What is green infrastructure?

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.

Wrong direction: we need grey infrastructure, of course, but there is a glaring imbalance between the funding for roads and for networks of green spaces. Copyright Matthew Cattell/Alamy.

Green infrastructure (GI) is at the heart of this co-existence. By this we mean a network of living green spaces. These natural assets do not receive anything like the investment or management that go into the road network or sewerage system. We do need grey infrastructure, of course. But there is a glaring imbalance in the funding and skills available to each – which is the reason for our campaign.

I think this imbalance is nonsensical, given the fundamental role that green infrastructure plays in helping us to address climate change, public health, biodiversity and community cohesion.

This is also a story about better stewardship of existing resources. Many of the elements of green infrastructure are already in place, but (like roads) its value lies in being networked. So new skills are required to connect the different elements: the treelined streets, parks, gardens, allotments, cemeteries, green roofs, woodlands, rivers and waterways, so that they all work together as a functioning system.

I often reflect on another urban design milestone, the garden city movement. This responded beautifully to two very British instincts: a love of gardening and a love of the countryside. It understood that the divide between town and country is illusory; that green, more than grey, makes our lives healthy, fulfilled and sustainable. Why has such a fine legacy been neglected? Perhaps it is due to the curious way in which, as Jonathon Porritt observes in his contribution to this report, humankind has somehow progressively disconnected from the natural world: a nature by-pass.

Places like Letchworth have strong environmental credentials, yet perhaps the best argument for greener places is that you really want to live there. Just look at the High Line, a new linear park created from a disused elevated freight line and already proving such a source of pride and delight for New Yorkers.

At CABE, we think an understanding of green infrastructure should be woven into every aspect of public services, from education to development control; from transportation to environmental health. A decade ago the urban taskforce was established to guide and champion an urban renaissance. It is now time to convene a green infrastructure taskforce, to galvanise us all to create great green places.

Richard Simmons
Chief executive, CABE


A message of support from Jonathon Porritt

“We’ve been suffering from a ‘nature by-pass’. By this I mean the progressive disconnection of humankind from the natural world – from its rhythms, its limits, its vulnerabilities. We have somehow come to believe that we are no longer totally dependent on nature’s resources and life-support systems. At long last, we’re starting to get this sorted. And one way of approaching the challenge is from an economic perspective, seeking to put an economic value on the multiple benefits we derive from the natural world. In 2008, I helped launch some research by Natural Economy Northwest – a stunning piece of work that reminded decision-makers that the north west’s environment generates an estimated £2.6 billion in gross value added, supporting more than 100,000 jobs. So the evidence is there. And that’s why CABE’s grey to green campaign is critical – while there is still time to reverse the by-pass that is sucking the life out of us.”

Jonathon Porritt
Founder director, Forum for the Future


More about Grey to Green

  • 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.

  • The crisis of skills and leadership

    The crisis of skills and leadership

    We need to increase the number of people with the skills to deliver green infrastructure. Underinvestment in green space services means that good managers are in short supply.

  • 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.