A green vision for a sustainable urban future

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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A high-rise residential building covered entirely by a green roof in Ljubljana, Slovenia. [Danilo Bevk]

I want you to take a minute to visualise the ideal urban landscape of the future. How does it look? Full of flying cars and soaring glass skyscrapers?

I doubt it.

Jure Šumi is the Representative and Spokesperson of the European Business Group at the World Green Infrastructure Network, President of the Slovenian Green Infrastructure Association and Green Solutions Advocacy Lead at Knauf Insulation.

I imagine your ideal vision is similar to mine, cities and towns where grey concrete is replaced by parks, gardens, green roofs and green walls. Places that are climate resilient, energy efficient and carbon neutral. Places where communities and biodiversity can thrive in naturally beautiful surroundings.

In other words, urbanscapes inspired by green infrastructure.

It sounds like science fiction, but I believe we are now closer than ever to creating solid foundations for this future. Green infrastructure is increasingly playing an important role in European policy-making from climate change, energy efficiency, biodiversity and building renovation to post-pandemic recovery, waste water management and even building aesthetics.

The European Chapter of the World Green Infrastructure Network (WGIN) was created to help transform all these green infrastructure ambitions into one holistic reality.

Green Infrastructure Day

On May 27 we are holding the first ever European Green Infrastructure Day with representatives of the European Commission, green infrastructure companies, architects, academics, financial institutions and MEPs. The event will be a catalyst for expertise and experience showing how to successfully implement and finance green infrastructure across Europe. There is a lot to discuss, because now more than ever, momentum for green infrastructure is growing.

For example, Member States have been able to apply for a portion of €750 billion in NextGenerationEU funding to help their post pandemic economic recovery. A key consideration of countries applying for this support is that 37% must be allocated towards climate action. Green infrastructure provides a wonderfully effective and aesthetically attractive carbon sink.

Green infrastructure is a ‘no regret’ solution

Then there is the European Commission’s new EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change — to prepare Europe for the impact of climate change — which states: “Blue-green (as opposed to grey) infrastructures are multipurpose, ‘no regret’ solutions which simultaneously provide environmental, social and economic benefits and help build climate resilience.”

In addition, there is the Commission’s strategy to renovate 35 million European buildings by 2030 as part of its historic ‘Renovation Wave’ which highlights the “role of roofs and walls to increase the green surface of our cities and improve the urban climate and biodiversity”.

At the WGIN we see our role as providing the guidance, experience and expertise to translate all these words into tangible green infrastructure results that will transform our towns and cities.

Green infrastructure is also informing our sense of what urban spaces could achieve. The Renovation Wave and NextGenerationEU have inspired the New European Bauhaus a cultural project designed to “create a dialogue” between our built environment and the planet’s ecosystems as well as produce inclusive spaces which are “beautiful and sustainable”. Unsurprisingly, members of the WGIN have been involved in some of the key initial discussions around this concept with the Commission.

Protecting biodiversity

Furthermore, protecting Europe’s biodiversity has become a priority with the European Commission’s 2030 Biodiversity Strategy calling for the systematic integration of green infrastructure into urban planning and building design with every European town or city with 20,000 residents or more required to draw up ambitious Urban Greening Plans.

These plans must include measures such as urban forests, urban farms, urban hedges and other green infrastructure. Green walls and roofs are simple to install, do not need time to grow and their vegetative carpet of green makes an impact on biodiversity instantly.

Finance for Sustainable Buildings

In addition, the EU taxonomy for sustainable activities offers a golden opportunity to attract investment into urban green infrastructure. To meet the EU’s climate ambitions, substantial private investment in sustainable projects will be required and the taxonomy classifies precisely what is — and what is not — an environmentally sustainable activity. This classification ensures investors are able to make sustainable investments with confidence protecting them from greenwashing. Green infrastructure should be particularly attractive to investment because it meets key environmental objectives established by the taxonomy regulation: the protection of biodiversity and ecosystems, climate change adaptation and climate change mitigation.

Finally, the revision of two European directives also offers unique opportunities for green infrastructure to flourish — the European Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive and the European Performance of Buildings Directive. Green infrastructure, particularly green roofs, can absorb huge volumes of rainwater taking the pressure off overstretched urban sewage systems, while also providing natural insulation to improve the energy efficiency of any building.

How the WGIN can help

For every revision, for every consultation, the European Chapter of WGIN is here to help. Our support ranges from providing evidence and quantifying benefits and costs of green infrastructure to addressing technical concerns and explaining the full potential of systems and solutions. In addition, we are developing partnerships, exchanging best practice and leveraging our learnings and experience from around the world.

Personally, I have been involved in the creation and installation of Urbanscape Green Solutions for last 8 years. Our projects have ranged from an 8,300m2 commercial green roof in France and a shopping mall garden in Japan to a spectator area for Dubai Opera House and vertical green roofs for Washington DC’s JFK Arts Center.

We have created green infrastructure for hundreds of homes, schools, hospitals, offices, industrial and commercial buildings, even installing a green roof on a community bus in Slovenia. And every project has delivered overwhelmingly positive benefits.

That is why you can keep your flying cars and glass skyscrapers — my vision for the future of urban living is green. And with my colleagues at WGIN we are here to help start making that future a reality today.

Register here for the European Green Infrastructure Day virtual conference to be held on May 27.

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