Researchers call for unified definition of vague ‘green infrastructure’

Lead study author Zbigniew Grabowski, of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, found that the most common city plans involve stormwater and sewer systems when referring to green infrastructure. Photo Credit: VectorMine,

As North American city planners increasingly adopt “green infrastructure,” some researchers say it’s time to narrow the scope of its chameleon-like definition, so that everyone can at least be on the same page.

A new study used keyword searches to find 122 green infrastructure plans from 20 U.S. cities, allowing researchers to dig further into the term’s usage.

What they found was that 57% of city plans had different definitions of green infrastructure, so they also identified the types of urban plans, concepts, functions and benefits associated with these green infrastructure projects, often just called “GI”.

In other words, researchers wanted to assess various cities’ takes on what is it, how it works, and why we should even care about GI?

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As far as the term’s definition goes, the study states that, “GI in the U.S. and elsewhere embodies a paradox. On the one hand, GI’s roots embed a landscape-oriented concept in research and planning; on the other hand, GI is often focused only on stormwater management.”

Lead study author Zbigniew Grabowski, of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, found that the most common city plans involve stormwater and sewer systems.

“City planning often fails to explicitly define GI, but when it does, stormwater concepts of GI are much more prevalent than landscape or integrative concepts,” the study states.

When it comes to stormwater, the researchers also found that GI tools often offered the “greatest number of benefits despite circumscribing types and functions of GI,” which the study equates to a form of “greenwashing”.

Grabowski also says that GI’s definition should be cleared up for another critical reason: funding.

“This narrow view can limit project funding and cause cities to miss out on vital social and ecological services that more integrative green infrastructure can provide,” he said in a statement.

The researchers decided on the following definition as perhaps a new place to start when the next municipal GI discussion begins:

“Green infrastructure refers to a system of interconnected ecosystems, ecological–technological hybrids, and built infrastructures providing contextual social, environmental, and technological functions and benefits,” the study recommends.

According to the Green Infrastructure Ontario Coalition, GI is defined as “the natural vegetative systems and green technologies that collectively provide society with a multitude of economic, environmental, health, and social benefits.” That could include urban forests and woodlots, bioswales, engineered wetlands and stormwater ponds, as well as green roofs and walls, or parks and gardens, to name a few, the group states.

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