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Informal greenspace as green infrastructure? Potential, challenges and future directions


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Green infrastructure can provide a wide range of urban ecosystem services, from recreation and health benefits (Tzoulas et al. 2007) to pollution reduction, biodiversity habitat and high temperature reduction (Norton et al. 2015). However, using exclusively formal greenspaces such as city parks and street trees poses two problems. First, implementing and maintaining green infrastructure in cities carries substantial costs (Naumann et al. 2010). Land acquisition may be prohibitive for rapidly growing cities with high land prices (e.g., Sydney, Singapore, Hong Kong), while implementation and maintenance costs may limit feasibility for shrinking cities (e.g., Detroit, Leipzig, Kyoto). Second, projects are often tied to expectations for economic returns on investment, which may not benefit local residents but can cause eco-gentrification (Wolch, Byrne, and Newell 2014). In this paper we draw upon recent research (Rupprecht and Byrne 2014; Rupprecht and Byrne 2015; Rupprecht, Byrne, Garden, et al. 2015; Rupprecht, Byrne, Ueda, et al. 2015) to argue that ‘informal urban greenspace’ (e.g. vacant lots, street and railway verges, brownfields and power lines etc.) could be used as green infrastructure, and that it indeed already performs this function to some degree. We discuss how informal greenspaces may complement traditional elements of green infrastructure, how both growing and shrinking cities may be able to integrate it into green planning strategies, and what challenges its use may pose. We conclude by presenting a multi-layered provisional roadmap of directions for future research on geographical, planning-related and ecological aspects of informal greenspaces relevant for its use as green infrastructure.
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Informal greenspace as
green infrastructure?
Potential, challenges
and future directions
Christoph Rupprecht (@focx)
Jason Byrne (@citybyrne)
Environmental Futures Research Institute
Griffith University
AAG Annual Meeting 2016
Formal green space vs. green infrastructure
Green space
Parks, gardens,
conservation areas
Nice to have’ (Benedict
& McMahon 2006)
Focus on recreation
Planned & designed
Green infrastructure
Conflicting definitions on what
counts as green infrastructure
Must have’ (Benedict &
McMahon 2006)
‘human-modified’ intentional
landscapes’ (Matthews et al.
2015/Byrne et al. 2015)
Functions & problems of parks and green infrastructure
Potential functions, e.g.
Air quality regulation
Tem per at ur e r egulat ion
Water management
Noise filtration
Conservation, habitat
Recreation, human health
Aesthetic improvement
Food/fuel production
Economic development
(e.g. real estate value)
(Luque & Duff)
New York High Line,
David Berkowitz, Flickr
Potential problems, e.g.
Implementation & maintenance
costs (Naumann et al. 2010)
Expectations of economic returns
Eco-gentrification (Wolch et al. 2014)
Failure to meet diverse needs of
local residents (Campo 2013)
What about spontaneous, informal green spaces?
Street verges Gap spaces
Railway verges
River/canal banks
Vacant lots
Overgrown structures Powerlines
Informal greenspace: A shift in perception
Nuisance Nice to have Must have?
Temporary use
Just green enough tool
Dead space
Novel ecosystems
Urban ecology
de facto natives’
Diverse habitats
Beyond parks: Research on informal green spaces
Recreation studies (>65)
(e.g., Jorgensen & Keenan 2012; Campo 2013;
Barron & Mariani 2013; Franck & Stevens 2007;
Foster 2014; Rupprecht et al. 2015a/b)
ü Lack of official recognition leads
to freedom from purpose
ü Can be used flexibly as needed
Aesthetic value contested (wild
vs. orderly & bucolic)
Vulnerable to development
Biodiversity studies (>170)
(e.g., Bonthoux et al. 2014; Brandes 1983, 1992;
Cilliers & Bredenkamp 1998, 1999a/b; Kowarik
2011; Rupprecht & Byrne 2014; R. et al. 2015c)
ü Important role for conservation
ü De facto native vegetation
ü ~14% of urban green space
Maintenance common and
negative impact on diversity
Can harbor invasive species
Informal greenspace as green infrastructure: Functions
(human health)
Rupprecht & Byrne 2014
Conservation, habitat
Bonthoux et al. 2014, Rupprecht et al.
Food/fuel production
Diaz-Betancourt et al. 1999, McLain
et al. 2014
green enough’ devel.
Foster 2014, Rupprecht & Byrne 2015
Air quality regulation
Weber et al. 2014, McPhearson et al.
Tem per atu re reg ula tio n
McPhearson et al. 2013
McPhearson et al. 2013
Water management
McPhearson et al. 2013
Aesthetic improvement
Rink and Emmerich 2005, Qvistm
2012, Rupprecht et al. 2015
Noise filtration
Economic development
negat. effect?
IGS as green infrastructure in shrinking cities
Expansion of vacant land, but:
Lack of resources to convert it
easily into formal green infra
Depopulation dividend’ (Matanle):
chance for sustainability,
reconfigure urban space
Shift to needs-based
community management?
Coming to terms with loss of
control over urban nature?
Intentional rewilding vs. non-
intervention approach (Hard 2001)
Potential to satisfy growing
demand for urban agriculture &
gardening, shrink cities’ food
IGS as green infrastructure in growing cities
High land cost for green infra
Strong development pressure
Sinking per capita private &
public green space provision
Temporary benefits from
spontaneous vegetation in
transitional sites
Source of unclaimed territory’
(Cloke & Jones 2005),
that disciplines neither people
in their actions nor nature in its
development (Nohl 1990)?
Opportunity to maximize
benefits via policies (e.g.,
interim use, street verge
Street verge
Informal greenspace as green infrastructure: Problems
IGS as green infrastructure: Roadmap for future research
“Basic” research
IGS quantity
IGS types
Tem por alit y
Current usage
Past usage
Lifecycle / generation
Towards theory of IGS?
Implications for theory
(e.g. more-than-human)?
“Applied” research
Ecosystem (dis-)services
Potential future usage
Management approaches
Anti-gentrification potential
Legal dimensions
Planning & policy…
IGS as green infra: Interdisciplinary research endeavor!
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Full-text available
Urban greenspaces harbor considerable biodiversity. Such areas include spontaneously vegetated spaces such as such as brownfields, street or railway verges and vacant lots. While these spaces may contribute to urban conservation, their informal and liminal nature poses a challenge for reviewing what we know about their value for biodiversity. The relevant literature lacks a common terminology. This paper applied a formal definition and typology of informal urban greenspace (IGS) to identify and systematically review a total of 174 peer- reviewed papers in English (152), German (14) and Japanese (8). We identified three main topics: value for conservation (94 papers), factors influencing diversity (80), and non- indigenous species (37). Additionally, we analyzed this literature for temporal trends, spatial patterns, studied IGS types, taxa, climate zones, human impact types, and key authors. Results show IGS plays an important role for biodiversity. Management practices were identified as the most common and negative impact on diversity, while vegetation, site age, distance to city center, and habitat diversity were positive-influence factors. The number and impact of non-indigenous species varied widely. The analysis of literature patterns reveals: an increase in publications over the last 15 years and a strong geographic bias in publications, as well as towards temperate and humid climate zones. Studies of gap, powerline and microsite IGS were scarce, as were studies of mammals and reptiles. Results suggest different maintenance regimes for IGS may improve its contribution to urban conservation. We therefore propose adapting management to the local context.
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This report forms part of a research programme on spontaneous vegetation in urban open spaces in the North West Province, South Africa. The spontaneously growing vegetation of intensively managed sites such as parks, pavements and parking areas was investigated, using numerical methods. The numerical classification technique, TWINSPAN was used for analysing the floristic data as a first approximation and then the data were refined by using Braun-Blanquet procedures. The result is a phytosociological table where ten communities, four sub-communities and two variants, most of them representing undescribed vegetation types for South Africa, were recognised. Associated gradients in habitat and different human impacts are identified by using an ordination algorithm (DECORANA). This is one of the first studies on synanthropic vegetation in South African urban areas and should contribute to our knowledge of the ecology and biology of plant invasions in intensively managed areas.
This report forms part of a research programme on the spontaneous vegetation in urban open spaces in the North West Province, South Africa. Using a numerical classification technique (TWINSPAN) as first approximation, the classification was refined by applying Braun-Blanquet procedures. The result is a phytosociological table. Classification, as well as a description of the communities are presented. A total of four communities, six sub-communities and four variants are described. Associated gradients in habitat or disturbances are identified by using an ordination algorithm (DECORANA). This information should contribute significantly to our present knowledge and understanding of the ecology of vegetation of disturbed areas in the Grassland Biome.
Relatively little is known about ruderal and degraded natural vegetation in urban open spaces in the Grassland Biome of South Africa. The classification of the vegetation on vacant lots forms part of a research programme on spontaneous vegetation in urban open spaces in the North West Province, South Africa. Using a numerical classification technique (TWINSPAN) as a first approximation, the classification was refined by applying Braun-Blanquet procedures. The result is a phytosociological table from which six communities and seven sub-communities, belonging to two main groups, namely degraded natural and ruderal communities, are recognised. The communities which are mainly characterised by one dominant species, a few abundant species and many species with low frequency, are described. Associated gradients in habitat or disturbances are identified by using an ordination algorithm (DECORANA). Possible dynamic relationships between the communities are also discussed.