Green Infrastructure Planning and Governance in Europe

Portraits of 20 European cities

By Rieke Hansen, Arjen Buijs, Thomas Mattijssen, Yole DeBellis, Emily Rall, Stephan Pauleit.

Within the first project year of GREEN SURGE we studied the planning and governance of urban green space in Europe. In 2014, researchers collected data and interviewed city officials in 20 European cities and drafted a city portrait for each of these cities. But why did we do it, how did we do it and what did we discover?

What was the main idea behind doing city portraits?

In the first year of GREEN SURGE we wanted to develop an empirical data base on planning and governance of urban green space in Europe. The biggest challenge is that planning and governance are complex processes embedded in a specific local context. For example, a strategic city-wide green space plan or participatory, collaborative park management might be a big success and innovation for one city while it is a standard approach in another.

To be able to understand these differences, we studied 20 cities and created so called portraits for all cases to tell the local “story” of green space planning and governance in a comprehensive and comparable format. The portraits were used for our scientific analysis and the identification of innovative practices, but we also sought to inform and inspire stakeholders and decision-makers in European cities.

Why focus on green space/green infrastructure planning and governance?

GREEN SURGE aims to promote urban green infrastructure (UGI) planning as a tool to tackle important challenges of European cities. We understand UGI planning as a strategic approach aimed at developing networks of green and blue spaces in urban areas that are designed and managed to deliver a wide range of ecosystem services. It is differentiated from other forms of green space planning by being based on a specific set of principles such as aiming for connectivity of urban green space, integration of grey and green infrastructure and multifunctionality. Given its integrative approach, UGI planning can address urban challenges and future issues such as biodiversity conservation, adaptation to climate change, and supporting the green economy. With the case studies we wanted to learn about the challenges planning authorities are currently facing and how UGI planning can help to tackle these. Do the cities already practice what we defined as UGI planning, and what kind of innovative approaches did they develop?

The GREEN SURGE team is well aware that in many regions of the world there is a shift from top-down planning to governance and collaborative action. The concept of governance was used to consider the inclusiveness of decision-making and the role of non-governmental actors such as non-profit organizations, community groups or businesses in UGI planning and management. Our study of governance is concerned with questions such as how decisions are made and implemented, which actors play which role, how rights and responsibilities are distributed, or how the legitimacy of decisions is considered. With the case studies we wanted to explore if and how a shift from government-led planning and decision-making towards more inclusive and collaborative approaches was taking place in different European cities.

How did we select the 20 cities?

The cities were selected through an iterative process to secure a fair distribution of regions and of biophysical and socio-economic factors across Europe. First we grouped the European countries into five “planning families” which share similar development of spatial planning and also represent geographical macro regions (see Figure 1). We further clustered about 300 cities included in the Urban Audit and Urban Atlas data bases according to population size, population dynamics and green space per person to obtain a fair distribution of different city types.

Finally, local knowledge within our research group was an important factor. This included knowledge of the language, as this was considered to be decisive for analyzing material and communicating with local stakeholders, in addition to experiences from prior work so that ideally researchers could build on the knowledge of the local context. And of course, city officials had to be willing to participate in our study.

Following this approach we selected 20 cities, 3 from the Nordic planning family, 2 from the British, and 5 each representing the larger groups of the New Member States, Central, or Mediterranean planning family.

Figure 1: The 20 case study cities. The colours represent countries considered as one planning family (Adapted from

How did we collect the data?

For gathering the case study data, researchers interviewed at least one representative from each city using the same questionnaire. The interviewee was usually the head of the green space planning department or of a similar administrative unit dealing with urban green. Before and after the interview the researchers undertook desk studies and reviewed websites, planning and policy documents, newspaper articles and other material to understand the current context in which green space planning and governance takes place and also to collect additional information for the portraits. Moreover, two planning documents were analysed for each city: a) the most important plan and b) the most innovative plan for urban green space.  

Following the same structure, the researchers synthesized the gathered information for the portraits, which were reviewed by the study leaders as well as the interviewed city representatives. Each portrait contains sections on, for example, the local planning system and experience with governance practices and UGI planning strategies. Together, they form a report of more than 250 pages.

What was the most surprising result?

In regard to UGI planning, we detected at lot of similarities but also differences among the case study cities. Interestingly, it was rarely possible to identify common trends for cities belonging to a similar planning family. However, it can be concluded that European cities are looking at their green spaces strategically and applying a wide variety of formal or informal plans to do so. Often, informal plans are those that facilitate innovative approaches. This is a positive finding for the future progress of the UGI concept. The one plan that applies the most pronounced UGI approach is Barcelona’s Green Infrastructure and Biodiversity Plan.

In literature, a distinction between top-down and bottom-up forms of governance is often made: While some forms of governance are initiated and led by government actors through formal procedures, others are initiated and led by non-state actors. Although this division is recognizable in some examples of governance that we studied, in most cases a clear distinction between top-down and bottom-up approaches could not be made. We observed many forms of collaboration between state and non-state actors, both in a formal and more informal way. Role divisions between these actors can differ and can change over time, but it’s certainly not the case that one actor-group is usually ‘leading’ and ‘steering’ a governance process.

Barcelona has ambitious plans to increase the urban green infrastructure and promote biodiversity in the dense city structure (Photo by Rieke Hansen).

Potted trees financed through the city’s participatory budget in the main commercial street of Lodz (photo by Jakub Kronenberg).

What was the most foreseen finding?

Although the concept of green infrastructure is only explicitly addressed in a few plans or policies from our case study cities, many related practices can be found in those cities. The idea of an interconnected green space system is a very old idea and all cities consider a range of benefits provided by urban green space. As anticipated, urban green infrastructure planning does not represent a complete revolution of green space planning but is a combination of advanced and long practiced planning approaches. However, in some regards it can help to improve the existing practices such as through fostering cooperation of different professions and actor groups and multifunctional synergies.

Our analysis in 20 European cities shows that a large variety of actors is involved in a wide range of examples of governance that are in some way connected to or concerned with UGI, and these take place on different scales. Although there are many differences between cities, these findings illustrate the trends in which governance is said to be increasingly taking place with multiple actors and also on multiple levels. Many city officials express a desire to include non-state actors in UGI decision making, and the many examples of bottom-up initiatives we found in relation to UGI also shows that non-state actors have an interest in being involved in the governance of UGI.

A connected network of green spaces and corridors is an important objective in many cities. In Berlin, former railway areas are used to create a network of paths for pedestrians, bikers and skaters (photo by Rieke Hansen).

The GREEN SURGE researchers are exploring a small urban wildlife reserve managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust in Edinburgh (photo by Rieke Hansen).

What is next?

Currently we are exploring good practices for UGI planning. Based on the 20 case studies we identified almost 20 innovative approaches from 11 cities which are being studied more in-depth. These studies will be used to develop strategies for themes such as multifunctionality or social inclusion in UGI planning and will also suggest how to apply UGI planning for issues such as adaptation to climate change, conservation of biodiversity or promotion of the green economy.

To explore innovative governance arrangements across Europe more in-depth, we are currently working on 15 more cases selected among the 20 portrait cities. In these studies, we focus on five thematic clusters:  methods and strategies to initiate participation in neighbourhood green plans, urban agriculture, community-led management of green spaces, public private partnerships for green space and ESS development and e-governance in UGI planning.

Results will be published at the end of 2015/early 2016. Initial results will also be discussed with interested stakeholders in a workshop in autumn 2015.