Step 3: Baseline information gathering

To develop any project and to ensure that added value can be achieved, it will be essential to have a full understanding of the site context.

An understanding of the following will help guide you to the best solutions:

  • what previous land uses were present?
  • who are the landowners?
  • what is the local economic development and policy context?

Understanding the context helps to reduce the risk of coming across unforeseen problems mid-way through a project, such as contamination risks or ground instability and may also help to identify opportunities that will support a project.

Baseline issues for consideration

The following headed sub-sections describe key baseline issues for consideration. They are presented in an order that reflects the nature of the entire Guide and should not be considered as an order of importance.

Contamination
Previously developed land (PDL) will often have a high risk of being affected by contamination. In the first instance therefore, it would be advisable to contact the environmental health (or contaminated land) officer at the relevant local authority to discuss the site’s history and potential for contamination. This would involve an environmental database search to determine basic history and records of pollution incidents and a basic site walkover to check for signs of contamination.

Following that, should the view be established that there are potential risks posed to receptors, a specialist environmental consultant or environmental risk assessor will need to be appointed to provide advice on risks and mitigation opportunities. This task will have an associated cost, the advice will need to be provided by a qualified environmental advisor. Remedial measures, which may need to be applied during the redevelopment of the site, will also have an associated cost.

Landscape
In developing a scheme, the influence of the local landscape character will need proper consideration to ensure that the eventual open space is successful in its wider landscape context. In many instances the open space will be developed in an urban area, offering potential opportunities for being more creative with solutions. However there are a wide range of landscape issues that should be given proper consideration at the baseline stage. Factors that should be considered include:

  • Local landscape character (LCA)
  • Size, type and character of nearby open spaces
  • Local and regional policy and guidance.

Where a specialist landscape architect is not involved in the project team (for example for cost reasons), advice from the relevant local authority on the landscape context will provide a valuable starting point for this stage of the process.

The information gathered at this stage will provide invaluable foundations for how an open space project can develop, informing the development of a vision for change and improvement.

Biodiversity
The biodiversity value of a PDL site can vary considerably from site to site, with the potential for it to be of extremely rich value or have little or no biodiversity present. Therefore the initial process of determining the suitability of any PDL site for enhancement must consider the biodiversity value of that site, with the following steps recommended:

  • identify neighbouring habitats
  • identify ecological networks that could be linked to the site (green and blueinfrastructure: for example, other parks, networks of hedgerows, rivers and canal networks, etc.)
  • determine whether the site is an Open Mosaic Habitat, under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP).

If any of the BAP criteria are met then the following steps are required:

  • identify local BAP targets
  • determine if other species or habitats of conservation importance are present, e.g. BAP species, national or internationally protected species
  • determine if invasive species are present
  • determine if contamination is present through environmental risk assessment (and if so, how contaminated/how toxic, etc.).

Socio-economic context
The socio-economic context of a site will have critical influence over how a vision is developed for a site and in setting objectives for change. It is essential to establish understanding of both the existing context and the potential for future change as influenced by factors such as emerging local planning policy and other local and regional authority initiatives.

To inform the baseline assessment it’s recommended that you:

1. Seek advice from the relevant local authority on the local population profile (the local population will potentially provide the future open space beneficiaries) of the area, taking into account the national Indices of Multiple Deprivation at the relevant super output area level. The planning policy department will be well placed to provide advice as similar baseline information is gathered to inform the development of planning policy.

The intention of this exercise is to identify what local population needs might be met by an open space project. For example, if there are issues with unemployment, health or education, the open space project could be developed in response, offering an opportunity to create a local asset of social value. Consideration of these issues may also open up opportunities for funding and long-term support.

Typical population profile items to consider would include:

  • ages
  • health and well-being
  • educational attainment
  • car ownership
  • employment.

2. Get information on the economic context of an area. This will be available through the relevant local authority. Information on wider economic objectives for the local area may help to inform project development and may help lead to funding options

3. Identify the economic policy context for the area from the local planning authority to find out if there are any relevant policies that may affect the potential for development of the site or that might influence how an open space might be developed

4. What the current patterns of use on the site, for example biking or informal uses such as dumping?

5. Are there any anti-social behaviour issues associated with the site or neighbouring areas? (  The local neighbourhood police force can provide advice and assistance on this query)

6. What other activities are ongoing in the area in terms of community engagement? Is the local community active such as involved in developing other initiatives or objecting to local development activity? Seek advice from the relevant local parish council and or elected member may help with this query

7. Are there other major development projects proposed for the area that could, through existing or emerging planning policy, support an open space project? The local planning authority will be able to provide advice on this issue.

Other factors to consider may include:

  • Is the site designated for any particular reason, such as for cultural heritage or environmental reasons?
  • Are neighbouring areas affected by designations that may be relevant to the open space project
  • Risk register and strategy
    •  
      • A risk register is an invaluable project management tool that can be used to identify types of problems that may arise, the likelihood of the problem arising and the potential implications of such problems. It is important to set up a risk register early on as baseline information is established as it is a useful way of avoiding problems and for having contingency plans in place to help identify solutions.
      • Risks fall in to three main categories: financial, legal and technical and could include for example presence of contamination, or low potential for qualifying for grant funding.

By the end of this process you should know the following:


Baseline


Contamination levels/site categorisation

 

Soil resource and constraints

 

Landscape character and value

 

Landscape context

 

Is the site, or could it be, linked to a wider ecological network or green and blue infrastructure?

 

Does the site have ecological value, for example is it a designated site or does it support habitats or species priorities under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan? 

 

What is the local population profile?

 

Are there any proposals for development that may be relevant to the site?  For example planning applications or longer term planning policy.

 

What are the local objectives for economic development relevant to the area?

 

What is the development context for the area, including proposals and policy?

 

Is the site or are adjoining areas designed for any particular value?

 

What are the current patterns of use on the site?

 

Is anti-social behaviour an issue?

 

Is the local community active in other projects and initiatives?

 

Risk register and strategy established

 

Guidance on landscape character across the UK can be secured from Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Countryside Council for Wales and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.  The Landscape Character Network (www.landscapecharacter.org.uk) can also offer support as an informal network with a dual focus on LCA and the European Landscape Convention.  Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage, are currently reviewing and revising the Landscape Character Assessment (LCA) Guidance for England and Scotland (2002) and related Topic Papers.