Green infrastructure can cool our cities. So what are planners waiting for?

A living wall in action: Patrick Blanc's "Trussardi Cafe: Unexpected Garden" on display in Milan in 2008. Image: Getty.

Our cities are getting hotter, more crowded and noisier. Climate change is bringing more heatwaves, placing pressure on human health, urban amenity, productivity and infrastructure.

Urban residents naturally want to stay cool. Air conditioning is the usual choice, but it can be expensive to run. Air conditioning also adds carbon pollution, creates noise and can make outdoor spaces hotter.

So what else can we do to manage increasing urban heat? And who has the ability to act?

Urban planners are increasingly involved in developing and delivering urban greening strategies. While it seems like a “no brainer” to green cities, our international research shows that planners are not always comfortable with this idea.

However, green infrastructure – including street trees, green roofs, vegetated surfaces and green walls – is emerging as a viable way to help cities adapt to increased heat. Uptake of these technologies is slowly increasing in many cities around the world.

Green walls cooling a building in Singapore. Image: Tony Matthews.

The Australian government has recognised this trend. An agenda to green Australia’s cities is now in place. Stated aims include managing climate change impacts, reducing urban heat, improving urban well-being and increasing environmental performance.

This urban greening agenda is part of the Clean Air &Urban Landscapes hub, under the National Environmental Science Program.

Benefits of urban greening

The broadening appeal of green infrastructure is helped by the fact it offers multiple benefits.

For example, shading from strategically placed street trees can lower surrounding temperatures by up to 6℃, or up to 20℃ over roads. Green roofs and walls can naturally cool buildings, substantially lowering demand for air conditioning. Green infrastructure can also provide habitat for wildlife, recreational opportunities for people, better management of stormwater runoff and improved urban aesthetics.

Street trees and green walls helping to reduce urban temperatures. Image: Tony Matthews.

Hard surfacing, including concrete, asphalt and stone, is common in cities. It can increase urban temperatures by absorbing heat and radiating it back into the air. Green infrastructure can minimise this difficulty, as it better regulates ambient air temperatures. Foliage allows local cooling through evapotranspiration, where plants release water vapour into the surrounding atmosphere.

Why planners are cautious

Our research examined urban planners' attitudes towards green infrastructure use in Australia, England and Ireland. We found that planners are broadly aware of green infrastructure as an urban intervention. They understand its use, application and capacity to provide multiple benefits, especially in terms of managing urban heat.

The planners we interviewed, while recognising the potential value of green infrastructure, strongly cautioned that delivering the technology can be an uncertain process. The biggest barrier cited was that planning departments are not experienced with green infrastructure.

Put simply, they tend to avoid it because it has not traditionally featured on planning agendas. Like any new planning endeavour, green infrastructure can create institutional, legal, economic, social and environmental challenges.


Some of the biophysical challenges associated with green infrastructure delivery are novel. Choosing appropriate forms of vegetation, for example, may be difficult. Decisions must be made based on prevailing climactic conditions, drainage capacity and species growth patterns.

Will root systems damage buildings or underground utility networks? Might trees topple during storms and damage houses? Are roofs strong enough to support a rooftop garden? Planners may not be able to answer these questions, which creates a need for external experts to advise them.

Our findings also highlight socio-political factors as barriers. These include governance concerns such as the political context in which planning decisions are made.

Management issues also feature. Chief among these are government commitments to budget for green infrastructure delivery and management.

Planners are also wary of public involvement. They know that public sentiment about green infrastructure can be influenced by perceptions of modified access, changed use, or loss.

What can be done?

The urgency for providing urban green infrastructure increases as climate change makes our cities hotter. Our research suggests the principal task for planners is to overcome embedded practices and to accept green infrastructure as an emerging but permanent urban feature.

This will not be easy. For example, a decision to use a road easement for green infrastructure may require multiple meetings with other government departments, utility companies and residents. Planners will need to coordinate these, manage stakeholder expectations and ensure cost sharing where necessary.Legal, economic, social and environmental issues will require innovative solutions.

Planners will increasingly be tasked to deliver green infrastructure in cities. They will need to be clear on its value, be prepared to lead its delivery and learn from new challenges and solutions encountered along the way.

But urban residents all over the world stand to benefit if planners can successfully meet this challenge – particularly as hotter temperatures threaten urban comfort and habitability.The Conversation

Tony Matthews is a lecturer in urban & environmental planning, and Jason Byrne an associate professor in environmental planning, at Griffith University, Queensland.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.