Time for a Surge of City Greening?

When I go to a new city I try to get a run in, pretty much as soon as I’ve dropped my bags at the hotel. As well as helping to shake off that ‘urgh’ feeling from travelling it’s a great way to get to know a new place.

Last week I was in Malmö to talk about ‘green infrastructure’. Or, for those of us who don’t speak EU policy, that’s trees, parks, green roofs, gardens, rivers, ponds, and other bits of the natural environment we (hope) to find as part of our increasingly urban lives.

After checking in to the Hotel Garden (complete with rooftop garden) I started my three days in Malmö with a run through the city’s streets and its many parks.

Just a few hundred metres from the hotel the street opens up and I find myself crossing a stretch of the city’s main canal. Looking either side of the bridge I get to see a slow blur of canal, nicely framed by the adjacent walkways, roads and buildings that have clearly been carefully planned to make space for this attractive stretch of blue. From there it’s on to the Folkets Park to take in fountains, public art, children’s play areas and plenty of open green space and mature trees.

A nice warm up so far but just a short hop across the city and the main event appears. Pilldams Park is a huge green oasis in the middle of the city. A mini forest, a lake, an off-road running trail help to make up the acres of green and blue space that unfold in a mile lap around the park. Half a mile up the road it’s on to the Slotts Park and then finally back to the hotel, via another canal and a few ‘pocket parks’, just as the 10km mark ticks over.

So, inspirational stuff to begin the trip but what can the GrowGreen cities learn from Malmö? The answer comes from the city itself but also the findings of the Green Surge project, which held its final conference 21-22nd September 2017. Green Surge was a four year research project that aimed to understand better how people and nature can be better connected to help create sustainable cities. The project has placed cities at its heart, looking to move on from theoretical and pure research to build their findings on the practical experiences of the people and organisations that live and work in European cities. I won’t attempt to summarise the project here (the Green Surge website does a much better job) but I’ll share with you my three take home messages that I think can apply to GrowGreen and other cities.

1) City-level Political Leadership and Funding

‘We need to ensure that the city’s development contributes to green infrastructure and ecological systems’ are the words of Malmö’s Deputy Mayor, Andreas Schönström, in his opening address to the conference. ‘We need all levels of Government to act, but we won’t wait around for the others before we get started’ states Councillor Cathy Oke from the City of Melbourne. As a previous finalist to be European Green Capital and with Melbourne named as the world’s most liveable city for the 7th year running, its clear that both cities and their local authorities know a thing or two about creating cities that existing and new residents want to make home.

It’s also clear that in both cases the local authorities don’t achieve their ambitious levels of greening without the input from partners, nor do they underplay their own hand for that matter either. Both cities – and others analysed by Green Surge – have this in common; political leadership AND the provision of dedicated funding and other resources, combined with funding from other partners, are key to successful city greening. Many cities reading this will groan at yet another potential call on their limited resources. But when one looks at Malmo and Melbourne it’s clear that successful cities don’t see this as yet another item of expenditure; they see it as a long-term investment to create a liveable city with lower health expenditure, an increased tax base, and increased investment from businesses. When it can be used to leverage funding from national Governments, the private sector, trusts and others, political leadership and funding can be translated into real results on the ground. Not to mention support from those who keep them in power, the voters.

2) Long-term Green Infrastructure Planning and Development

Number two is another obvious one. If you don’t plan for it, how do you expect it to happen? Embedding green infrastructure as an integral part of a city’s long-term plans is a fundamental prerequisite for city greening. Each of the GrowGreen ‘Frontrunner’ cities – Manchester, Valencia, Wroclaw and Wuhan – already have green infrastructure plans in place and will be developing them further as part of the project. Brest, Modena and Zadar are looking to develop their plans for the first time.

These plans can certainly be delivered, at least in part, through new private development but there seems to be little evidence at present that a developer-led approach will achieve the level of greening that is possible, desired and indeed needed in cities. So, as well as the plans themselves, it’s key that they are brought to life through inspiring and supporting planners, developers, architects, landscape architects and other built environment professionals to play their full part. When done properly, not only can a city achieve the level of greening it needs, but so can the developers create buildings and communities that will stand out to potential buyers and tenants.

3) People Power

We can’t all be politicians and property developers. But we can all still do our bit to green our cities. The Green Surge project is bursting with examples of local people proactively playing their part to manage existing green spaces and waterways, and creating new ones. The particularly exciting thing here is that not only do community greening projects add up to make a real cumulative difference at a citywide scale, but they also show that there’s a reason for almost everybody to want to get involved.

Social cohesion, improved health, improving your house price, protection from flooding and heat stress, food growing, reduced crime and anti-social behaviour, biodiversity, and many other benefits, are among the reasons that people cite for getting involved in greening their neighbourhood.

Final thoughts

‘Green is great’. According to Green Surge’s Project Leader, Stephan Pauleit, this is the overarching view that came through from four years of talking to city residents, politicians, NGOs, policy-makers, young people, businesses, and many others. Green Surge and other projects have done a great job in proving this isn’t just an attractive strapline, rather that it’s now an increasingly common statement of fact.

We know that green infrastructure delivers much-needed health, social, environmental and economic benefits in our cities. And we know that European cities are already making themselves more successful because of it. Our challenge now is to build on this knowledge and make widespread city greening the way we do things in cities. From political manifestos, to private development, to local communities, there are many examples that show how every single person and organisation in a city can play their part.

So, from a surge of green, from showing what’s possible, it’s time for the EU’s next phase on green infrastructure, it’s time for our cities to grow green and to become the attractive, liveable, and healthy places we all want them to be.

Jonny Sadler
GrowGreen Project Manager & Manchester Climate Change Agency Programme Director.