The crisis of skills and leadership

We urgently need to increase the number of people with the right skills to deliver green infrastructure. Decades of underinvestment in green space services mean that good managers of parks and green spaces are now in seriously short supply, as are people with the technical knowhow needed to deliver on the ground.

Copyright Capel Manor College 2009

In a survey of 54 local authorities in 2008, 68 per cent of authorities said a lack of skills in horticulture was affecting overall service delivery. The most common gaps in operational skills were horticulture (51 per cent), conservation (34 per cent), arboriculture (29 per cent) and ecology (27 per cent). The most common deficiencies in managerial skills were identified as design (29 per cent), finance and funding (24 per cent), and marketing (19 per cent).

Training budgets for local authority green space staff was worryingly low: just £160 a year on average.

Before the recession, a survey by the Homes and Communities Agency Academy revealed labour shortages of over 90 per cent in landscape architecture and urban design.

So there are clearly not enough skilled people in the sector to deliver traditional green space services, let alone exploit the multiple opportunities that come with an understanding of green infrastructure. (new copy to add here) Further details on the acute shortage of a skilled workforce to plan, design, manage and maintain our parks and green spaces can be found in Skills to grow: seven priorities to improve green space skills.

The impact on projects

Take a project like the Thames Gateway Parklands. If this is to be realised, it will require people with landscape planning and management, nature conservation, and habitat management skills. Based on a simple extrapolation of the numbers required for the London Olympic Legacy Park and assuming 11 possible landmark sites alone, the Parklands project could need around 2,000 staff for development and construction as well as up to 1,000 people for subsequent management and maintenance. This is an increase of 10 per cent on the total workforce.

So there are clearly not enough skilled people in the sector to deliver traditional green space services, let alone exploit the multiple opportunities that come with an understanding of green infrastructure.

Who would build a road system that didn’t connect? It is the same for green spaces. The point of a green infrastructure plan is to take a strategic approach, just as we take a strategic approach to transportation.
Edward T McMahon, Urban Land Institute

A new range of skills

We also need green infrastructure managers with a new range of skills. They need to break down the silos between traditional areas of professional expertise, integrating, for example, services such as green space and water management, transport planning and children’s play, nature conservation and local food production. Given the complexity of ownership and management across green infrastructure networks, they need to be experts in partnership working and resource management, and have strong leadership skills.

They certainly need to know how to work better with communities. A 2008 survey of 68 people actively involved in community-led green space projects found that 70 per cent worked with local authority officers, and 54 per cent said that difficulty negotiating with them stops their projects moving forward.

Grey vs Green

  • 93,900 members of highways and civil engineer professional bodies
  • 5,500 members of parks and landscape professional body

In reality, green space managers are rarely in a sufficiently senior position to provide the comprehensive management needed to deliver an integrated network of green infrastructure across an area. Most local authorities have no one in a position to promote the long-term strategic thinking and secure the joined-up planning and management that green infrastructure requires. In essence, we don’t have the practical or leadership skills to deliver our ambitions for green infrastructure of maximise its potential.

This problem is further compounded by an additional challenge. Because employers rarely demand the higher-level landscape planning, management and coordination skills that are needed to deliver green infrastructure, the jobs are simply not out there. And with no demand for these skills, courses are closing. In the last three years, three out of the 11 colleges offering professionally accredited landscape management degrees have closed their courses.

By the time we have all realised the vital importance of GI, it will be too late. Major project clients such as the Olympic Delivery Authority are already turning to overseas landscape consultants to provide the kind of expertise they need. Not least because of global warming, we need to intervene and break this vicious circle.

Green infrastructure as a response to climate change and development

Vision for Mills Meads, an operational site for Thames Water, incorporating some of London’s strategic pumping stations, that is not currently accessible to the public.
Copyright 5th Studio / Design for London.

East London Green Grid

There is a perception that much of east London is characterised by post-war housing and poor-quality neighbourhoods, dominated by industry and highways.

In fact, it could lead the way in terms of sustainability, with projects such as Rainham Marshes, the Olympic Legacy Park and Barking Riverside, London’s largest housing development site.

These are all supported by the East London Green Grid, one of four subregional landscape frameworks developed for the Thames Gateway. It is one of the first spatial frameworks of its kind to use a landscape and human-centred approach to green infrastructure. It is designed to respond to two key drivers – climate change and future development.

The framework covers new and existing green spaces. A strong emphasis is placed on connectivity, with green corridors linking town centres and transport nodes to major employment and residential sites. Also critical is the role of river corridors and links to the green belt.

The scale of the programme, worth an estimated £0.5 billion, is extraordinary. Some 300 projects have been identified, of which 70 have been prioritised and supported by the London Development Agency.

In the short term, the 2008/2009 recession has slowed development and reduced funding from planning gain. It has also raised the question as to whether skills, training and employment should become a priority. One of the key learning points in that context is the value of a robust approach to public funding being tied to a commitment to long-term maintenance.


More about Grey to Green

  • Introduction to Grey to Green

    Introduction to Grey to Green

    We are at a new milestone in the planning and design of urban communities. A place where we start to co-exist with the natural environment instead of developing in conflict with it.

  • Why green infrastructure matters

    Why green infrastructure matters

    Twenty years ago, Chattanooga was a rust-belt, basket-case place in Tennessee. Today, thanks to green infrastructure, it is seen as one of the most attractive places to live in America.

  • What needs to be done

    What needs to be done

    The Victorians took bold steps to create places that met the challenges of the day. Our changing climate and economic imperatives provide the same opportunities in our towns and cities.

  • What green infrastructure offers places

    What green infrastructure offers places

    Strengthening green infrastructure is fundamentally about making the most of existing assets and it can transform the quality of places. A strategic approach can have a profound effect.

  • Shifting investment from grey to green

    Shifting investment from grey to green

    Given the range of benefits that it delivers, what is the current level of public investment in green infrastructure? PricewaterhouseCoopers have done a high-level analysis of public spending to compare grey and green expenditure.

  • Conclusion


    The greatest obstacle to using green infrastructure is the challenge it poses for ‘business as usual’. This soft engineering contrasts with the capital-intensive, technological approach to the way you design and manage a place.