Investing in blue-green infrastructure – the time is now

Peter Massini, Lead – Green Infrastructure, Greater London Authority discusses why a greener urban environment is essential for growing cities. 

In 1830, in most major cities in the UK, four in ten people died before the age of twenty-one. In 1833, a Select Committee of Public Walks was established to explore ways to combat this by encouraging ‘the healthful exercise of the population’. Parliamentarians and social-reformers alike recognising that ‘the poorer class are deprived of free draughts of vital air’. The death-rate was bad news for those suffering in the city slums, but bad news for the economy too. Soon after, the great era of Victorian park-building had begun. 

Zoom forward almost two hundred years and the need for blue-green infrastructure to help combat public health crises is as important as ever. Urban parks were a lifeline during lockdown, not only because they provided places for exercise, but they were places for socially-distanced social interaction too. 

The impact of COVID-19 has given a sharper focus to why a greener urban environment is essential as our cities grow. But the other drivers are just as important too. There are no vaccines to inoculate ourselves against the impacts of climate change and ecological decay. 

Creating extensive new parks (where the opportunity arises) is part of the solution. But in the compact ‘15-minute cities’ envisaged as part of the green recovery, public realm will need to be more connected and multi-layered. To ensure everyone experiences some of the benefits of a greener environment in urban centres (which are still likely to grow albeit in a more decentralised way despite the impact of the pandemic) embedding more blue-green infrastructure into the very fabric of the city must become the norm rather than the exception - or mainstreaming green infrastructure as argued by Professor Alister Scott. 

That is why the Urban Greening Factor is being introduced in the new London Plan. Sitting alongside a wider policy framework that protects existing parks and open spaces (including nature conservation sites) the aim is to ensure all new developments contribute to making London greener in ways that aren’t mere adornment but provide tangible benefits to residents and local communities – green roofs, nature-based sustainable drainage, pocket parks and street trees that are designed to address local needs (urban heat or poor air quality, for example) and promote aspects of healthy living such as active travel and contact with nature.

The concept of blue-green infrastructure has gained momentum and support over the past 10 years, but investment is this vital infrastructure has fallen below expectations. Why? Perhaps, for many decision-takers, blue-green infrastructure is still considered to be a solution for future problems and, therefore, for future consideration. COVID -19 has demonstrated that the future might be closer than we think and , therefore, the time to invest is now. 
In June, the Prime Minister announced a new Infrastructure Delivery Taskforce, named ‘Project Speed’ to bring forward proposals to deliver government’s public investment projects more strategically and efficiently and to build back better, build back greener, build back faster. What better solution than accelerating investment in blue-green infrastructure?