Green Infrastructure in Urban Climate Change Adaptation: the best approach to developing resilient cities

We have found that awareness of Green Infrastructure’s significance in climate change adaptation within our cities is improving; the integration of well-designed multifunctional green space into development projects is therefore no longer limited to the altruistic or green-fingered. To this end there are UK wide trends in policy and best practice guidance where considerable onus is placed upon the inclusion of Green Infrastructure (GI) features into new development. These strategic policy trends have been particularly effective at catalysing urban greening in London, Birmingham and a handful of other more forward thinking UK cities.

Despite this however it is still often an uphill battle with the developer to pass integrated ‘green’, ecological solutions into landscape and architectural design from the get go. As a higher level concept within large scale development, the application of an ecosystem approach strays from the convention, where engineering is King and concerns over upfront costs drive our actions, ignoring the potential future ‘natural capital’ provided. This is in part a consequence of the lack of immediate tangible economic outcomes when you compare the integration of ecosystems services in the form of GI, with more mainstream fixes. This article discusses the value of an Ecosystem Approach and GI as part of climate change adaptation in our cities, and presents some thoughts on the lessons learnt so far and what the next steps could be.

Setting the scene

With the advent of climate change, the influence of natural systems upon our society has become more understood. The synergy between more extreme weather patterns, sea level rise and losses in biodiversity upon the already struggling environmental baseline of post industrial revolution Earth stands to bring the importance of ecosystem services to the forefront, particularly in urban environments. Adapting our behaviour to mitigate the impacts of climate change is therefore crucial.

The Ecosystem Approach was first introduced as the primary implementation framework of the Convention for Biological Diversity in 1992. The approach integrates ‘management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way’ . This strategic agenda is therefore instrumental in realistically approaching climate change adaptation and mitigation.

GI is defined by Natural England as the ‘strategically planned network of multifunctional greenspaces’ . GI can therefore be considered the tangible result of the Ecosystem Approach within an urban setting. It stands to provide cost effective, bespoke and innovative solutions for the integration of the natural environment and the built form, helping, amongst other things, to increase biodiversity , improve energy efficiency , reduce the urban heat island effect , decrease flood risk , benefit public health and quality of life, and consequently attract inward investment, enabling economic growth . GI assets within a city may include parks; ponds, rivers and other open water; street trees; living roofs and walls; rain gardens; public landscaping; private gardens and allotments. Specific value is achieved when these features form coherent and resilient networks where the layout and design considers the full spectrum of potential benefits.

Ecosystem Approach Context

Twenty years since the ‘Ecosystem Approach’ principal was introduced, there is still a general lack in the everyday application of natural resources in climate change adaptation at the global scale. The value of ecosystem services are also generally underappreciated: Southeast Asian countries still find themselves spending billions on inadequate coastal flood defences as a function of the removal of mangroves to sustain coastal aquaculture ; there are cases of soil fertility and agricultural production having been damaged by deforestation on nearly every continent; and apex predator populations have been heavily hunted significantly impacting food webs and production across the world. The net financial losses through damage to ‘natural capital’ in circumstances like these are considerable, and, with the additional synergistic stressor of climate change thrown into the mix, stand to be untenable; this is of course without even considering the moral argument where we should fundamentally be against mass habitat destruction.

Those unlucky enough to have been impacted by the heavy flooding in parts of the UK earlier this year have had first-hand experience of what a changing global climate twinned with historic changes to natural ecosystem regimes can do at a local level; extreme weather events such as this are likely to become more prevalent with climate change. Many of the most sensible solutions (financially and environmentally ) in mitigating the extent of the impacts in the future, all follow the Ecosystem Approach; see The Parrett Catchment Project and the Somerset Levels Vision 2030 .

These kind of extensive rural projects can be incredibly effective at delivering multifunctional societal, hydrographical and ecological benefits. In our towns and cities however, where space is at a premium, a different approach is required. To this end, the application of GI as a tangible result of the Ecosystem Approach at the small scale within new development stands to be one of the more effective means of adapting to climate change, particularly with increasing urbanisation . Here, step by step, the small enhancements included within each new development stand to add to the regional green and blue grid, creating a resilient and functional ecosystem in its own right. In such a circumstance the city stands to become as valuable a resource in flood risk alleviation and ecological conservation as coastal flood plains or forests currently are, with the potential for the avoidance of the sometimes contentious and costly measures of its rural counterpart. The ecosystem services provided by GI within cities also stand to be more reliable in standing up to the ever changing environmental baseline when compared with the rural equivalent. Whilst we may see more extreme changes in climate and weather patterns in our cities, the habitats that are present are often intrinsically more robust, the irony being that the more extreme climate change becomes, and therefore the more important ecosystem services become, the less fully naturalised systems (coral reefs, flood plains and forests for example) are able to cope.

GI trends in London

The London Plan 2011 and the associated Supplementary Planning Guidance released over the last few years appears to signify a valuable step forward in the way we approach climate change adaptation and mitigation with respect to the use of ecosystems and natural resources. In turn, and also in response to the National Planning Policy Framework’s ‘golden thread’ of a presumption in favour of sustainable development, a number of London borough Local Authorities have responded with stringent restrictions and demands regarding GI application. Whilst in many respects the engineering response is still leading the way in climate change adaptation at a planning level, a subtle coup d’état is taking place, led by the heady influence of the living roof and green wall.

The 2013 State of Nature report concluded that ‘habitats need to be in good condition and coherent for wildlife to be resilient to climate change’, with the consensus being that the creation of new habitat is vital to make up for the decades of degradation; accordingly creation and enhancement of new urban habitat stands to become just as crucial as building on the network of rural wildlife sites across the UK. This idea of enhancing a site despite a lack of current value is one that needs building on; too often are GI features only introduced as a consequence of protected species mitigation measures or as replacement green space to meet sustainability targets, such as BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology). A number of London boroughs have the right idea however, with Camden for example requiring a living roof on every new build . Granted, this has meant many developments support small living roofs or landscaping features included purely as a tick-box exercise to meet sustainability benchmarking tools, but, whilst small features in a GI strategy may seem pointless, the summed value of all these features taken across the city-wide network is significantly larger than its constituent parts. With this evolution of planning policy and developer’s behaviours (albeit often under duress) the resilient city-wide ecosystem can be formed.

Lessons learnt

In principal then this all sounds great, and in practice, more often than not, it is likely to work to some extent. There is a rich evidence base supporting the efficacy of contemporary best practice actions, but the right steps need to be taken to ensure GI is applied affectively. The following recommended actions are informed by the author’s opinion, as a consultant working with GI application, and a review of contemporary literature and best practice recommendations :

• Evidence based actions – Knowledge gaps and challenges in the research agenda do still present themselves with regards to GI application as climate change adaptation . There are many commercial case studies on GI with exhaustive supporting literature available online in the form of best practice guidance courtesy of numerous trusts, think-tanks, wildlife bodies, local authorities and interested parties. Very little of this however with regards to GI in cities appears to be directly informed by quantified peer reviewed research, which should form the cornerstone of all actions – particularly actions with the weight of climate change on their shoulders. There is an abundance of peer reviewed literature on the use of GI and an Ecosystems Approach, although surprisingly little on its use in urban climate change mitigation, and less still at a level that enables usable cost-benefit analyses frameworks to be developed and actually applied at the planning level. This is likely a function of the difficulties in successfully quantifying the value of ecosystem services, as a consequence of the complexity of urban ecosystem interactions , particularly when working with an ever changing baseline and climate change models which in turn involve significant data extrapolation . Conversely, as pointed out in a review in Nature by Jones et al (2012) there is a paucity of data on the ‘maladaptive consequences and costs of many hard (i.e. engineering based) adaptation interventions’; research is quick to identify the benefits but stands to overlook the unforeseen environmental effects that may counteract the value of the engineering response in the first place. Applied ecology in this respect of course doesn’t follow a defined formula, but it may be prudent to enhance the application of the existing evidence base within the non-scientific community and consultancy.

• Use ingenuity – The forms of GI should not be limited to the zeitgeist trend; currently living roofs. Often overlooked GI features such as rain gardens should be just as common place.

• Develop an enforced monitoring framework standardised between local authorities – once GI features are constructed, more often than not they are forgotten about. Whilst benchmarking tools such as BREEAM have facilitated the implementation of GI, their influence tends to finish at the post construction stage review. A commercially minded consultant is therefore not able to address the on-going monitoring and maintenance requirements for the GI assets specified by them, unless the developer is looking to spend money where there’s no legal obligation or drive for them to do so. Results from monitoring would also complement the ‘evidence based actions’ target.

• Engagement of developers and the public – to be successful, everyone needs to appreciate that it’s in our best interest to enhance the green grids within our cities. Associated up-front costs are likely to be made up for by the natural capital provided . The associated Corporate Social Responsibility benefits and inward investment provided will also stand to please the developer.

• Quantify parameters and feed them into agreed valuation toolkits – developing a standardised valuation system for GI in terms of benefits for climate change adaptation would be invaluable. Natural England recently published a review of existing GI valuation tookits, the majority of which did not cover the full spectrum of GI and were unsuitable for UK application.

• Forge a bond between the strategic approach and physical implementation – this article follows 13 GI Audits produced by the central London Business Improvement Districts in 2012 and 2013 . These audits identified the existing and potential GI assets across each of the assessment areas, including the potential locations of living roof retrofits, street level rain gardens and enhanced public open green space, creating a means of linking high level strategy with tangible construction outcomes. Developing a link between this kind of high level strategic approach, planning policy creation, planning policy enforcement and actual development itself would stand to enable the meaningful enhancement of the GI network, furthering the climate change resilience of a region.

• Link bottom up strategy with top down funding – it’s all very well producing a strategy (and all very well me suggesting these points), but funding is another issue. This is where governments and developers must realise that upfront cost may stand to save money in the long run . A recent example of a country bucking the trend and actively fully adapting to climate change (albeit from a renewable energy perspective rather than ecosystem service one) is Aruba, where an upfront £300million investment in reaching carbon neutrality has resulted in a £85 million a year saving .

• Multidisciplinary approach – GI and the ecosystem approach is not the only answer. Clever engineering and technology is also a vital tool in adapting to the multifaceted challenges of climate change. Changes in paving albedo for example stand to be a useful combatant of the urban heat island effect and green energy solutions are becoming increasingly effective. Enabling links between initiatives such as GI and zero carbon construction will therefore be invaluable at the strategic and implementation level. There are very few technologically based climate change adaptation/energy saving initiatives that integrate an ecosystem approach alongside engineering. The potential for woodland augmentation to form part of the Allowable Solutions for Zero Carbon Buildings by 2019 however seems like a step forward. This holistic approach with the ‘hard’ engineering adaptation measures alongside the GI/Ecosystem Approach stands to provide the most cost effective and operationally effective approach .

There are few novel ideas presented ideas here, with the Government’s Natural Choice White Paper and The National Adaptation Programme establishing many of the principles described above with respect to the apparent current UK legislative and policy approach. There is no single answer in streamlining the way we approach, design, apply and monitor GI and the ecosystem approach as climate change mitigation. Having a more consistent multidisciplinary approach informed by peer reviewed quantitative research may, however, be a good start.


The integration of GI should not be some altruistic action applied only by those ‘in the know’. It is in our best interest to embrace GI within urban climate change adaptation, implementing adaptive and dynamic management plans informed by high level strategy and a broad evidence base. Allowing a self-sustaining ecosystem to achieve what alternative more costly and indirect solutions can do seems like the obvious answer to ensure an equitable future for everyone. Engineering is still considered the primary means of defence against many of the threats that we face from climate change, but ecosystems are at our service; let’s make the most of them.

About the author: Morgan Taylor is a Senior Ecological Consultant at Greengage Environmental LLP. He specialises in urban ecology and London policy drivers.

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