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The forms and functions of green infrastructure

In a nutshell

A healthy network of green infrastructure provides great benefits for both citizens and biodiversity. It also requires careful planning and coordination.

What is green infrastructure?

Green infrastructure is a strategically planned network of natural and semi-natural areas with other environmental features designed and managed to deliver a wide range of ecosystem services such as water purification, air quality, space for recreation and climate mitigation and adaptation. This network of green (land) and blue (water) spaces can improve environmental conditions and therefore citizens' health and quality of life. It also supports a green economy, creates job opportunities and enhances biodiversity.

Green infrastructure includes biodiversity-rich natural areas such as woodland, ponds or wild flower meadows. In the EU, the Natura 2000 network of protected nature areas constitutes the backbone of green infrastructure. It is a reservoir of biodiversity that can be drawn upon to repopulate and revitalize degraded environments and catalyse the development of green infrastructure.

But green infrastructure also includes semi-natural spaces such as parks, private gardens, hedges or agricultural fields and covers artificial features built to enhance ecosystem services or assist wildlife movement, such as green roofs and walls or eco-bridges and fish ladders. It can even be enhanced by individual gestures such as collecting rain water or leaving parts of a garden untouched to provide a home for wildlife and protect biodiversity.

The multifunctionality of green infrastructure

The term green infrastructure describes what such infrastructure is, but also what it can do. Green spaces used to be valued for a single use: parks for recreation, woodland for timber, oceans for food, etc. But green infrastructure has many more benefits. Contrary to single-purpose, traditional grey infrastructure, green spaces can perform a variety of very useful functions, often simultaneously and at a fraction of the cost. One of the key attractions of green infrastructure is this multi-functionality.

For instance, planting trees and restoring wetlands is a suitable alternative to building a new water treatment plant; restoring floodplains is much cheaper and just as effective in preventing floods as building a new, higher dike. What is more, a restored forest, wetland or floodplain will also provide a much needed habitat for certain rare and endangered species of animals and plants and help us tackle erosion and climate change. These are all additional benefits at no extra cost.

Maintaining the health of ecosystems

Every day, 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 (see Spatial analysis of green infrastructure in Europe, 2014, EEA report)

By maintaining, reconnecting and enhancing green infrastructure, we can help ensure that this network of healthy ecosystems and semi-natural areas is managed as a coherent, multifunctional resource. It will also help ensure that ecosystems can keep on fostering biodiversity and deliver their many services such as clean air and water, flood prevention, crop pollination, carbon storage, improved health and well-being. This requires careful planning and coordinated action to achieve a balanced system of protection, sustainable use and management at local, regional, national and European levels. Discover the EU Strategy on Green Infrastructure.

Reaping the many benefits of green infrastructure

Restoring a floodplain forest instead of building a dyke doesn't just benefit local people. Forests that feature a good mix of species, age and structure absorb large quantities of water and protect the soil, preventing and reducing the impacts of floods and landslides. They also provide habitats for animals, offer recreational areas and contribute to global climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration.

Green infrastructure can and should be an integral part of urban areas too – particularly in densely populated areas. Properly designed parks, urban gardens, green roofs and walls can all contribute to biodiversity. They also help tackle climate change, significantly enhance the health and well-being of urban residents, improving social cohesion and the quality of the living environment. With the right kind of planning, urban development can be made in a way that does not destroy the future potential of a site and strikes the right balance between different needs.

Corridors and stepping stones

Protected areas are the backbone of green infrastructure but other natural and semi-natural areas are indispensable to connect all green and blue spaces into a functioning network. They might be stepping stones, like a group of trees for birds or a hedgerow linking field and forest habitats or more substantial, man-made corridors, such as fish ladders on rivers or eco-bridges over motorways.

These corridors and stepping stones all allow species to overcome otherwise insurmountable barriers. It helps plant species to spread and gives animals more space to interact, find food and shelter, improving the overall resilience of the species.

Green bridges and eco-ducts also reduce accidents involving wild animals and cars - which, in some countries such as Germany, cost above 300 million euros a year in damages. According to recent estimates, around a million accidents a year are caused by ungulates alone on European roads. (see report)

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