17 Nov 2017

Do too many green infrastructure tools spoil delivery?

It has been 2 months now since I started my NERC knowledge exchange fellowship journey and in that time, I have spoken with several researchers leading NERC science projects involving green infrastructure. I have met with several agencies charged with developing policy and those engaged in delivery. I have given keynotes sessions at 3 conferences/workshops associated with green infrastructure and natural capital (Green Infrastructure Partnership 11th October; Valuing Nature Network 19th October and Ecosystem Knowledge Network Housing infrastructure and natural capital 30th October).

At these meetings and events there is a common theme emerging from those involved in delivering green infrastructure concerning the bewildering choice of tools to use in this area and a lack of information on which tools are best suited for particular tasks and which bundle can work effectively together. Consequently, there is an appetite for some kind of tool benchmark that might indicate to a potential user that the tool is fit for the purpose it is intended for and can therefore be used with confidence.

The problem of tool proliferation is exacerbated when talking to academics involved in research as it seems in today’s competitive research environment the push for innovation and impact involves the development of a new tool or toolkit to help those in policy and practice deliver better outcomes. Indeed, within my own fellowship one of my goals is to produce a web portal toolkit!

There is a further issue arising in that in some of these research projects the policy and practice communities are not always involved in the co-design and testing of such tools and there are important issues of whether the data and tools that are generated can fit into the existing systems that drive policy and decisions. Interestingly councillors and planners do not feature in a lot of the projects yet will be key to successful delivery.

This suggests to me that we need to look more carefully at working with the existing tools that are actually used in policy and practice by key target audiences before automatically seeking to create new ones. This further proliferation of tools may only serve to further alienate and confuse those in practice. The consequences are serious as from my discussions there is emerging evidence that those in practice are developing their own bespoke tools for their own needs; sometimes with academics but sometimes not. It is here that research and consultancy merge as there are exciting tools that have been developed by consultants that also are extremely important when looking at mainstreaming green infrastructure[1].

It is notable that there is no research actually looking at this proliferation of tools directly. There is a NERC project building with nature[2] that provides a benchmark for assessing what good green infrastructure looks like and there is some potential here to extend this to perhaps consider developing a benchmark for accrediting tools but this would be a new project. Indeed there are wider questions over how the 14 NERC green infrastructure tools[3] connect and can share emerging evidence. Furthermore, there are key questions about building better connections between the research that is out there and how those in practice can engage with those projects as in my view research fish[4] is not fit for such purposes from the point of view of practice communities. This gap needs to be urgently filled to help connect those in practice with the research that is going on.

For me this disconnect all represents good news however! As a NERC knowledge exchange fellow I have a key role in identifying such disconnects and feeding back up the academic research chain how research can be better translated to help those in practice. The need for a tool benchmark seems pretty compelling thus far as we are not in the business of favouring one tool from all those out there, but what we do need is to ensure that those people out there can use a tool that is robust and able to stand scrutiny. Furthermore, there is no single magic bullet tool that does everything for green infrastructure; rather the challenges require the identification of the right bundle of tools and it strikes me there is a signposting role here which is again absent from research.      

I hope these thoughts might encourage researchers to revisit their own pathways to impact ideas and perhaps connect more directly with those in planning and delivering green infrastructure and perhaps more importantly those involved in the wider placemaking processes where green infrastructure is all too often overlooked.

This raises my final concern that at present a lot of this work is predicated on a voluntary desire to deliver quality green infrastructure rather than any statutory basis. This limits mainstreaming potential. It is hoped that the forthcoming HM Government 25 year environment plan, might require a net gain in developments which will then help the use of the green infrastructure tools currently being developed. Without this regulatory push I fear that the current approach will often be trumped by statutory requirements.

Of course we must all remember that the greatest tool in the mix is us. Our own skills in negotiation, communication and motivation are key to unlocking the mainstreaming challenge.  Green infrastructure is an interdisciplinary challenge requiring people to work outside their silos. That is outside our comfort zones which is both exciting and uncomfortable.



[1] For example the Mersey Forest tool within a wider EU project http://www.gift-t.eu/ and Environment Management Systems Aberystwyth http://www.envsys.co.uk/sence/

[2] https://www.buildingwithnature.org.uk/

[3] https://mainstreaminggreeninfrastructure.com/reports/NERC%20GI%20Innovation%20Review%20-%20Project%20Thumbnails.pdf

[4] https://www.researchfish.net/



All comments are greatly appreciated - please help mainstream green infrastructure by adding to the conversation.

eftec undertook a study for Natural England (2013) in which various (~16) GI valutaion tools were assessed in terms of their robustness and adherence to the principles of scientific and economic analysis, and applicability to the UK. Recommendations and caveats of each are detailed, and links to guidance is also included. Although a few years old now, it should be noted as a useful resource.

The study is published and available here: http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/6264318517575680

By: Erin Gianferrara at: 22 Nov 2017, 08:27:57

Our NERC project 'Tools for planning and evaluating urban green infrastructure: Bicester and beyond' is not creating new tools - instead we are looking at the range of existing tools and testing them to see how they can be applied in practice. We hope to compile a toolkit of fit-for-purpose tools for urban planning contexts. We have noticed that many tools never achieve their ful potential due to lack of follow-on funding to complete their development and provide ongoing maintenance and support. As a result there are lots of half-developed or unusable tools which cause confusion for users. Maybe there is scope for some research council funding to tackle this problem by maximising the value of existing tools, rather than focusing mainly on 'novel' approaches?

By: Alison Smith at: 09 Mar 2018, 02:51:05