What is urban greening (and how is it creating the cities of the future)?

Posted on: 31 January, 2024

Urban greening isn’t just making the cities of the future green – it’s helping them become sustainable, too. Here’s how.

The built environment is at a crossroads. As a sector, we have a central role to play in the battle to mitigate the effects of climate change and improve climate adaptation. But as the population grows, demand for infrastructure is continuing to rise.

If we are to address our impact on global warming, we need to find a way to overhaul our pollutive legacy processes, foster greater collaboration and incorporate nature into our designs and construction projects.

In the coming years, as governments and countries look to find ways to balance a growing population with the need for greater sustainability, urban greening looks likely to be a key solution.

What is urban greening?

Urban greening is the incorporation of green spaces and elements into urban environments and infrastructure, such as streets, cities, roofs and walls. Following the principles of biophilic design, urban greening techniques make up a part of green infrastructure.

The aim of urban greening is to improve the relationship between a city’s environments and its inhabitants. In the UK, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is planning to significantly increase the amount of green space in the city over the coming decades as part of the London Environment Strategy. Part of this proposal is the introduction of an Urban Greening Factor to help guide London boroughs on how to incorporate greening into developments.

Why is urban greening important?

By 2050, the global population will have risen to almost 10 billion. The subsequent increase in demand on our infrastructure means we need to work harder to preserve our natural environment and maintain the health and wellbeing of urban residents.

Urban greening can help satisfy the demand for more infrastructure, while ensuring growing cities remain both sustainable and a positive, healthy place for their occupants.

7 benefits of urban greening

Greenifying urban spaces can offer numerous benefits for both the environment and its inhabitants, including:

1. Offsets carbon emissions

Incorporating urban vegetation into cities could help offset carbon dioxide emissions produced from vehicles, according to research. Trees and vegetation planted in cities act as a carbon sink, capturing emissions from the atmosphere through the process of carbon sequestration.

2. Improve the wellbeing of inhabitants

As with biophilia, living closer to a natural environment has been proven to provide health and quality of life benefits, with residential green space linked to a 55% reduction in mental health problems among children, according to one study. Other research has found that green public spaces and access to nature can reduce stress, improve morale, support immune systems and even reduce the risk of chronic diseases like asthma.

Learn more: What is biophilia (and what does it mean for the built environment)?

3. Improves air quality

Every year, air pollution in cities and rural areas is estimated to cause around 4.2 million premature deaths, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). This makes improving air quality a significant priority as the population and potential activity in cities grows.

As with carbon offsetting, green spaces absorb pollutants and harmful gases from the air and release oxygen. This improves air quality and reduce health risks for inhabitants.

4. Reduces noise pollution

Noise is another form of pollution that can impact the health and wellbeing of a city’s occupants by increasing stress, raising blood pressure, limiting sleep and contributing to hear loss. However, it can also be reduced through green urban developments, as trees, plants and leaves help dampen noise from cars, aircraft and industrial machines.

5. Mitigate global heating

Cities are often identified as urban heat islands – concentrated areas that experience higher temperatures than their surroundings. ccording to research, cities are warming up by 0.56C a decade during the day and 0.43C a decade at night. In the same study, it was found that green urban spaces could address this problem by producing a cooling effect in cities.

6. Reduce flood risk

Flooding, another impact of climate change with potentially catastrophic consequences, can be mitigated through green urban planning. Green spaces can help intercept and slow down rainwater before it reaches waterways and sewage systems.

Learn more: Building climate resilience into the built environment

7. Creates a natural habitat for wildlife

Green spaces provide wildlife for a range of species. Bees, whose population has been decreasing at an alarming rate in recent years (in large part due to urbanisation), would receive the food and resources they need to survive in green public spaces. Similarly, birds – who are reliant on access to trees – would stand to benefit from the greenifying of urban spaces.

How can urban greening be incorporated into cities and infrastructure?

There are a wide range of greening methods city planners and businesses can incorporate into their infrastructure, including:

  • Street trees
  • Roofs and walls
  • Small green spaces between buildings
  • Gardens
  • Urban forests/mini-forests

Learn more: 10 examples of biophilic architecture and design

Final thoughts

In 2023, it was estimated that 84.4% of the UK population lived in an urban area, and this growth is showing no signs of slowing down. While the built environment has a responsibility to provide the infrastructure needed to support a growing population, it also needs to ensure it places the environment front-and-centre in all of its projects and ambitions moving forward. Through the incorporation of green spaces into urban areas, this may well be possible.

Urban planning is an exciting field that has a pivotal role in the design and function of our cities and communities. If you want to have a part in helping the built environment realise a sustainable future, UCEM’s MSc Urban Planning will give you the knowledge, skills and technical understanding you need.

Find out more: MSc Urban Planning – University College of Estate Management