When thinking of building green infrastructure (sometimes interchangeably termed with nature-based solution, green network, and green spaces) - many of us might be familiar with tree boulevards, parklands, green roofs, greenways, and urban regeneration. Upscaling to a broader label that moves forward city greening like European Green Capital. And of course, urban rewilding, a form of progressive nature restoration originates from a large-scale rural rewilding focus to bring a place back to the near pre-human state.
But have we ever wondered whether our neighbourhood’s green space is as beneficial as we expected? What exactly and to what extent are the benefits gained? Could it be health? Inclusivity? Biodiversity? Climate resiliency? Economy?
Can we have them all?
In this article, we explored two paragons surrounding the greening controversy driven by climate emergencies - “biodiversity loss” and “climate inequity.” And how reversing one could impact the other.
Let's break them down one by one.
Bringing back the beaver (also lynx, wild boar, bumblebees, etc.)
Long before industrial agriculture preluding the industrial revolution, natural habitat was a less divided matrix. But even then, some wildlife was already starting to disappear. In Portugal, eurasian beavers were hunted to near-extinction around the 15th century. On an inescapable island like Britain, lynx and wild boar slipped away before the 13th century. The acceleration of biodiversity tipping point arrived when urbanisation overwrote natural habitats, leaving them in a state of small-distanced-numerous-fragmented bits separated by built-ups and arable lands. Such configuration is challenging for plants and wildlife to forage, colonise and migrate away from disturbances including the changing temperatures.
In terms of climate disasters, many cities were built in a floodplain where water inundation is a typical occurrence. Without holistic natural water conveyance (wetland and waterway), a built stormwater system capacity cannot keep up with extreme rainfalls. Water has nowhere to go but to flood a city.
Urban greening actions are increasingly aimed at restoring biodiversity loss alongside being climate responsive - a great leap away from conventional green space that serves solely for recreational purposes. Of course, there is no denying that any kind of landscape is beneficial, green infrastructure projects could fall into a trap of good old manicured-parks with limited biodiversity.
For a better endeavour, a rewilding approach is on the rise to restore self-sustaining biodiversity of diverse landscapes. It is high time for management to step back and physical human intervention (e.g. dam and weir) to be removed. In some cases translocated key species to recreate the right condition for nature to heal itself. Rewilding in urban-scape, however, adopts a less intensity due to shortage of space not to mention that releasing bears into a city can be rather alarming. The approach seeks to undo degraded natural processes, tackle climate change, and make the city cleaner and healthier by diversifying the city's landscape.
Now let’s take a look at climate inequity.
A road to hell is paved with good intentions
The nature of climate inequity is diverse. Firstly, it entails the correlation between green infrastructure deprivation, income, and ethnicity. Friends of Earth pointed out that in 2021, across the UK, “40% of people from minority ethnic backgrounds live in green space deprived areas.”
I had an opportunity to analyse an equitable distribution of the “quality” green network in Glasgow city. On top of an interesting result showing that even the COP26 venue potentially might sink in the worst-case climate scenario, the analysis also revealed the most deprived area has access to only 0.1 hectares of quality green space. The distribution did not meet a threshold for carbon sequestration, biosecurity, and flood regulation. Quite disappointing to learn that the most vulnerable city-dwellers have the most limited resources to adapt against climate risks.
Inequity can also be seen in “green gentrification” or a displacement of the vulnerable communities from their home in an effort to rebuild climate responsive infrastructure. The irony being that a road to hell is paved with good intentions, just like an urban greening can send housing costs soaring and increase property tax. The result could influx richer residents and at the same time, burden longtime residents.
Sadly, green gentrification extends to the rewilding scheme. Perceived in Scotland, rewilding alienates rural communities, threatening the economy and livestock living there. Due to industrial farming having integrated deeply within Scottish culture, dependency on arable land rendered the scheme an imposition on land being overtaken from local farmers.
The right to remain for nature or people?
Biodiversity collapse may seem like a rich countries’ problem when some poorer nations may struggle to subsidise green space, let alone those with badly-executed infrastructure who find it hard to recreate. Regardless, stopping building parks and restoring nature in vulnerable communities is not a way out. People should not have to decide between a resilience park and affordable housing.
Looking ahead, the need for rewilding is no longer a matter of debate. Despite facing some displacement challenges, city planners would still need to facilitate the displaced community's accessibility to jobs, facilities, and sense of place. Researchers suggested that in a balancing act, financial relief alone is not enough unless the public can engage in a participatory process. This makes room for discussions of the kind of green space that the resident preferred as not all green will necessarily lead to gentrification.
Rewilding could be low maintenance and sustainable in comparison to highly managed parks and gardens. Urban rewilding implies a positive chance to re-wild suitable portions within existing green infrastructure without needing to gentrify anyone or anything. The world is changing, calling for new actions. Europe is heading for intensive food production in fewer areas. People are shifting towards a sustainable lifestyle relieving lands from animal agriculture and into funded restoration. The decline of big industrialised sites liberates land in the city making way for nature distribution where green jobs could also be generated.
Even so, conventional greening and urban rewilding can work in synergy because rewilding itself is relatively new. Cities like London rely on active tree-planting and wetland creation. While some have started to hold back grass cutting regimes in parks, road verges, and private gardens, allowing wild grass and pollinators-friendly flowers to freely grow.
In my honest opinion, rewilding is not a straightforward solution to “just sustainability.” Such complexity requires a multi-dimensional consideration in planning and management. Nevertheless, we find the most resilient infrastructure in our intact nature which the efficiency is transferable for people who live afar.