Green infrastructure: new solutions for old problems?

One of the first SUDS pond in the UK, Halbeath, Dunfermline. One of the first SU

One of the first SUDS pond in the UK, Halbeath, Dunfermline.

Green infrastructure is a term used to describe the networks of greenspaces (areas of grass, plants and trees) and water features that form part of, and help to, connect our cities, towns and villages. It includes the existing land and water habitats, and the artificially engineered structures that can reproduce some of the functions of those habitats in ways that serve our needs. It is increasingly being used to help address problems such as air and noise pollution, flooding and diffuse water pollution. And it is also being used to improve the quality of our urban areas by providing places for recreation, active travel, the growing of food and better habitat networks for wildlife.

But is green infrastructure really offering us new solutions to tackle these problems? In reality, no; green infrastructure is in fact making use of very old solutions, harnessing processes that nature has operated in perpetuity.

The advantages that green infrastructure can offer in comparison to our more traditional ‘grey’ engineering approaches to environmental problems include cost-saving, in terms of both construction and maintenance costs and, perhaps most significantly, the provision of a wider range of additional (or multiple) benefits. Our long-term promotion of the use of sustainable drainage schemes (SUDS) to address water quality and flooding problems has always been supported by the understanding that there are also wider biodiversity and amenity benefits to be delivered through their use.

Another key benefit, as shown by an increasing body of evidence, is the contribution green infrastructure can make to maintaining and improving health and well-being. For example, research in Scotland has shown that self-reported stress is linked to the amount of greenspace in an area, with a significant relationship between self-reported stress and proportion of greenspace in the local area. Just being in, or viewing greenspace, for a few minutes can reduce stress.

There has been rapid growth of interest in the potential of green infrastructure in the environmental policy community and beyond. And this is reflected at both a European and Scottish level. For example, the European Commission has issued a Communication on green infrastructure, natural flood measures have been included in the Flooding Directive, and a European Regional Development Fund green infrastructure multi-million pound funding package has been made available for Scotland. Much closer to home, in Scottish policy, there is significant promotion of green infrastructure in Scotland’s new National Planning Framework (NPF3) and Scottish Planning Policy documents. There are also several regional-scale partnerships promoting the development of integrated habitat networks, green infrastructure and their wider benefits. For example, the Central Scotland Green Network (itself, a Scottish Government commitment from the NPF3), the Glasgow & Clyde Valley Green Network and the Lothians & Fife Green Network Partnership. Individual local authorities have also begun to include green infrastructure and green networks as important elements of their development planning processes.

For SEPA, as the original promoter of the SUDS concept in the UK, promotion of green infrastructure is nothing new. But we are increasingly considering the potential for use of such approaches beyond treating and storing urban run-off. The arrival of a national flood risk management planning role, the increasing emphasis on urban air quality problems and the need to improve the physical condition of water habitats as part of river basin management planning are all areas of business where we need to consider the potential role for green infrastructure. In many such cases, green may well be the new grey.

If you would like to know more about green infrastructure, you can find further information from the following:

Green is the new grey – an introductory article about green infrastructure on Making the case for the Environment: urban air quality web pages of the SEPA website.

Maximising the benefits of green infrastructure – information about green infrastructure on the Scottish Government website

Making the links – greenspace for a more successful and sustainable Scotland – a Greenspace Scotland publication that demonstrates how greenspace can make an important contribution to a healthier, safer and stronger, wealthier and fairer, smarter and greener Scotland. Includes case studies, research material and links to government policy.

European Commission green infrastructure web pages


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