sensibilities.

There are at last efforts to restore nature's deficit in Britain's cities. Yesterday parks and landscapes in Birmingham, Rotherham and Sunderland were awarded prizes. The green message has reached parts associated more with blight than bloom.

It is difficult to explain why green space is so important to people. Perhaps it is because humankind has only recently become an urban species, after thousands of years in wilderness and - eventually - countryside. Nature has been the wellspring of religion and inspiration of culture in all civilisations. Modern thinking offers psychological explanations: the world of nature is said to engage the right side of the brain, the seat of imagination and creativity. Whatever the reasons, many city dwellers sense that they lose touch with nature at some peril to their well-being.

The greening of urban areas is a relatively cheap and cost-effective way of reinvigorating commercial life. This policy underpinned the post-war regeneration of Germany's shattered cities. More recently the Americans have reclaimed derelict sites in places such as San Francisco and Boston by city-wide greening. Just as the Nash terraces seem drawn to the perimeter of Regent's Park, so new building has been attracted to overlook these fresh spaces. Studies suggest that vandalism and aggression decline as the landscape becomes greener. Spaces once economically dead have again become productive.

Britain would do well to copy US and German experience. It is among the most densely populated countries in the world. 'Counter- urbanisation' - flight from cities - threatens places such as London, which has lost a fifth of its population since the Sixties. Nearly half of those leaving say they want more space.

Britain taught the world the lessons it must now relearn. The Victorians were acutely aware of the need for open, cultivated spaces and they pioneered the greening of cities. Sir Joseph Paxton's Birkenhead Park inspired people such as Frederick Law Olmsted, who laid out Central Park in New York. Yet the Sixties passion for concrete showed how easily these ideas were forgotten. Britain was not alone: the Bronx, once a haven of suburban leafiness, has through overcrowding come to symbolise what can go wrong with a city.

There have been attempts in Britain to emulate Boston's success. The garden festivals of the Eighties, beginning in Liverpool, tried to catalyse economic development. But they were short-term. With no permanent legacy of green space, some areas slipped back into dereliction. Experience shows that genuine development requires lasting, not temporary cosmetic improvement. The right investment can reap far more than is sown - in revenue as well as in happiness.