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Making Green Infrastructure Socially Inclusive: Principles and Challenges

Green Infrastructure: Enhancing biodiversity and ecosystem services for territorial development

Sustainable Drainage System in Aberdeen

Green Infrastructure consists of interconnected multifunctional green spaces and green features. Components of Green Infrastructure include parks, nature reserves, street trees, streams, sustainable urban drainage systems and green roofs. Proponents of Green Infrastructure are hopeful that its use in planning systems will provide multiple social, economic and ecological benefits to improve the liveability and sustainability of places.

Although it is widely accepted that Green Infrastructure can deliver multiple ecosystem services, there is still uncertainty concerning how it can best be designed, implemented and maintained. This project considered how practitioners in the United Kingdom view and understand social aspects of Green Infrastructure and proposed a set of social principles that could be used to ensure these social aspects are included in future work that incorporates Green Infrastructure. Participants generally agreed with the proposed principles, but many found them difficult to apply in their current roles. A major concern was that Green Infrastructure is still frequently seen as ‘nice to have’ rather than at the core of development plans. Furthermore, most attention is paid to the initial stages of planning Green Infrastructure, neglecting the later aspects of management and monitoring.


Work Completed


Although there are many definitions of Green Infrastructure, at its core the term refers to connected green spaces that are strategically designed and managed to provide multiple functions and human benefits (See Figure 2 from the ESPON GRETA project). Despite these positive aims to boost sustainable development of both urban and rural spaces, examples of high-quality Green Infrastructure in the UK are still the exception rather than the norm, although some positive case studies do exist.

Figure 2. Illustrative example of potential components of Green Infrastructure and related benefits across spatial scales. Icons illustrate services provided, while the boxes present a selection of green infrastructure elements (Credit: ©ESPON, Origin of information: ESPON EGTC. The interpretation of ESPON material does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the ESPON 2020 Monitoring Committee)

International high-profile examples of Green Infrastructure, such as New York’s High Line project, have been lauded for providing socio-economic benefits and critiqued for negatively impacting on people’s sense of place and their role in gentrifying nearby areas. Therefore, our project sought to explore the means through which Green Infrastructure can provide multiple social and environmental benefits, whilst also trying to ensure that such benefits are experienced in a socially inclusive manner.

Using the UK as a case study, our research was directed by three main questions:

(1) Can a set of guiding social principles be adopted for Green Infrastructure?

(2) Where principles are already being applied, what challenges do practitioners face?

(3) Do the principles and their challenges vary across project stages?

To answer these questions, we conducted in-depth interviews with professionals whose work explicitly involves Green Infrastructure (interviewees included developers, landscape consultants and local authority employees). Participants were also given a short survey to complete which focused on the principles and the challenges of implementing these at each stage of a project life cycle. The interviews were then based around participants’ survey responses. In total sixteen participants undertook both the interview and the survey, with the data collection period lasting between January and March 2020.


As part of the survey, participants were shown 14 social principles that could be applied to the concept of Green Infrastructure (available here). These principles were developed through a review of the scientific literature on Green Infrastructure, and good practice guidelines and reports.


  1. Green Infrastructure should include small-scale interventions that evenly distribute access to nature for all residents.
  1. Funding for Green Infrastructure should cover the full life cycle of projects (i.e. including maintenance and monitoring costs).
  1. There should be regular checks or audits in place to ensure that Green Infrastructure projects comply with relevant policies and procedures.
  1. The preferences of residents and stakeholder groups should be incorporated into Green Infrastructure projects, even if these limit other goals.
  1. There should be national Green Infrastructure standards that are embedded within planning and social policy.
  1. There should be clear targets and responsibilities in the monitoring and maintenance of Green Infrastructure projects post-installation.
  1. Socio-economic trade-offs associated with Green Infrastructure need to be considered, and negative impacts minimised especially in areas of high inequality.
  1. Green Infrastructure should be in keeping with existing land uses and cultural contexts of an area, even if these are ‘industrial’.
  1. Private profit should not be prioritised over public interest when seeking funding from private actors for Green Infrastructure.
  1. Access for all users throughout the year should be included in Green Infrastructure.
  1. Evidence from completed projects should be used to revise Green Infrastructure goals and future projects.
  1. Green Infrastructure should help bring communities together.
  1. Green Infrastructure projects should be inclusive of minority and disadvantaged groups, working to ensure they benefit following installation.
  1. Green Infrastructure should enhance community resilience (i.e. the ability of a community to use locally-available resources and withstand adverse situations).


In general, participants agreed with the social principles being suggested, with strongest agreement expressed for the principles which focus on equal access rights, inclusivity, community resilience and availability of funds throughout the project cycle. There was a greater diversity of opinion regarding principles designed to incorporate the views of stakeholders into designs and ensuring that existing land use and cultural contexts are maintained. Participants felt that, although Green Infrastructure should be in keeping with existing land use, the application of this principle should be context-dependent and not preclude the implementation of Green Infrastructure, especially where such land use inhibits rewilding opportunities.

When participants were asked the extent to which they felt they could apply the suggested principles in their recent work, responses were more varied. Participants employed in the public sector were, generally, more negative about the potential application of the principles, whereas those in the private sector reported more positive experiences. During the interviews, participants also expanded upon their experiences, frequently mentioning that the principles could be applied more effectively. Participants employed in the public sector were particularly concerned by the need to organise and finance the monitoring and maintenance of Green Infrastructure, and this issue emerged as being central to ensuring the sustainability of the Green Infrastructure. The main challenge was that the responsibility for maintaining Green Infrastructure is often the responsibility of multiple actors, or no-one actor explicitly.

Participants also discussed the issue of Green Infrastructure becoming phased out of projects following the design and consultation phases of projects when costs become clearer. Removing Green Infrastructure during the implementation phase of projects was viewed as a problem predominantly in areas of the UK where Green Infrastructure has not yet been fully incorporated into local authority development plans. Rather than sitting at the core of a holistic design, participants described how the elements of new developments which are Green Infrastructure are often understood as being ‘nice to have’, but frequently recede in importance and attention as projects progress through their stages of completion.

Participants were also asked at which stage of a project each principle should be applied. Project stages were defined as: (1) policy and planning; (2) project concept and technical design; (3) implementation and construction; and (4) long-term management and monitoring. The most frequently selected stage was the first stage – policy and planning – indicating a strong desire for principles to be applied at strategic and policy levels. Stage two was the stage which was second-most selected by participants, the implication of which is that the start of projects is a key moment in Green Infrastructure development. In interviews, participants also highlighted the need to think about long-term issues such as maintenance and monitoring as early as possible in the design phase to help shape a project and ensure its longevity. As a result, stage four (which is often overlooked in academic work on Green Infrastructure) was seen as a very important stage in the application of the proposed principles.


Much of the existing literature focuses on the ecological and socio-economic benefits of Green Infrastructure in a general sense. The work in this project has questioned how these benefits can be experienced in a more socially inclusive manner.

The findings will help to ensure that Green Infrastructure can contribute to the Scottish Government’s National Performance Framework, specifically through the national outcome that people ‘value, enjoy, protect and enhance their environment’ whilst ensuring that Green Infrastructure ‘reduces inequalities and gives equal importance to economic, environmental and social progress’. We have explored this potential through encouraging debate as to how Green Infrastructure should be designed, implemented and maintained, and questioning the role of policy in this context, rather than by seeking to redefine Green Infrastructure.

A clear outcome of the project’s approach to focus attention on Green Infrastructure development stages has been to highlight the need to attend, in more detail, to the actors that become involved in Green Infrastructure beyond architects and developers, such as contractors who maintain such spaces and the benefits this could bring.

Furthermore, this research has clearly highlighted the role of local authorities, and the implementation of their strategic plans, in ensuring the inclusion of Green Infrastructure in new developments. Determining a clear set of Green Infrastructure principles will assist councils’ efforts to include Green Infrastructure in future local plans. This is of particular concern given the urgent need to create a socially just green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Project Partners

Macaulay Development Trust

Research Papers