Why Are Planners Failing to Embrace Green Cities? 2

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Monday, May 2nd, 2016
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From helping to moderate localised temperatures to increasing resilience through to making our cities more attractive places to live, eat, work and socialise, the benefits of greening urban environments both around the world and in Australia are manifold.

Yet according to one study, the planning industry suffers from a number of challenges in this area. In a recently published paper, Griffith University researchers Tony Matthews and Jason Byrne along with Kadoorie Institute (Hong Kong) researcher Alex Yo concluded that spatial planners generally recognise the benefits of green infrastructure but are not always comfortable with pursuing innovation and change at an institutional level and thus had allowed past practices and decisions to hold undue influence upon current ways of operating.

Matthews says planners face a number of barriers when implementing green infrastructure into city and urban planning. For one thing, there are issues of professional education, where planners selecting modules from which to undertake continuing professional development may recognise the benefits of staying abreast of developments within this field but may nevertheless elect to focus their CPD efforts around other areas which they see as being of greater immediate relevance to their particular area of practice.

Then, there are questions about ongoing ownership and maintenance of assets along with uncertainty about what happens when things go wrong. Take, for example, cases where a developer agrees to provide green roofs on a block of new office buildings or tree planting as a form of green infrastructure. Questions surrounding not only who performs the maintenance but also who is responsible in cases where the roofs led to problems with storm water management or where the tree roots encroached upon buildings and undermined foundations can promote a sense of hesitation on the part of planners lest they unwittingly land themselves, governments or clients in hot water, Matthews says.

However, a more basic area of challenge revolves around embedded systems and practices.

“Planners work within the system and the system has a whole bunch of different elements to it and a fairly large captive personnel involved in it,” Matthews said. “Any planning system settles into a sort of a professional groove where there is a way of doing things and a way that people get used to things being done, to certain design standards and things like that being met.

“One of the problems for green infrastructure is that this level of embedded practice can actually be a barrier mainly because green infrastructure represents a departure from business as usual issues. Oftentimes, the system isn’t necessarily sure and individual planners working within the system may not necessarily be sure how to respond to that or how to reorganise processes to make provision. In situations like that, you run up against embedded practice.

“You certainly have planners within the system who understand the benefits of green infrastructure and support those benefits. But the ways of how the wheel turns can sometime make it hard for one individual or a small group of individuals to change the system.”

Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia chief executive officer Antony Sprigg broadly agrees, saying that ensuring green infrastructure is included in new infrastructure developments remains ‘a battle.’

Critical areas of challenge, Sprigg says, revolve around gaining buy-in from project stakeholders and also around life cycle ownership and maintenance of the asset in question. Maintenance, he says, is the elephant in the room as this may require investment not just in monitoring but also potentially in new technology and training.

Financial supporters of transport projects wishing to include green infrastructure solutions as part of broader urban solutions, for example, are unlikely to proceed with these solutions amid fears of being left with a stranded asset in cases where council (who will maintain the asset) indicates that it does not have the budget, personnel or skills to get on board.

Jorge Chapa, executive director – market transformation of the Green Building Council of Australia is more optimistic. Pointing to greening plans of cities such as Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, Chapa says understanding of and commitment to green cities amongst the planning sector was strong. Whilst acknowledging that ensuring that planning rules in outer urban areas do not limit or discourage green infrastructure is an area of challenge, he says data about the social impact of green infrastructure was becoming more readily available and that awareness about this value was growing amongst developers.

“I don’t think Australia can be faulted for not having green infrastructure the way other cities in the world do,” Chapa said (meaning that Australia is doing relatively well in this area).

In terms of what can be done going forward, Matthews says overseas experience demonstrates the value in having a significant model project from which lessons can derived not just in terms of technical design and construction elements but also in terms of impact upon property values, biodiversity and social effects and benefits. Drawing on the experience of Toronto with its city-wide green roof strategy, he said the value of efforts being driven from the top cannot be understated, and said Australia now has an excellent window of opportunity given Turnbull government commitments in this area.

Sprigg, meanwhile, talks about the need to value green infrastructure over its whole lifespan. He says benefits of ecosystem services, cleaning up the air and soft engineering water flow solutions associated with different options can be valued so as to enable informed assessments of the specific benefits of different options over their life cycle compared with the costs involved.

Throughout the world and in Australia, the value of green cities and infrastructure cannot be understated.

Realising those benefits will require effort across a number of areas.

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  1. Iain Lonsdale

    It’s a nicely considered current topic and the issues for sure are real, what I’m disinclined to agree with however is that it unfairly portrays ‘planners’, at least when viewed in the colloquial sense of that term being a reference to ‘town / land-use planners’. As a planner of nearly 20 years I can relate to the issues and barriers’, but what I can’t relate to is the notion that planners are the ‘brokers’ of change in this space, and the current slow rate of progress is somehow attributed to their lack of training or expertise; or even passion and conviction, and the suggestion that of itself it is one of the greatest barriers to greening our cities and buildings. Undoubtedly there would be an element of this at play, yet it is a far cry from portraying an accurate account of what really occurs for many planners. The veil of politics and legislative-policy, which often masquerades as championing sustainable urban design and building practice, needs to be lifted so that the ‘real’ obstacles can be readily exposed and observed; and it needs to occur concurrently with an analysis of the interplay that occurs between the various stakeholders, professions, asset managers and developers, which is essential to properly understand the complexity and restraint on the ‘planners’ ability to even write an implementable policy on ‘greening, let alone deliver it through on-ground works. If viewed in this way it would be seen that to be more reflective of the key professions involved in driving and delivering ‘green’ outcomes the term “planners”, as used in the context of this article, is more accurately a reference to ‘architects’, ‘engineers’, ‘government’, ‘developers’, among others, with an ambit wide enough to capture commentators of urban development / place. I think the point that also needs to be made, one touched on in the article, is that ‘planners’ generally have not created any substantive barriers to the greening of buildings or cities, especially through their policy. At a local government level at least it is funding the transformation of public/civic spaces and buildings that is problematic and which places restraints on cultural attitude to sustainable practice, as much as the practice itself; a matter that is arguably compounded by Australians’ general unwillingness to pay for benefits that are perceived to be ‘public’ not ‘private’ or ‘personal’; a perception or attitude that has some pliable relevance to describing the view held by many in the development sector and who would otherwise have the ability to lead change. I think to be current if not relevant any exposé of the Achilles-heel or frailties of ‘planners’ per se, or their policies, needs to be balanced by giving due light to those other ‘players’ and by acknowledging the true vulnerability of success in this space arising from three fundamental ingredients: a lack of awareness of the holistic nature of the issue; failure to identify the intrinsic drivers, including the ‘players’; and the failure to recognise the differences and separation between; responsibility, obligation, and simply doing what is right. It is true that the ‘wheels that turn’ frequently make it hard for one individual or a small group of individuals to change the system, my point ultimately being the pervasive nature of reporting incompletely land-use planning / development issues does not in any way help those wheels turn any quicker, and it certainly doesn’t illuminate the point source of the problem.

    • Michael Whitbread

      I agree with Ian's perceptive comments. As a planner with 20 plus years experience i'd like to say the less savory and short term thinkers in the development industry are always out to maximize profits. There is a culture of money first and everything else last in some sectors. What is worse is the market rewards even mediocre developers and they learn what pays and it forms some pretty nasty habits. The article should have spent more time on the positive benefits, including the economic one to developers of green cities. As an industry journal a mirror would have helped rather than looking to blame only one element in the development industry. I am yet to see the power accorded to planners in these types of critiques.