Working paper: Territorial potentials for Green Infrastructure

Green infrastructure (GI) is considered a benefit for territorial development because it provides multiple functions within the same spatial area. The underlying principle of GI is that the same area of land can offer many environmental, social, cultural and economic benefits at the same time, provided its ecosystems are in a healthy condition. However, valuable European ecosystems are being degraded by land fragmentation, urban expansion and the building of transport and energy infrastructures. This affects habitats and species and reduces the spatial and functional coherence of the landscape. Degraded ecosystems have lower species richness and are unable to offer the same services as healthy ecosystems. 

That is why the EU in 2011 adopted its biodiversity strategy, which aims to ensure that “by 2020, ecosystems and their services are maintained and enhanced by establishing green infrastructure and restoring at least 15% of degraded ecosystems”. It also calls on member states to map and assess the state of ecosystems and their services nationally. Responding to the commitment made in the biodiversity strategy, in 2013 the European Commission put forward an EU GI strategy to ensure that the protection, restoration, creation and enhancement of GI become an integral part of spatial planning and territorial development whenever it offers a better alternative or is complementary, to standard grey choices.

GI consists of ecological networks, made up of areas of natural vegetation, other open space, or areas of known ecological value, and links that connect these areas to one another. GI solutions are particularly important in urban environments in which approximately 70% of the EU population lives. In cities, GI features like green walls and roofs, urban woodlands and garden allotments deliver health-related benefits such as clean air and better water quality. GI also creates opportunities to connect urban and rural areas and provides appealing places to live and work in. Furthermore, the restoration of land in cities can be a cost-effective and economically viable way of making them more sustainable, resilient, greener and healthier.

Local and regional authorities, which are generally responsible for land use decisions, have a particularly important role to play in assessing environmental impacts and protecting, conserving and enhancing natural capital. Incorporating GI into related plans and strategies can help overcome the fragmentation of habitats and preserve or restore ecological connectivity, enhance ecosystem resilience and thereby ensure the continued provision of ecosystem services while providing healthier environments and recreational spaces for people to enjoy.

In this context, GI can also be seen as a provider of nature-based solutions that are crucial in tackling societal challenges such as unsustainable urbanisation and related human health issues. However, as a study for DG Environment[1] found, one major barrier to the deployment of GI is the insufficient understanding amongst stakeholders of the way natural ecosystems function, which often results in an underused potential for GI development. Better use of integrated spatial planning processes, improved capacity of decision-makers and better institutional cooperation are important elements to address this challenge.

A variety of studies on GI, ecosystem services and biodiversity aspects have been conducted over the past years throughout Europe. Nevertheless, knowledge and data gaps still exist. Likewise, there is a need to provide quantitative and qualitative evidence on (a) the assets regions and cities have regarding existing green infrastructure and ecosystem services and the access to them, and (b) the demand for these elements, especially in highly urbanised areas.

This working paper is guided by the following questions:

- What are potential positive and negative effects of GI and ecosystem services on European territorial development?

- What does the geographical distribution of GI and ecosystem services look like in European cities and regions?

- How can European cities, regions and national governments be supported in making full use of their GI and ecosystem services development potential?

Unless indicated differently, this working paper is based on the draft results of the GRETA (GReen infrastructure: Enhancing biodiversity and ecosysTem services for territoriAl development) applied research project. GRETA provides a novel methodology for analysing the spatial distribution of GI, responding to the three key GI principles of connectivity, multifunctionality and spatial planning and management.


ESPON Working Paper Green Infrastructure

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