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Architects must branch out and embrace green infrastructure

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The benefits of green infrastructure are propelling it from optional extra to must-have, says Will Hurst

Could plants help grow the architecture profession? It’s a question worth asking given that 2015 is already looking like the year of the garden, the tree, the shrub, the water meadow and the wind tunnel-tested vertical forest. And it’s not just Stefano Boeri’s extraordinary part-mineral, part-vegetable construction in Milan or Thomas Heatherwick’s equally bold Garden Bridge tapping into this zeitgeist.

Bristol mayor and erstwhile RIBA president George Ferguson has made the city the first in the world to adopt the One Tree per Child initiative, a scheme that will see 36,000 saplings planted by Bristol’s primary schoolchildren – one per child – by 2017. Meanwhile, a compelling new report by the UK Green Building Council sets out the business case for developing ‘green infrastructure’ – natural or semi-natural habitats in our cities, towns and, even, our buildings.

We know city vegetation has an important role in tackling climate change and promoting residents’ health and wellbeing. The report, ‘Demystifying Green Infrastructure’, however, argues it can also increase the value of land and property and improve a project’s prospects for gaining planning permission. As UK-GBC’s acting chief executive John Alker says: ‘We have to shed the image of green infrastructure as a fluffy optional extra, an additional cost or an unnecessary burden. There are a growing number of clients and developers demonstrating [it] is absolutely central to quality placemaking, and that there is a clear business case for it. This has to become the norm.’

The report was sponsored by a materials giant, a property developer and a major contractor – Aggregate Industries, Canary Wharf Group and Skanska respectively – and is primarily aimed at property developers and clients. So where is the architect in all this?

While the report stresses the importance of considering green infrastructure at the earliest stages of design, includes several case studies of architectural schemes and even a diagram of how green infrastructure can be applied to the RIBA plan of work, architects are, predictably, nowhere near the action. Of the list of 29 contributors, just one, David Finch, is a qualified architect – and he works as a landscape architect and was invited to take part by the Landscape Institute.

Green infrastructure is here to stay and cannot be the sole preserve of contractor, developer and landscape architect. Architects must look to the Heatherwicks and the Boeris – and take a leaf out of their book.



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