Report for Edinburgh City Council on the Benefits of Green Infrastructure, Including Proposed Implementation within Edinburgh City Centre
This report, produced for Edinburgh City Council, concerns the matter of green infrastructure (GI) and how it relates to urban sustainability. Its twin objectives are to highlight how GI can make beneficial contributions towards sustainability, and how said infrastructure could be utilised in the unique conditions of Edinburgh. The report will consist of two core parts:
1) ‘Making the case’, which outlines the advantages of GI, and how Edinburgh could benefit from it.
2) ‘Proposal’, in which 3 GI possibilities are presented for the council’s consideration, including existing examples and notes on implementation.
These shall be followed by a conclusion summarising the report’s primary ideas.
Within the report, the term ‘green infrastructure’ is to be defined as multifunctional green spaces that provide environmental and quality of life benefits to local communities. Such spaces are in the public realm, connected, designed for practical purposes, and provide services to their communities (Blackmore et al., 2017, p.125-126). Examples include parks, green corridors, wetland habitats, urban farms, and green roofs.
The term ‘sustainability’ equates to a successful combination of environmental stewardship, social and economic liveability, and resilience. In practical terms, this means cities and towns that maintain environmental standards across generations; meet the economic and social expectations of myriad stakeholders; and are capable of mitigating and adapting to future problems – rather than merely reacting – in order to remain functional regardless of shocks (Blackmore et al. 2017, p.45-47).
Making the Case
The modern world is increasingly bound to urban environments. Constructed upon only 2% of land mass, these hubs host 55% of the global population, consume ⅔ of the world’s energy, and produce 70% of CO2 emissions. Furthermore, their populations are growing, potentially to contain 70% of humanity by 2050 (C40 Cities, 2018; Blackmore et al, 2017, p.3). Consequently, achieving sustainable cities – those uniting liveability, resilience, and environmental stewardship – is one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, alongside ideals such as alleviating poverty (UN, 2018).
One tool in the quest for sustainability is green infrastructure (GI). Unlike ‘grey infrastructure’ (concrete, steel, etc.), GI incorporates natural elements into urban habitats in order to provide requisite lifestyle practicalities whilst maintaining (or improving) the natural environment. The benefits from well-implemented GI mirror many of the ambitions of sustainability:
– Strengthened resilience to future challenges
(e.g. cooler temperatures; cleaner air; natural flood barriers and drainage)
– Encouragement of healthy active living
(spaces for exercise; reduced stress; natural removal of pollutants)
– Enhanced living spaces
(opportunities for cultural and community activities)
– ‘Living landscapes’
(co-habitation of wildlife and people; conservation of special landscapes)
(Blackmore et al, 2017, p.127)
One common GI feature exemplifies these advantages: a tree-lined park may link two urban areas (practical infrastructure) while simultaneously acting as a flood plain (resilience); providing a community space (healthy living and enhanced living spaces); and offering wildlife habitat (living landscape). That such areas are cheaper than grey infrastructure and reduce greenhouse gases are also distinct assets.
Efficient GI can already be seen in Edinburgh in the North Edinburgh Path Network (NEPN) within the Granton district. Created predominantly upon decommissioned railway lines, this array of green corridors stretches to the fringe of downtown and incorporates the popular Water of Leith and The Shore recreation areas. These practical destinations give the NEPN functional purpose, including as a safer, cleaner alternative to the A902, while Fiveways (where five paths meet) is used for community events (ELGT, n.d.). Environmental benefits include urban wildlife habitats and regulating noise, wind, and water absorption (Blackmore et al., 2017, p128-130). Similarly, the break in grey infrastructure, combined with evapotranspiration and a coastal location, ensures Granton escapes the urban heat island effect felt in central Edinburgh, bar exceptional spots on the aforementioned A902 (Scottish Government, 2017).
The existence of the NEPN cannot be extrapolated to prove GI throughout Edinburgh. Closer investigation reveals that whilst the capital claims an impressive 49% of its land as green space (Blackmore et al., 2017, p.126), its distribution is very much peripheral. Central green space is comprised mainly of three blocks, namely The Meadows, Princes Street Gardens, and Arthur’s Seat (OS Maps, 2018), and non-traffic cycle lanes like the NEPN circumnavigate rather than enter the centre (Sustrans, 2018)
The cause of this distinct lack of central GI is historic: the preserved states of its Old Town and New Town districts. Built in the medieval era and 18th-19th centuries respectively, and both listed UNESCO heritage sites (UNESCO, 2018), these protected areas were not designed with 21st century urban challenges or sustainability in mind. Nonetheless, Scotland’s capital faces very modern problems:
– Population density:
Contains 9.5% of Scotland’s population, second only to Glasgow (NRS, 2018a).
– Population growth:
12.2% in 2006-2016, twice Scotland’s national average (The City of Edinburgh Council, 2017). It and surrounding areas expected to be top three growth areas in 2016-2026: Lothian (13.3%), East Lothian (8.6%), and Edinburgh City (7.7%) (expected national average: 3.2%) (NRS, 2018b).
– Energy consumption hotspot:
Accounts for 8.6% of Scotland’s domestic energy consumption, second highest region behind Glasgow (BEIS, 2017)
– Pollution hotspot:
Scotland’s third highest emitter of CO2, behind only Fife (home of Mossmorran NGL plant) and Glasgow (BEIS, 2018)
These pressures will elevate traffic congestion, pollution, heat islands, and anthropogenic climate change contributions, greatly undermining Edinburgh’s claim to the sustainability triumvirate of liveability, resilience, and environmental stewardship. However, the NEPN shows how GI can mitigate some of these problems while simultaneously creating practical and pleasing living conditions. Replicating this in the key downtown area is necessary for a sustainable whole, but must be done so in a manner that neither compromises history nor building conservation regulations. The question for civic leaders is, therefore, how Edinburgh can retain its historic centre and yet produce beneficial areas of green infrastructure.
The following green infrastructure proposals aim to work with central Edinburgh’s existing design, utilising retrofitting and re-purposing techniques to allow the area to maintain its distinctive character.
1) Re-purposing of underused streets to create cycle network and green corridor
Creating a city centre cycle network and connecting green spaces are two goals that can be amalgamated into a single green corridor capable of offering practical passage for pedestrians, cyclists and wildlife. A green corridor could supply ecosystem services such as air filtration and natural drainage, while removing tarmac opens space for community projects.
Singapore’s Rail Corridor (a.k.a.Green Corridor) is a practical connection across the city for citizens and a supplier of various ecosystem services.
Copenhagen’s bicycle network allows cyclists to cross the heart of the city, with lanes prominent in the traffic infrastructure.
Responsibility for routes and final ‘spadework’ lies with the council. Candidate streets should be those seldom used due to narrowness or being submissive to more popular driving thoroughfares. Examples include Candlemaker Row (paralleling Victoria Street); St Giles’ Street; and Rose Street and Thistle Street (paralleling Princes Street).
Communities will be important in shaping public acceptance, especially proponents such as cyclists and parents. Resistance is most likely from car owners and businesses requiring access. Consultation with all these stakeholders will be required, and compromises such as permitting limited access (e.g. set delivery times) and nearby parking are likely. Local GI projects should be community run. Community resistance must be recognised as a veto.
2) Reclaiming kerbside gardens in residential streets
A large amount of garden space on residential streets has been lost to paving. Returning these areas to their original purpose would create small portions of GI throughout the city. Benefits would include better urban drainage, a reduction in the heat island, better aesthetics and community pride, and space for urban gardening.
Urban dwellers in the US are endeavouring to reinvigorate dead pavement areas and ‘hellstrips’ with sidewalk gardens, verge gardens, and ‘parklets’.
Individuals and communities will facilitate this proposal, but require tools and assistance; for many, crafting a garden appears overbearing. The council and local horticultural experts must be made available to instruct on suitable vegetation, garden supply options, and aid in paving removal. Planning permission regulations should be waived for greening purposes, and public campaigns crafted to let residents know gardening is encouraged and assisted.
3) Greening of Princes Street
Currently Princes Street is entirely grey infrastructure, including 4 lanes for traffic and trams. Despite being closed to private vehicles, the volume of buses remains contentious (Bol, 2018) and the street has been described as ‘a giant bus station’ (Gehl Architects, 2010). In tandem with wider transport restructuring, Princes Street can be converted into trams-only traffic (2 lanes), with GI retail frontage (offering environmental education and community spaces), and green walls. This would produce better aesthetics for residents and tourists, thus reinvigorating high street shopping, and reduce the area’s heat island effect.
Seoul redrew the dynamic of its centre by reclaiming the Cheonggye stream that had previously become a motorway.
Achieving this project requires major transport considerations, including tram network extensions (Leith Walk, Clerk Street, Lothian Road) and remapped bus routes. Transport along Princes Street is also needed for the infirm. Reduced access would be the most likely cause of resistance.
Princes Street is the face of the capital, and local residents and businesses should be the heart of the new green area. This is best achieved by ensuring GI spaces are open to local organisations showcasing environmental and community ideas with which individuals can interact.
Green infrastructure can be a major tool in urban areas remaining functional whilst achieving sustainability. Its ability to simultaneously provide practicality and reduce environmental strain means it hits the core concepts of environmental stewardship, liveability, and resilience. In order for Edinburgh to become a sustainable city, and therefore meet the future challenges its rising population and consumption will create, it should embrace this notion.
Although the city currently has a comparatively large percentage of green space, this remains disconnected, on the outskirts, and beneath its potential. Edinburgh’s historic centre creates obstacles in adaptation, yet this report proposes that projects can be undertaken that re-imagine and re-purpose portions of downtown. However, although the council will be vital in final implementation, these projects must involve the variety of stakeholders who make Edinburgh their home if they are to succeed.
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