As urban designers, we have to recognise that our cities and economies are battling on a number of fronts. In 2021, the World Economic Forum identified environmental degradation as the top long-term risk and climate action failure as the second most likely long-term threat to growth. Already, cities are experiencing a significant reduction of green and blue areas, temperature increases, water, air and soil pollution, drought, flooding, overcrowding and sea level rises.
So inevitably, the concern that I see expressed by a majority of governments, policy makers, planners, developers and investors – particularly in rapidly urbanising cities – is that without a holistic approach to growth that incorporates resilient design, they face two interdependent challenges. Firstly, how do they promote economic growth and employment and ensure protection of the environment and address climate change? Secondly how do they develop urban infrastructure, transport and services that enhance urban living and sustainability, while preserving the norms and values that are typical to their region?
Driven by forward-thinking programs in countries like Singapore and Vietnam, we can see that the use of green infrastructure is stimulating an integrated approach to sustainable design, reducing the risks that climate change poses and improving quality of life for all.
At a city scale incorporating green infrastructure into masterplans offers sensitive and intelligent strategies for storm water management, promotes health and wellbeing in communities and revitalises urban centres into rich and engaging city places that echo the biodiversity of the area.
At a project level, the process of developing green infrastructure is, in a way, similar to the process of reforestation. It can regenerate and heal habitats, renew an area by evolving and transforming the way we prioritise animal and pedestrian movement and revive spaces by introducing refreshing and colourful designs that celebrate new ways of living.
I am seeing designers embrace these solutions, looking for creative ways to introduce nature and greenery into projects; being considerate of climates where it thrives. It’s a liberating and rewarding process that not only creates attractive, striking building forms but, on a grander scale, also helps lower global temperatures and protect existing, vulnerable natural assets.
Now, green infrastructure and the benefits it provides are being explored as a strategy for major riverside regeneration projects, across the globe. The relationship between cities and the rivers that run through them are often considered fundamental to their urban development because of their profound interactions with both humans and nature. It is often said that rivers don’t just carry water, they carry life.
Simply put, comprehensive riverside designs can holistically support the environmental, social and economic needs of the communities and biodiversity they serve.
Sure, it’s easier said than done. Unlike most developed cities around the world where I’ve long seen a gentrification of once-polluted working rivers and waterways – the riverside land and property values of many urbanising cities remains unattractively low, from an investment perspective. From China to South America, there are numerous places where the cities still turn their back to the river and those people that live in the shanty towns and temporary settlements that sprawl out alongside them.
But a step change is happening. I’ve seen river regeneration-led projects in Indonesia, led by consortiums of civil engineering contractors seeking to capitalise on potentially lucrative government contracts for new river flood and purification infrastructure works, whilst reciprocally unlocking adjacent riverside land plots for further investment. Similarly, in Ho Chi Minh City, new road infrastructure, funded in partnership by city government and local investors, are shifting the polluted and traffic-choked road arteries away from the river edge to provide improved public access, amenities, and future development opportunities.
Aside from the bigger strategic implications on city development, these riverside regeneration projects give us the opportunity to implement green infrastructure throughout entire urban centres. Components such as rain gardens, green roofs, attenuation ponds and tanks, bio-retention swales, wetland filtration beds, porous hard surfaces, floating planting and aeration systems form city-wide green infrastructure network strategies.
By blending the best native planting and supporting new habitats along the riverside, we can weave together the culture of cities and communities to create beautiful new places where people and nature can flourish together. Because that’s what good regeneration looks like. It’s creative, considerate, cohesive and good for the planet.