Eight things we learned from the EU's Green Surge project

Edinburgh's green networks - image: Loz Pycock (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Edinburgh's green networks - image: Loz Pycock (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Bringing together 23 research organisations and more than 100 researchers over four years, the €7.2million, largely EU-funded Green Surge project took a cross disciplinary approach to building the conceptual foundations and evidence base of urban green infrastructure (UGI). 

As with all such EU projects, the title is more-or-less an acronym—in this case, of "Green Infrastructure and Urban Biodiversity for Sustainable Urban Development and the Green Economy". It has produced a wealth of scientific papers, reports, policy briefs and factsheets as well as forums, workshops and an international conference a year ago in Malmö, Sweden.

A new paper published this month has laid out the project’s main achievements. It claims there are "still significant barriers to the wider uptake of UGI", that "the intricate relationships between ecological, socio-cultural and governance dynamics relevant to UGI are still poorly understood", and that UGI should "address the different needs and diverse cultural practices of people engaging with nature".

While much of the project’s output is highly academic and conceptual, it has also produced some new insights of wider interest.

1. Northerners are doing better

German-Polish study of 300 European cities found that overall, those in northern Europe have greater availability of green spaces close to where people live than those in southern Europe. Its authors suggest this is due to "not only [northern European cities’] biophysical conditions and the presence of rich forestland in general, but also of northern European attitudes toward urban living that naturally value having forests close to home".

2. Brown spaces have value too

In a German study published earlier this year, use of public participatory geographic information systems (PPGIS) revealed that green spaces not part of the public green space system such as urban wastelands or brownfields were not only "appreciated for providing less regulated, wilder green spaces", but also "complement ecosystem services provided by formal urban green".

3. People like biodiversity

survey of nearly 4,000 residents of five European cities found that people "largely prefer higher plant species richness in urban green spaces (i.e., parks, wastelands, streetscapes) and agree that higher plant species richness allows for more liveable cities"—findings which "provide a social argument for a biodiversity-friendly urban development". 

4. Green space policies lack cultural diversity

In a study of 20 European cities, most were found not to have urban green policies which "explicitly recognise and accommodate the uses, needs and values of different cultural groups". However, "interviewees gave many examples of how biodiversity and cultural diversity are taken into account in formal city policies".

The theme of "biocultural diversity" was widely taken up in the project, with an entire paper devoted to elaborating the concept. 

5. …but these differences recede over time

The same 20-city study found differences in attitudes towards urban green space among migrant communities appear to diminish in subsequent generations, "indicating that adolescents are more likely to adapt to local recreational patterns than the previous generation".

Meanwhile a separate Polish study indicated that more "bioculturally diverse" green spaces "do not translate into any positive impact on property prices". 

6. Diversity need not mean social cohesion

A pan-European study outlined the role of bioculturally diverse green spaces for promoting social cohesion, but conceded: "Highly engaged communities may become protective of their place, thereby hindering other cultural groups to participate, which could decrease the social cohesion of the neighbourhood". 

7. Ecosystem restoration pays

In a more conventional analysis, based on data from 25 urban areas in the USA, Canada, and China, researchers concluded that restoration and rehabilitation of ecosystems such as rivers, wetlands, lakes and woodlands was not only ecologically and socially desirable, but also economically advantageous, based on measures of environmental services including pollution removal, carbon sequestration and storage, regulating water flows, climate regulation and cooling.

8. What’s good for bees is good for people

study in Edinburgh, one of the project’s five "Urban Learning Lab" cities, established that remote sensed vegetation data provided predictive maps that identify habitat hotspots and pinch points for pollinators (bumblebees and hoverflies) across the city. Used with health deprivation data, this pointed to opportunities to support pollinator habitat quality and connectivity, societal health and well-being, and citizen engagement at the same time.

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