Green Infrastructure (GI) - networks of areas with high ecosystem values - has an increasing presence on the environmental policy agenda. New research has investigated GI policy in urban fringe areas in Northern England and its relationship with the existing green belt policy.
GI is a strategically planned and delivered network of green spaces with high values for biodiversity and wider environmental features. The EU is currently developing a strategy for an EU-wide GI as part of its post-2010 biodiversity policy. GI has been proposed as a management tool for urban fringes (land on the outskirts of cities) to link ecosystems to maximise their functions and services. This is complementary to the green belts policy, which designates specific areas to remain undeveloped. GI also places greater emphasis on economic benefits and the value of ecosystem services.
This policy concept has been embraced in parts of Northern England and the study explored the influences on the uptake of GI and its relationship with existing green belt policy by analysing relevant documents and interviewing key players, who included spatial planners, GI network members and development agency personnel.
The results indicated that GI occupies more space on the policy agenda than traditional green belt policy. Despite this, GI is still some way from replacing green belts, which are a long-established feature of the UK planning system.
The increased presence of GI is thought to be linked to the increase in 'soft governance', which uses networks of stakeholders and has more flexible geographical boundaries than the traditional system of local councils. Examples of soft governance in the UK include regional development agencies (RDAs) and regional assemblies (RA). Since urban fringe areas do not fall within traditional boundaries of governance, this makes them particularly suited to GI. Soft governance also tends to set economic goals to ensure sustainable development.
The combination of high levels of demand for GI due to a large amount of derelict industrial land, support from central and regional agencies to explore GI possibilities and the formation of GI networks has led to an uptake of this new "soft governance" policy concept.
It has been further encouraged by the shift towards the concept of an 'environmental economy' as GI has several economically measurable services and benefits, such as flood alleviation and climate change mitigation, as well as the provision of space for sport and exercise within high biodiversity-valuable areas.
Source: Thomas, K. & Littlewood, S. (2010) From Green Belts to Green Infrastruture? The Evolution of a New Concept in the Emerging Soft Governance of Spatial Strategies. Planning, Practice & Research. 25(2): 203-222.