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Is it time to finally start putting a price on green infrastructure?

According to a team of UNSW researchers, government and industry regulators need to carefully consider green infrastructure when approving new property developments.

The Masters of Urban Policy students found that more efficient funding and regulation of resources such as natural drainage, tree canopies and green walls is essential to help cope with the effects of continuing population growth and housing density in expanding cities such as Sydney, Melbourne, or even Brisbane.

“There is a common misconception among developers and governments that green infrastructure costs too much. We’ve been able to show that when green infrastructure is valued accurately, that is not the case,” says UNSW Urban Policy student Alex Lawrie.

“All around the world we have found that when leaders get behind green infrastructure, it tends to happen. We see this in cities like Vancouver, Manchester and Singapore where leaders have taken a long-term approach to greening their cities, with big pay-offs both economically, environmentally and in community health and well-being,” says Lawrie.

“Green infrastructure connects those vital blue and green spaces dotted around our magical city. Using developer charges to bring nature back into the way we service our suburbs with infrastructure can bring down the cost of housing.”

“A dollar value in terms of costs and benefits can be put on green infrastructure,” he says, adding that, “This value changes depending on the type and scale of green the infrastructure.”

“This has been done in other parts of the world, and shows convincingly that the benefits of green infrastructure far outweigh its costs, sometimes by 10 to one. However, Australia is lagging in this space,” he notes.

Writing in Medium, Jason Byrne, Tony Matthews and Christopher Ambrey, noted that urban planners are “aware of the value and potential of using green infrastructure to cool cities”, but are hampered by government departments that are “too cautious about using green infrastructure.”

At the same time, putting an exact dollar figure on benefits like liveability, clean air, clean water and general community well-being is extremely complex, although some have attempted to do just that.

For example, a study undertaken by Brimbank City Council in Melbourne’s west in 2015 found the welfare and environmental benefits of reducing pollution from an industrial precinct by using integrated urban water management and other ‘green’ principles would exceed $300 million over a 30-year period.

And then there are also geographic and cultural differences. For example, when it comes to comparing the approach to green infrastructure between Sydney and Melbourne and other parts of the planet, Lawrie says there are many pros and cons for each city.

“It is a mixed picture when it comes to comparing Sydney and Melbourne with the rest of the world,” he says.

“For example, Sydney generally has very good access to green space, while Melbourne have some excellent green infrastructure initiatives such as Melbourne's Greening the West and Sydney's Greenway.”

At the same time, Lawrie finds there is underprovision of many other types of infrastructure and poor take up rates in public and, particularly, private development in both cities.

Asked should local and state governments take a much more proactive role when it comes to green infrastructure in terms of legislation, planning as well as execution and enforcement, Lawrie is emphatically supportive.

“Government leadership in setting a framework for the adequate valuation of green infrastructure is critical, and is happening in other parts of the world.”

“Crucial to this, is seeing the benefits of green infrastructure beyond its environmental and social outcomes, and acknowledging its contribution to economic outcomes,” Lawrie says.

As Byrne, Matthews and Ambrey found, “addressing this challenge will be central to ensuring that future green infrastructure policies deliver on their potential benefits and effect positive change in urban heat management. “

In a future destined to endure many more climatic extremes than today, it is, as they say, quite simply, “smart business”.

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