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No green without water

25 of February '22

Joanna Rayss is interviewed by Katarzyna Jagodzinska

The need for greenery in the city, although seemingly so obvious today, is still an issue that needs to be promoted and raised awareness. Greenery goes hand in hand with water, so emphasizing the importance of water in the term "blue-green infrastructure," as Joanna Rayss points out, distracts attention from what is most important in cities - that is, the green deficit and a comprehensive look at green retention.

Katarzyna Jagodzinska: What is blue-green infrastructure in cities?

Joanna Rayss: I am very glad that you asked this question at the very beginning. On the one hand, the recent fashion of the term is a great opportunity for landscape architecture and greenery in general to show the importance of water and nature issues to the great benefit of cities and urban areas. On the other hand, for me as a landscape architect, the element of cities most in need of promotion and development, and most underestimated, is greenery. Meanwhile, the term "blue-green infrastructure" relegates greenery to the background, which is why I dislike the term very much. Much closer to me is the source term coined in Anglo-Saxon countries, or "green infrastructure"(GI). It was first used in 1994 in a Florida Greenways Commission report onLand Conservation Strategies. It was used precisely to highlight the values and social functions of natural areas and systems on a par with gray infrastructure. On the other hand, the first precise definition of GI can be found in Mark Benedict and Edward T. McMahon's 2002 publication Smart Conservation for the 21st Century and 2006's Green Infrastructure: linking landscapes and communities, which sought to elevate the terminology related to natural systems of cities to a higher utilitarian level, emphasizing the value of the services that ecosystems can provide to people.

Stogi district in Gdansk, status before the implementation of the pilot project

Photo: Joanna Rayss

It is the question of the value of ecosystem services that, in my opinion, is the fundamental difference between the so-called natural system of the city, originally defined and implemented back in the 19th century in the United States by Frederick Law Olmsted (in the form of Boston's The Emerald Necklace system) and green infrastructure. The benefits of trees and greenery were already known at the time, but what was lacking was a methodology for converting the value of these benefits into financial values.

As Benedict and McMahon wrote, green infrastructure is "an interconnected network of natural areas and other spaces ... in which natural ecosystem processes and services are maintained and protected, providing clean water and air and a wide range of benefits for people and nature." This "wide range of benefits" is precisely the ecosystem services whose value we are able to estimate and include in the calculation of investments and spatial activities. Only then can we have a true picture of investments in urban areas. Green infrastructure, moreover, is a system of interconnected natural elements - green space and water, hence blue is an immanent part of green infrastructure. There is no green without water.

I understand why they started talking about blue-green infrastructure, emphasizing the role of water. The idea was to "take water out from under the ground" in urban areas. However, water by itself, without a natural connection and the use of its ability to provide services, is not enough. After all, we can have water alone simply in the form of a mono-functional and expensive fountain, and we cannot have greenery without water. That's why I encourage you to talk, however, about green infrastructure and water-related elements that can supply greenery with water.

Stogi district in Gdansk, workshop with residents

Photo: Grzegorz Pęczek

In an interdisciplinary team formed within the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Gdansk University of Technology, we prepared a publication that defined solutions for retention greenery and called the System of Surface Urban Retention, or SPRIM for short. We needed this at the time because of the interdisciplinary nature of the team. In the course of working on joint projects, it turned out that when we spoke, as we thought, about the same thing, we were, however, thinking about different things. Due to the multiplicity of foreign terminology devoted to water management issues, we also needed to standardize terminology in Polish. Relying on current translations of Anglo-Saxon terms, we could not emphasize the qualities of "green retention," which we wanted. We wanted to encourage simple, surface solutions that are hydrological and natural compensation for investments. We also wanted to be able to apply the term regardless of the scale of the solution: from a single building, to the development of an estate, to a neighborhood or city. I am convinced that SPRIM meets these criteria. Importantly, the introduction of this solution at the scale of a city can become a way of systemic implementation of green infrastructure on the basis of natural resources already possessed in cities or municipalities, which are usually, through fragmentation and fragmentation, difficult to give value not only to the ecosystem, but also to the system in general. For me, the Surface Urban Retention System is functional greenery, which is supposed to supply the city's green infrastructure with water just like the blood system supplies the human body with valuable vital substances.

Katarzyna: In your opinion, what is the place of green infrastructure in today's urban policies?

Joanna: Ultimately, it should be a universally applicable natural paradigm in cities or municipalities that regulates the coherence, functionality and form of the urban ecosystem. On the other hand, we can implement green infrastructure in several ways, I myself am convinced that there are at least three: bottom-up, centrifugal and top-down. It all depends on how advanced the natural system existing in a given urban unit is. If, as in Gdansk, a city already has a natural system defined in the planning structure (in Gdansk it is the All-City System of Biologically Active Areas, OSTAB), then it is worthwhile to carry out the implementation evolutionarily - from the bottom up, for example, by means of local pilot projects that, over timetime reaching the right potential, can turn into local standards, recommendations and policies, and thanks to the snowball effect grow into the content of local plans. Eventually, it can be hoped that through such actions ZI (green infrastructure) will also be reflected in the Study. This is the path we have taken in Gdansk. First there were grassroots-inspired pilot activities. They were later translated into a municipal policy of small retention, the most important element of which is a policy of requirements determining the possibility of connecting to the municipal drainage system - here it is required to take responsibility for the hydrological compensation of investment by investors in the form of SPRIM precisely. On the other hand, green infrastructure itself does not yet function in any official strategic documents, and is not defined in any of the local plans.

Stogi neighborhood in Gdansk, implemented pilot project

photo: Aleksander Lech

Green infrastructure can also be implemented top-down. The condition, however, is a local pool of "enlightened" and substantively convinced officials and experts. I have the impression that this is the path taken by Warsaw, defining ZI very precisely at the level of the Study. The next step will be to translate the provisions of the Study into local plans. For me, this very study of the Warsaw Study by Prof. Barbara Szulczewska's team is a model example of a top-down way of implementing ZI.

The third is the centrifugal way, implemented from the official-social level in parallel. This is the best way to implement the idea for cities and municipalities without a defined structure of the natural system in municipal strategic documents. In such a case, there is no time to focus only on the plans and the Study itself. It is already too late for that. It is necessary to create pilot solutions and corresponding provisions in any local standards and policies in parallel. This is necessary because green infrastructure is actually a tool to solve one of the most important challenges of modern cities - adaptation to and mitigation of the effects of climate change!

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