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From grey to green: how green infrastructure is changing our towns and cities

From grey to green: how green infrastructure is changing our towns and cities

They paved paradise to put up a parking lot, sang Joni Mitchell in 1970.

That famous lament about the smothering of nature under a creeping blanket of concrete and tarmac, has resonated with city dwellers ever since.

The loss of green space over many years, policy-makers now recognise, has been bad for people’s physical and mental health, destroyed communities of plants and animals, discouraged cycling and walking, and greatly increased the pressure on drainage and sewer systems.

Marginalising nature hasn’t worked and so public agencies have been getting together with community groups, not just to reclaim nature but to make it part of the solution to a host of ills.

“Green infrastructure”, its advocates say, can change Scotland’s towns and cities for the better.

Green infrastructure is defined by NatureScot (the new name for Scottish Natural Heritage) as “the green and blue features of natural and built environments and the connections between them that provide benefits for people and nature”.

For “green”, think parks, woods, trees, play spaces, allotments, swales, cemeteries, hedges, verges, gardens and even green roofs (roofs that are partially or completely covered with vegetation).

For “blue”, think rivers, lochs, wetlands, burns, canals, ponds but also sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) and porous paving (allowing water to soak into the ground rather than being funnelled into sewers that can quickly become overwhelmed). Flood prevention is a major part of the green infrastructure vision at a time when extreme weather caused by climate change is a growing threat.

Add in paths, cycleways, towpaths and river corridors, the connecting tissue between and through areas of green infrastructure, and the direction of travel is clear: to say goodbye to grey concrete deserts and derelict land, and create more natural and sustainable places.

Involving local people and community groups in developing projects is central to the ethos of green infrastructure.

One example of it can be found in Glasgow, where the land around Europe’s only “smart canal” (the Forth-Clyde) has become a focus for development.

The Claypits Local Nature Reserve Project, next to the canal, is Glasgow’s only inner city nature reserve and is set to fully open in the spring. This project is funded by 17 different grants from five major funders, including the NatureScot’s Green Infrastructure Fund which uses European Regional Development Fund money.

It’s home to many species of bird, including peregrine falcons and white throated warblers, and a population of around 15 roe deer. The reserve sits on former industrial land once used to extract clay for lining the canal. 

Scottish Canals have worked with Friends of Possilpark, Greenspace and Glasgow City Council on the project and it is now overseen by a management group of local people.

Robert Alston, vice chairman the group, has lived in the area for 40 years and for most of them has seen the land lie derelict. “It was used as a dumping ground for years,” he says. “The only people that used it all those years were pigeon fanciers.” 

But local people had a vision for the site, to turn it into a tranquil space in which wildlife could thrive and where locals could get out into nature, as well as linking together adjacent communities with foot bridges over the canal. 

“We are anticipating that it will get visitors [from outside the area], and that’s great, but we’re more interested in the people who live around it, our neighbours,” says Alston.

Only the canal side path is open as yet with another path due to open in March, but it has already become a major resource for the 13,000 households living within 10 minutes of it.

These are areas designated within the top 5-15 per cent in the Scottish  Index of Multiple Deprivation. 

We’re a nature reserve and we’re a 45 minute walk from Sauchiehall Street. You couldn’t get closer to the city but here you are in a nature reserve and it’s quiet

Previously when Alston walked near the canal he wouldn’t see anyone but since the canal path opened, families and people of all ages have been flocking to the area. “Every time you walk along, people are walking, running, they’re pushing prams; I haven’t heard a negative comment yet,” he says. “Kids are loving it, going along on their scooters and their bikes. People say ‘this is fantastic’. 

“We have younger people coming up and saying they’d like to help out. And we’ve got people on both sides of the canal meeting for the first time.

“We’re a nature reserve and we’re a 45 minute walk from Sauchiehall Street. You couldn’t get closer to the city but here you are in a nature reserve and it’s quiet.”

The Claypits reserve is one of several sites to feature a SuDS, using the Forth-Clyde “smart canal”. The innovative smart canal project is a collaboration between Scottish Canals, Scottish Water and Glasgow City Council. Sensor and predictive weather technology is being used to give warning of heavy rainfall and then the level of the canal is automatically lowered to create extra capacity – up to 22 Olympic swimming pools’ worth. This keeps rainwater out of the sewer system and helps prevent it from backing up into homes, onto roads and into rivers.

At the reserve, the rainwater will run down the hill in streams into a pond which will then drain slowly into the canal.

The committee has fought to have a children’s play area incorporated into the plan for the reserve, with the hope that children will not just play on the equipment but enjoy exploring more widely in the wild land. Once the reserve fully opens, local schoolchildren will be invited to plant trees.

With green infrastructure, the key term is ‘multifunctional’, says Martin Faulkner, project and funding officer for green infrastructure at NatureScot. As well as promoting biodiversity, improved physical and mental health, allowing children to connect with nature, promoting active travel, easing pressure on the sewer system and providing more opportunities for people to grow food, green infrastructure also contributes to urban cooling and helps reduce particulate pollution, especially where trees form a barrier between roads and foot paths.

Retrofitting green infrastructure can be labour intensive and Faulkner believes it can help create jobs as part of the green recovery. He is encouraged by the enthusiasm for green infrastructure and so-called nature-based solutions as the Scottish Government seeks ideas from the public in forming its National Planning Framework 4, its 30-year infrastructure and development plan. But he notes “it’s not in the bag” yet that governments will always go for green infrastructure in future.

Dawn Lochhead, flooding resilience manager for Scottish Water, says green infrastructure will be “critical” in the years ahead.

Scottish Water published its 25-year strategic plan in February, outlining the impact of climate change and showing how it cut carbon emissions to net zero. It has pledged to make Scotland’s water and wastewater systems more resilient to the effects of climate change.

Sustainable drainage systems will be an important part of achieving its aims.

“The sewerage network has a finite capacity. We have to have different combinations of ways to deal with rainwater,” says Lochhead.

Scotland’s sewer network is around 150 years old, largely of Victorian construction, and has been added to over the years. But the increase in rainfall caused by climate change – particularly when there are sharp, intense rain storms – combined with increasing housing and commercial developments and the laying of patios and driveways, has meant less opportunity for water to soak away naturally and more of it being funnelled into sewers.

“The projections are for longer drier periods but with very sharp storms,” says Lochhead. “That intensity is something that is very hard for a road gully or sewer network to manage.

“We’re not flipping from one type of network to another one, but have them all working together.” Pipes and tanks will still be built, but will in future be combined with SuDS. This will mean large scale projects like the smart canal but Lochhead also stresses the importance of “smaller things” like water butts, bog gardens and raingardens.

“These are all things that people can do to improve the resilience of their communities. 

“It means we’re not pumping clean water – rain water – around the system, expending carbon emissions.”

Raingardens are planted areas designed to capture rainwater running off hard surfaces and slowly release it into the drainage system. They help prevent flooding, protect waterways and provide homes for wildlife. A campaign, 10,000 Raingardens, is being run by a number of government and charity partners in Scotland to encourage the use of raingardens.

“Instead of a large stream going into the sewers, you get a small trickle,” says Faulkner, who has a raingarden of his own, directing rain from his roof into his garden to soak away. “Plants will suck up the water and transpire it or it will evaporate.”

Scottish Water has a Storm Water Strategy that it sums up as follows: “No more surface water in, and what’s in out.” The first part means no new surface water should enter the sewer system. This has been the company’s focus over the last two years and has involved working with developers, landowners, architects and designers to encourage them to put in SuDS. 

The other prong of the strategy is to remove surface water from the system, which involves working with road developers, maintenance departments and others. “That’s a cultural and behaviour change, a mindset change, and that’s sometimes harder,” says Lochhead. Doing this work involves piggybacking on other work being done, such as road redevelopments, and building things like marshy swales or ponds by roads.

You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone, sang Mitchell. After years of being pushed to the margins, nature’s finally coming back. 

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