Green infrastructure: from encouraging examples to a joined-up approach?

Alongside its close cousins “natural capital” and “ecosystem services”, “green infrastructure” is an concept that has gained much currency with policy-makers in recent years. While defined in the Natural Environment White Paper as “the living network of green spaces, water and other environmental features in both urban and rural areas”, it is in the urban context that the idea of green infrastructure has really come to the fore. In this setting, green (and blue) infrastructure is commonly understood as the natural systems that operate within cities, providing vital functions and numerous environmental, social and economic benefits. In other words, green infrastructure can be seen as the urban application of the ecosystem services approach. But how can the principles behind green infrastructure be put into practice? That was the key question at last week’s meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Biodiversity, held at Portcullis House on 4th February.

Tom Armour, Associate Director at global engineering firm Arup, kicked off the meeting by outlining the vast array of services and benefits that green infrastructure can provide within cities, from environmental benefits including reducing air pollution and climate proofing, through social benefits such as improved health and wellbeing, to economic benefits such as the positive impact on green space on property values. Often, these benefits are combined: for example an urban park may offer flood water storage, whilst also offering people more opportunities to exercise, which in turn reduces health expenditure. Importantly, green infrastructure isn’t just about high profile projects such as the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park or New York’s High Line, but also small-scale interventions such as green roofs and walls.

Subsequent speakers outlined a number of impressive case studies illustrating how green infrastructure ideas were being put into practice. In London, The Crown Estate are implementing improvements along the length of Regent Street, including green roofs, walls, pocket habitats and street trees, with the aim of creating a functioning green corridor between Regent’s Park and St. James’s Park in the heart of London. Peter Massini of the Greater London Authority outlined how similar projects were proliferating across the capital, with the GLA viewing green infrastructure as an integral part of the London Infrastructure Plan. Arup’s Tom Gray gave an overview of the Pinewood Studios Development Framework, a plan for expanding the studios within their Buckinghamshire green belt site that aimed to retain the function of the site as an ecological corridor whilst ensuring no net loss of biodiversity through a series of measure from green roofs to a wildlife underpass. Finally Ron Gilchrist highlighted the role of green infrastructure and planning in creating coherent, healthy communities through the powerful example of community gardens in North Ayrshire.

A joined-up approach to Green Infrastructure?

The suite of examples of green infrastructure in practice were highly impressive, but also raised a number of questions about the broader policy context within which these case studies are situated, and how a framework can be developed in order to allow these examples of best practice to become the norm. In the Pinewood Studios example, the consultant was keen to stress the importance of working in close collaboration with the local authority in drawing up an ecologically-sound plan for the site, and in particular the vital role of the local authority ecologist in informing this plan. However, as was raised by a member of the audience, research by the Association of Local Government Ecologists has shown that approximately two-thirds of local authorities do not employ an ecologist, and one third of those lacking in-house expertise do not even have access to shared services located within a neighbouring authority. Are local authorities across the country in a position to ensure that the green infrastructure features of new developments really do deliver their purported ecological benefits?

This lack of a national, joined-up approach to delivering green infrastructure was further underlined by Mike Grace of Natural England, who acknowledged that the advisory body lacks the resources necessary to develop a national overview of green infrastructure projects. Following on from the White Paper, Defra established the Green Infrastructure Partnership as a mechanism for sharing best practice, but this is now managed by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) without any Government funding. Similarly, a recent letter to the Secretary of State from the TCPA, Landscape Institute, the Land Trust and Groundwork expressed concern that the link to Natural England’s guidance on green infrastructure had been removed from the National Planning Practice Guidance. In the view of the signatories, this represented a “downgrading” of green infrastructure in the planning system, and undermines efforts to deliver the Government’s ambitions for green infrastructure.

Green infrastructure has become an established concept with developers, planners and ecologists alike, and the wealth of innovative examples of its application is growing all the time. Yet it appears that the lack of a joined-up, co-ordinated approach, and capacity to ensure that developments really deliver the ecological, social and economic benefits they claim, remains a barrier to its wholesale adoption. The recent third report of the Natural Capital Committee offers a succinct assessment of the current situation: “there are some really encouraging examples […] of good work to improve GI around the country, but unless these are taken up much more widely, many opportunities to improve wellbeing will be missed.”