Reflections from the Monday contributed session “Just green? How do we make green infrastructure become a tool for cross dimensional urban sustainability?”

Urban sustainability goes far beyond green infrastructure. In fact, urban green infrastructure is a common starting point to open up broader sets of issues around the urban form and its relationship with people and change.

The session included a nice mix of disciplinary perspectives (e.g. ecological, socio-economic, political) through seven speed talks and an extensive discussion.

Key messages from speakers
Erik Andersson from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sweden, explored the role of memory, arguing that urban green infrastructure interventions need to be very sensitive to the existing web of social-ecological memory (e.g. carry ecology through spatial connections and species, and socially through knowledge systems, communities of practice, and management practices). Through an explicit focus on time, the importance of memory becomes apparent, and disrupting this continuity through ill-planned interventions is risky.

Peleg Kremer from Villanova University, US, explored the linked structure and function of urban environments to understand the role and effects of urban green space, through developing and testing a typology of structure-function classes in cities and their patterns in terms of urban ecosystem services such as urban temperature. This work highlights that urban physical structure matters, yet provides a novel way to engage with the large diversity of urban forms present within and across cities.

Nadja Kabisch from Humboldt – Universität zu Berlin, Germany, explored the health dimensions of urban green infrastructure, a purpose-oriented view where urban green infrastructure is used to improve public health. This work systematically identified pathways by which urban green space is believed to improve health outcomes (e.g. stress, wellbeing, physical activity, etc), assessing the scientific evidence of the health effects of urban nature. Interestingly, it seems that while urban green space can improve health for both wealthier and poorer social groups, it does not over-ride other social forces that adversely affect poorer groups.

Annegret Haase from Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Germany, explored the implications of urban greening strategies taking place within existing unequal urban contexts. Urban greening may bring most benefit to those who are already advantaged, yet this is questionable for disadvantaged groups who may even be displaced. For example, infrastructure for saving energy may add to house/rent prices which can further displace poorer people. Hence evolving practices of urban green infrastructure should be tied to emerging debates about inequality and diversity in cities, and we need to re-politicise debates about green infrastructure (e.g. who drives this, who benefits, who doesn’t, …) because trade-offs are real: we could end up with greener, bluer cities that are less fair, diverse, and creative.

Jakub Kronenberg from University of Lodz, Poland, explored justice implications of urban green infrastructure from an economic perspective, looking at hedonic pricing (e.g. ‘willingness to pay’). It is commonly found that urban green space adds value to a property, and this is typically thought of as a ‘good’ thing, but it can also price-out poorer people because not everyone can afford it, which raises clear justice-related issues. Previous studies may need to be re-examined in light of changing understandings of these issues.

Dagmar Haase from HU Berlin and UFZ Leipzig, Germany, and the Chair of this session, explored the role of ‘teleconnections’ in relation to urban green infrastructure. The concept of teleconnections basically just refers to causes or drivers that are ‘far away’ but have an important impact on the problem of interest. For example, urban green infrastructure choices may be influence by ideas, decisions, or actors from scales beyond the city such as at national or even international levels. This is very important to take into account. But it can also be positive, because it means that unusual constellations of factors can come together to create new opportunities and drivers for innovation.

Sara Borgström from Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, explored the governance and politics of urban green infrastructures, highlighting a particular challenge related to the complex and overlapping property rights that need to be grappled with. Typically the focus is either on (formal) urban planning, or on very bottom-up community-based innovation, but neither of these approaches alone captures the complex urban governance reality. This raises quite fundamental questions relating to 1) working with complex property rights, 2) private actors providing public goods, and 3) maintenance of urban green infrastructure in practice over time.

Discussion
The open group discussion picked up on various aspects of the practicalities of urban green infrastructure. A key idea was the importance of sensitive framing when engaging with policymakers/practitioners, for whom terms like “green” may not resonate (or they may be actively hostile towards), but instead terms like “quality of life”, “sustainable services”, or even “resilience” may work better, depending on the context. Other issues raised include: dealing with private actors who hold huge decision-making power, scepticism from poor neighbourhoods at risk of gentrification, and that green infrastructure alone is not enough for making livable and desirable cities. The Chair’s overall summary (linking to the morning plenary!) was that: “conflict and opposition stimulate the combinations and re-combinations critical for movement forward”.

Your Resilience2017 correspondent:

James Patterson is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM), Vrije
University Amsterdam, working in the area of environmental governance. His current research focuses on climate change adaptation in cities, with a particular focus on institutional innovation and change. He also has a keen interest in sustainability transformations, collective action, and science-policy interactions.

 

 

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