Investing in green infrastructure plays a bigger role in society than helping the natural environment, says a leading academic in landscape architecture and urban design, Dr Mike Harris.
“Green infrastructure is all about resilience,” says Harris, from the Faculty of the Built Environment at UNSW. “It’s about making physical and structural changes to cities that allow them to withstand shocks. The bonus is that green infrastructure improves quality of life even in the absence of these shock events.
“Investing in green infrastructure improves health outcomes for urban populations, which in turn reduces pressure on healthcare systems. That’s going to become increasingly important as the population grows and ages.”
An example of how green infrastructure benefits society is how it targets urban heat generation. An explicit purpose of many green infrastructure projects is to reduce ambient air temperature through structural plantings.
Harris says the concept of ‘resilience’ takes on greater significance when communities deal with a sudden shock, such as a global pandemic.
“People refer to motorways as ‘assets’, but in resilience terms you could think about them as ‘liabilities’, particularly in the world we live in now,” says Harris. “We’re seeing tens of billions of dollars being spent on very specific infrastructure, and multiple stakeholders relying on them to generate revenue. If something happens, such as a pandemic or an oil shock or some other crisis, it just shuts down overnight.
“There are major financial implications to that. And then you’ve got all this space that’s been carved out of the city just sitting there and can’t be used for anything else.”
This is why governments and civic groups around the world could look at investing in green infrastructure such as cycling networks to play a key role in any post COVID-19 economic stimulus package.
In Sydney, for instance, an urban policy think tank has called for the city’s Principal Bicycle Network (PBN) to be delivered in just three years rather than the proposed 36 years.
The Committee for Sydney says investing in the PBN would create more jobs per dollar spent than other forms of transport-infrastructure spending while delivering significant environmental benefits.
In its pitch to the NSW Government, the committee cited data from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials showing cycling projects deliver an average of 11 jobs per $1 million spent versus eight jobs per $1 million spent for road projects.
Harris describes the PBN as a “golden opportunity” to satisfy environmentalists while stimulating the economy.
“You’re taking cars off the road, reducing pollution and easing pressure on public transport … all while supporting jobs,” he says.