Evidence type: Policy
Natural Economy Northwest, working with partners, has played a key role in stimulating a new and radical approach to green infrastructure that seeks to plan, deliver and manage it in comparable ways to other forms of critical infrastructure. The aim is to maximise its economic, social and environmental benefits. The better the quality of the ecosystem services that support human activity, the greater the benefits.
Central to the achievements of the NENW programme is the groundbreaking research underpinning the publication The Economic Value of Green Infrastructure. This outlined 11 benefits to be gained from investment in green infrastructure (GI), as shown in the diagram. It is clear from this illustration that GI underpins the success and sustainability of other parts of the economy.
The direct gross value added (GVA) from the environment has been calculated at £2.6bn, supporting 109,000 jobs in environmental and related fields. But it's more than that - healthy environments are essential for sustainable futures.
Green infrastructure can help the region adapt to some of the effects of climate change. Severe flooding is on the increase. By protecting or promoting woodlands, water and wetland habitats and grasslands, and creating sustainable urban drainage systems, flooding can be managed or alleviated.
NENW's work has clearly demonstrated that huge socio-economic gains are delivered from natural environment projects. If environmental project managers can point out how projects can deliver socio-economic benefits, this puts them in a better position to engage with non-environmental stakeholders and attract additional funding.
Another example is the Peatlands for People project at South Solway Mosses, between the hills of the Lake District and the Solway estuary. Much of the area consists of lowland peat bogs, home to a wide range of wildlife, including rare birds, insects and plants. The bogs act as an important 'carbon store', locking up more than 11,000 tonnes of CO2 a year.
The 'social cost' of each additional tonne of CO2 emitted is put at £42, putting the annual value of the carbon storage function provided by the South Solway Mosses in the region of £481,000.
Work to raise awareness of these peat bogs and link them to the region's culture, economy and quality of life, is likely to attract an additional 17,000 visits a year to the area, with a value of more than £117,000 to the Cumbrian economy.
There is mounting pressure from national and regional policy for more focus on environmental factors when delivering grey infrastructure projects, and to use green infrastructure to lessen any harmful effects of economic growth. Extreme weather events, which affect thousands of people, often exacerbate such pressures.
A vital feature of green infrastructure is that it is multifunctional. Many functions that seem to be only environmental or social may have significant economic consequences. For example, a project that aims to improve visitors' experience in a city centre may focus on planting trees to make the surroundings more attractive. However, the trees will have other benefits too, such as helping to mitigate the effects of storm water run-off and minimising the urban heat island effect.
Sometimes more complex approaches can be used. In areas of high flood risk, for example, green infrastructure can be used in upstream water catchment areas to mitigate increased reliance on pipes and sewers downstream.
Natural tourism covers a host of activities - from the quiet enjoyment of tranquil landscapes to the energy of adrenalin-fuelled sports like rock climbing and sailing.
If the offer is good enough to encourage people to holiday within the UK rather than travel abroad, there is a double benefit through the reduction in CO2 emissions.
The Northwest's wetlands and coast are particularly suited for natural tourism development. Wetlands are critical for the functioning of the natural landscape, providing ecosystem services for wildlife and society.
The area around Morecambe Bay, for example, hosts a mosaic wetland with an exceptional range of biodiversity, including the last viable population of high brown fritillary butterflies.
Biodiversity makes business sense, as a pioneering project run by NENW in Cumbria has shown. Thanks to the Natural Benefits for Business (NB4B) project, commercial ventures across Cumbria discovered that simple and inexpensive changes in working practices could have lasting benefits not only for wildlife but also for their business. In total, 66 businesses took part and received advice from Cumbria Rural Enterprise Agency, supported by the Cumbria Biodiversity Partnership, on how they could boost biodiversity within their enterprise.
NENW has been involved in green roofing projects in Liverpool and Greater Manchester. As well as producing environmental benefits such as enhanced biodiversity, reduced storm water runoff and better flood risk management, green roofs have other advantages.
Unicorn Grocery in Manchester, for example, achieved 25% reductions in fuel bills and 10% cuts in water rates, while a green roof on a new business development in Piccadilly Basin was built using construction rubble which would otherwise have had to be carted off-site.
South Solway Peatlands: The Northwest's wetlands are not only a vital natural resource, but are also vital to the region's economy. They act as a store for carbon, they attract tourists, and they support rural communities.
The South Solway Peatlands provide an example of how effective environmental management also creates economic value. The peatlands, between the hills of the Lake District and the Solway estuary, help to alleviate coastal erosion and the possible effects of rising sea levels. The area is a natural 'carbon store' whose community and economic benefit to the region has been calculated at £481,000 annually.
The Northwest approach towards understanding green infrastructure provides a comprehensive process and framework for relating the planning, creation and management of natural environments to social and economic benefits. It offers a way of combining the economy, sustainable communities, quality of place and ecosystem services agendas.
It is important to recognise this because the traditional measure of economic success – Gross Value Added (GVA) – fails to adequately record the contribution of the natural environment. Green Infrastructure (which involves working with biodiversity, landscape, environmental protection and the use of natural resources) contributes directly to GVA, helps create the conditions for growth, contributes to the wider benefits of quality of place and life, increases economic security and provides the underpinning ecosystem services for future sustainability.