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Why smart city infrastructure is going green

Cities that want to expand their green infrastructure investment or kick-start initiatives will need to demonstrate results

 Bosco Verticale skyscraper complex in Milan
Bosco Verticale skyscraper complex in Milan

The word ‘infrastructure’ doesn’t exactly get the pulse racing. You typically think ugly, grey, utilitarian but you might increasingly see green, alive and multi-functional.


Thanks to more examples of successful implementations, new technology and a steadily increasing body of evidence about benefits, there is growing interest in the use of green infrastructure to manage issues such as stormwater, pollution and rising temperatures, as well as to improve the look and feel of our cities.


There isn’t a universal definition of green infrastructure but it’s broadly agreed to refer to green (and sometimes blue) features that help to solve urban and environmental challenges. Examples include existing parks and rivers, as well as street trees, green roofs, living walls and permeable pavements.



Forest cities


Architect Stefano Boeri is passionate about green infrastructure and demonstrates the art of the possible with his fantastical-looking plant-covered buildings. He is famed for his tree-clad Bosco Verticale (vertical forest) skyscraper complex in Milan and is now working on urban forestation projects in countries around the world, including Switzerland, Holland, Brazil, Albania and France.


Boeri comments, “Cities are two per cent of the entire Earth’s land surface, but they are producing 70 per cent of CO2. If we seriously want to deal with climate change, we have to study where climate change is produced. Forests absorb approximately 40 per cent of [man-made] CO2, so increasing the number of trees and plants inside a city is a crucial issue.”


Boeri’s now has a vision for ’forest cities’. This ambitious plan will start with Liuzhou Forest City, which will be built in the north of Liuzhou in China, a country with one of the most chronic air pollution problems in the world. Construction is expected to begin before 2020 and will see offices, houses, hotels, hospitals and schools that are entirely covered by plants and trees.


Once completed, Boeri says the new city will be home to 30,000 people, absorb almost 10,000 tons of CO2 and 57 tons of pollutants per year, and produce approximately 900 tons of oxygen. It will have 40,000 trees and almost 1 million plants of over 100 species.



Beyond ’bigger pipes’


Not all green infrastructure initiatives are quite so radical but they are still making a big difference. Aaron Koch is Chicago’s first Chief Resilience Officer, appointed last year.


One of the challenges he is tackling is storm water management. He says, “In Chicago, like most big cities, we have lots of buildings, roads, hard surfaces…so water runs into our sewer system. Our sewer system often can’t handle that rainfall and it either ends up as an overflow into our rivers, which causes pollution, or it backs up into people’s basements. In Chicago, many of our homes have basements.”


Chicago is making major investments in the city’s local sewers, but at the same time recognises “we can’t just solve this problem by building bigger pipes”.


Green infrastructure, Koch says, can reduce the impact on the sewer system and keep the water from entering the sewer altogether. At the same time, it provides other benefits such as improving public spaces and air quality, absorbing heat and more.


One example is Chicago’s ‘streetscapes’ such as Argyle Street, which opened late last year. It’s intended to be a ‘shared street’ between pedestrians, cars and cyclists. As well as raising the level of the roadway, eliminating curbs, adding decorative pavement and creating a plaza-like effect, the project incorporated a number of green infrastructure elements, including use of permeable pavers and infiltration planters that soak up rainwater.


Space to Grow is another Chicago initiative. Often, schoolyards are paved with asphalt, meaning they’re not ideal for playing in and they generate a lot of storm water run-off. So far, as part of Space to Grow, a dozen playgrounds have been updated to include green infrastructure such as rain gardens, bioswales, plants and permeable pavements, as well as play features and benches etc. 34 Space to Grow playgrounds will be built by 2019.


Koch says, “These spaces function as green infrastructure but also provide better environments for the children to play, as well as connecting to the science curriculum so they can learn about environmental issues.”


Koch says a key strategy for success with increasing green infrastructure has been partnering, not only with external agencies but also with city departments to make projects financially viable.


Using the Argyle Street example, he explains, “If we went to build a green infrastructure project on our own only with Water Department money, we would have to pay for engineering, design, mobilisation, excavation, etc. Our Department of Transportation already had a project underway which included the money for [all of that]. By partnering, we were able to bring green infrastructure money and apply it right where it actually is contributing to making green infrastructure.”



Measuring success


Cities that want to expand their green infrastructure investment or kick-start initiatives will need to demonstrate results. Experts are agreed that this is an emerging area but more research is needed to prove the case.


Chicago is working with UI Labs’ City Digital to pilot technology incorporating sensors and cloud-based analytics to evaluate the performance of green infrastructure for storm-water management.

Through the Smart Green Infrastructure Management Pilot, sensors at sites around Chicago, including Argyle Street, measure how much moisture is held in green infrastructure, such as biosoil, permeable pavement, roadside planters and tree grade infiltration beds. The sensors feed into a communications module which also collects information from a small weather station installed at each site. The data is transmitted back to a Microsoft Azure cloud data platform and made available through an online dashboard and the City of Chicago’s open data portal.


“That data’s alive and open to anyone interested in accessing it,” says Alex Frank, programme manager, City Digital, UI Labs. “We think this programme is unique in its ability to provide continuous monitoring data in an efficient manner. It’s something that can be useful both to the City of Chicago and their thinking about further investments in green infrastructure, but also provide data and understanding for green infrastructure and developments anywhere across the world.”


As well as demonstrating how well each type of intervention works, this real-time approach could also help cities shift green infrastructure from being a passive to an active resource, Frank says.

He comments, “There are interesting technologies out there, a little diversion mechanism you could open and close whenever you wanted, to divert water to or from the green infrastructure. So a city could actively manage where water is flowing in the city.”



Technology tells the story


Green infrastructure initiatives and the drive for smart cities can appear to run parallel to each other in some ways, with the latter typically adding more tech, not more nature. But the two can work together and, fittingly, the City of Palo Alto is another good example of this.


Palo Alto is best known for its Silicon Valley tech companies but its trees are striking too. The City itself is named after the El Palo Alto (“the tall tree”).


Palo Alto has an inventory of all its street trees. Soon it will also add park trees and a way for residents to add their private trees. Palo Alto’s Urban Forester, Walter Passmore, is working closely with the city’s CIO to install new software for tree inventory and tools for better GIS tracking of green infrastructure.


The city uses this data and modelling to put a numerical value on the value its trees bring to the city – for example, it currently calculates that based on 37,503 street trees, the city garners financial benefits worth over $17.6 million a year, including greenhouse gas avoidance, air quality improvements, property benefits and more.


Passmore says, “It’s not enough for us just to say [green infrastructure] is important. We have to back it up with quantification and research, and that needs to be data-driven. There’s a really important role for technology to help tell the story of why nature is so important.”



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