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Sowing the seeds - getting big green infrastructure right

How should we approach green infrastructure and environmental quality in our cities? Dr Ian Mell, School of Environment, Education & Development, University of Manchester, looks at examples of policy success and failure from around the globe.

Photo by Coleen Rivas on Unsplash

What makes our cities successful? Economic opportunities? A vibrant culture? A high quality environment? All of the above? As our cities, and their governments, start to take environmental quality seriously, we are seeing a corresponding discussion about potential investment and the economic returns associated with green infrastructure.

Understood as the “life support system” of green, blue and public spaces in our city landscapes, green infrastructure delivers extensive social, ecological and economic benefits to developers, decision-makers and citizens.

Creating successful green infrastructure is not simple and is about achieving the right balance between projects, local societal needs and context, and generating political and business buy-in. It is also about ensuring that the supporting policy framework offers sufficient scope to locate green infrastructure in the same conversations as other forms of built infrastructure. If each can be aligned then cities can benefit from ecological enhancement for the betterment of society. This requires guidance from experienced advocates such as the community forest network in the UK, Conservation Fund in the US or engaged scholars/practitioners in China.

Reflecting on each we can identify which and how these socio-economic, political and financial factors have influenced the successful delivery of green infrastructure around the world.

Successful examples of green infrastructure in cities

At a cost of £9 billion the London Olympic Park was a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a city-scale park in central London. At approximately 250 ha the site required extensive remediation, master planning and landscaping to realize the life-work-play vision for the area. Working with globally renowned landscape architects, engineers and planners the site was able to create ecological zones that continued to evolve since 2012. The integration of adaptive flood management, ecological areas, and locations for heavy public use enabled the site to cater for crowds and individuals simultaneously. In addition the site is linked to London’s rail/underground network and has extended a series of green wedges into the surrounding housing to make green infrastructure a part of the community.

The $4.8 billion 22-mile Atlanta BeltLine is comparable to London, as it repurposed former industrial land, in this case railroad infrastructure, into a multi-functional and accessible trail including 1,300 acres of parks, and 1,100 of remediated brownfield land. In a city where socio-economic inequality and car dependency are prominent issues the provision of a free-to-access trail linking transit hubs with residential areas is seen as helping to address inequality. Moreover, the BeltLine extends through 45 city neighborhoods promoting inclusivity of use. To deliver the project the Atlanta BeltLine Inc worked with businesses through corporate sponsorship and donations, with local communities to generate buy-in, and received financial support from federal and state funds. Although criticized as a city-scale gentrification project by some commentators, many view the BeltLine as a key success in delivering landscape enhancement across the city.

When green infrastructure failed

Potentially less successful has been the Sabarmati Riverfront redevelopment in Ahmedabad, India. At a cost of £122 million (up to 2014) the project created a 16km promenade formalising public space, investing in new parks and trees, and promoting economic investment along the river. Former Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narenda Modi, now Prime Minster of India, was the project’s political architect, which helped generate buy-in and attract funding. Whilst the project has seen the area transformed into a well maintained and secure public space there have been critics of its wider socio-cultural and ecological impacts. To facilitate works, a significant number of informal residents, businesses and communities facilities were displaced to allow land clearance. This process was exacerbated with the opening of new public parks, which charged entrance fees to use formally free-to-access spaces. Furthermore, the existing green space was cleared and the river channel was modified leading to changes in the ecological resilience to drought and flood events.

Conclusions

All these projects, as with the delivery of the Parc Andre Citroën in Paris, the Landschaftpark in Duisburg Nord, Cheonggyecheon River Restoration Project in Seoul, and the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, engineered a platform promoting investment in green infrastructure. By engaging with business, commercial and public stakeholders, green infrastructure advocates were able to generate political and financial support for projects. This has enabled them to commence delivery, and subsequently promote the “added” socio-economic value associated with landscape enhancement. Moreover, each of these projects has successfully sold the sustainable ‘brand’ associated with green infrastructure to voters, investors, decision-makers and local communities promoting further cooperation and use.

However, there are concerns that investment in green infrastructure leads to further stratifications of society, as landscape improvements can facilitate changes in local demographics, retail/commercial opportunities and housing costs. This should not preclude investment in green infrastructure but should be considered when developments are proposed. Thus to achieve the “right kind” of investment requires the “right balance” of people, place, project and political and financial support. Where these are aligned we can sow the seeds of successful urban greening.


This article forms part of our policy success and failure series of blogs and the Bennett Institute report Policy Success and Failure: Embedding Effective Learning in Government.