Why green infrastructure matters

Twenty years ago, Chattanooga was a rust-belt, basket-case place near Lake Chickamauga in Tennessee. The old railroad town had one of America’s most polluted rivers and a depressed economy.

Greening cities: just 10 per cent more urban tree canopy cover could cancel out the 4°C rise in temperatures predicted this century. Aldwych, London © London Aerial Photo Library/Alamy.

Today, it is seen as one of the most attractive places to live in America, and as a laboratory for new urban ideas.

What does Chattanooga have to teach English places, like Hull, or Gloucester?

It teaches that investment in the environment pays for itself many times over. Because what transformed the city was the decision to build a 10-mile park along each side of the Tennessee River. It inspired developers, and led to more investment.

Across America, and elsewhere in Europe, progressive cities are taking the idea of green infrastructure from something that is ‘nice to have’ to something that is fundamental to the way we prosper and develop. ‘GI’ is being widely recognised as providing the environmental foundation that underpins the function, health and character of urban communities. It is emerging as a new way of designing, planning and managing land.

In the UK, many of our towns and cities are endowed with a haphazard lattice of trees, parks, gardens, allotments, cemeteries, woodlands, green corridors, rivers and waterways. Set within, between and beyond urban areas, these green assets are often neglected and poorly connected. Much of the problem is that GI is seen more often as a liability and burden on the public purse than the way to deliver critical environmental services. Certainly its importance is not recognised alongside core elements of grey infrastructure.

A vision of better quality places

The urban landscape can be hard, dirty and congested, restricting the quality of life – even the life chances – of people who live and work there. These kinds of places are neither resilient nor prosperous. The New Economics Foundation has argued that, by ignoring human relationships with nature, more compact cities will do nothing to secure their long-term sustainability.

Imagine instead a green urban landscape: somewhere you can walk or cycle to school or work through car-free, linear greenways; where meadows run alongside offices and shops; where you can see food being grown in the park. A literally greener place improves well being and mental health. Getting the landscape right changes the very nature of urban life.

A working landscape

Most grey infrastructure has a single function. Take supersized stormwater pipes, for instance: their sole purpose is to move excess rainfall from urban areas.

Green infrastructure, by contrast, is multi-functional. It offers us a working landscape and a sustainable alternative to that kind of traditional engineering: living roofs, large trees and soft landscape areas to absorb heavy rainfall; a network of street swales and unculverted rivers which can safely manage large volumes of water.

Good landscape makes good places where people enjoy living, where they invest time and energy in their community and where there is tremendous local pride.
Peter Studdent, director of joint planning, Cambridge Growth Areas and Northstowe

This kind of green infrastructure provides effective flood protection, but it does infinitely more besides. Rather than waste water, it stores and recycles it for summer irrigation. It saves energy: living roofs insulate buildings, and large trees shade offices which reduces the need for air conditioning. It cleans and cools the air: leafy streets are delightful to use. It provides green spaces to encourage exercise and socialising.

Above all, it provides places with a spirit – with character and a strong identity. It allows us to access nature, and feel part of it.

Green infrastructure as a way to tackle local deprivation

Sheffield's green estate

Manor Fields District Park iron work gate, at the heart of the Manor and Castle social housing estate in Sheffield.
Copyright Stephen McLaren

Sheffield's green estate

In 1996 The Guardian wrote that the Manor and Castle Green estates in Sheffield, home to some 20,000 people, were the worst estates in Britain. Not for lack of generous open green space – but neglected and purposeless, it was largely viewed as a liability. The distinguishing feature of the area known as ‘bandit lands’ was burnt-out cars.

Turning the estates around was – and remains – a long-term exercise. It began with the vision of the Manor and Castle Development Trust and Sheffield Wildlife Trust and led to a five-year action plan which has identified how investing in green infrastructure would address social and economic problems.

Early on, £2 million was secured from the single regeneration budget and developers. The first priority was quite basic – making green space cleaner and safer – but ambition has grown since then, with formal and naturalistic play areas, artworks, and different planting approaches, like exotic meadowland, and the piloting of sustainable urban drainage and green waste processing.

An incremental approach has meant that confidence and cultural change has developed at the same pace as the landscape.

Much of the improved parkland is now managed by a social enterprise, Green Estate Ltd, the vehicle for funding applications, visioning, planning, delivery and maintenance.

The lessons here have spread into policy and practice across Sheffield.


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.

  • 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.