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Greening infrastructure for healthier cities

Greening infrastructure for healthier cities

One of the major reasons why UGS does not get recognised in India is that different forms of green spaces are not mandated in the existing planning methodologies and documents.
Recent discussions in media and academia on the status of the Green Belt around Bangalore, in the revised Master Plan for 2031, indicate that better options for keeping adequate green components in urban systems are needed. In the mad rush for building more urban infrastructure, the importance of Urban Green Spaces (UGS) are often ignored in India´s development plans for cities. Urban Green Infrastructure (UGI) is a concept that can help a city realise its green dream in the face of the growing demand for better infrastructure. The key lies in considering various forms of urban greenery as a necessary component of infrastructure development plans, and not include it as an afterthought.

Half the world is already urbanised, and projections by the United Nations indicate that by 2050, about 66 per cent of the world´s population will live in urban areas. Cities are under increasing pressure to meet the growing demand for infrastructure that comes with increasing urbanisation. In the race for meeting these demands, cities usually emphasise on hard or grey infrastructure facilities, while ignoring the opportunity to create efficient and liveable urban spaces. UGI is an effective way to create better, liveable urban spaces, while gaining some key benefits for a city´s environmental health.

Urban Green Infrastructure & Spaces
It is commonly accepted that UGI is a network of natural and managed green or blue spaces that provide multiple benefits for people. UGS is one of the important forms of UGI, broadly including spaces like parks, community gardens, cemeteries, schoolyards, playgrounds, public seating areas, public plazas and vacant lots. These contribute towards making a city resilient by resulting in environmental benefits such as increasing carbon sequestration, improving air quality, making land-use efficient, mitigating urban heat island effects and replenishing groundwater. For example, Washington DC´s park system helped remove around 244 tonnes of air pollutants- particulate matter, carbon dioxide, oxides of Nitrogen, etc. (Harnik and Welle, Measuring the Economic Value of a City Park System, 2009).

India usually follows the standards prescribed by the World Health Organisation to measure the status of UGS in cities; 9 sq m per capita of green space. In comparison, Gandhinagar and Chandigarh are well performing cities as per the UGS standards, with per capita green space of 160 sq m and 55 sq m respectively. But unfortunately these cities are lacking in other aspects of UGI.

The economic benefits of UGS include reduced costs of hard infrastructure construction and maintenance, increased land values, reduced energy costs, increased life-cycle cost savings, etc. Philadelphia saved around $6 million by capturing storm water run-off by increasing UGS instead of using conventional grey infrastructure (Harnik and Welle, Measuring the Economic Value of a City Park System, 2009). The monetary savings, as a result of using UGS, can be diverted towards addressing more pressing needs such as provision of basic services to the urban poor. From a societal perspective, UGS promotes equity by creating better mobility conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists in the form of urban greenways, providing additional recreational spaces, and creating attractive streetscapes that enhance the liveability aspect of a city.

Unfortunately, cities in the developing world, including India, have not realised the potential benefits of UGS. One of the major reasons why UGS does not get recognised in India is because different forms of green spaces are not mandated in the existing planning methodologies and documents used in India. This is evident from an analysis of the project expenditure of flagship urban development programmes such as JNNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission). While large amounts of funds were released towards creating various urban infrastructures, very little was done for improving the diminishing green spaces in the Mission Cities. For example, in Bangalore, urban infrastructure and governance projects received `677.44 crore of investment, whereas there were no UGS-dedicated projects.

Some of the biggest challenges associated with the creation and management of UGS include land acquisition, absence of a robust cost-benefit analysis tools to quantify the social, environmental, health, and well-being benefits of UGS, maintaining safe access to UGS for local communities and inefficient distribution of green spaces resulting in lower optimisation of benefits. The implementation of UGS becomes difficult because of partially evolved standards and guidelines and budget constraints.

Green Infrastructure Solutions
A well-intentioned agency, along with a more engaged citizenry can help the development of green infrastructure in a meaningful way. There are a number of alternatives recommended by institutions such as Natural England, the US Environment Protection Agency, American Planning Association, European Commission, etc. The measures include:

Preparation of an exclusive UGI Plan for the city which provides a visionary and strategic framework for integrated development (aligned and dovetailed with other plans of the city); This will help to maintain a consistent database of existing UGI assets which can be analysed to identify gaps and opportunities
Inclusion of UGI and UGS in the various stages of the Development or Master planning processes (vision identification, compilation of database, development of policy and spatial options and implementation)
Definition of a multi-hierarchy system of UGI and UGS in terms of function, location and size, usage levels, etc.
Inclusion of UGI and UGS in the Local Area Plans of wards, neighbourhoods and communities
Adoption of ´Biodiversity offsets´ to provide compensation for biodiversity losses due to development through compensatory natural habitat expansion or restoration elsewhere Development and application of a green rating system such as the Indian Green Building Council´s Green Landscape Rating system. This is a measurement system designed for rating new and existing parks by providing certificates to help standardise green spaces.
The measures mentioned above, if contextualised to India´s urban socio-economic and regulatory ecosystem, can hopefully provide a new dimension to the way urban infrastructure and its impact on the lives of citizens are viewed, planned and perceived.

This article has been authored by Sonali Anusree Patro who is with the Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP), Bangalore.

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