Founding father makes rousing case for turning grey to green

Anna Minton
7 April 2009

Edward T McMahon, the founding father of the concept of green infrastructure, is a leading conservationist, environmental lawyer and an inspirational public speaker. We talked to him at the ParkCity green infrastructure conference in London in March 2009.

Edward T McMahon
Photo by A&M Photography

Ed McMahon, the originator of the term ‘green infrastructure’, believes he owes his inspiration to living in Europe as a young man, flying helicopters for the US army over the European patchwork of town and country.

“I got real lucky,” he says describing his last-minute posting to Heidelberg in Germany, rather than Vietnam. “I started seeing things I’d never seen in the US. In Europe, there’s always a demarcation between urban and rural – but in America we have been building sprawl for decades.”

McMahon says the experience changed his life and set him on his future path as a conservationist, community planner and environmental lawyer. He is Co-founder of Scenic America, an organisation dedicated to preserving the character of the landscape, and former vice-president at the Conservation Fund, which has helped to acquire and protect more than 6 million acres of land. Currently, he is the Charles Fraser senior resident fellow for sustainable development at the Urban Land Institute, which researches emerging land use trends.

“Green space is not an amenity, it’s a necessity.” This is the phrase that underpins his concept of green infrastructure. “We coined the term to reposition the idea for the public,” he says, explaining that the idea itself is not a new one.

Green infrastructure is rooted in the work of Frederick Law Olmstead, the 19th century American landscape architect who believed connected systems of parks and greenways were more beneficial than isolated green places.

“It’s about thinking about green space as a planned network. Who’d build a road system where the roads didn’t connect?” he asks. His other analogy is that of a necklace. “A handful of precious stones may be valuable, but its value isn’t maximised until it is made into a necklace,” he says.

Within that network, decisions need to be made about where to site development and where land should be conserved. When it comes to development, the questions which need to be asked are: “Where do you put it? How do you arrange it? And what should it look like?” 

Translated into work on the ground, this means that every community needs “a long-range conservation plan – just like a long-range transportation plan.” Some places are better suited to development than others and fragile natural places, such as floodplains and wetlands, shouldn’t be developed at all. The point of a conservation plan is to address these strategic priorities.

Citing Huricane Katrina, McMahon points out that lands preserved for flood storage make a ratio of 8:1 dollar savings over manmade flood control structures. The natural defences of the Mississippi had been progressively eroeded by development and neglect. Instead of bearing the brunt of the storm surge, the levees of New Orleans were breached, at a cost of about $114bn. Similarly, the cost of buying watershed lands to protect drinking water supplies for New York City is $1.5 billion, compared to the $6 billion it costs to build water filtration plants, if the watershed lands are developed.

He feels that in the US the idea of “thinking systematically” about green space has now entered the mainstream. “The terminology has changed the way the American public thinks about green space. The man-made environment is very hostile to the natural environment in the US – compared, for example, to places like Tuscany or the Cotswolds.” He gives a striking example of what development should very definitively not look like, describing the preservation of a historic American civil war site – marooned in the middle of sprawling, unplanned development. A long range conservation plan could have avoided this.

With 6,000 acres a day, or 22 million acres a year, lost to development there is a real sense of urgency behind his drive for green infrastructure which is in tune with the natural environment. He feels the problem that needs to be addressed is “haphazard conservation” which, while well intentioned, is reactive, site specific and narrowly focused. Instead he advocates “smart conservation”, which is proactive, systematic, coordinated with other policies and above all, large-scale.

You can take beauty to the bank. Special places have economic value. It’s the placemaking dividend. People stay longer and they return.

The importance of networks of connected green places is one of the principles of McMahon’s philosophy. The other is that there is value in being green.

“You can take beauty to the bank” he says. “Unique places, special places – they have economic value. It’s the placemaking dividend. People stay longer and they return.”

McMahon cites as one of his major influences Pat Noonan, the founder of the Conservation Fund, who believed that conservation could work with the marketplace. “Progress does not demand a degraded environment. Beauty is good for business. There is a business case to respect and honour the land. It creates tremendous value in real estate.” he says.” The most important question is not what it costs, but what should we do? “Money always follows good ideas,” he says.

Closest of all to his heart are the social and psychological values of places. “Our sense of identity is tied in a profound way to special buildings and landscapes,” he says, explaining that if cities preserve the visible features of their identity they also preserve their memory, which brings with it greater psychological stability.

McMahon believes that there has been “a fundamental shift in the US to a green agenda”, assisted by the election of President Obama, “I think America is ready for this change,” he says. “We had a period where we lived our lives in fear rather than hope.” He points to New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s comments that “green is the new red, white and blue”.

He concedes that progress is being slowed by the recession, but says the stimulus package proposed includes several hundred billion dollars for green infrastructure. “It’s a down payment for a greener future.”

McMahon is an inspirational public speaker. He comes from Alabama, in the deep south, and there is some of that Southern preacher in him. It also comes from being an advocate – selling an idea. There is no doubt that he is selling his idea of green infrastructure, not only in America but in Europe, which first inspired him.

New thinking on green infrastructure

In March 2009, CABE and Natural England brought together an international audience of professionals - most of whose interests lie outside the established green sector – to discuss the latest thinking and share solutions, at the ParkCity green infrastructure conference.

Read our other interviews with:

Wade Crowfoot – San Francisco’s director of climate protection initiatives is at the front line of the Californian city’s not-so-quiet climate revolution

Klaus Bondam – Copenhagen’s mayor of environmental administration is leading that city’s drive to become provide the world’s best urban environment by 2015