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Finding the right path to sustainable cities

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Josephine Smit

Green infrastructure is essential to a healthy future. Aware of the obstacles, speakers at this RIBAJ/AluK debate felt new ways of thinking could offer some solutions

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Nature is good for us. It can make our crowded, stressful cities more amenable 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 reuse stormwater, or today’s transformed and greener Malmö.

There are examples of green good practice closer to home though, such as east London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park or the therapeutic landscape created at Stoke-on-Trent’s Royal Stoke Hospital. Yet the UK’s landscape appears to be under threat. Straitened local authority budgets are prompting cuts in maintenance and skills, and some are even cutting down trees and selling off parks. On the publication of the House of Commons select committee report on 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.’

The dilemma

Green infrastructure was therefore a fitting theme for the first in a series of debates about solutions to city challenges. The first, which took place in March, opened with a presentation from Peter Head, founder and chief executive of the Ecological Sequestration Trust, where he 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.’ The debate was chaired by Tom Armour of Arup with a panel consisting of Julia Thrift of the Town and Country Planning Association, Pat Hayes of Ealing Council and Cannon Ivers of LDA Design.

Hayes called for a new, modern narrative on green infrastructure. ‘This is not about the Victorian narrative of land designations and big parks,’ 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, about stringing individual schemes together.’

Thrift felt that policymakers and clients should raise their sights: ‘We have a wealth of design talent in the UK but there is a lack of ambition among commissioners.’ The government’s housing white paper, published in February 2017, had very little to say about creating great places, 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. The Natural Capital Committee, which provides independent advice to government, is 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. 

Such evidence could help to resolve some of the concerns around funding green infrastructure, 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.’

I 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

Design for low maintenance 

Skills are a pressing concern; local authorities have cut expertise and the horticultural industry struggles to recruit young workers. The solution, said Ivers, could be good design. ‘Parks shouldn’t be just grass and trees. 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 landscape architects: ‘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, have a part to play in closing that gap, but Thrift summed up the solution in eight words: ‘We need to mainstream the idea of greening.’

Where we go from here

Green infrastructure is a relatively new term, for a discipline still in its infancy. While Natural England’s definition runs to more than 150 words, Joe Wheelwright of Arup managed it in fewer than 20, saying, ‘It’s more than a feature that brings joy to people, it’s functional. It’s a high performance piece of infrastructure.’

Discussion at the concluding workshop of the debates highlighted the fact that key messages about what green infrastructure is and what it can do for cities still need to be conveyed to policymakers, the property and construction industry, and the public. Some are already using data and digital tools to demonstrate how green infrastructure’s impact could be communicated. For example, the University of South Florida and the city of Tampa have developed the TampaTreeMap tool, which details the precise annual value of an individual tree in a given location, in terms of financial benefit, energy saved, stormwater filtered, air quality improved, and carbon dioxide removed.

Chair Peter Head said this kind of awareness raising needs to be applied to blue infrastructure just as much as green. Water management ‘is all too often done in pipes, rather than in the soil. At the moment we are doing great things in pedestrianisation, but it is not helping flooding.’

Shifting such thinking requires a more integrated approach to project design and delivery, connecting policies and breaking down the divisions that separate designers, civil engineers and other stakeholders. This is where the total design approach, outlined in the introduction, comes in, bringing the design team together early in the project to explore options and their overall value to citizens, developers, the city and broader environment. 

Research and experience are already demonstrating numerous positive effects that the green and the blue can have on such diverse factors as city resilience, health and wellbeing, productivity, distinctiveness of place and even the value attached to property. Now every asset needs to be made to work hard for multiple end-users and its future – particularly future maintenance funding – fully considered. 

For designers, Wheelwright said, there are opportunities to make a creative contribution at every scale from the city-wide strategic project to the smallest pocket of urban space. In fact, the delivery of hundreds of small coordinated schemes can create an effective and meaningful overall network.

Action plan

1 Recognise urban greening as high performance infrastructure

2 Think about how green assets can be made to work for multiple end users – and maintained

3 Make the most of every opportunity – small schemes add up.

Green infrastructure panel

Tom Armour, director, global landscape architecture, Arup (chair)

Pat Hayes, director of regeneration and housing, Ealing Council

Cannon Ivers, director, LDA Design

Julia Thrift, projects and operations director, Town and Country Planning Association

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