By Danni Sinnett
Globally, more people now live in towns and cities than live in the countryside. With urbanisation projected to increase into the future, and pressure on land for housing, we need to find a way of creating healthy places where both people and nature can thrive. This can be achieved by incorporating high quality green infrastructure into new and existing places.
Green infrastructure is a relatively new term that has gained traction in planning over the last 15 years or so, and differs from previous approaches in that the emphasis is on the creation of a coherent network of green and blue features that provide multiple functions, instead of focusing on individual spaces. These components are varied and include, for example greenspaces, parks and playing fields, street trees and landscaping, allotments, private gardens, wetlands, streams and other water bodies, as well as green roofs and walls. A critical function of this network is to provide connectivity within the urban environment and between the urban and rural.
There is now a wealth of evidence of the benefits, or so called ecosystem services, that green infrastructure can provide. For example, it can improve health and wellbeing by providing spaces for play, exercise, rest and relaxation, enhance the quality of development, and reduce air and noise pollution. It can also increase our resilience to the consequences of climate change by reducing flood risk and the effects of the urban heat island. Many of these can also save money, including through protecting communities from flooding, reducing ill health and improving quality of life. Ultimately, green infrastructure brings nature into the city, overcoming the ‘extinction of experience’ where increased urbanisation coupled with a reduction in time spent outdoors has decreased our contact with nature.
Despite all the evidence for green infrastructure and its apparent importance in our quality of life there are significant challenges in its delivery and management. Our research has been examining some of the reasons for this and has found that those working in the planning, design and creation of green infrastructure are struggling. For example, many are still unsure of what green infrastructure is, or should be, due to a combination of a shortfall in resources, knowledge or skills (Sinnett et al., 2017; Calvert et al., in press). In addition, developments often regarded as sustainable do not provide high quality green infrastructure. When we reviewed some of the systems that are used by developers to assess the sustainability of new places and buildings, we found that although many do include some measures of the quality of green features like parks and green roofs they rarely consider these features as a coherent multifunctional network (Calvert et al., in press). This can lead to missed opportunities to protect or enhance the existing green infrastructure or create features as part of new development.
A significant challenge is the current uncertainty over funding for long-term maintenance and management, with many local authorities unable to commit to this once construction has finished and people have moved in. This means there can be a tension between new developments being expected to provide green infrastructure, it being a desirable feature for potential residents, but the funding to manage the assets being precarious or uncertain, particularly over the timescale that vegetation takes to mature.
We have used these findings to develop a framework for high quality green infrastructure through a collaborative project with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. The framework consists of a set of principles informed by the literature, a review of existing standards for assessing the quality of green infrastructure, and consultation with stakeholders. The framework aims to overcome some of the challenges outlined above, addressing characteristics such as the creation of a network, local relevance and providing for the long-term management, as well as those aimed to deliver benefits for health and well-being, water management and nature conservation. This framework underpins Building with Nature, a new benchmark for green infrastructure (www.buildingwithnature.org.uk). This benchmark has been tested on a suite of planning applications and policies, and initial results are extremely positive. The framework is effective at ensuring a green infrastructure-led approach to new development, clarifying the expectations for green infrastructure early on the development process, and providing a starting point for conversations between stakeholders.
We hope to see this approach used to improve the quality of green infrastructure across our towns and cities so that people and nature can flourish.
Sinnett, D., Jerome, G., Burgess, S., Smith, N., Mortlock, R. (2017) Building with Nature – a new benchmark for green infrastructure. Town and Country Planning 86(10): 427-431. Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/33406
Calvert, T., Sinnett, D., Smith, N., Jerome, G., Burgess, S., King, L. (in press) Setting the Standard for Green Infrastructure: the need for, and features of, a benchmark in England. Planning Practice & Research. Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/38013/