Green infrastructure provides multi-functional benefits to society in terms of health and wellbeing, biodiversity protection, climate change mitigation and economic growth. In this blog, Dr Ian Mell outlines policy recommendations to effectively integrate green infrastructure in urban areas to create greener, more resilient and meaningful places.
- Considerations of access to green or blue spaces at the city and regional scale should be a basic requirement in all discussions of development.
- Policymakers should involve local communities in the decision-making process to understand the socio-cultural, economic and ecological context of places.
- Establishing a strong business case by estimating financial returns and local benefits of green urban spaces will be key to support future investment in green infrastructure.
If the UK heat wave of 2021 and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have taught us anything about cities, it’s that their form is critical to liveability. Cities that are greener, with greater tree canopy, access to high-quality public green and blue spaces, and walkable are consistently regarded as being more attractive and prosperous. However, as land values continue to increase the focus on developing new homes, commercial, service and transport infrastructure constrains the delivery of green infrastructure.
What is green infrastructure?
Green infrastructure is a network of connected green and blue spaces; for example, parks, street trees, meadows, and waterways, that provide multi-functional benefits for society. These benefits include enhancing health and wellbeing, promoting biodiversity, addressing climate change and flooding, as well as supporting economic development and prosperity via property uplift and increased spend associated with footfall. Where green infrastructure is integrated effectively into urban areas, especially new developments including Mayfield and the Victoria North sites in Manchester, we see places that are interactive, walkable, aesthetically diverse, and meaningful to a wide range of people across society.
Unequal access to green space
Due to COVID-19 people have rethought their relationships with nature, especially those people who have little to no access to private green space. As a society, we can identify the damage done by urban planning that discriminates against some communities based on ethnicity, age or income in terms of housing, education and access to the natural environment. The relationships that people have with the landscapes around them are therefore complex in terms of their role supporting health and wellbeing, economic growth, climate change mitigation and social interaction.
To create more equitable, liveable, and functional cities we need to rethink how we incorporate green and blue spaces as a first principle of development. This is not a simple task. It is one that needs to reflect the environmental, socio-cultural and economic context of a given location, be that in Manchester, Melbourne or Toronto, and find appropriate solutions to changing climatic and demographic conditions through more reflective landscape and urban design.
A multifunctional solution
Evidence suggests that in Liverpool and London, for example, a greater awareness of links between green infrastructure and climate change mitigation and health and wellbeing is being translated into “greener” strategic planning, such as in the London Plan 2021 and the Liverpool Green and Open Space Review and URBAN GreenUP project. Research also emphasises the added economic value that investment in urban greening in the form of street trees, parks, green walls and roofs, and biodiverse street-planting can have on local economies. Further examples of the successful alignment of these issues can be seen in Berlin, Singapore and New York, demonstrating that green infrastructure offers significant benefits to society that cannot all be delivered solely by built infrastructure.
However, what is missing is an established business case for environmental enhancement. To ensure that cities address transport, employment and housing issues, whilst being resilient to climate change and promoting health and wellbeing, green infrastructure advocates have promoted a view that nature, in its widest sense, can deliver local and city-scale benefits at a fraction of the cost of new built infrastructure. Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), social housing providers and developers in London have all worked with environmental advocates to deliver greener streets, new parks, and better access to nature using the estimated financial returns on investment as a mechanism to support their involvement in urban greening.
In addition, the UK government is currently developing a National Standard for Green Infrastructure illustrating a commitment to the delivery of urban greening. This is aligned with the growing visibility of green infrastructure in the National Planning Policy Framework revisions. Within this work the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and Natural England are undertaking an assessment of urban greening metrics including the Urban Greening Factor and Accessible Natural Greenspace Standard (ANGSt), that is examining how issues of location, diversity, quality and quantity of green infrastructure can act as a facilitator or barrier to the use of urban green spaces.
Embedding nature into design
Although significant progress has been made in the integration of green infrastructure into development debates there remains additional work to be done. The following recommendations should be taken as a green print to ensure that nature is designed in and funding is made available to maintain greener, more equitable and resilient places.
The main principles of green infrastructure need to be embedded in all discussions of development. Considerations of a network of green and blue spaces that provide access to a range of multi-functional and diverse spaces at a street, neighbourhood, city and regional scale should be a basic requirement.
An appreciation of the local economic, socio-cultural and ecological context is needed. This requires an evaluation of current services, housing and built infrastructure to be made to maximise existing resources and provide signposts for enhancement. Designs should not be parachuted into places without due consideration of local needs and aspirations.
Planners, designers and developers need to be conversant with the language and typologies associated with green infrastructure to effectively use it. Understanding the fluidity of ecological, socio-cultural and economic values associated with different types of green infrastructure and their fit in different urban environments is key to getting the right design in the right place.
Variability is central to successful green infrastructure. Whilst there is an assumption that Victorian park aesthetics are well received, there is a growing awareness that biodiverse habitats with varying management regimes work.
Communication and collaboration
Policymakers need to get local communities involved. Local people understand their local environment, what works, and what is valued. Make use of this knowledge as it engenders a sense of ownership and involvement that can evolve into long-term stewardship.
Decision-makers should look beyond established funding streams and create collaborative partnerships with communities, business, schools, and other civic institutions, for example, universities or football clubs, to promote pathways for the integration of alternative funding models, such as, BIDS, Community Asset Transfers, Park Trust and endowments within management strategies.
The focus of policy and its communication to communities of interest need to be robust and developed collaboratively to promote political, economic and social buy-in. Failure to deliver on policy objectives could jeopardise future investment opportunities.
Finally, it is important to think innovatively about what the site can achieve and work with ecological, socio-cultural and economic outcomes in mind.
This article was originally published in Building Utopia, a collection of thought leadership pieces and expert analysis on urban development, published by Policy@Manchester.
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