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Looking to nature for environmental solutions

As urban populations grow and climate patterns shift, the need for such measures is expected to increase, according to Gorm Dige, project manager for territorial environment, policy and economic analysis with the European Environment Agency (EEA). By 2020 it is estimated that almost 80% of EU citizens will be living in cities.

The potential benefits of applying 'nature' solutions in towns and cities are manifold. They include: improving human health and well-being; encouraging economic development and investment; providing adaptation to predicted changes in climate; regeneration of previously developed land; promoting wildlife and habitats; and encouraging stronger and safer communities.

"Integration of urban green space with the built environment that surrounds it is crucially important if the benefits are to be maximised," says Mr Dige. Communicating these benefits is also vital: "The real potential of such green spaces will only be realised if the activities or operations undertaken are supported by the whole local community." He adds that creation and management of urban green spaces should be integrated with traditional land development and built infrastructure planning in order to achieve the potential benefits.

Role of green and blue infrastructure

Green (and blue) infrastructure is an important aspect of nature-based solutions, linking urban areas to the countryside and providing numerous environmental, social and economic benefits. It includes open land, woodland, private gardens, trees on streets, green roofs and parks, as well as 'blue' spaces such as wetlands, swales, ponds and temporary flood storage areas. Green infrastructure can be strategically planned and delivered on a range of scales to provide useable space with support for natural and ecological processes.

Mr Dige contrasts this with 'grey' infrastructure, such as roads, piped sewer and water systems, dikes and concrete walls to combat flooding. "For example, single-purpose grey storm water infrastructure is largely designed to move urban storm water away from the built environment," he explains. "Whereas green infrastructure reduces and treats storm water at its source, whilst also delivering many other environmental, social and economic benefits that promote urban liveability and add to the bottom line."

The list of benefits for urban areas provided by green infrastructure is long, according to Mr Dige. Some of these include:

  • higher real estate prices;
  • improved well-being and recreational opportunities;
  • reduced energy consumption;
  • improved pedestrian safety and traffic calming;
  • lower costs for wastewater treatment;
  • increased biodiversity;
  • a more liveable habitat for birds, native plants and residents;
  • enhanced community spaces and more appealing streets;
  • improved street conditions for cyclists and pedestrians;
  • reduced storm water run-off through soil and vegetation;
  • cleaner groundwater;
  • noise reduction;
  • reduced urban heat (the heat island effect);
  • and improved air quality.

On top of that, green infrastructure has an important role to play in supporting the adaptation of urban areas to climate change. It can provide shade and cooling in warm weather as well as wind interception and insulation in winter. Green infrastructure may also mitigate the risks from climate change-induced reductions in air and water quality. In addition, it can provide a buffer for habitats and species, whilst contributing to sustainable urban drainage and controlling upstream water flows to reduce flood risk.

"Effectively harnessed, green infrastructure also has real potential for informing people about climate change," notes Mr Dige. "Green spaces can be used to promote an appreciation of the impacts of climate change and the lifestyle changes needed to reduce its effects and/or to adapt to them."

Green infrastructure is anchored in the EU's 2020 Biodiversity Strategy. However, "it is important to recognise that it can make significant contributions to other EU policy objectives on e.g. regional and rural development, health, climate change, disaster risk management, energy, agriculture, forestry and the environment", says Mr Dige. He adds, "Green infrastructure has the potential to offer win-win solutions by tackling several problems at the same time. It is therefore a valuable policy tool to promote smart and economic sustainable growth.”

Contribution of LIFE

The LIFE programme has already made a significant contribution in the area of nature-based solutions, according to the EEA project manager, for instance by supporting connectivity of species and habitats, restoration of ecosystem functions, adaptation to climate change and building green infrastructure into urban planning.

It is difficult to calculate the benefits of such measures in monetary terms, but Mr Dige believes that LIFE project results could be consolidated and used to "showcase the multi-functional opportunities that green infrastructure provides to communities in urban settings". This would involve analysing projects to determine their quantitative benefits, for example in terms of improving water retention, air quality, noise reduction, increasing tourism and recreational opportunities, insulation of buildings (green roofs), cutting energy demand and reducing urban heat island effects. "Monetary values of these benefits would assist decision-makers and urban planners in better comparing grey and green infrastructure solutions, " he says.

There are several other areas that Mr Dige believes could be fruitful for future LIFE projects. For example, encouraging developers and urban planners to rethink conventional approaches in order to tackle increased heavy precipitation and flooding in cities. New projects could also build on the results and findings of previous ones. For instance, finding more cost-effective storm-water management strategies in cities by using green infrastructure practices (i.e. through more soil and vegetation), and investigation of whether green roofs and trees in urban streets can reduce energy costs (e.g. by providing insulation or cooling, depending on the weather conditions).

He concludes, "With mounting investments required to repair and maintain the ageing stock of grey infrastructure, and increasing environmental pressures from expanding urbanisation, ecosystem services that have been seen as free are now entering authorities' planning and management equations at town, city and regional level." Compounded by "increasing regulatory pressure to address water and air quality, the need to anticipate and adapt for localised - if yet uncertain - impacts of climate change, and the drive for economic competitiveness, all with ever more constricted finances", communities, cities and regions across Europe are increasingly assigning higher priority to nature-based solutions.

Further information on the role of green infrastructure in mitigating the impacts of weather- and climate change-related natural hazards is available in this recently released EEA report.

Source: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/life/features/2015/nat_solutions.htm