11th July 2022

Why Green Infrastructure Needs to be Central to Urban Development?


In this piece our Director, Paul Morris, explores the role of green infrastructure in urban development and the ways we can build a climate-resilient future for our cities? 

Green infrastructure is a broad term. To the uninitiated, it’s easy to think It’s all about making sure there are a few patches of grass and some trees scattered across a new development, but to pigeonhole it this way is to do it a huge disservice.

At its heart, green infrastructure is about consciously integrating nature and natural processes into development planning and in doing so, providing social, economic and environmental benefits. What’s more, a huge part of green infrastructure is about taking cities of high industrial heritage and performing the difficult process of retrofitting those built environments for a climate-resilient future.

In this short blog, we’re going to talk about why green infrastructure should be at the forefront of our minds whenever we approach a new project, highlighting the benefits it brings and the ways it improves our urban developments.

The Problem

In the UK, there are several crises to address in the built environment. The climate crisis is directly affected by our industry, with 40% of global emissions being tied to our actions. And it’s not just carbon that’s the issue, loss of biodiversity and natural environments are another unpleasant side effect of many building projects.

Alongside grappling with the environmental impact of our industry, we’re in the middle of a housing crisis, with demand vastly outstripping the number of homes being built in city centres. In many of our cities, housing is not only in short supply but is also unaffordable for both buyers and renters.

Time and time again, city-centre living is tied to more physical health problems than those in rural settings. Away from the physical health perspective, living in a city puts you at an increased risk for mental health maladies such as depression and anxiety. Even where negative emotions do not reach a clinical level, living in a city has been shown to be a risk factor for increased loneliness, isolation and stress.

How can our industry start to address these issues?

The Solution

While there’s no single solution to any of these issues, setting a solid foundation for green infrastructure in our urban developments will go a long way to tackling them.

Let’s look at some specific benefits.

Social and health benefits

One of the hallmarks of green infrastructure is integrating nature into our developments.

Not only do green spaces provide a place for people to come and enjoy nature, but there are multiple ways in which they breed happiness and social cohesion. Those with green space on their doorstep will come together to use it for leisure activities and a study by Francis et al. demonstrated that proximity to quality public parks instilled a greater sense of community amongst residents.

The benefits of nature and green spaces for mental health have been extolled and backed by research in recent times. With urban living taking such a toll on the mind, it stands to reason that more nature and more green space could play a vital role in improving the mental health of residents in urban developments.

Finally, integrating green infrastructure into our developments can help reduce and, in some cases, eliminate harmful substances that city living is associated with. As well as improving air quality, green spaces help reduce the impact of heatwaves, reduce flood risk by storing excess water, and help tackle climate change by storing carbon.

Economic Benefits

While it’s tempting to think all this could be expensive, there are actually numerous economic benefits to building green infrastructure into our urban spaces.

From a developer’s perspective, homes and venues built with nature in mind attract a higher monetary value. While there’s obviously an up-front cost to integrating nature into developments, it should be repaid later down the line.

What’s more, once these buildings are up and running, energy consumption is lower, air quality is better, municipal water usage is lower and the need for cooling in hotter climates is reduced. All of this adds to household and community-level money savings.

Environmental benefits

It goes without saying that when we put nature at the heart of a development, the environmental burden of the project will be lower. A truly green development looks to limit its carbon footprint through everything from sustainable building materials, to sustainable energy infrastructure.

When you also factor green spaces into a development, you also reap the benefits that come from plant life’s ability to sequester carbon, increased biodiversity and improved air quality.

As well as being a vital tool in the push to reduce carbon, green infrastructure improves our resilience when it comes to dealing with the impacts of climate change. As an example, the increased intensity of rainfall is made even worse in urban settings due to the urban heat island.  This could result in more flooding and poor environmental outcomes for our urban spaces. A well-thought-out green infrastructure that prioritises naturally permeable surfaces will dramatically reduce runoff, absorbing rainfall where it lands and thus attenuating flows that could otherwise result in flooding downstream.

The bottom line 

If we’re to create healthier, happier and environmentally friendly cities, green infrastructure has to form the backbone of our thinking. In the same way that health and safety protocols are non-negotiable aspects of a development, green and nature focussed protocols should feature similarly.

If you want to hear more about the topic of green infrastructure or have something to add, Paul Morris will be chairing a discussion at the next Forum for the Built Environment (FBE) event in Manchester on Tuesday 12th July, ‘Greening the City – Transforming Manchester’s Industrial Heritage’. To book your place at the discussion, click here.

Why Green Infrastructure Needs to be Central to Urban Development?