Lunch debate: Green infrastructure – is the property industry on board?
As North West cities continue to expand at a rapid rate with increasingly ambitious commercial schemes, the issue of incorporating green space into these projects is as pertinent as ever. Move Commercial brings together a panel of experts to discuss the importance of green infrastructure and how on board the property industry really is with the idea.
Curated by Lawrence Saunders
James Sidlow project director, Allied London
Alex Solk partner, Sheppard Robson Architects
Tom Armour director and landscape architecture leader, Arup
Dr Gina Cavan senior lecturer in geographic information system and climate, Manchester Metropolitan University
How important is the development of green infrastructure to the future prosperity of North West cities?
TA: It’s essential. It’s fundamental if we’re going to create healthier cities. We need green infrastructure as an essential component and we need to think of it in the same way that we design and plan water, energy, waste and transport. If you read all the research it tells you that linking people to nature is not only beneficial psychologically but we can also build in climate change resilience. The traditional ways of doing things can be much cheaper if you utilise green infrastructure instead. The car has dominated many cities and now we have to fight back and create cities for people again. Green infrastructure is such an important part of that story.
What are the biggest benefits of green infrastructure to the people of a city?
TA: With a new development you can integrate green infrastructure within it and it’s more attractive to people – it has social and economical benefits. We can see schemes like Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, which was developed as a sort of centrepiece of that particular event, have become an economic driver for all the regeneration around them. Suddenly they provide a place for locals, and people have access to great city living because they have somewhere to go with their kids or just go out and get some fresh air and escape for a bit. Green infrastructure is essential because it’s a part of who we are as a species – we have this innate connection with nature.
AS: I think its scale or connectedness because if you take that new Queen Elizabeth Park or any of the other London parks, they’re so big you could ride a bike through them for half an hour and not hit the other side. The cities around the North West don’t have anything of that size in the city centre. What might be quite exciting as perhaps cars become driverless over the next five or 10 years is that some of these roads can become those green infrastructure routes to link green spaces together. It’s not very far to some of the South Manchester parks from [Spinningfields] but I don’t feel like I have access to them now. But perhaps we will be able to get rid of a few roads in Manchester once cars are stacked outside cities and called on demand. There are some really exciting opportunities but the city needs to grab them and plan for them now. Driverless cars are coming and if we don’t have everything planned now then we are going to miss out on another opportunity.
How can more green space be created in our cities if empty space continues to be built on at a rapid rate?
GC: It’s always economics over environment so that’s why we have such a dearth of areas which haven’t been developed on to use for parks. But this is what needs to be done. There is so much brownfield land within cities and I don’t agree with this call to develop housing on it – it needs to be turned into green space. We need to look strategically at it, understand what functions or benefits we could get if it was green, so if it’s a flood risk area or in the core of the urban heat island. We can understand all these benefits and be a lot more strategic about how we are planning our cities because at the moment it’s very site/scale and understanding the economic benefits of constructing one building in a particular place – we need to think a lot more outside of those boundaries.
AS: There are some good examples although I think commerciality will remain king for good and bad reasons for a while to come. However if you look at somewhere like Vancouver, which is a super dense city, all the towers are 20 or so stories high but they have nothing at the base of them. They have no ground floor commercial units and are sat up on columns with lovely parks which run through them. It proves that you can get a really commercial 20 or 30-storey scheme which stacks up for the developer and still includes green space. Although some of this green space is fenced off and private, a great deal of it is public, so there are certainly ways in which we can think about bringing more people into our cities and making them greener at the same time.
“There’s no incentivisation or method within UK planning policy which encourages commercial developers to integrate green infrastructure into their schemes.”
Is the property industry fully on board with the need for an increase in green infrastructure or is there still plenty more convincing to be done?
GC: The problem we have at the moment is the lack of willingness from the commercial sector to integrate green infrastructure into developments. There’s no incentivisation or method within UK planning policy which encourages commercial developers to integrate green infrastructure into their schemes.
TA: A lot of it is thinking outside your particular project. Pulling back a bit and having some strategic long-term thinking on what the city is. It’s very easy to do an individual project and to get locked into that project and the redline but we need wider thinking. The planning system doesn’t help but we also need to be better at explaining the commercial benefits of green infrastructure to developers.
AS: Manchester, for example, and Liverpool certainly to a good degree, have been great at pioneering big developments and supporting major things they want to happen in the city centre. They’ve got a track record of working with developers to regenerate big parts of the city. It proves they can do big things so if they wanted to do big things around green infrastructure they could.
GC: Sharing best practice case studies is also so important. Classically we’ve been constructing buildings from the inside and not thinking about the outside at all. We’ve been driven by the climate change mitigation agenda and trying to reduce emissions, and we haven’t thought about adaption at all. It’s a lot harder to pinpoint numbers and quantify benefits for climate change adaption, and I think that’s why it’s not being incorporated.
TA: Increasingly there is a lot of research which is telling us about the benefits but it’s not quite all joined up yet. People still see green infrastructure as something that’s nice to have – a bit of decoration if they can afford it – rather than something that’s really multifunctional and can help your city economically, socially, and in terms of climate change protection.
JS: That is shifting though – [developers] really are recognising that. I wasn’t there 20 years ago but I dare say when they produced the masterplan for Spinningfields, maybe there wasn’t the required green infrastructure. It’s certainly moved on to the point where we’re definitely acknowledging the need for it a lot more.
GC: One of the problems is that there are ambitious plans at the beginning but then as overspending happens, green infrastructure is often the first thing to be cut because it’s seen as the add-on isn’t it?
TA: I’d argue that you wouldn’t leave traffic lights out, would you? And drainage features and outfalls and these sorts of things? Think of it as essential – it’s just as important.
JS: With everything we’re doing at Allied London, whether it’s low-rise or high-rise, we’re trying to incorporate some element of green space into it but we’re working within the confines of a city and with quite small plots.
Is greater collaboration between developers required in order to make real strides with green infrastructure?
JS: What you tend to find, particularly on the edge of city centres, are pockets of development all with different developers. It’s about these developers talking to each other and making use of the space between their various redlines – you can’t confine yourself to that redline.
AS: Do we think it should be led from your side, choosing to link up with other developers, or should it be the local authority dictating on this collaboration?
GC: I think it should be a bit of both but there does need to be a national planning policy that stimulates this. In terms of strategic delivery I’m not too sure.
JS: There’s so much evidence now that it’s overwhelming. There is a lot of data explaining the net benefits for developers but it’s all very specific to a particular scheme and so that’s another excuse.
GC: It depends if the commercial developer is building a scheme and moving on, or if they have some vested interest in staying in that area and keeping hold of the property. Otherwise they probably won’t be encouraged to spend more because whoever buys it will see benefits in 20 years.
JS: It’s a difficult thing to overcome and I’m not sure how you can do that.
“It’s about developers talking to each other and making use of the space between their various redlines – you can’t confine yourself to that redline.”
GC: I think it has to come down to incentivisation. There are lots of examples, particularly in America in areas of high flood risk, where the authorities will actually pay for things like green roofs. That’s how you start off stimulating that kind of activity until it becomes the norm.
JS: I think it should carry with the sale of the building, almost like a covenant in the lease or the title, so if you buy that building there is a responsibility during the period of your ownership to do ‘X, Y and Z’.
AS: You could probably link that into planning permission so if there is a public space it needs to be maintained for a certain period of time. We have things like that in planning anyway, it just needs to become a covenant. Developers of places like [Spinningfields] and other large schemes in city centres have the opportunity to link things together but how do we make it work with one-off developments when people just build one building and disappear? It’s really, really hard.
GC: Maybe it’s about changing people’s perceptions and expectations, and once people start expecting [green infrastructure] commercial developers will need to provide it.
JS: We are shifting that way – it may be a long way off but we’re getting there. It would be great to be sitting here in 20 years time and saying we’ve copied a similar model to somewhere like Copenhagen, but you’ve got to work with what you’ve got.