Open habitats


Within the context of urban greenspace, the term ‘open habitat’ can refer to a variety of natural habitats such as water, wetlands and marshlands, or to semi-natural habitats such as rough grassland, wildflower meadows, scrubland or heathland. Equally, the term could relate to the range of highly manicured or artificial habitats that occur frequently in urban settings, such as parks and community gardens, wasteland (derelict or unmanaged), churchyards and burial grounds, green corridors, outdoor sports facilities, amenity or recreational greenspaces, allotments or city farms. Commonly, urban greenspaces comprise a mix of open and closed habitats (e.g. wooded areas), relating to site history, the substrate on which the greenspace is established, or the aims and functions that the greenspace serves (for example whether it is an ecology park, wildlife garden or community woodland).

Practical considerations

The establishment, reinstatement or revitalisation of heathland requires the selective clearance of scrub, including bracken and gorse. Young trees, particularly birch and pines, also need cropping to defer succession to woodland, and a management plan to guide successive work is also required. Favoured by certain, often rare species of reptile, insect and bird, the heathland may also require detailed sections of a management plan dedicated to encouraging these to return, or to conserving those already present.

Management of heathland as an urban or peri-urban greenspace must also consider the social implications, as these are often locations favoured by fly-tippers and illegal motorbike off-roaders. To counter antisocial behaviour, controlling access may be a useful starting point but is rarely fully effective, and wardening or policing is often required.

Open habitats vary in their uses, both socially and environmentally. A mix of open and closed habitats will increase the number of roles played by a greenspace in an urban setting. Due to limitations on management resources, during much of the twentieth century certain habitat types have been favoured to the detriment of the diversity and richness of urban greenspace, resulting in a decline of biodiversity in urban and peri-urban settings.

For example, urban open habitat has traditionally included common land, areas of rough grassland and heathland (e.g. Hampstead Heath in London). Varying in size from isolated patches to tens or even hundreds of hectares, these areas were derived from traditional farming practices including grazing, burning, rough mowing, labour-intensive scything, and manual clearance of scrub and weeds. Urban development, changes in land management skills and technological development have compounded the demise, or even the total loss of these habitats. Where they have survived, they have become very valuable recreational and educational resources, often because of their scarcity.

Lowland heaths are a good example of the loss of traditional open habitats. Created and maintained since the Bronze Age by woodland clearance for agriculture and fuelwood, these open habitats developed unique plant and animal communities that have been under pressure throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Heathland can be valuable for both flora and fauna, and an enjoyable location for social interaction, recreation and education.

Whether heathland constitutes the most appropriate land use for urban greenspace will depend on many factors, including local climatic and edaphic conditions, local demand, resource availability, and long-term local commitment to its maintenance. In some cases, an acid grassland heather sward mix may be appropriate, although this is a very different habitat, both socially and environmentally.

Less demanding in terms of land management, these grasslands offer a social versatile habitat, useful for community events through to the daily dog-walk. As with the establishment of any greenspace, it is necessary to recognise and work with local demand if the open space is to be respected and successful.

Case studies

Thames Basin Heaths project

Thames Basin Heaths is a partnership project run by Natural England in association with the Government Office for the South East, South East England Development Agency, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Department for Communities and Local Government and the Forestry Commission, along with local planning authorities and some non-governmental partners such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

It is an area-based project, which means that it adopts an integrated approach to conservation across the wider countryside. An example is Bramshill in north Hampshire, where the Forestry Commission manages the site as a working plantation while retaining areas of important heathland and wetland habitats that are a haven for dragonflies, damselflies and birds.

The Thames Basin Heaths project is being undertaken within a Special Protection Area, and is a site of European importance protected under the Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the Conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora, notably for three species of breeding birds: the woodlark, Dartford warbler and nightjar. A 3-year project, its objectives are strategic planning regionally, management of Sites of Special Scientific Interest, access management, species monitoring and heathland restoration.

Protection of existing areas is tackled via strategic planning, management and monitoring. Strategic planning aims to mitigate the impacts of housing developments around the heathlands. Site management is directed towards limiting damage and disturbance caused by access management, while ensuring visitors can continue to enjoy the site without harming its wildlife.

An environmentally valuable habitat, heathland also offers significant social appeal. In addition to the wildlife riches mentioned above, heathlands are attractive environments, appealing to walkers. However, they can be vulnerable to anthropogenic influences. The main negative urban impacts on heathland are habitat fragmentation or size-reduction, predation and disturbance of ground-nesting birds by domestic pets, damage to reptile habitats, creation of bare areas of soil vulnerable to erosion, and the polluting of watercourses from urban run-off, spills and accidents. Antisocial behaviour such as fly-tipping, vandalism, fire and illegal motor-cross biking also threaten heathlands. Cost is an important consideration of heathland restoration and management, as it is potentially more demanding than alternative land uses such as rough grasslands. An interesting example of a successful alternative is Southampton Common.

Southampton Common

Southampton Common is a 148 hectare open space in the heart of Southampton, England. It comprises a mix of woodland, scrub, heathland, wet and dry meadows, rough and amenity grassland, ponds, streams and ditches. With evidence of Bronze Age influence, heather and gorse were removed and replaced with grassland and trees by the Victorians. A Green Flag site and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, the Common is a good example of a mixed-habitat urban greenspace delivering both social and environmental benefits.

Petersfield Heath

Petersfield Heath, England, covering some 95 acres, has been used by humans since ancient times and is the site of a group of 21 Bronze Age burial mounds (barrows). The Heath was grazed common land in the Middle Ages, and this continued until the twentieth century, when a golf course was developed. Large, mature pine trees, still present, were planted on the barrows during Victorian times. The open fairways are now being managed for the enjoyment of all, and to return them to heathland as it was prior to 1890.

Further information

Forest Research Best Practice Guidance

Sinnett, D. (2006). Maximising Biodiversity (PDF-289K). Best Practice Guidance for Land Regeneration, BPG Note 9. Forest Research, Farnham.

Other resources

Town and Country Planning Act 1990

Department of Communities and Local Government. (2002). Planning for Open Space, Sport and Recreation. Planning Policy Guidance Note 17. London: Stationary Office.

Alonso, I., Sherry, J., Turner, A., Farrell, L., Corbett, P. and Strachan, I. (2003). Lowland Heathland SSSIs: Guidance on conservation objectives setting and condition monitoring. English Nature Research Report No. 511. Peterborough: English Nature.

Coversands Animal Grazing of Heathlands Project

Birmingham’s Saving Sutton Park Heathland Restoration Project

Cheshire Region Biodiversity Partnership