London: The future is as green as we want it to be

Adam Cambridge | 31 Mar 2016 | Comments

The Greater London Authority (GLA) has stated within its London Infrastructure Plan that an additional 9000ha of accessible green space is required by 2050 in order to maintain today’s standards of Green Infrastructure (GI) provision in relation to the city’s population. A requirement that Atkins’ recently published Future Proofing London report supports, recognising that this will improve the liveability of London, thereby supporting businesses, property developers, infrastructure providers, and maintaining London’s global competitiveness.

Those working within the sphere of environmental urban design will know, however, that while commitments such as this should be admired and continually incorporated into infrastructure investment proposals, actual implementation and delivery in industry has been broadly lacking.

So what’s stopping us?

As with many water and environmental issues I believe the problem inconveniently lies with people and the ability to leverage funding to re-design a more liveable city space, or of course ensure it’s designed properly in the first place, as I’ve outlined in my previous Angles articles. However, this isn’t necessarily true when you consider our counterparts in North America and Australia where Victorian design procedures are being revised from a dig, bury, and convey it as soon as possible approach, to one where we store, re-use, and infiltrate our greatest resource, water. The schemes being delivered more widespread in these areas of our globe are vindication that these alternative systems are beneficial and should be encouraged. And perhaps that’s the issue in the UK, we have been encouraging their use rather than actually implementing them.

Some in industry and academia will argue that the brakes on implementation have been put on as a result of failing to enact particular aspects of the Flood and Water Management Act (2010). Yet few seem to remember that this piece of legislation was born out of the 2007 summer floods when intense rainfalls were coupled with unusually saturated soils, so if more GI were in place, they would only have ever been able to intercept and infiltrate a bit more. We, however, innately know that such schemes would have provided so many benefits around the ability to restore water quality and resource following the floods, as well as provide benefits in health, wellbeing, and community resilience right up to date, it’s just that we haven’t holistically valued this. I am not implying that legislation isn’t required, but rather that we have been setting the goal posts up for GI implementation using pre-recessional systems when so much has changed in the economic and technological climate.

Another aspect that is holding us back from a framework that moves from encouragement to implementation is, well, us, as there are some great examples of where GI is being implemented in the UK. This is being stimulated in part because of needing to deliver efficiencies in the current economic climate, but also because the people involved are able to disentangle themselves from the legislative and financial game and really focus on delivering positive long term outcomes. So, we can deliver change, it just requires the right approach and the right people.

So how do we move forward?

More funding – yes, but this is unlikely given the current economic climate.

More design guidance – not really, we already have quite a lot of that.

Making delivery more efficient – ah yes, but so long as policies are flexible and can allow the community to co-create these spaces, as efficiency can sometimes lead to unnecessary amounts of unattractive concrete.

More legislation – it may help, but looking at the impact UBER has had on taxis worldwide do we need it?  

For Atkins part of the solution is to re-wire the valuation techniques by undertaking research into how mobile big data analytics can be used to understand the impact of infrastructure investment on people, really valuing green space like our work at Camley Street, and to setup a Green Infrastructure Implementation Group.  Techniques and approaches that build on our Sustainable Drainage System Studio and Flood DamaGIS tools that spatially screen and evaluate measures, but importantly, with the people that can make it happen.

Our future infrastructure is as green as we want to be, so disarm the barriers and follow suit if you do really want it.