Time to protect green infrastructure

Donal Hickey says growth has blighted landscape

AN often overlooked effect of huge economic development in the last 10 to 15 years has been the loss of green, open spaces. Wetlands, such an important habitat for wildlife, have also been disappearing rapidly.

All the new housing, roads, shopping centres and other concrete and tarmacadam developments that have transformed the face of Ireland, have come at a high price to the environment.

Ditches and hedgerows have been blown away to make space for houses and roads. Even small gaps made in ditches to access sites for houses along boreens in the countryside affect the movements of wildlife.

Flooding has resulted in some areas and, with sea levels rising, there could be even more flooding in coastal zones. Dublin city, built on low flood plains and soft rock, could be vulnerable in the future and Cork city could face similar threats from rising tides and heavier rain.

One of the enduring legacies the British left behind are city parks, with the Phoenix Park and St Stephen’s Green, in Dublin, being prime examples. Also, some of the old, landlord’s parkland estates are still intact in rural Ireland — many still majestic and beautiful, with Doneraile Park, in north Cork, being an example.

The huge number of urban parks in London never fails to impress in a city of such a vast scale. Only recently, in the heart of London I saw a fox strolling casually about one evening. A squirrel could also be observed close by. Both animals obviously had cover in a nearby park. We hear a lot about investment in infrastructure — roads, water and sewerage schemes and buildings — but not much about ‘green infrastructure’, a term now gaining currency.

We’re told we need our green infrastructure to maintain our quality of life. Include in that green spaces in urban areas, woodlands, the need for clean water, the air that we breathe and the landscape all around us.

A plethora of EU directives has been brought in to protect the environment, but we’ve still witnessing, almost daily, serious damage to the Irish environment.

Big danger, of course, is that we take our parks, rivers, nature conservation areas, mountains, lakes and farmland for granted, as if they have always been there and will continue to remain so.

In the Ireland of 30 to 40 years ago that might have been the case, but economic growth and prosperity have changed the country beyond recognition. Expanding cities and towns have gobbled up areas that once comprised farmland only.

When large housing estates, new suburbia, warehousing and out-of-town shopping complexes were being planned, scarcely any thought was given to the resultant reduction in green infrastructure. Think of all the estates without green spaces, playgrounds and other essentials.

Dr Gerard Clabby, heritage officer with Fingal County Council, is putting the spotlight on such issues, saying one of the unintended results of land use changes has been a reduction in the quantity and quality of our green infrastructure.

Water pollution is an ongoing problem and habitats are becoming isolated in urbanised landscapes, making it difficult for them to sustain wildlife populations. The loss of flood plains could also create difficulties during future climate change.

We can no longer ignore the fact we are degrading our green infrastructure, according to Dr Clabby.

“It is time we planned and invested in green infrastructure in the same way we plan and invest in our roads and water services, in our schools and hospitals. We need to integrate planning for green infrastructure into our land use planning system,” he writes in the latest issue of Heritage Outlook, published by the Heritage Council.

Such planning could help preserve historic landscapes and provide opportunities for people to enjoy nature and the outdoors, even providing opportunities to develop walking and cycling routes.

But, Dr Clabby stresses, the task is not easy, as green infrastructure planning and deliver is a complex undertaking.

“To be effective, green infrastructure needs to be planned and delivered both regionally and locally. For example, a green infrastructure plan for Fingal is unlikely to be wholly successful in the absence of regional green infrastructure planning for the greater Dublin area,” he says.

The whole issue will be thrashed out in detail at a two-day conference in the Grand Hotel, Malahide, Co Dublin, on November 4-5, which Dr Clabby is urging people to attend.

Delegates will be told about the experience in greenways and green infrastructure development in North America and Britain, and the long history of ecological networks in continental Europe. At the core of the debate will be the question of applying all this experience in Ireland.

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