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News analysis: Making the case for green infrastructure

Words: Simon Wicks
Green infrastructure

Planners and the planning system need to adapt to the language and outlook of investors and developers if the case for green infrastructure is to be won.

Speaking at the Building Prosperous Cities conference, economists, environmentalists, planners and city leaders stressed the importance of framing arguments for the value of green infrastructure in terms meaningful to accountants, financiers and business.

This may mean completely reframing the ways in which 'natural capital' is valued within a planning system that is not yet adapted to the idea of ecosystems services.

“We now are stating to understand the value of what we’ve got in terms of ecosystems and natural capital,” said Anne Selby, chief executive of the Wildlife Trust for Lancashire and chair of Greater Manchester's Natural Capital Group.

“But despite the masses of evidence, we are just nor quite there. It feels sometimes as if we are trading in beans and the economy is trading in shells. We need the philosophers stone that turns beans into shells.”

The conference was organised by the Ecosystems Knowledge Network to further understanding of the concept of natural capital and its application in the built environment.

"It feels sometimes as if we are trading in beans and the economy is trading in shells”

Delegates heard that, despite a growing body of evidence for the environmental, economic and wellbeing benefits of prioritising nature within cites, planners were struggling to make a convincing case for its inclusion in schemes. Most people acknowledged that ‘green’ is good for physical and mental health, not to mention property values, yet still green spaces tended to be marked as a benefit rather than a cost on the balance sheet.

Natural capital accounting

Economist Ian Dickie, director of Eftec noted, for example, that “On many balance sheets, parks are regarded as a one pound asset, because there’s no other measurement”.

Speaking of the concept of ‘natural capital’ – the idea that a monetary value can be put on the benefits of green infrastructure – he said one of the major barriers was a lack of consistency in measuring the benefits and a lack of systems to record them.

“How many of the urban decision makers have the environmental evidence as well organised as the financial evidence when making decisions?” he asked. “My guess is probably none.”

Much of the conference focused on the effort to measure, monitor and record the benefits of green space in cities, and then to produce a convincing business case to ensure ‘green’ receives the investment and protection it deserves.

There were many useful case studies. Jason Eis of Vivid Economics talked about the work he had done with the National Trust to record Sheffield’s natural capital. Their study had concluded that every pound spent on parks in Sheffield produced £34 in benefits to citizens, businesses and health service providers, among others.

These benefits had been broken down and valued, with physical and mental health topping the list, followed by house price uplift and carbon dioxide absorption. The work had even noted who precisely benefited from what.

"If you can see parks as something that provides monetary value, then some of the things that look like good accounting are actually quite bad accounting"

Yet accounting systems commonly in use typically did not allow for most of these benefits to be recorded.

“From a financial accounting perspective, most parks are seen as a liability and so the pressure is to reduce costs,” said Eis. “But if you can see parks as something that provides a value of £1.3 billion [as Sheffield’s natural capital does] then some of the things that look like good accounting are actually quite bad accounting.

“And it’s more likely than not those lost benefits, those costs, are probably accruing somewhere else.”

Former RTPI president Vincent Goodstadt argued that natural capital should not only feature in the accounts for individual schemes or cities, but they the nation’s national capital should be routinely recorded. “If it has real economic value why is there not built into our national accounts?”

What is green infrastructure?

Broadly, green infrastructure (or blue-green infrastructure) is an approach to urban infrastructure that emphasises building with nature to the greater benefit of cities and societies – and to create resilience in the face of social and environmental challenges such as climate change.

Green infrastructure typically might include infrastructure that improves stormwater management, protects and increases biodiversity, improves air quality, secures local food production, maintains healthy soils,and so on, as well as mitigating the climate impacts of existing urban infrastructure (eg, creating an urban cooling effect that reduces use of air conditioning in office). Natural drainage systems, green roofs, parks, trees, greenways, passive heating systems and green energy all contribute to the green infrastructure mix.

Benefits include measurable improvements to physical and mental health, and resulting savings to health services; house price uplift, reduced pollution, improved air quality and greater biodiversity.

Natural capital accounting seeks to put a financial value on these benefits so they can be measured within corporate and even national accounting systems, and the costs to society of not protecting ecosystems can be clearly assessed and weighted within project costs and policymaking

A strategic outlook

There were examples of city planning strategies that included green infrastructure – the London Infrastructure Plan being a notable example. Furthermore, cities such as Birmingham and Manchester (soon to become the UK's pilot city for corporate natural capital accounting) were beginning to value their green infrastrcuture in a systematic and strategic way.

Jim Coleman, head of economics at engineering consultancy BuroHappold, stressed that green infrasturcture must not be seen in isolation from ‘grey’ infrastructure, and that it actually improves the performance of traditional infrastructure.

“Green infrastructure is part of the whole system of creating that platform [the city’s “operating environment”], he said. “If you look at any urban environment  it tends a whole lot of different infrastructure. What we need to avoid is making a business case for green infrastructure in isolation as if it doesn’t connected to anything else.”

Kathryn Deeney, natural infrastructure manager for Plymouth’s award-winning planning team, explained how the city had built green requirements into every development as part of a wider strategy to focus on natural capital as it grows. This gave clarity to developers and to the planning team who had a clear line to follow.

"What we need to avoid is making a business case for green infrastructure in isolation"

The requirements, she said, were based on evidence that was being collected, measured and monitored in partnership with the city’s university to establish a strong academic base.

“Having strong strategic evidence about why and where we need green spaces is key, and why we are holding the line in certain areas,” she said.

“We will get challenged at inquiry but we feel we are in a strong position because we are very pro-growth. We are getting our housing needs but green for us is a key part of our growth agenda.”

Funding constraints

Plymouth, Keenan noted, was in a strong position to hold out for green space because it was both shaping the development environment and was a significant landowner in its own right.

But funding and viability – with their short-term expectations – were a stumbling block for many projects. Wendy Langham, who has overseen the creation of the Belfast Consnwater Greenway, said she was heavily reliant on third party funders.

These tended to be giving over 3-5 year timescales, with reporting requirements to match. But the benefits of green infrastructure could take 10-15 years to realise.

Coleman broke down an approach to creating a strong business case for green infrastructure which focused on a highly organised argument that incorporated a strategic case, an economic case, a commercial case, a financial case and a management case.

“The business case for green has to push that infrastructure up the agenda"

It was about gathering evidence and presenting it clearly and systematically and in a way that sold the financial advantages of investment in green infrastructure, as well as the social and environmental benefits.

“Basically it’s a competition for funding,” he said. “The business case for green has to push that infrastructure up the agenda so that it gets into the priority list [for cities].”

“Prosperous cities,” he said “are resilient cities.” And resilient cities were those with the infrastructure that enabled them to adapt to change sin the physical, social and economic environment. Green infrastructure gave cities far greater capability to adapt, he argued. “The case is around multiple benefits and the challenge is to attribute a value to each of these.”

Ultimately, it boiled down to a single stark question, he said: “What’s the cost if we do nothing?”

Photo | iStock

Building Prosperous Cities: The role of natural capital and green infrastructure was organised by the Ecosystems Knowledge Network which advocates for the management of the natural environment as an asset to society.