There are multiple urban ecosystem services and built environment benefits provided by vegetation, particularly when it can replace or reduce investments in traditional infrastructure such as storm water systems. However, there is still a way to go in terms of treating green infrastructure as physical and financial assets on balance sheets.
Professor Tony Wong, chief executive of the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities, says the federal government needs to truly recognise green infrastructure as “infrastructure” so it gets the financial resources and place in planning that it needs.
“It is not recorded as an asset in any local government or state or federal government asset register,” Professor Wong says.
“So it is not tied into asset management, and it is not tied to maintenance funding.
“It needs to be registered on the assets register, as it adds to the overall value sheet of any organisation. Then [governments] will invest in it and maintain it.”
Professor Wong says it’s “high time” all the evidence of the multiple benefits of green infrastructure was tied together.
He says it needs to be valued like grey [built] infrastructure, particularly as it can provide similar services such as stormwater management, flood mitigation, water purification, cleaning the air, reducing heat impacts and adding to community wellbeing.
Community benefit is poorly understood in terms of green infrastructure, he says, and this means there is not a strong mechanism for substantial public or private participation.
“There needs to be a transparency about the beneficiaries so we can identify where costs can be passed on.”
In the case of a private developer, the costs are passed onto buyers, he says, but the benefits are wider for the whole community.
He says 10 to 20 years ago, the role of “landscape” in the urban setting was mainly to deliver a certain level of amenity.
“Green infrastructure, however, is a hard working piece of infrastructure that uses natural processes to do the work.
“We are now merging green infrastructure with [the concept of] landscape for amenity and beauty, and saying this needs to work harder to do things for us.”
Professor Wong says that if you talk to an economist and pitch it as a competition between the environment and the economy, you will lose. But if you pitch it as “green infrastructure is now underpinning the economy”, you are more likely to win the modelling argument.
“Nothing is wrong with green infrastructure that underpins the economy and also delivers biodiversity and beauty.”
Chief executive of the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia, Antony Sprigg, says the ISCA rating tool recognises the value of green infrastructure elements in projects aiming for a rating under a number of categories.
The tool recognises value in terms of ecology; urban and landscape design; discharges to air, land and water; community health and wellbeing; and biodiversity outcomes.
Mr Sprigg says the next generation of the ISCA tool, which is currently in development, will have a particular focus on valuing green infrastructure and recognising best practice in decision-making.
There are some things green infrastructure does that can be monetised, he says, such as providing water treatment services, improving management of drainage and delivering air conditioning benefits by natural means.
The challenge now is to conceptualise these so they can be “integrated into traditional decision-making processes by decision makers”.
The need is to benchmark the value, he says.
Conceivably, there should be more attraction for investors in Public Private Partnership infrastructure projects where green infrastructure is part of the project design and delivery.
“It depends on whether that’s what the investors are looking for,” Mr Sprigg says.
One thing they should be looking to is reducing certain risks around assets, such as the risk of flash flooding, or heat impacts or carbon impacts.
Improved air quality and reduced noise impacts are another area infrastructure investors could consider in the same way. Mr Sprigg says the Sydney Light Rail, for example, modelled reduced noise impacts and resultant commercial benefits associated with an enhanced experience for shoppers in adjacent areas. This has a positive impact on rental values for the corridor.
“You can link a dollar value to that,” he says.
In the same way, the use of green infrastructure to reduce pollution from vehicles has a direct economic benefit in terms of reduced health costs. It should be possible to factor this into the financial picture, he says.
Green infrastructure can also reduce the impacts of grey infrastructure on water quality and the depletion of biodiversity. In some settings, it can also directly replace grey infrastructure, for example, in treating stormwater and managing drainage.
Professor Wong says that for some developers, the use of the natural solution can save both the developer and the local council money by reducing the need to expand, augment or extend the existing stormwater system in situations of increased population.
The major challenge in our cities, particularly in fast-growing suburban areas such as South West Sydney and Western and Northern parts of outer Melbourne, is to see they are not excluded from the benefits of green infrastructure policies, Mr Sprigg says.
“I think there has typically been a disconnect between the masterplanning for population growth versus masterplanning for equitable and sustainable economic growth,” he says.
“The latter element is more closely linked to infrastructure planning.”
He says infrastructure solutions for both short-term and long-term economic growth in these new suburbs are generally not factoring alternative green solutions.
“It is not appropriately valued, so it is not being considered on a par with other things,” Mr Sprigg says.
Mr Sprigg says another challenge can be seen in regional towns and cities that have tried to implement Water Sensitive Urban Design Principles, but have not succeeded in long-term outcomes because the asset planners and managers did not have the expertise, budget and skills for managing something different to traditional grey infrastructure.
“[In those cases], there was no budget to transition asset management and operations,” he says.
Great urban greening policies and planting trees is not the whole solution, he says. Asset management and operations departments also have to have appropriate training and resources to operate and maintain green infrastructure the same way they have traditionally had skills and budgets for operating and maintaining grey infrastructure.
The operations and maintenance aspects are also something that is highlighted in the 202020 Vision Plan.
“Asset management and operations are key to ensuring green infrastructure is properly valued and adopted,” Mr Sprigg says.