Green Belt

When you think about the rapid growth and expansion of a city or a town, it sounds quite positive, doesn't it? More people are coming from rural areas to work, making industries flourish and bringing economic growth. However, it can also be an urban planner's worst nightmare. Cities, towns and urban growth are spilling out of carefully planned areas and taking over nearby agricultural land, whilst infrastructure is stretched to facilitate the overflow. So, what can we do? The development of the green belt is one solution to this problem. How do we define the greenbelt? Are there already examples today? Let's find out!

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Table of contents

    Green Belt Definition

    As cities and towns begin to grow, they can become victims of urban sprawl. To counter this, there are various policies that exist. One of the widespread policies in Europe and North America is the greenbelt.

    Urban sprawl is the rapid expansion of towns and cities, which results in unrestricted growth.

    Urban sprawl can contribute to air pollution with higher emissions from transport, loss of open spaces, and puts stress on public services such as hospitals and schools. A greenbelt, then, is a ring of land around a town or a city, like parks, agricultural areas, or other types of open space to limit urban sprawl. The designated border is protected by law from development, and the open space is available for leisure and recreation, as well as agricultural use and habitat for wildlife.

    Green Belt Movement

    Greenbelts were essentially created to reduce or stop urban sprawl. The first proposal was in London; it gained widespread support from the London Society in its 'Development plan of Greater London' in 1919. They lobbied alongside an environmental campaign group, Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), which worked for a sustainable future for the English countryside.

    In the 1930s, the expansion of cities and towns grew rapidly as public transport became widespread, and the private ownership of cars allowed people to commute from further away. By 1947, greenbelts had become a part of the Town and Country Planning Act. This was central in planning permission for land development in the UK.

    The term greenbelt can even be dated back to 1898, as an expansion on urban planner Ebenezer Howard's idea of the Garden City, which outlined the importance of having rural areas nearby urban areas. This vision of having rural green spaces near urban areas can also be dated back to many other urban theorists and architects.

    Green Belt Map of The Metropolitan Green Belt in London UK StudySmarterFig. 1 - Map of The Metropolitan Green Belt in London and the surrounding green belts in the UK.

    At present, there are fourteen green belts in the UK covering around 16,716 km² of England and 164 km² of Scotland. It has been implemented around the world in places such as:

    • Ottawa Greenbelt in Ontario.
    • Barton Creek Greenbelt in Texas.
    • BeltLine Greenbelt in Atlanta.
    • São Paulo City Green Belt Biosphere Reserve in São Paulo.

    Green Belt Benefits

    There are many benefits of implementing a green belt when urban planning.

    • They prevent urban sprawl.
    • They stop neighbouring towns from merging with each other. By protecting the towns from merging into each other, each town's distinctive character and culture can be protected.
    • They allow the preservation of the countryside for agriculture and recreation within a reachable distance for the urban residents.
    • They assist in urban regeneration by encouraging developers to use brownfield urban land rather than greenfield agricultural land.
    • The open green space assists in the conservation of wildlife as it is protected from development. Green belts are also referred to as the city's 'green lungs' and help with the air quality.

    Brownfield land is land that was previously developed but is not used anymore.

    Greenfield land is undeveloped land that hasn't been built before.

    Disadvantages of Green Belt

    There are disadvantages to the green belt despite the positive intentions of the policy.

    • House prices often increase in these areas as the urban area is restricted to new housing. When there are more people looking for homes than available, the prices rise, forcing poorer people to have to move out of the area. Affluent suburban and rural-urban residents are more likely to be able to afford homes in these areas, pushing the less affluent who are seeking more affordable housing out of the area.
    • It is difficult to constrain the growth of an urban area with a growing population and can lead to 'leap-frog' development, the new development at the outer edge of the green belt. This consequently puts pressure on these outer areas and can lead to further sprawl.
    • Despite the ideal nature of protected land as wild and natural, the green belt has been used for intensive farming. While farming is necessary for producing food, it is not always beneficial to the environment.
    • Greenbelt land is not always accessible to the public as the land is often privately owned.

    The city of Oxford in the UK has a green belt to manage urban growth and development. However, in recent years, the population has been growing and the housing crisis has become severe, as the availability of new homes cannot keep up with the growth. It became one of the most expensive cities to live in in the UK. The rising prices of houses led to 46,000 people commuting to Oxford, half of its working population. There has been increasing pressure to reassess the green belt policy and to build on the green belt.

    Green Belt Project Examples

    Although green belts are seen as an initiative to stop urban sprawl, there are variations in how green belts came to be and are being used.

    Golden Horseshoe Green Belt

    The green belt around Golden Horseshoe in Southern Ontario is a protected area of green space with forests, wetlands, farmland, and watersheds. It was created in 2005 after the Green Belt Protection Act was passed as legislation by the Government of Ontario. It was intended to stop the urban sprawl of the Golden Horseshoe. The population had grown from 6.5 million to 7.7 million between 1991 and 2001, and farmland had decreased by 7% in the Greater Toronto Area between the years 1996 and 2001. The green belt now protects agricultural land, heritage sites, and ecological and hydrological features such as Niagara Escarpment and Oak Ridges Moraine.

    Green Belt of Vitoria-Gasteiz

    The green belt of Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, is created from a set of urban parks that are connected through green corridors.

    Green corridors are strips of green spaces which connect other green spaces. They can create movement routes for wildlife.

    Green Belt The Salburua Wetlands in Vitoria-Gasteiz Spain StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Salburua Wetlands in Vitoria-Gasteiz, SpainIt was created in the early 1990s with the main intention of restoring and recovering the natural features of the land on the outskirts of the city. There are six parks, Armentia, Salburua, Zadorra, Errekaleor, Olarizu, and Zabalgana, which provide different environments, from woodland to open fields. In particular, the restoration of the wetlands of Salburua and the River Zadorra ecosystem has been internationally recognised. The green belt is close to the urban centre and can be accessed by the public on foot or by bicycle.

    European Green Belt

    There are some green belts that are more environmentally focused rather than just for controlling urban expansion. The European green belt is an example of an environmental initiative that was developed along the corridor of the former Iron Curtain.

    Iron Curtain was a political boundary between the former Soviet bloc and the West and noncommunist countries from the end of the Second World War until the end of the Cold War.

    Green Belt Fig. 3 - Map of European Green Belt StudySmarterFig. 3 - Map of the European Green Belt

    The aim of the European green belt is to connect the national parks, nature parks, biosphere reserves, transboundary protected areas, and non-protected valuable habitats from the Barents Sea to the Adriatic and Black sea. After the Cold War, strict border regimes were abandoned, starting with the German reunification and the opening of border zones. Many of the military facilities for training or research along the border were shut down. It was unclear to whom these lands belonged and what would happen to them, so the initiative for the European Green Belt was formed to conserve the natural assets along the former Iron Curtain.

    Green Belt Development

    The concept of the green belt has been developed into different versions.

    • 'Green buffer' is a green space that stops two cities from merging. There is an example of the green buffer being used between Cheltenham and Gloucester in the UK.
    • 'Green wedge' intends to bring green space closer to urban areas and is a linear version of the green belt which runs from a centre to the outskirts, through urban areas rather than around it. An example of the green wedge can be seen in Berlin, Germany.
    • 'Green heart' encourages urban growth around the green space. It is seen in Randstad, Netherlands, where the green space is surrounded by the major cities of the Netherlands, such as Amsterdam, The Hague, and Rotterdam.

    Green Belt - Key takeaways

    • The green belt is a ring of land around a city or a town to stop urban sprawl. It is usually protected from development by policies or legislation. It is seen as an open green space for recreation, agriculture, and wildlife habitats.
    • There are both advantages and disadvantages to the development of greenbelts.
    • There are many green belts around the world with different agendas. The Golden Horseshoe green belt in Southern Ontario is a successful example of a green belt preventing urban sprawl and protecting green spaces. The European green belt was created mainly to preserve the environment along the Iron Curtain after the war.
    • At present, there are different versions of the green belt, such as the green buffer, green wedge, and green heart.


    1. Fig. 1: Map of The Metropolitan Green Belt in London, UK, and the surrounding green belts ( By Hellerick ( Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (
    2. Fig. 2: The Salburua Wetlands in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain ( By Basotxerri ( Licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    3. Fig. 3: Map of European Green Belt ( By Smaack ( Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Green Belt

    What is a green belt?

    A greenbelt is a ring of land around a town or a city to limit urban sprawl. 

    What does a green belt project look like?

    A green belt project looks like a protected area of green space around a city or a town. An example is the Golden Horseshoe Green Belt in Southern Ontario, which has forests, wetlands, farmland, and watersheds.

    What are the advantages of green belts?

    The advantages of green belts are that they prevent urban sprawl and stop towns from merging with each other. They can also preserve the countryside for agriculture and recreation. They are useful for urban regeneration, as they encourage developers to use brownfield land instead of greenfield land.

    What are the disadvantages of green belts?

    The disadvantages of green belts are that they can drive house prices up as the urban area becomes restricted to new housing. It can lead to 'leap-frog' development on the outer edge of the green belt. 

    Why is the green belt important? 

    The green belt is important as it stops urban sprawl which can contribute to air pollution, loss of open spaces, and put stress on public services.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which statement is FALSE?

    Which of the below is what a green belt is used for?

    True or false: rural flight is the migration of people from rural areas to urban areas.


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