A national benchmark for green infrastructure

Lead Research Organisation: University of the West of England
Department Name: Faculty of Environment and Technology

Abstract

Green infrastructure (GI) is recognised globally as an essential component of liveable and sustainable places. It is generally defined as encompassing most vegetated elements in the built environment, for example trees, shrubs, wetlands and other planting. It is widely acknowledged that GI provides numerous benefits to health and well-being and there is a substantial body of research demonstrating these benefits. Despite this there is still considerable uncertainty amongst the multiple stakeholders of 'what good GI is'. Currently, there is no overarching benchmark or standard for GI. This Innovation Fund will address this by developing a national benchmark for GI.

The Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments at the University of the West of England, Bristol are already developing a local benchmark for GI with the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership. This benchmark is, however, focussed on local priorities in Gloucestershire and the West of England. This Innovation Fund will expand the local benchmark to ensure it can be used across England in a wider range of GI initiatives.

This benchmark will allow an assessment of the process of GI creation, from policy, through to planning, design, delivery and long-term management, ensuring that current good practice has been adopted at all stages. The stakeholders, or end-users, for the national benchmark include planners, property developers, ecologists, urban designers, landscape architects, engineers, public health professionals, urban foresters, community safety officers and maintenance contractors.

The objectives are as follows:
- To work with a range of end-users to expand the local benchmark into a national benchmark and ensure that it is fit-for-purpose and user-friendly.
- To apply this national benchmark to a series of GI demonstration projects including new commercial and residential developments and retrofitting initiatives across England to demonstrate its effectiveness.

The national benchmark will then be formally launched and made available online for anyone to use for free. User documentation and reports detailing the demonstration projects will be available on a website for the benchmark.

The outcome of the Innovation Fund is ultimately the delivery of high quality GI. This will maximise the benefits provided by GI including to nature conservation, health and well-being, economic growth, climate change adaptation and resilience.

The key impacts include:

Allowing developers to demonstrate to planning authorities, stakeholders and customers that they are providing high quality GI, which will act as a selling point for their developments.

Enabling local authorities to communicate their expectations for GI in new developments and retrofitting projects (e.g. of social housing) and its maintenance; easily identify those planning applications that are meeting their requirements for the GI elements of developments; and demonstrate the quality of their own GI assets.

Allowing built environment consultants to demonstrate compliance with a respected and recognised benchmark to their clients.
Enabling policy makers to develop more effective policies, by being able to specify their expectations for GI at a national and local level in a range of contexts. This will improve clarity on the requirements for GI.

Benefit residents and communities in both new and existing neighbourhoods who will gain from the provision of high quality GI and the associated benefits. This will ultimately improve, for example, their quality of life, health and well-being, environmental quality, resilience to climate change and the local economy.

Benefit broader society which will have more consistent access to high quality GI and the associated positive outcomes from this including, for example, improved population health and well-being, inward investment, biodiversity, climate change adaptation and environmental justice.

Planned Impact

The outcome of the Innovation Fund is ultimately the delivery of high quality, multi-functional GI. This in itself has beneficial outcomes related to the ecosystem services provided by GI including to nature conservation, health and well-being, economic growth, climate change adaptation and resilience. Specifically this Innovation Fund will:

- Improve the quality of GI through the provision of a robust, evidence-based benchmark that will create a shared understanding of 'what good GI is' across the multiple end-users involved with GI policy, planning, design and delivery raising the standard and expectations of GI in England.

- Allow the multi-functionality of GI to be robustly addressed in one transparent benchmark that has been developed by a range of organisations and sectors.

- Reduce the costs of development (for example by speeding up the planning process) by providing a benchmark of good practice that can be used by policy makers, local planning authorities and clients (e.g. developers) to specify GI requirements.

- Maximise the benefits of GI to society by ensuring that a range of factors are considered and that a whole-life approach is taken from conception through to long-term maintenance.

- Improve the impact from the NERC-remit research used to develop the benchmark (for example good practice in designing GI for biodiversity, impact of different species choices on ecosystem services such as air quality improvements, soil conditions necessary for sustainable vegetation establishment in urban settings).

- Add value and impact from the Innovate UK/NERC-funded KTP by providing a national benchmark, developed using knowledge acquired from the local benchmark.

The outcomes will therefore translate into social, economic and environmental benefits for a range of end-users and stakeholders. Key beneficiaries and impacts will include:

The development sector: which will gain from a transparent benchmark for GI that it can use when planning new residential and commercial developments. This will clarify the requirements for GI (e.g. from local authority planning authorities) enabling developers to incorporate this into their planning applications from the outset. Ultimately, this will allow developers to demonstrate to planning authorities and customers that they are providing high quality GI, which will act as a selling point for their developments.

Local authorities: which will be able to: use the benchmark to communicate their expectations for GI in new developments and retrofitting projects (e.g. of social housing) and its maintenance; easily identify those planning applications that are meeting their requirements for the GI elements of developments; and demonstrate the quality of their own GI assets.

Built environment consultants (e.g. environmental, ecological and landscape): who will be able to demonstrate compliance with a respected and recognised benchmark to their clients.
Policy makers: who will be able to develop more effective policies, by being able to specify their expectations for GI at a national and local level in a range of contexts. This will improve clarity on the requirements for GI.

Residents and communities in both new and existing neighbourhoods: who will benefit from high quality GI and the ecosystem services that it provides. This will ultimately improve, for example, their quality of life, health and well-being, environmental quality, resilience to climate change and the local economy.

Broader society: which will have more consistent access to high quality GI and benefit from its multiple ecosystem services. This will include, for example, improved population health and well-being, inward investment, biodiversity, climate change adaptation and environmental justice.

The project partners in this Innovation Fund represent the key professions involved with the delivery and management of GI and we will work collaboratively to ensure these impacts are realised.

Publications


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Description This research examines whether a market exists for a national benchmark for green infrastructure (GI) in England. This builds on a Knowledge Transfer Partnership between the University of the West of England (UWE) and Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, a project which includes the development of a local benchmark for Gloucestershire and the West of England and which focusses, naturally, on local priorities.
This feasibility project sought to answer three main questions:
• What is the demand for a GI benchmark in the built environment sector?
• What types of GI and corresponding ecosystem services should the benchmark include?
• What is the most appropriate model to ensure the long-term success of the benchmark?
First, a desktop review of relevant assessment systems was conducted to examine a) if, and how, GI is incorporated into such systems and b) their overall operation to understand current practice within the built environment sector. The desktop review included 22 assessment systems, including benchmarks for green developments (building and community-scale) and other infrastructure, and audits, awards, guidance and tool kits that related more specifically to GI, green space or biodiversity.
Second, five Expert Symposia were held to test the findings of the review as well as the initial work completed in the KTP on experts from the built environment and GI professions. Thus, the five symposia were co-hosted by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), Landscape Institute, Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts (RSWT), and Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA). Whilst the first three of these were quite profession specific, the latter two included participants from a broader range of backgrounds. A total of 55 experts participated in the symposia.
Key Findings: What is the demand for a GI benchmark in the built environment sector?
The review suggested that assessment systems can be successful. With only one exception, those reviewed appear to have maintained their status over time and are certifying a large number of projects. The most established systems were focussed on the assessment of green developments (buildings and community-scale infrastructure). The review also suggested that whilst there were some audits and toolkits related to GI there was not a benchmark specifically dedicated to GI.
Symposia participants generally supported the creation of a national benchmark for GI, viewing it as a way of improving GI provision. However, this was caveated as being dependent on characteristics felt to be necessary for its success. These included careful planning and testing, surpassing a tick box exercise and being adaptable to the requirements of different locations. There was less certainty around the existence of sufficient commercial interest. It was felt that developers would need to be persuaded of the benefits of the benchmark compared to other assessment systems. The importance of buy-in from national and local politicians was also highlighted, as was the role of the general public due to its influence on decision makers. A number of bodies that may be able to contribute to the success and delivery of the benchmark were suggested.
Participants suggested a wide range of uses that the benchmark could have, including, appraisal of developments sites, shaping local policy, drafting planning conditions and agreements, and facilitating discussions between developers, the general public and other stakeholders. Although it was also recognised that the benchmark, at least initially, should be focussed.
The study concludes that a GI benchmark would be helpful in improving consistency in the planning, design and management of GI. The benchmark will need to offer clear benefits to applicants, not offered by current, neighbouring systems.
Key Findings: What types of GI and corresponding ecosystem services should the benchmark include?
This question used the initial development of the local benchmark to test the approach with delegates. This includes three thematic areas of GI: water management, wildlife, and health and well-being, as well as underpinning features: meeting key definitions of GI, long-term management and maintenance. Generally, the symposia found that the approach taken so far is appropriate. The importance of ensuring the key aspects of the definitions of GI as a strategic multifunctional network operating at different spatial scales are recognised in the benchmark was highlighted. However, it was felt that additional elements important to GI including historic environment and resilience need to be explicit in the benchmark. It was agreed that the benchmark should assess the provision of GI to achieve desired outcomes, as well as more procedural elements such as management and maintenance. It was also recognised that the benchmark will not be able to include every aspect of GI, and the team were advised to keep the benchmark focused.
Key Findings: What is the most appropriate model to ensure the long-term success of the benchmark?
The review provided valuable rationale for preliminary ideas about what form the benchmark should take. It informed initial judgements about the characteristics of the standards (or criteria) within the benchmark. It informed guiding principles for the benchmark such as transparency, user friendliness and appropriate provision of guidance. It also provided initial ideas about specific aspects of the benchmark such as the assessment process and benchmark fees.
The symposia further enhanced the findings from the review on the operational aspects of the benchmark. These included, for example, the types of development that could apply for the benchmark and the point in the process at which the benchmark could be awarded. So, whilst an initial assessment of the design of the GI was recognised as being important, it was felt that a further post-completion assessment of the GI was essential. Levels of award that could be earned were also discussed, with the benefits of having a gradation of four or five levels of award being highlighted. The identity and characteristics of suitable assessors were considered, as were potential costing structures and marketing for the benchmark, including the public promotion of developments that had performed well.

The team were also commissioned to undertake two reviews for NERC on how GI research is translated into practice. The first is focussed on grey literature for a UK audience and included two events where the GI community could share their thoughts, while the second is focussed on grey literature for an international audience (this is not yet published); both included case studies.
The two reviews of grey literature identified the evidence related to the benefits of GI to biodiversity, ecosystem services and where these have been monetised. The key findings are:
• There is some evidence presented on the role of GI in enhancing biodiversity.
• There is limited evidence in the grey literature on the role of GI in providing supporting and provisioning services. There is slightly more evidence in the international literature, mainly on the benefits of urban agriculture for the urban poor.
• There is substantial evidence cited in most pieces of grey literature on the role of GI in improving air quality, regulating air and surface temperatures and for stormwater management through reducing surface water run-off, increasing rainwater retention and reducing pollution to surface water. However, there is limited evidence in the grey literature on the role of GI in delivering other regulating services including noise abatement, carbon storage, soil regulation and pollination.
• There is substantial evidence in the grey literature on the recreational benefits of GI, with beneficial outcomes often reported in terms of mental and physical health. There is also some evidence reported that particularly greenspaces and natural features can contribute to aesthetic experience and sense of place, increase social interaction and therefore social capital and cohesion, and provide a destination for tourism in the built environment.
• There is some evidence that the ecosystem services provided by GI result in economic benefits to society and individuals. This has primarily focussed on the benefits to health and well-being (and resulting cost savings to health services) from air quality improvement and physical activity, stormwater management, carbon storage and tourism. Some grey literature also cites the economic benefits to the wider economy from greater commercial and residential property values, economic activity and job creation.
Key findings from the two events bringing together the GI community of research, policy and practice were:
There is an overload of evidence from both academia and those responsible for grey literature and some, particularly practitioners are struggling to navigate their way through this. The most common reasons for this seemed to be due to lack of resources (time, funding, skills or knowledge) on their part and/or the way research findings are presented. A need was expressed for a centralised web-based system for the GI community with evidence, links to tools, key organisations and case studies.
The evidence is not reaching out to all the sectors and disciplines that it needs to in order to raise GI on the agenda of key decision makers and delivery agents. This includes policy makers, local authorities, financial professionals, development surveyors, planners, architects, urban designers, the general public, grey infrastructure professionals and public health professionals. There is a need to ensure that evidence is tailored for each individual audience, with the input of end-users, and shared through their networks and professional bodies.
Amplifier organisations were generally highly regarded. These organisations and networks were seen as important in the task of sharing evidence with the disciplines and sectors identified above. The different language and terminology used across the GI community was seen as problematic and amplifiers have a role to play here too.
Academic evidence was often respected (e.g. methodology, robustness) but was often seen as divorced from the needs of the end-user. Generally, the involvement of end-users at the beginning and throughout the research process was seen as essential to its usefulness in practice. This including end-users having a strong role in shaping the research question and the way findings are presented.
There is a need for research funding for high quality monitoring and evaluation studies in GI. This does not fit into current funding programmes as it is not discovery science or innovation but it critical to developing a greater understanding of the role of GI. Similarly, it was felt that applied research does not fit into traditional funding streams and this is hindering progress in GI.
A number of gaps exist in the evidence base. These include studies to examine the benefits of GI, for example, health outcomes, financial value particularly to property developers, contribution to natural capital, as well as what works (and doesn't work) in the planning, design, implementation and long-term management of GI. The events were seen as a useful starting point in bringing academics and end-users to start identifying research priorities and more effective mechanisms for collaboration.
Exploitation Route We are using the findings from the feasibility study to inform the development of the benchmark. This has been extremely useful in setting the parameters for the benchmark, clarifying how it will operate and raising the profile of this work nationally. The standards in the benchmark are already being used by a number of front runner projects in Gloucestershire and the West of England (as part of the KTP) to shape their GI policies and the GI in new developments.

NERC are using the findings from the two reviews of how GI is translated into practice to inform their innovation funding programmes.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Construction,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Retail,Transport,Other
 
Description The findings from the feasibility study have informed the benchmark for green infrastructure to ensure that it is also appropriate for use nationally. This is being tested through the KTP in Gloucestershire and the West of England by a suite of front runner projects. This is allowing these projects, which include GI policy development by local authorities and new residential-led developments, to enhance their GI provision, have more certainty that their work is responding to current good practice and has been independently assessed. The impact of this is that the GI provision in these areas will be high quality which will benefit existing and new communities near them, increase biodiversity, improve their ability to adapt to climate change, and ensure that these benefits can be delivered in the long term.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Construction,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Other
Impact Types Societal,Economic,Policy & public services