Wednesday 1 September 2010

Green Infrastructure should be Central to Planning Process

Ireland has started to value the contribution that natural eco-systems make to the wellbeing of our population, economy and environment. However, according to Comhar Sustainable Development Council (SDC), in order to maximise this contribution, we need to move to a system where the protection and enhancement of our green infrastructure is integrated into the planning process.

Launching its research report, ‘Creating Green Infrastructure for Ireland’, Comhar SDC has said development of green infrastructure should be a core part of Ireland’s planning policy, including local development plans to the national spatial strategy. This would require mapping of natural ecosystems to provide evidence of the value of biodiversity and ecosystems to the economy and society.

According to the report’s editor, Dr. Cathy Maguire, Director of Research at Comhar SDC: “Development has been a major driver of habitat degradation and biodiversity loss in Ireland. Biodiversity continues to decline because its value is not reflected in decision-making by business and government. While tools such as ‘Strategic Environment Assessment’ and ‘Environmental Impact Assessment’ have become part of our development process, they are essentially reactive measures. The introduction of a green infrastructure approach to planning policy would help to protect, create and manage green infrastructure in an integrated and proactive way. It would also enhance Ireland’s biodiversity and improve resilience to climate change.”

Green infrastructure is a network of green spaces that help conserve natural ecosystems and provide benefits to human populations through water purification, flood control, carbon capture, food production and recreation. Such spaces include woodlands, coastlines, flood plains, hedgerows, city parks and street trees. It is estimated that natural ecosystems contribute at least €2.6 billion* to Ireland’s economy each year, across a range of sectors, including agriculture, health and aquaculture.

The report contains a range of recommendations to government on how green infrastructure can be developed in Ireland. These include the development of national guidance and objectives; the inclusion of green infrastructure in policy and legislation; green infrastructure maps, and measures to improve data availability and harmonisation.

“Comhar SDC has recommended a range of actions, including the development of national guidelines which set out how green infrastructure can be incorporated into the planning process. We are urging policy makers to grasp the opportunities that green infrastructure approaches can offer in bringing benefits to the environment, economy and society. Integrating green infrastructure into our planning process would result in health and economic benefits, as well as protecting our biodiversity. It would offer a positive dimension to our planning process and minimise conflicts between environmental and economic goals,” said Dr. Maguire.

“Green infrastructure mapping underpins the whole approach and, while there are data gaps and needs, a lot of useful information already exists at national and local levels. This should be made available in a coordinated and accessible way for use in green infrastructure mapping.”

The report shows how this mapping can be carried out and used to inform the development of green infrastructure. It contains three case studies that illustrate green infrastructure planning in different areas, namely urban, peri-urban and rural areas (North East Dublin City; Broadmeadow, Fingal, and Offaly-Westmeath). In addition, a national framework map was developed for the country, which highlights – among other elements – the existing biodiversity and ecological networks; water quality and flood attenuation infrastructure, and recreational / quality-of-life infrastructure. From these preliminary maps alone, the report highlights where the most valuable green infrastructures exist, and where there is potential to further develop and connect green infrastructure to maximise the potential benefits.

From its green infrastructure maps for North East Dublin City, Comhar SDC identified a range of interlinked spaces of particular value to biodiversity and amenity, including Dublin Bay, Bull Island, the Royal Canal, a coastal promenade, a golf course and institutional grounds. According to the report, in order to maximise the functioning of the green infrastructure of the area, improvements are required in the areas of water quality of the rivers and streams flowing into Dublin Bay; cycling amenities to link green spaces, and greater use of green spaces for flood attenuation and food production.

Meanwhile, the mapping of Offaly-Westmeath identified eskers, lakes, rivers, drainage ditches and woodlands among the key features of the local green infrastructure. According to the report, the value of these resources could be further enhanced through a development plan for the peatland network in the area. It also cautioned that cutaway bogs should not be designed as ‘disused industrial’ or 'brownfield sites', but rather as areas of important ecological value. The report pointed to the re-wetting of peatlands as a mechanism to enhance their function as carbon sinks.

Also speaking at today’s launch, Professor Frank Convery, Chairperson of Comhar SDC, said: “Green infrastructure that is operating at its peak and is well connected can makes cities, towns and rural areas better places in which to work. High-quality green infrastructure translates into higher property values and rents, and is also attractive to the high-value industries, entrepreneurs and workers now needed to underpin the knowledge economy.

“The health benefits of a green infrastructure are also numerous. Well-planned green spaces can act as important places to exercise, particularly in an urban centre. They also provide play areas for children and act as a recreational space for members of the local community. This offers positive benefits in terms of a community’s physical and mental health.”

Professor Convery said that the upcoming revision of the National Biodiversity Plan, as well as the National Adaptation Plan, offers an important opportunity to put green infrastructure on the agenda of all the agents involved in planning and infrastructure delivery. “Apart from national and local buy-in from our elected representatives, we need all of the key sectors – from agriculture to tourism and planners – to work together to realise the economic and social benefits of protecting our biodiversity,” he added.

*Source: National Parks and Wildlife Services.

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