A dream of greener cities

A dream of greener cities

A dream of greener cities

Last night, I dreamt I was walking in a green city. The buildings were spaced out amongst vast green spaces. There were communal gardens on rooftops, urban crop gardens alongside buildings and tree canopies providing much needed shade. Wild animals were no longer in danger of being hit by cars and moving vehicles, thanks to overpasses acting as natural corridors that allowed them to cross from one field to another. Free flowing streams ran through these fields, allowing biodiversity to thrive even at the heart of the city. Amongst the houses and buildings, one could spot pollinator havens with beehives, and unkept spaces buzzing with wildlife. The walls were buzzing too, with wild bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects, pollinating flowers of the climbing plants. This dream city felt like it was designed in a way to truly incorporate green infrastructure.

What is it?

Green infrastructure policies are nature-based solutions: other such solutions can be green space, restoring rivers, ecosystem services, and ecosystem-based adaptation. These solutions use the existing natural properties of ecosystems.

The European Commission (EC) defines Green Infrastructure (GI) as “a strategically planned network of natural and semi-natural areas with other environmental features designed and managed to deliver a wide range of ecosystem services such as water purification, air quality, space for recreation and climate mitigation and adaptation. This network of green (land) and blue (water) spaces can improve environmental conditions and therefore citizens’ health and quality of life. It also supports a green economy, creates job opportunities and enhances biodiversity.” This kind of infrastructure is traditionally opposed to the way most cities are built, following a “grey infrastructure” kind of policy.

https://era.org.mt/topic/green-infrastructure/

This concept is particularly relevant in Malta, as the work of the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) shows. ERA states that GI “promotes greener approaches in landscaping and land management. One of the main environmental challenges we face today is the small size of the country and the loss of biodiversity associated with degradation. The promotion of green infrastructure as well as several on-going and planned green infrastructure projects aim at expanding green open spaces in both rural and urban settings and reducing carbon and water footprint.”

Green infrastructure is a concept that is sometimes rather vague, and covers many different realities and possibilities, but follows two main principles. The first one, as was stated in the EC’s definition, is the existence of a network of green spaces. That means that instead of having a stand-alone park for instance, there would be a network of parks, connected together by green pathways, which would allow biodiversity to thrive, in particular by countering the habitat fragmentation caused by grey infrastructure policies. The second main principle of Green Infrastructure is its multifunctionality. This means that a specific place can serve multiple purposes and allow multiple species and ecosystems to thrive together. This makes it resource efficient and cost efficient. Indeed, it builds on the idea of intelligent resource use, of land and water for instance. It also makes the towns more attractive, which gives rise to property profit.

Why now?

The idea of green infrastructure certainly isn’t brand new. In fact, the idea that parks linked together were good not only for biodiversity but also for human health (mental and physical), was expressed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in 1903. The scientific world backed up this idea by showing that it was the best way to preserve biodiversity, because it countered habitat fragmentation.

But this concept is particularly useful now, as Green infrastructure is getting more and more relevant to face growing urbanisation. You may have heard that according to the UN World Urbanization Prospects, by 2050 more than two thirds of the world will live in urban areas. Even though urban growth is not expected to stop any time soon, implementing green infrastructure policies can help us embrace “smart growth”, defined as a development that is economically and environmentally viable, and enhances our quality of life.

Closer to home, we all see in Malta the problems caused by overurbanisation (as nearly 95% of people in Malta already live in urban areas). Aside from the obvious waste management and transport issues, these problems are multiple: loss of natural areas, lack and degradation of water resources, biodiversity depletion and decreased ability to respond to change (because of limited genetic diversity and wildlife movement), loss of “free” natural services (natural systems help with storm water management, flood control, and pollution filtration). By overusing and destroying nature, we are increasing the cost of public service (which become increasingly necessary to provide for services that used to be nature based). Our modern-day cities cannot face the growth of population coming their way without some adaptation.

What is the impact of green infrastructure? How can it help?

Well, by building alongside and with nature and by using parks, ponds, roofs and gardens efficiently, green infrastructure can help solve many challenges of growing cities and deliver environmental, social and economic benefits. The general idea is that nature can provide ecosystem services for cities, by “providing resources, regulating environments, creating habitats and generating social and cultural activities”. For example, as presented in research lead by Lund University scholar K.McCormick a pond can help with storm water management and be beneficial environmentally. The economic benefit is that it would prevent damages on surrounding properties. Its social benefits can be found in the leisure activities allowed by such a structure (social activities, sports such as ice skating…), which also helps improve general well-being.  Furthermore, natural solutions help mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. Adaptation to climate change can come in the form of shelters, like elevated green platforms, to face flash floods for instance. So, these solutions can be (and must be) plural, and therefore involve different stakeholders.

Consequently, green infrastructure provides multiple benefits for diverse stakeholders. Such policies create multiple types of values, for different groups of people. That can also lead to diverse streams of revenue. Therefore, it can push towards sustainability in a way that is understandable and interesting for businesses (eg rent a roof for solar panels). K. McCormick’s compendium presents the example of green roofs. They improve the energy efficiency of the building by isolating it better, therefore reducing costs, which provides value for the owner. But such a structure also benefits the city as a whole by improving noise management, air quality, and helping with rainwater management by preventing flooding. It is also a factor for wellbeing as it provides a nicer view for everyone. It may also be financed by multiple stakeholders, which can help reduce public spending.

A great example of the efficiency of cost provided by nature solutions can be found in New York City’s drinking water management plan in the late 1990’s.  Watershed land, which is an area of land that drains rainfall and snowmelt to a common outlet such streams and rivers, was purchased and protected by NYC for about 1.5 billion dollars. In other words, the water was protected directly at its source, which avoided needing to filter the water coming from upstate surface water supply. By this green infrastructure management, New York City saved spending 4 to 6 billion dollars on new water filtration and treatment plants.

The benefits of such infrastructure can be provided in Malta too, as 2018 study led by Balzan, Caruana and Zammit shows. Indeed, even in very urbanized zones, such infrastructure still allows everyone to benefit from ecosystem services. Furthermore, as quoted in Balzan’s article, a 2018 Eubarometer study showed that “95% of the Maltese participants were in favour of the EU promoting nature-based solutions”. The same article goes on to explain that “Malta was also the EU member state with the highest fraction of citizens favouring urban greening measures”.

Last but not least, studies show that the presence of nature is vital for human health, but is unequally distributed. Indeed, those with best access to green spaces tend to be privileged groups. Disadvantaged and minority groups have a lower access rate to nature, therefore reinforcing inequalities between different groups. Hence, introducing green infrastructure in urban spaces is not only beneficial for everyone’s health, but is also a necessary step towards equal access to nature.

To what extent is it put in place, particularly in Malta?

Green infrastructure strategies, while still extremely marginal, are implemented through diverse policies throughout the EU. The main EU level Green Infrastructure project is Natura 2000, which you have probably heard of, as there are a couple of places in Malta protected by this regulation. The EU has been promoting green infrastructure since the beginning of this century, and it is part of the different biodiversity strategies that have been presented.

Such strategies have also been included in Maltese policies and strategic documents (eg. the National Environment Policy (NEP), Malta’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) and the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED)). For instance, examples of green infrastructure policies can be seen in the presence and protection of rubble walls in agricultural land, which act as ecological corridors for biodiversity. Not only do they help biodiversity, they are also a solution for storm water management, as they help excess water drain from the fields while preventing soil erosion. These walls are a good example of a holistic green infrastructure strategy, tackling multiple problems at once.

Serious international but also more local research is being led on the subject to develop more Green Infrastructure solutions in Malta. Indeed, the Malta College of Arts, Science & Technology has been taking part since 2018 in a twining project “Promoting research excellence in nature-based solutions for innovation, sustainable economic growth and human well-being in Malta”. This project, ReNature, allow researchers from Malta to collaborate with researchers from Ireland, Italy, the UK and Bulgaria, to develop a strong network and practical, nature-based solutions for Malta. This research will then need to be seriously implemented by the concerned authorities, and planning in Malta will have to take this into consideration.

PhD researcher from the University of Malta’s Faculty for the Built Environment and assistant lecturer at the Department of Architecture & Urban Design Perit Scheiber’s work addresses the gap in the planning and design of Malta’s urban open spaces. This need for planning and particularly for green infrastructure is specifically important for Malta in regard of its particular scale, development pressures, policy orientation and governance, climatic conditions and mobility challenge. Scheiber underlines that “Principles such as improved connectivity between open spaces, the provision of paths of appropriate widths, open spaces which allow for informal recreation and physical activity, or maximising the use of vegetation to ensure climatic comfort, increase biodiversity and improve sustainable water management are but a few of the advantages we could all be benefiting from if more open spaces were to act as green infrastructure”. This goes to show how necessary green infrastructure policies are to push towards a more holistic urban planning, which is inspired by nature, and therefore includes nature conservation values.

The use of such cost efficient, environmentally, socially and economically beneficial solutions to contemporary challenges remains very marginal, but there is scope for using them more. However, the implementation of nature-based solutions must not be a pretext of action. Indeed, nature-based solutions have been used by greenwashing campaigns. They have been used as an excuse to continue polluting elsewhere. It is important to underline that the use of nature-based solutions should mean no offsets, and therefore such solutions should be linked with reducing the generation of emissions at source. As climate change and environmental degradation are systemic issues, the solution can only be holistic.

Is green infrastructure the one solution to all of our urbanisation problems? No. But it is definitely a path to be explored to adapt to this urbanisation, by helping us built a sustainable future and reducing the costs of such a transition, to save us from a concrete nightmare.

Written by Lucie Rofé