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.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.