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.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor. 

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.