Getting to grips with green infrastructure

Kerry Bobbins, researcher at the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO), was commended through the international Green Talent Awards for 2014. Bobbins was the only South African among 25 winners who presented their ideas on sustainable development to industry experts in a knowledge-sharing exercise in October 2014 in Germany.

Bobbins advocates for green infrastructure because it’s practical: “It’s all very well to learn about natural sciences, but you need to be able to look at reality,” she says. As such, one enters trade-off territory: between the interests of the environment, as well as how a range of other factors – people, politics, skills and money – interface with it.

Bobbins believes it’s important that a balance is achieved in this regard, but notes that the best way for this to happen is through a mind shift, primarily amongst those responsible for implementing this change.

This is where her work at the GCRO comes in. It provides the space for research within a policy oriented and evidence-based environment.

Bobbins notes how the green infrastructure sector in South Africa is still fairly new, and so officials who take on environmental positions have not necessarily studied in this sector. She observes that officials will say: “We want to do this, but don’t know how, or what other cities are doing.”

As such, even though local officials are able to use their experience in dealing practically with environmental problems, there is not necessarily an understanding of how green infrastructure can solve the problem.

Ecological vs green infrastructure

Green infrastructure refers to an interconnected set of natural and man-made ecological systems, green spaces, and other landscape features.

This amalgamation of green and grey infrastructure creates a permeable “soft” network of services and structures that are able to perform the same functions as “hard”, man-made infrastructure in a manner that works with the earth’s ecology.

Bobbins suggests the current state of green infrastructure in the Gauteng city-region is in its genesis, but limited in a number of ways. National government’s strategic infrastructure projects, for example, have introduced the concept of ecological infrastructure into areas of development and growth, but she notes this is often confused with green infrastructure.

It is often quite difficult for officials to get over the hurdle of ecological infrastructure because it relates to a more conventional understanding of environmental sustainability – that of conservation and restoration.

However, this limits a more holistic understanding of sustainability because it does not take into account how green infrastructure can benefit urban areas. It’s treated as a separate undertaking to urban growth.

This has negative effects on aspects such as budgeting in municipalities. Bobbins says environmental budgets are seen as an entity somewhat detached from the urban landscape. Thus, if there is a cut to a budget, the environmental budget often goes first, and “green infrastructure” continues to be seen as a solution relating more to conservation than urban growth.

This mistake in terminology also means there is a divide between departments within a municipality. An environmental department remains a separate entity with the primary purpose of conservation, and a services department continues to devise manmade solutions that could nevertheless benefit from solutions found in the natural environment.

Bobbins suggests there would be far greater buy-in of green infrastructure from a broader local authority where a professional or department, trained traditionally in grey infrastructure, were to embrace green infrastructure in their solutions as well.

Two interventions

In order to address these challenges, Bobbins, along with fellow GCRO researcher Christina Culwick, have run a series of monthly workshops since January 2014, known as Green Infrastructure CityLabs.

Bobbins describes the CityLabs as being a stakeholder-based process comprising a fairly select, focused group of 15-20 local government environmental officials.

The CityLabs will be extended to include other stakeholders, such as engineers and planners. Running concurrently with the CityLabs is the Guideline Green Infrastructure Plan (GGIP). Bobbins describes the GGIP as a mapping process, in which value is assigned to green infrastructure.

The GGIP, for example, will incorporate the Green Infrastructure and Municipal Asset Registry, an initiative of the GCRO to work with municipalities in the GCR in understanding what kind of green assets exist in the city-region, how they are being utilised, and what benefit – economic or social – can be attributed to the particular asset.

In addition, the GGIP will feature a number of investigative studies and thought-provoking concepts, which, far from being a step-by-step toolkit, aim to enable a change in mind-set.

Green infrastructure can save

Although the concept of green infrastructure is fairly new in the GCRO, Bobbins points to two case studies that demonstrate its inherent balancing abilities. In Diepsloot, a joint project between various stakeholders, including local government, the GCRO and various universities is being developed to address the poor state of stormwater management in the community.

Another example of green infrastructure is a flood relief scheme implemented in the Atlasville Spruit in Ekurhuleni. Rather than implementing a grey infrastructure solution, the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality elected to apply green infrastructure solutions to the wetland, such as widening the channel and removing the reeds. Bobbins estimates this cost R2 million less than an alternative grey infrastructure scheme.

As she points out, not only is green infrastructure a natural absorbent of unskilled labour, but it is also a cost-effective solution to problems that nature would find quite simple to fix.

The full feature appears in the April-May 2015 issue of earthworks magazine.