Started from the bottom: a new track for strategic green space planning in cities?

This blog post summarises the background and core ideas of the recently published article dealing with the inclusive approaches to green space planning and governance in cities as part of my doctoral research.

When doing my Master’s, I got deeply interested in the topic of urban sustainability. It all started with my teacher talking about the project Green Surge (2013 – 2017) in which he was involved. This European collaborative project linked nature, people and the economy to meet the major urban challenges related to land use conflicts, climate change adaptation, demographic changes, and health and wellbeing. Researchers introduced the umbrella concept for sustainable green space planning and governance. The problem is, however, that countries and cities differ in terms of geography, politics, demography and culture, and so differ the approaches that are to solve urban challenges. Coming from the knowledge base of the Green Surge project, I focus my research on Easter and Central European countries that have certain specifications resulting from the historical legacy of the socialist era.

In this recent study, we narrated the current discourse and limitations of green space development in Slovakia. Series of document reviews and interviewing experts helped us to understand the instrumental, systemic and procedural barriers of the planning system. In a nutshell, weak environmental politics and planning regulations are toothless in enforcing progress in cities and the lacking co-operation across sectors and disciplines successfully maintains the status quo. The planning system does not currently recognise green space development as an important premise for urban sustainability and there are no signs of changes coming in the near future. This led us to search for opportunities elsewhere.

The municipality of Karlova Ves, in Bratislava city, is working towards a long-term green space governance and management strategy. (Photo: NGO Živica and Zuzana Hudeková)

The green space programme in Karlova Ves, a municipality in Bratislava city, has been identified as an example of progressive governance and planning practice at the local scale. Co-funded by the EU Interreg programme, a number of activities and partnerships were established in support of green space development.

To name some of them, the municipality established ecologically friendly management on green sites to enhance biodiversity and climate adaptation and actively communicated the importance of these interventions to citizens. Technical assessments of the roof systems on public buildings were carried out to identify the capacity for green roof installation. Partnerships with local businesses and the bank have led to expanding the municipality’s green area and improving its ecological quality, and companies signed under the interventions to promote their pro-environmental image. Collaboration with local residents achieved regeneration of brownfields and creation of community gardens by handing the neglected sites over to locals in exchange for long-term management. Not least, local municipality collaborates with experts to prepare a long-term strategy and the manual for planning and implementation of nature-based solutions. 

Analysis of the planning system in Slovakia suggests that local (bottom-up) actions can arguably have a widespread positive influence on green space planning. The participatory integrated model (see Figure) explains the system processes which we suggest can advance green space planning.

Figure: Participatory integrated planning model promotes bottom-up actions and mediatory interventions in support of strategic green space planning and governance.

Bottom-up actions represent stakeholder engagement and partnerships by which nature-based solutions can be effectively implemented. Such collaborative initiatives form various governance arrangements that enhance stewardship for green spaces, similar to those seen in Karlova Ves. Mounting evidence of local success stories can create favourable conditions to disseminate good practices and their transformation into policies and regulations. The mediatory agency is a critical component in this process. It refers to coordinated sectoral and disciplinary operations that enable the knowledge transfer from local to national scale, and policy implementation from national to local scale. In this manner, mediatory forces create synergies between the higher and lower planning level in response to existing systemic and procedural barriers. Bottom-up actions can thus stimulate top-down planning to adopt successful practices and set long-term strategies that consider the diversity of local contexts.

Nevertheless, for this to happen, it will require higher planning to remain responsive to emerging opportunities such as new partnerships with citizens and experts, to furnish human resources and skills, or funding opportunities for green space development. The political will and progressive leadership are, no doubt, vital requirements. However, strong cases of good practices and increased public engagement may gradually create momentum demanding changes in politics and policies. Planners and decision-makers have thus the opportunity to initiate socially inclusive and cross-disciplinary planning processes by seizing local advantages. 

With this blog post, I intend to point at the importance of collaborative planning and governance – a steadily spreading trend in European and World cities – as a form of democratic decision-making through broader and directed stakeholder engagement.

You can find more reading on the topic of urban greening here

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