What needs to be done

The Victorians took bold steps to redesign and create places that met the challenges of the day, such as sanitation and infectious disease.

Planning ahead: water management in schemes such as this Dutch development addresses climate change and creates a much nicer place to live. Cultuurpark Westergasfabriek, Amsterdam, landscape design by Kathryn Gustafson ┬ęCABE/Peter Neal

Today, our changing climate and economic imperatives provide the same opportunities to remodel our towns and cities, making the critical shift from grey to green.

Making the shift, professionally

We need the people to put this new way of working into practice. There is a dual crisis: the shortage of people coming into the profession and the existing workforce being properly equipped with the skills they need to deliver green infrastructure effectively.

As part of a Skills to grow strategy, CABE is working with the Landscape Institute, whose I want to be a landscape architect campaign aims to attract more people into the profession. Chartered landscape architects are one of the leading professions with the skills to understand the strategic planning, design and management of green infrastructure. In the last recession, many landscape architects left the sector, never to return. This led to long-term shortages of experienced professionals.

The current recession has hit the building and landscape architecture industries badly. There is a real danger that the short term crisis will lead to a failure to train sufficient numbers of landscape architects to exploit the upturn when it comes. Given the environmental imperative, this would be particularly problematic.

CABE believes we need a minimum of 550 new entrants annually on to Landscape Institute accredited courses from 2010 and beyond to meet future demand.

Making the shift, locally

About 65 per cent of England is covered by some kind of strategic approach to green infrastructure. But this masks a major gap in delivery. The gap is largely at the level of local authorities, who do not have appropriately skilled and resourced teams to deliver on the ground. There is also a lack of coordination between local authority departments; for example, many have not tied together their open space strategies and climate change strategies.

Councils therefore need to: first, establish strong high-level leadership; second, provide sufficient professional coordination and skills; and third, engage local people in the design and delivery of green infrastructure.

Action one: leadership

Each local authority needs a cabinet member with a portfolio commitment to championing an urban greening programme. That overarching influence might lie with the leader or it might sit comfortably at the heart of an emerging sustainability portfolio. These portfolio holders should be offered training to help them understand the implications and benefits of green infrastructure, and support them to take a leadership role in making it happen.

Cllr Sir Steve Bullock, the mayor of Lewisham, has shown how strong leadership can deliver green infrastructure. Lewisham adopted a green, partnership-led approach to the flooding that was taking a growing toll on residents and businesses in Lewisham. The Quaggy River had been culverted into concrete channels, closed off behind iron fences. Instead of compounding this approach to flood control with further engineering works, the channel and fences were demolished, and the river released to meander through a fully refurbished park. This has made a huge difference to the quality of the area.

Action two: professional coordination

Leadership alone is not enough if councils do not have skilled staff to draft policy, work in partnership, and achieve tangible results. Each local authority should therefore employ a technical specialist, such as a chartered landscape architect, with access to an existing budget who can ensure that GI awareness and skills to deliver are embedded across the local authority. Chartered landscape architects are ideally placed to fulfil this role because, uniquely, they are trained in the planning, design and management of green infrastructure. This specialism could be achieved by redeploying or repositioning an existing post accompanied by re-training; or by creating a new post or funding one in a partner organisation.

In Stockton-on-Tees, the borough council appointed a strategy and development manager within its greenspace and countryside team. After coordinating the borough’s input into a sub-regional green infrastructure strategy for the Tees Valley, the role grew into the management of a detailed local implementation programme, building on a wide range of activities across council services and initiating new partnerships such as the Stockton River Corridors Project with British Waterways.

Action three: community empowerment

Most green infrastructure is created at a local level. CABE has conducted research with community groups to understand what they need and want to achieve with their green spaces. Many simply want more support, such as information on how to access funding, and how their project fits into the wider urban greening programme.

Councillors have a key role to play in this regard. They should organise regular ‘green surgeries’ in every ward, along the lines of an alternative local Gardeners’ Question Time. This would give community groups access to relevant local authority officers’ expertise and resources. This should be supported by offering both councillors and officers training on partnership work with communities on green projects.

In San Francisco, our environmental efforts are aimed at providing a model of how cities can tackle climate change. We’re using green strategies to improve our residents’ lives.
Wade Crowfoot, West Coast political director

Making the shift, nationally

While green infrastructure gets delivered locally, it should be planned for at a regional or sub-regional level. This in turn requires that the right national structures and policies are in place. To this end, CABE has three recommendations for national government:

  • first, green infrastructure skills should be recognised as critical in the national climate change adaptation strategy
  • second, a national green infrastructure taskforce should be established to champion and set an agenda for environmental policy and technical delivery.
  • third, a single national database of green assets should be developed.

Action one: skills to adapt

As part of the national climate change adaptation strategy, CABE recommends that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills lead on a jobs and skills strategy to ensure that we have the right people, with the right skills, to deliver green infrastructure. It also needs to lead to a shift in resources within government to support the development of this sector. Too much of the debate so far on ‘green’ jobs and skills has overlooked this literally green sector.

Action two: green infrastructure taskforce

Grey vs Green

  • £1.28 billion to widen 63 miles of the M25
  • £1.28 billion to plant 3.2 million street trees (saving 3 million tonnes of carbon)

Ten years ago, the urban taskforce was established to guide and champion an urban renaissance for our towns and cities. Its work has helped define more sustainable models of urban development and regeneration. The ecological crisis was identified by the taskforce as a key driver affecting the future of urban areas. It is now time to convene a green infrastructure taskforce, comprising recognised national experts, to shape environmental policy and technical delivery.

This idea was strongly supported at ParkCity – a conference jointly organised by CABE and Natural England, in 2009. If we are to shift investment from grey to green infrastructure, we need a crosscutting and cross-government action plan to maximise the impact of environmental investment in urban communities over the coming decade.

Action three: join the information revolution

Nobody understands our existing green assets: the numbers of urban and suburban green spaces in England, where they are, who owns them, or what their quality is. This lack of information obviously limits our ability to plan and manage green infrastructure strategically.

As part of the information revolution that could benefit Britain in so many ways, central government should co-ordinate a single, shared national information resource – a kind of atlas – to record in a consistent way the location, quantity, function, type and quality of green spaces.

This resource should then become available to national, regional and local government. This is not just CABE’s ask. The key organisations responsible for different parts of our green infrastructure are supporting our call for this shared resource.

There are precedents, such as MAGIC, the first web-based interactive map of key rural environmental schemes and designations, using standard GIS tools. And three government departments – CLG, DCMS and DEFRA – already hold and collect data on a wide variety of green spaces and their characteristics. So the problem is not a lack of resources. It is a lack of coordination.

The green information gap: mapping the nation's green spaces calls for a single, shared, information resource – a kind of atlas – to help piece together the different elements of the nation’s green infrastructure.  This call is supported by 15 national organisations.

Urban green nation: building the evidence base starts to fill the information gap about how many green spaces there are in our urban areas, where they are, who owns them or what condition they are in.

Green infrastructure as a regeneration tool

Natural Economy Northwest

The New Bold Estate in St Helens was built on the former Bold Power Station site. Fidler's Ferry Power Station, Warrington, is in the distance.
Copyright St Helens Borough Council.

Natural Economy Northwest

In the north-west of England, a green infrastructure programme is driving regeneration and sustainable development.

The sophisticated approach to green infrastructure taken in that region – still unusual in the UK – stretches back 30 years, when a small number of individuals championed the idea that the natural assets of the area could deliver across all priorities and objectives.

Now Natural Economy Northwest seeks to maximise the economic benefit of existing and new investment in the region’s natural environment. A broad green infrastructure partnership embraces government at every level, academia, the private sector and third sector organisations.

Two community forests around Manchester and Merseyside are demonstrating the role of woodlands in reducing the impacts of climate change, and helping communities to plant street trees and create community gardens. More recently, a £59 million ‘Newlands’ programme has begun reclaiming large areas of derelict land and turning it into community woodland.

As a pioneer, the region needed robust evidence to support its influencing work on green infrastructure – especially on the economic benefits – and it remains good at finding a strong evidence base for every project. Across the region, the development control process is examined at local level to see how it can support the creation and long-term management of green infrastructure. As part of the ‘Town in the Forest’ initiative in St Helens, planners are embedding green infrastructure in their core strategy as well as in three action area plans.


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.

  • 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 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.