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Finding the right path to sustainable cities

Josephine Smit

Green infrastructure is essential to a healthy future. Aware of the obstacles, industry speakers felt new ways of thinking could offer some solutions

In association with

Nature is good for us. It can make our crowded, stressful cities more liveable and pleasant, help us to manage environmental risks ranging from flooding to overheating, and improve our health and sense of wellbeing. That’s why some authorities have been rethinking cities in more sustainable forms, like China’s planned sponge cities, which will capture and re-use stormwater, or today’s transformed and greener Malmo.

There are examples of green good practice closer to home too, such as east London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park or the therapeutic landscape created at Stoke on Trent’s Royal Stoke Hospital, but at the same time in the UK landscape appears to be under threat. Straitened local authority budgets are prompting cuts in maintenance and skills, and some are even cutting down street trees and closing and selling off parks. In February, on the publication of the report of the House of Commons select committee inquiry into public parks, committee chair Clive Betts warned, ‘If we are to prevent a period of decline with potentially severe consequences then action must be taken’.

Green infrastructure was therefore a fitting theme for the first in a series of debates, sponsored by AluK, to discuss and develop solutions to city challenges. Future debates will cover social infrastructure, housing and commercial building, and will culminate in an in-depth workshop to bring together all the learning from the series. The first event, which took place in London on 9 March, opened with a presentation from Peter Head, founder and chief executive of the Ecological Sequestration Trust, who summed up the dilemma: ‘Short term political and finance cycles are driving decisions, which mean that everything is siloed, and critical public realm design is often missing from the initial work on city development and social developments at the end of the line.’ That was the starting point for the debate, chaired by Tom Armour, director and leader, global landscape architecture, at Arup, with a panel featuring Julia Thrift, projects and operations director at the Town and Country Planning Association, Pat Hayes, director of regeneration and housing at Ealing Council and Cannon Ivers, director at LDA Design.

The reality is that there are no skills to maintain places. Where’s the skills transfer to deliver value in places where inequalities are often highest?

Polly Moseley, PollyPort Community Interest Community


While UK cities have a rich heritage of civic parks, squares, greens and gardens, Hayes called for a new modern narrative on green infrastructure, which weaves it into the city. ‘This is not about the Victorian narrative of land designations and big parks. It is not about grands prôjets,’ he said. ‘We’ve got to look at the liveability of places and that means looking more holistically at how a place works. Green infrastructure is more fine grained and we need to think about how individual schemes can string together.’

Affordable housing providers’ limited budgets can make it difficult for them to provide features like hedges – and there are concerns about maintenance falling on the tenant.

Alexandra Powell, Ingleton Wood


Thrift felt that policymakers and clients had to raise their sights: ‘We have a wealth of design talent with vision in the UK but there is a lack of ambition among commissioners’. The government’s housing white paper, published in February, had very little to say about creating great places, she pointed out, while in areas of the UK where land values are low, it can be difficult for local authorities to press for green infrastructure in development. ‘A park is seen as a nice place to go, but we need to be thinking more about how it can mitigate urban cooling and deal with floods,’ she added.


That could change as we develop our understanding of green infrastructure. The Natural Capital Committee, which provides independent advice to government, and others, are gathering research quantifying the value and benefits of natural assets. ‘Treating someone’s high blood pressure with drugs can now be measured against sending them to the park, which works out at something like 10 times cheaper,’ said Thrift. ‘In 10 years, we’ll be looking at things differently.’

I’m from a rural area and see a big difference between rural and urban living. There’s a need for education to help urban dwellers embrace the natural environment.

Richard Powell, C H Lindsey & Son


Such evidence could help to resolve some of the concerns and break down siloes around funding green infrastructure, and particularly the thorny issue of who pays for ongoing maintenance. ‘New models are being explored for maintenance,’ said Thrift. ‘Money is often there but it is in different budgets, like health or utilities. We need to unpick this and do things in a different way.’

Our problem is persuading housebuilding clients to do it. Housebuilders’ approach is based on profit and the housebuilding executives we are dealing with often have little or no background in design so don’t appreciate the benefits.

Landscape architect working with housebuilders


Alongside maintenance costs, skills remain a pressing concern, as local authorities have had to cut expertise and the horticultural industry struggles as much as construction to recruit young workers. The solution, said LDA Design’s Ivers, could lie in good design. ‘Parks shouldn’t be just grass and trees; they’re the most labour intensive things as they have to be cut frequently. We need to think differently about how we maintain spaces, using features like wildflower meadows, which only need to be cut once a year.’

Ivers also made a plea for early involvement of the landscape architect in projects. ‘Often by the time we arrive on a project things are already fixed,’ he said. ‘There’s a 40-storey building and the only place where we can make a space for people to sit is in a wind tunnel that has no sunlight.’

Such comments speak volumes about the gap between the visionary green infrastructure thinking of some global cities and approaches prevalent in the UK. Many interrelated factors, including education, evidence and early design input all have a part to play in closing that gap, but Thrift summed up the solution in just eight words: ‘We need to mainstream the idea of greening.’

This was a RIBA Journal event organised in association with AluK



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