Investment in green spaces still essential

Specialists say green infrastructure needs more cash, either public or private, to survive. Magda Ibrahim reports.

At a time when billions of pounds are being flung at banks in what many consider a misguided rescue mission, there is anger at what appears to be a lack of commitment to investment in green infrastructure.

Around £3bn has been pledged for the coming year in an economic stimulus package, but of the £535m earmarked for green measures none is for green space. However, experts believe that more green infrastructure could be the backbone that will prop up the economy for a sustainable future - in both economic and environmental terms.

Studio Engleback environmental design group director Luke Engleback tells HW: "Environmental infrastructure needs space and funding, and an understanding that it should be ubiquitous, not just in corridors between built development. The economic value of this environmental infrastructure needs to be considered at a wider scale as encouragement to investment in this adaptation to climate change."

Last week, CABE and Natural England launched a call for investment to be redirected into green, rather than grey, infrastructure. The two organisations ran the ParkCity conference in London, in which green sector experts made the case for more investment.

They argue that green infrastructure can help tackle climate change by tempering the urban "heat island" effect, reducing urban flooding and supporting cycling and walking.

In addition, greening towns and cities would create desirable areas to live and work, and stimulate local businesses.

CABE chief executive Richard Simmons said: "Behind all this there is a very serious question. What kind of places do we want to create as we cope with, and recover from, recession?

"We have choices to make when it comes to fiscal stimulus and we should be making the right ones."

The HTA has been running its own campaign - Greening the UK - endorsed by Communities & Local Government secretary Hazel Blears. HTA director general David Gwyther explained: "Government has got to realise that raising green standards is an investment, not a cost.

"More planting means less street crime and better health, which saves money. It means better flood protection and prevention, which saves money. It means more carbon absorption and reduced effects of global warming, which saves money. The British public knows this, so it wins votes too."

Green infrastructure is not merely about building new parks or putting in planting. The future is in technology and knowledge available for creating spaces that have a multitude of functions.

Simmons added: "It is about working creatively with green and blue spaces.

"We need to look at our civic squares, allotments, river corridors, our streets and buildings to create a new infra-structure network that will underpin the health and wealth of our urban environments."

Olympic Delivery Authority parklands and public realm project sponsor John Hopkins agrees that the landscape needs to achieve more: "We must not use the language of green space and biodiversity alone. They have to work for us and produce our food and energy, treat sewage and collect water. We need to raise the level of our arguments and elevate our ambitions."

Green space professionals have for a long time been looking elsewhere in Europe for innovative solutions. There are still lessons to be learned, not least in ambition. The City of Copenhagen's mayor of environmental administration Klaus Bondam says the city has set itself the target of being the first carbon-neutral city in the world by 2025.

Not only are there plans to build 14 new parks, but these must be co-ordinated with reducing energy use, improving cycling by creating more greenways, and tackling citizens' behaviour.

Macfarlane Wilder director Peter Wilder believes that the key to sustainable design is in incorporating utilities into the landscape. "A good model for future investment into green spaces is to bring in heat-distribution plants, biofuel crops and flood alleviation," he says. "That gives a future structure."

The economic value of green infrastructure is being pushed by partnership Natural Economy Northwest (NENW), led by Natural England, the Northwest Regional Development Agency and the SITA Trust. The group has a research role and has found that the environmental economy generates £2.6bn in the region each year and employs 109,000 people. NENW green infrastructure manager Peter Wilmers says the major challenge is in finding a uniform way of valuing green infrastructure.

"It is easier for people to build a tin shed because they know how many jobs a tin shed will create, even if it ends up empty," he explains.

"It needs a strategic approach - how can we expect our green infrastructure to give us benefits without engaging our brains? We can't just put in a pocket park and expect it to do much for flood alleviation or city cooling.

"We need to enhance the functions of existing green infrastructure; for example, to look at how a football pitch can be used to hold flood water."

This is a topic close to the heart of US landscape architect George Hargreaves, whose firm Hargreaves Associates is working with LDA Design on a detailed design for the Olympic Park in London.

During the ParkCity conference, Hargreaves said successful green infrastructure came down to understanding the science of the area. But he added that new sources of funding might have to be found to make green ambitions a reality, such as a park created in Houston, Texas, using private investment.

"I think we will see more of this as public money becomes less available to communities," says Hargreaves. "We need to figure out how to run spaces without going back to the taxpayer."

As chancellor Alistair Darling prepares to present his Budget to the House of Commons on 22 April, that argument may become more pertinent.

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