Covid-19 has resulted in a public health and economic crisis like nothing we have ever seen before. When Covid-19 struck, it flipped the world on its head bringing life as we knew it to a standstill. Schools and offices were shut, cities were devoid of public transportation, precious moments were spent in solitude and in some cases, residents were confined to a tight perimeter around their houses.
This pandemic has created a perfect storm and as Winston Churchill once famously remarked, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” History shows that the darkest of times have led to some of the most revolutionary developments that have shaped the trajectory of humanity, and this crisis is no exception. In their response, governments and policymakers turned to infrastructure to kickstart their recovery, and for good reason. Infrastructure stimulus has a tremendous economic impact as it not only produces jobs but develops long-term assets that can sustain long-term growth.
Is there, however, a way to develop an infrastructure strategy that addresses not only economic but also climatic and social concerns?
The emergence of the epidemic coincided with the unveiling of the European Green Deal, an ambitious plan to transform the EU into the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. The ultimate aim of the deal is to enable European cities to rebuild their economies, address complex social issues and tackle the climate and ecological crisis at the same time. With a significant financial backing accounting for one third of the €1.8 trillion euro investments from the Next Generation EU Recovery Plan, the deal is well positioned to serve as a lifeline out of the pandemic.
A promising strategy that can address the various economic and social challenges in a sustainable manner is 'green infrastructure.' Green infrastructure (GI) is a network that uses nature to solve urban and climatic challenges. GI successfully combines ecological and social values with other land-use values, making it a remarkably effective contemporary planning tool for working towards sustainable and resilient urban areas. The term is quickly gaining popularity in Europe, so how might it help the European Green Deal achieve its goals?
Green infrastructure provides a wide range of ecosystem services, such as carbon storage, water purification, improved air quality, food production, biodiversity, and climate mitigation and adaptation. It promotes a sustainable economy by creating jobs and business opportunities. Furthermore, GI can help reduce urban heat islands and allow rainwater to infiltrate, thereby reducing the burden on drainage systems. Investing in green infrastructure can also help cities adapt to a rapidly changing climate and the increasingly severe weather events that come with it.
One of the pandemic’s most enduring legacies will likely be a newfound appreciation for high-quality public green areas in cities, as well as the value of healthy local surroundings. Green infrastructure provides access to nature and outdoor recreation, both of which have been shown to considerably improve health and well-being. In providing new green spaces, green infrastructure also adds vital permeability to the urban landscape that can reunite species and habitats that were previously separated.
An essential lesson learned from the crisis is that people’s behaviours, organisations, and even infrastructure may change far more quickly than we previously thought. Cities in Europe are not as ‘locked in’ to traditional methods of doing things as often believed. Cities may, if required, drastically alter the way we work and live inside them. This has significant consequences for the goals that cities set for themselves in order to enable the transformational system changes that will be required to address the social, economic, climatic, and ecological crises in the coming years.
The infrastructure sector is clearly a priority for governments in the post-Covid-19 era, although methods may vary depending on available financial resources and pledges to green policies. Infrastructure investment will be critical in reviving urban economic activity following the crisis, allowing cities to integrate recovery efforts with climatic, environmental, and social equality goals.
The pandemic has provided urban planners with a ripe opportunity to rethink how to restructure cities in a more ecological, sustainable way. Through investing in green infrastructure, as well as other sustainability initiatives, governments can accelerate progress toward a carbon-free, more inclusive future. This crisis is a once in a lifetime opportunity to reset, turn a new leaf, advance and thrive, because after all, that’s what we do best.