Green infrastructure a blueprint for resilience

A rain garden in George St, Dunedin. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
A rain garden in George St, Dunedin. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
We can tick all sorts of boxes by greening our infrastructure.

The urgent and intertwined challenges of climate change, urbanisation and environmental degradation necessitate immediate and innovative solutions. Green infrastructure (GI) is a critical strategy for enhancing urban resilience, offering a multitude of ecological, social, and economic benefits.

GI is ‘‘a system of interconnected ecosystems, ecological–technological hybrids, and built infrastructures providing contextual social, environmental and technological functions and benefits’’. It is about creating or managing our green spaces and integrating both natural and engineered elements to build sustainability and resilience. The urgency of these challenges underscores the need for immediate action, making GI a pressing priority.

Sectors such as agriculture (methane), energy (road transport and electricity production), and industrial processes (including landfills and burning) are major emitters of greenhouse gases in New Zealand. Transport emissions, which in 2020 consisted mainly of road vehicle emissions (91.2%) and aviation (5.4%), highlight the need for streetscapes to integrate strategies that build resilience and reduce adverse environmental impacts.

Green infrastructure plays a crucial role here by enhancing management of stormwater, wastewater, and drinking water. Traditional stormwater systems often struggle with increased rainfall and extreme weather events. GI solutions such as rain gardens, bioretention cells, cisterns, bioswales, detention and retention ponds, permeable pavements, and green roofs manage stormwater at its source, reducing flood risks and improving water quality by filtering pollutants. Constructed wetlands provide effective wastewater treatment, enhance stormwater quality, and support biodiversity. Riparian buffers filter pollutants, stabilise banks, provide wildlife habitats, protect drinking-water sources, improve river and stream water quality, and reduce sedimentation.

GI is essential for future-proofing and safeguarding Otago communities against climate change impacts. By the end of the 21st century, Otago is expected to experience significant warming, with potential risks including increased intense rainfall events, sea-level rise, drought, coastal erosion, and inundation. These changes will significantly impact the region’s agriculture, biodiversity, and water resources. Ongoing efforts include research, early warning systems, the Central Otago Destination Management Plan’s goal of achieving a carbon-zero economy by 2050, and infrastructure improvements to mitigate these climate risks.

However, the successful integration of GI requires more robust policy support. A policy-backed GI network is more efficient than implementing individual elements on an ad-hoc basis, making it essential across all sectors, including housing, industry, agriculture, and transportation.

Given the impending climate challenges, Otago must incorporate urban streetscapes into the GI network. Regional planning should prioritise GI elements — rain gardens and the like — to enhance resilience and sustainability.

Green spaces, a crucial part of GI, provide essential habitats for various species, fostering biodiversity even in urban settings. By creating interconnected green networks, Otago can support wildlife corridors that enhance ecological health and resilience. This, in turn, directly or indirectly improves public health and well-being.

Access to green spaces promotes physical and mental health, encouraging outdoor activities and providing a natural respite from urban life. Studies show that communities with ample green infrastructure experience lower stress levels and improved overall well-being. Moreover, GI enhances property values, attracts tourism, and reduces energy and healthcare costs, creating jobs in landscaping, maintenance, and urban planning sectors.

When planning for sustainable urban development, it is crucial to consider the broader advantages of integrating GI strategies to achieve multifaceted and long-lasting benefits. By embracing GI, Otago can ensure a resilient and vibrant future where nature and urban life co-exist harmoniously, benefiting both the environment and the community.

A strategic and inclusive approach is necessary. This means planning and implementing GI elements comprehensively to maximise their benefits across various sectors such as housing, industry, transportation, and agriculture.

By doing so, Otago can enhance its resilience, promote sustainability, and safeguard the well-being of its communities. This includes incorporating and prioritising GI in city planning and zoning regulations, mandating green roofs for new buildings, preserving landscapes, and developing urban green corridors. Establishing clear responsibilities and funding mechanisms for long-term upkeep is essential to ensure these systems continue to deliver their benefits. However, perhaps the most crucial aspect is effective community engagement and education about the benefits of GI. Involving residents in planning and maintenance fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility, making the success of the proposal a collective effort. Community gardens and tree-planting initiatives are practical, hands-on projects that can drive community involvement.

Public-private partnerships, involving collaboration with private developers, businesses, and non-profits, can leverage additional resources and expertise. Incentives for companies to implement GI, such as tax breaks or grants, can accelerate adoption. Using the right stakeholder collaboration strategy ensures that GI integration reaches its full potential.

The economic benefits of GI, such as increased property values, reduced energy and healthcare costs, and job creation in landscaping, maintenance, and urban planning sectors, should motivate policymakers and stakeholders to see the value in the integration.

Integrating GI into Otago’s urban fabric is a transformative approach to building a resilient, vibrant, and sustainable community. By embracing green solutions, we can mitigate climate impacts, enhance biodiversity, improve public health, and stimulate economic growth. The potential for economic growth through job creation in landscaping, maintenance, and urban planning sectors is a promising aspect of GI. Let’s commit to a greener future for Otago, where nature and urban life coexist harmoniously, fostering resilience for future generations.

Ify Ukonze wrote this piece as part of her University of Otago PhD research and as a postgraduate representative with He Kaupapa Hononga Otago Climate Change Research Network. The opinions expressed here are her own.