Green Infrastructure: A Framework for Sustainability

Everyday infrastructures support and facilitate our lives, and although many people just take them for granted, our social and economic systems would be much different without their services.

As a matter of fact, the development of infrastructure is an essential driver to boost the economy of an area. At the same time, it also has a social importance, as it shapes people’s lifestyles. Hence, the level of infrastructure is almost always considered as an important factor in judging the development of a country.

Defining Green Infrastructure

The word “infrastructure” is defined by the Oxford dictionary as: “the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.” However, this definition seems to be too restrictive because it only focus on the “grey” or “built” infrastructures, leaving out the relevant infrastructures provided by natural ecosystems.

Indeed, although we don’t often think of forests, woodlands, and other natural ecosystems as forms of infrastructure, the functions provided by these systems prove that they actually are.

As reported by M.A Benedict’s and E.T. McMahon’s monograph on “Green Infrastructure,” in the late 90’s, to underline the important role played by environmental systems, a working group under the leadership of the Conservation Fund and the USDA Forest Service developed this definition of “green infrastructure”:

Green infrastructure is our nation’s natural life support system — an interconnected network of waterways, wetlands, woodlands, wildlife habitats, and other natural areas; greenways, parks and other conservation lands; working farms, ranches and forests; and wilderness and other open spaces that support native species, maintain natural ecological processes, sustain air and water resources and contribute to the health and quality of life for America’s communities and people.”

Therefore, green infrastructure represents the ecological framework needed for environmental, social and economic sustainability.

Benefits of Green Infrastructure

Green infrastructures, as illustrated the table below, provide great environmental, health and economic benefits, especially in areas like cities, where there’s low availability of green spaces.

Benefits of Green Infrastructures

Benefits of green infrastructures. Image via CNT, American Rivers.

For example, plants and soils capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via photosynthesis, improving air quality and reducing the emission impacts on climate change. On top of that, they mitigate urban heat and its adverse effects. The better air quality that results is also positively correlated with better health in humans and wildlife.

From an environmental point of view, green infrastructures also offer improvements to water quality, flood prevention, biodiversity safeguards, ecosystem resilience and land regeneration.

Furthermore, these green structures create important social advantages that cannot be underestimated. Indeed, a park in an urban area, by encouraging the physical activity and the development of relationships, provide an increase in the human well being and enhance interaction within the local community. Likewise, a natural landscape can provide mental benefits; the development of green spaces is an impactful concept in the “retraining” of suburban areas.

Last but not least, green infrastructures are an important asset from an economic point of view, as they increase the value of surrounding properties, reduce energy consumption and, according to the UK Forest Commission, can have positive impacts on local economic regeneration – especially for job creation, business start up, and internal investments.

Value of Green Infrastructure

Although it’s easy to demonstrate that green infrastructures provide significant benefits, it’s not always that easy to quantify (in monetary terms) what they’re worth. That’s because they include public goods and services, like the quality of the air we breathe; unfortunately these factors are either under-priced, or not priced at all, by the market. Therefore, valuing natural capital only by the market’s criteria can lead to the inefficient allocation of resources, or in other words, a “market failure.”

An example of this can be seen in the choice of whether to cut down a woodland. If that decision is only influenced by the prices of lumber on the market, it would favor “to cut,” as the profitability of the lumber would be the sole driver. However, the “optimal choice” might be totally transformed if the social and environmental costs are included (for example, by imposing a tax or providing a subsidy). Therefore, the role played by the policy maker is fundamental, as it can assign the “existential value” to these assets and, in doing that, lead the market to a truly optimal decision.

Thankfully, the value of green infrastructure is not always underestimated by the market, as it’s often of high concern to consumers. An example of that is the real estate sector. Indeed, the price of a house is highly influenced by surrounding natural structures. Consequently, it’s in the interest of community members and construction companies to promote their conservation and enhancement.

Moreover, green infrastructure can represent a value in terms of cost savings. For example, the implementation of green roofs lead to dramatic improvements in the energy performance of a building, reducing the heat flux much more so than traditional roofs.

Greater benefits can be achieved by local authorities, which can save money by implementing green, cost-effective infrastructures instead of traditional ones, as the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, did in 2011. Indeed, according to the EPA, the Lancaster Plan provided approximately $4 million in energy, air quality, and climate-related benefits each following year. In addition, the Plan aimed to reduce capital costs associated with gray infrastructure by $120 million, and to reduce wastewater pumping and treatment costs by $661,000 per year.

Lancaster case

Benefits of Lancaster’s plan. Image via EPA.

These cases demonstrate that green infrastructures possess value in monetary terms. When that value is properly estimated, their “existential value”, which affect the entire ecosystem and can be handed down across generations, could be enough to justify the investments made in that realm.

Accordingly, management of natural assets cannot only be linked to an accounting-related evaluation – often its returns have to be expected over the long term. On the contrary, decisions cannot only be the result of the “choose nature – whatever the cost” principle, because this position may also lead to sub-optimal resource allocation.

Ultimately, it’s the duty of city planners and policy makers to assess both the costs and the benefits of green infrastructure in order to promote their sustainable and optimal development.

Featured Image: River in Green Hills. Image via Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

About The Author

Adriano Pilloni
Adriano, 25 years old, is a Master Graduate in Environmental Economics and Development from Rome Three University (Italy). During his education he developed a deep knowledge on Economics and a keen interest on Economic Theory with particular regard to energy markets, sustainability, environmental and agricultural issues. He has been proactive during his university time doing many projects and being elected by the students as Advisor of the Economics Dept. of his University. With two other students he developed a project on Food Sustainability which has been selected in the top 30 of the international Barilla contest "BCFN YES! 2013". He did the 2014 European edition of Extreme Blue, IBM's premier internship program for both graduate and undergraduate students. Now he is working as Junior Power and Gas Analyst at GDF SUEZ Italy.