Wouldn’t it be great if the open spaces where we live and work were greener, provided for recreation and helped address urban challenges such as flooding, air quality and social segregation?

Mario Balzan (Times of Malta, July 4) made an excellent point when he questioned whether our public gardens can be considered as effective green infrastructure and that “green infrastructure is fundamental but its effectiveness depends on evidence-based design and implementation”.

My PhD research considers the potential of Malta’s urban open spaces to act as green infrastructure with the aim of improving their contribution to sustainable development. The fieldwork carried out included a physical audit of 42 spaces covering a range of publicly accessible types of spaces typically present in our urban areas. The aim was to survey and assess the design parameters which play a role in providing green infrastructure.

The results, which were presented in a paper at the SBE (Sustainable Built Environment) 2019 conference on sustainability and resilience, contribute to the much-needed evidence base concerning the design of urban open spaces in Malta. They clearly illustrate that currently such spaces in Malta do not capitalise on their potential to act as green infrastructure. What does this mean? It means that existing open spaces have the potential to do more.

In practical design terms, there is scope to, for example, improve the quality of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure; design spaces as places to walk through; maximise the presence of vegetation, including trees and dense ground cover; create relationships between the open spaces and building frontages; think about the functionality so as to provide for all demographics and try and integrate different users; improve the climatic comfort (shaded areas); design for sustainable water drainage and for low maintenance.

These are just a few aspects. Improving such design parameters means that our urban open spaces could then capitalise on the social, environmental and economic benefits which they have the potential to provide.  Through focus groups, it was also established that pandemics such as COVID-19 make it even more important to provide such green infrastructure, not only for the local community but also for the tourism economy.

With the recent green infrastructure interest and initiatives being launched, it is crucial that design parameters and guidelines are established for what constitutes green infrastructure and particularly with reference to our local context. What are the design principles that we should be focusing on in our specific context? The results emerging through this research contribute to the evidence base which can inform the development of such parameters and guidelines.

It is imperative that the need to adopt a multidisciplinary and integrated approach due to the multifunctionality of green infrastructure is recognised

Besides design principles, the research has also identified potential barriers to implementing green infrastructure in our urban open spaces. One of the strongest emerging aspects is the lack of awareness of the real benefits of green infrastructure and the required human resource capacity with the appropriate expertise (across the disciplines concerned). Additionally, it is imperative that the need to adopt a multidisciplinary and integrated approach due to the multifunctionality of green infrastructure is recognised.

It is now the time, more than ever, that authorities, professionals, academics, the private sector and the community come together to pool resources and knowledge and combine initiatives to create a coordinated effort. We need to ensure that the initiatives which have thus far been launched adopt the right approach and serve as a catalyst for improving the quality, sustainability and resilience of our built environment.

Here we could explore the concept of ‘green hubs’. These are innovative coalitions created between citizens, businesses and non-governmental organisations to facilitate the exchange of knowledge, creativity and money. They would engage stakeholders with various social and professional backgrounds and could include partnerships with educational establishments. (Ambrose-Oji, B. et al., 2017)

Finally, while short-term initiatives are positive and important, due to the multifunctional nature and the importance of connectivity when planning and designing for green infrastructure, we also need to look forward and, in parallel, think about strategic integrated planning. This requires a long-term approach where the various stakeholders concerned  ‒ and there are many including civil society ‒ enhance coordination to achieve the proposed interdisciplinary approach. It needs to start by simply mapping and auditing the existing public spaces, identifying their constraints and potential, and making this information publically available.

However, if we really want to create this potential, we should accept all challenges presented and perhaps consider including centralised parking management facilities in our towns and villages. The shifting of some car parking to specifically dedicated facilities could ensure that we maximise the benefits which our valuable urban open spaces can provide. Additionally, community engagement and the ongoing maintenance requirements of such spaces need to form an integral part of the planning. 

These suggestions are not exhaustive, however, in light of my current research, I believe they are some of the more crucial aspects to consider.

Sarah Scheiber is specialised in urban design and lectures at the Faculty for the Built Environment. Her PhD focuses on the planning and design of urban open spaces with respect to their potential to act as green infrastructure.

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