Over the past few weeks, satellite imagery has indicated a decline in pollution levels across Europe. Similar trends have been observed by the local authorities as our towns and cities enjoyed reduced traffic levels. 

Data released on June 27 by Google shows gradual increases in the use of parks, beaches and open spaces, with an overall 40 per cent use increase compared to the baseline, while other sectors, such as retail, is still below baseline levels. There are also quite a few reports from across the globe that the pandemic has spurred gardening at home.

Will increased demand for interaction with nature become the new norm in the post-COVID-19 era, or will we simply go back to our routines now? Over the past few weeks, several initiatives and projects that intend to implement green infrastructure measures have been launched. Many have called for a change in planning and construction, and for these sectors to plan for and implement green infrastructure. But what can be considered as being an effective green infrastructure?

Green infrastructure provides multiple benefits that enhance human health and well-being. Particularly well studied are the contributions of green infrastructure to the regulation of the local environment, for example by reducing ambient temperature, slowing down surface-water runoff after heavy rainfall, and improving air quality. But green infrastructure also provides several social and cultural benefits through improved opportunities for recreation, place aesthetics or educational uses, and others.

With the right kind of planning and design of green infrastructure, urban development can lead to benefits to other organisms (biodiversity), and development can be made in a way that strikes the right balance between the different needs of communities.

If well planned, green infrastructure can provide benefits to biodiversity, contribute to human health and generate green jobs- Mario Balzan

Nature has become a solution to our societal and environmental challenges, rather than merely something to protect and preserve, but this requires a paradigm shift in the way we plan for nature and human well-being.

If well planned, green infrastructure can provide benefits to biodiversity, contribute to human health, generate green jobs and, more generally, lead to improved well-being.

Today, our cities are largely dependent on the countryside to benefit from some of nature’s contributions to society as our urban areas are quickly becoming deserts made of regularly shaped limestone and concrete blocks.

Private gardens, yards and trees are built over and uprooted as apartments bloom. Put simply, the way we have structured our cities means that to experience nature, you have to travel out of the urban core to the countryside.

Public gardens are always improving in terms of their street furniture, but can they be considered as effective green infrastructure? Do they lead to a stronger connection with nature? How good are urban open spaces for our pollinators, to experience nature and for recreational and other cultural uses?

Are they effective in reducing noise and air pollution, slowing down surface- water runoff and cooling down ambient temperatures? Probably not, soil sealing abounds and tree cover is in many cases low, making them ineffective in regulating the local environment.

Green infrastructure is fundamental but its effectiveness depends on evidence-based design and implementation. There are countless examples where decisions have not been evidence-based and which have led to ineffective measures.

Just a few weeks ago, on the World Environment Day, the European Court of Auditors released a report assessing whether the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), for which the European Commission allocated €66 billion between 2014 and 2020, has helped to stop biodiversity loss.

The report finds limited measurable impacts on farmland biodiversity and no reliable measures that may be used to assess the impacts. These results are in line with a recent paper I contributed to with other European ecologists (Cole et al. 2020), which identified the limited effectiveness of current measures and substantial opportunities to improve pollinator-friendly management of the CAP across the EU.

In urban areas, we need to focus on the green infrastructure structural attributes that increase nature’s contributions to society, but we must not forget the social and economic context. To put it in another way, in a highly dense environment, some will always have a garden to return to when a second wave of COVID-19 or another pandemic hit us. Others will not and will depend on the authorities for a gasp of nature.

Green infrastructure targets need to be ambitious, evidence-based, considered as an investment in health and quality of life and should lead to a greener and less resource-intensive economy.

Mario Balzan is an applied ecologist.

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