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Greening the Street is Not Enough: What Everybody Ought to Know About Turning Cities into Landscapes

‘Can you see the big picture?’

I can imagine the scenario where this kind of question might arise.

Such as, when planners and decision-makers are developing strategies and “painting a big picture” of how green infrastructure can relieve climate change impacts, so communities can develop projects accordingly.

But painting the bigger picture often does not reach a wider audience. That is why the existing spatial recourses for ecosystem-based climate adaptation remain overlooked or underused, at the time where they are urgently needed.

Let me tell you a story that made me think about why this happens too often.

I was recently browsing through literature to write Chapter about Urban Green Infrastructure (UGI) Implementation for the Encyclopaedia of Urban and Regional Futures.

A crucial read for my topic was article from Rieke Hansen and Stephan Pauleit written in 2014. Google Scholar showed 361 citations since the publication.

As I started to procrastinate, and was scrolling down the LinkedIn rabbit hole, I stopped at a guardian article about urban green elements, titled "From garden streets to bike highways; ideas for post-COVID cities". Within one hour of sharing, the LinkedIn post had more than a thousand likes and a few hundred comments.

I will skip commenting on the omissions of this comparison and focus on one question: Why are we so passionate to green one street and plan few green roofs, and lose interest when figuring out how to establish functional, climate fighting landscapes throughout the whole cities?

Why you want to green one street - but not the whole city

The answer my lie in results of a famous Paul Slovic’s study, where the researchers showed the photo of a starving little girl to a group of potential donors and then asked for financial help. The respondents would offer a certain amount of money to donate.

When researchers showed the same picture and told another group the facts about millions of others suffering from starvation, they would give about half as much money as those who just saw one little girl.

“As the numbers grow," Mr Slovic explains, "we sort of lose the emotional connection to the people who are in need.”

This undesired disconnect between the high value we place on individual lives, or on one greened alley, and our neglect of populations or whole cities at risk, is called “compassion fade”.
This tendency has enormous implications for the development of society and the environment.
Most of all, it challenges our collective ability and willingness to confront the major social and environmental problems we face, and to apply more complex, larger scale, and long term solutions.

The one good thing about human society is that we can organize and can go beyond our personal limitations.

We can create laws, strategies, and institutional mechanisms that determinedly pursue the hard measures needed to address climate issues with UGI when our attention strays, and our narrow personal realities pull us into instant gratifications, or in apathy and inaction.

Urban green infrastructure is a complex system, not an chunk of “green” elements

General understandings about green infrastructure are mostly limited to thinking about green infrastructure elements, like green streets, roofs, parks, greenbelts, or urban gardens.

Although those “no-regret” solutions do have limited effects, like lowering the heat locally, recreation, aesthetics, cultural heritage, and food provision, they do not offer significant adaptation results when they are implemented separately.

As it is critical to fight world hunger systematically, we need to address large scale climate impacts problems, like rapidly spreading land degradation, heat islands, sea-level rise, wildfires, major floods, and droughts, in a methodical way, by planning connected instead of isolated UGI elements.

It is not enough to build a green street here, and a green patch there. We need to establish connected networks of UGI elements that function simultaneously and in synergy on individual parcels, neighborhood, city, and regional scales. Those areas should be multifunctional and integrated with other infrastructures, like built-up structures, transport infrastructure, and water management systems. Furthermore, UGI should be planned for short-term and long-term benefits while remaining adaptive for expected and unexpected changes in climate, politics, and development over time.

This kind of responsibilities go beyond the conventional methods of planning.

Not seeing the forest for the trees

The most apparent barrier to systematically implementing UGI is that green space has to compete with high land prices and increasing densities of development and urban infrastructure, which often results in squeezing nature out of our cities.

Even with that issue solved, the problem of ineffective UGI implementation resulting from the mismatch between scales of ecosystem processes on the one hand, and management scales on the other, would remain.

Several jurisdictions often exist within the city with overlapping and often uncoordinated responsibilities, and ecosystem functioning rarely aligns with administrative boundaries.

Even with that issue solved, stakeholders may have conflicting priorities yet in the same intervention areas.

For example, regional and city-level organizations have long-termed and larger scaled interests and are neglecting the potential of small scale patches and corridors in the built-up areas. Recreation, aesthetics, and cultural heritage are usually priorities in planning, design, and management of urban green spaces.

At the same time, local civic organizations and agencies are using the available space for their current and mostly short-termed needs without a broader knowledge about the whole spectrum of ecosystem services provided by UGI. They are most often interested in urban agriculture, community gardening, or home gardens.

They often oversee and understand the importance of carefully planned functional connectivity based on a knowledge of spatial interdependencies, e.g., pollination, pest control, moderation of extreme events, carbon sequestration, and storage, which are functioning and interacting simultaneously on multiple spatial scales.

That is how stakeholders can unintentionally lower the effectiveness of GI and hinder the establishment of healthy ecosystems throughout our cities.

Going beyond narrow personal and organizational realities towards effective climate solutions

To overcome those barriers for planning UGI as an effective adaptation measure, we need to bring broader perspectives of systematical implementation to decision making processes and build public support for addressing these problems.

Integrating formal and informal institutions, scientifically and locally knowledgeable stakeholders at various urban and regional scales, from diverse positions of influence and power, and various interest groups in urban ecosystem planning and management, are the most promising answers to the above described circumstances.

Such collaborative urban planning is the only way forward to move out of our narrow personal perspectives, utilize all the knowledge from various realities of ours, and enjoy the bigger, kinder picture.

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