25 May 2019

In recent weeks we have been exposed to a whole series of reports and actions on the climate emergency we face [1], rapid and unprecedented declines in global biodiversity[2] and the hidden killer of air pollution that is responsible for some 4.2 million deaths annually[3] . Individually these issues are alarming but collectively they signal the need for important actions globally, nationally and locally. In my view it fundamentally demands change in how we view and use nature as a society. For too many it is seen as a luxury that can be dealt with once economic growth and other political imperatives have been achieved.  Rarely has it been, or is it, seen as critical infrastructure in the kind of places we seek to create. At the heart of this blog is the need to mainstream nature into policy and decision- making  

It is here that the ‘mainstreaming’ concept needs to be brought into sharp focus. All too often it is a term that is loosely used and falsely claimed. Mainstreaming is about taking a concept, accepted and  used in one policy area and embedding it across other policy domains within their daily priorities. For nature, this means securing improved traction and subsequent adoption in the business, housing, growth, health and community sectors associated with urban expansion where the planning system is a key driver and mediator.  This necessarily involves a cyclical process of communicating, persuading, accepting and reinforcing, before effective mainstreaming can be said to have been achieved[4].

 One important way to elevate the importance of nature in our towns and cities is through the design, development, delivery and management of green infrastructure. This is a concept that is also poorly understood and applied in policy and practice. Green infrastructure or perhaps more meaningfully,  “living infrastructure”  is a purposefully designed network of green spaces and features to deliver a range of multiple benefits. These benefits are significant and include flood protection, improving air and water quality, biodiversity, mental health and well-being, climate change mitigation and recreation.  Crucially they deliver through the connectivity of the network albeit at whatever scale; from a new housing development to a county strategic planning network   

Notwithstanding this potential for what can be seen as nature based solutions green infrastructure is not yet  mainstreamed in the planning system. We still see much research and policy investigations presenting evidence of the value and multiple benefits of green infrastructure outlined above. Indeed, there is much evidence from research councils[5][6] that green infrastructure is delivering on all these aspects, but there still remains widespread resistance to widespread adoption of this in everyday practice. Indeed, national planning policy can help shape these responses but it is clear in an English content, as seen through the lens of the NPPF[7] that this is still seen as desirable rather than essential.  In many ways, nature in general and green infrastructure in particular are still being treated as a desirable pieces of infrastructure rather than critical infrastructure for placemaking.


How do we overcome this problem where the costs of maintaining nature and green infrastructure seem to be more uppermost in most policy and decision makers minds than the benefits they actually deliver?  Fundamentally, there is a need for a change in culture in which everyone gets out of their particular disciplinary and sectoral silos/agendas and start to embrace more unifying agendas such as place-making and health and well-being. Here we have to be mindful of the risks of fetishising green infrastructure itself within its own silo; a trend that I observe in my own research and practice.

 There is no single magic bullet here but we do need to move beyond research highlighting the values and benefits that nature provides to designing delivery mechanisms that actually show what good green infrastructure looks like. To this end the Town and County Planning journal May 2019 tries to capture how we might start to do this,  illuminating successes and challenges in equal measure with a focus on tools, policy, delivery and evaluation, and unpacking the key lessons that might lead to improved mainstreaming.[8]

 This Special Issue is structured in three sections to aid a better understanding of green infrastructure’s opportunities and challenges for mainstreaming. The first explores international perspectives through lessons from Ireland and Australia, highlighting both common challenges and distinctive place-based cultural contexts that require joined up policies connecting different silos.

The second section of four articles explores how different tools assessed under the recent Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Green Infrastructure Innovation Fund can make green infrastructure work harder in built environment developments, raising the green infrastructure standards bar. The focus here is on co-developing tools in conjunction with the built environment professions to make them ‘oven ready’ but also rigorous.

Finally, there are three articles assessing how well plans, policies and programmes are mainstreaming green infrastructure to improve place-making processes and outcomes using examples of neighbourhood plans, a GI design code and the use of planning obligations.

           The papers collectively highlight exciting new pathways, and the key to unlocking them perhaps lies in bold new research programmes that build upon some of the insights and lessons gained here:

o          Develop place-based and place-keeping approaches.

o          Use existing planning tools more effectively rather than invent new ones.

o          Carry out research that involves end users from the outset and then throughout the research process.

o          Improve the strength of national and local planning policy to level the playing field (pun intended).

o          Focus on the delivery of green infrastructure in funding and long-term maintenance schemes.

o          Secure an improved communication strategy that enables green infrastructure to be embedded in wider infrastructure arguments.


[1] E.g Welsh Government https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-48093720; Wakefield Council https://uk.news.yahoo.com/wakefield-council-to-declare-climate-change-emergency-122845258.html; school strikes https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/15/uk-climate-change-strike-school-pupils-children-environment-protest

[2] IPBES https://www.ipbes.net/

[3] https://www.who.int/airpollution/en/

[4] Scott, AJ; Carter C., Hardman, M. , Grayson, N. and Slaney T (2018) Mainstreaming ecosystem science in spatial planning practice: exploiting a hybrid opportunity space Land Use Policy 70 232-246 https://mainstreaminggreeninfrastructure.com/reports/Mainstreaing%20ecossytemscience..pdf


[5] See https://mainstreaminggreeninfrastructure.com/project-page.php?NERC-science-GI

[6] See https://mainstreaminggreeninfrastructure.com/project-page.php?Other_Research_Council_UK_projects-on-green-infrastructure

[7] Scott and Hislop 2019



[8] https://www.tcpa.org.uk/mainstreaming-green-infrastructure-tcpa-special-edition-journal



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