Lead with beauty

I met Thami Croeser at Roof Water Farm in Berlin to learn more about green infrastructure initiatives around the world.

Thami at the Roof Water Farm in Berlin

Thami is replication lead for the Urban Green Up! Project. The project is funded by the EU Horizon 2020 fund and aims at the development, application and replication of Renaturing Urban Plans in a number of European and non-European partner cities. The goal is to mitigate the effects of climate change, improve air quality and water management, as well as increase the sustainability of cities through nature-based solutions. He previously worked for the City of Melbourne in the “Greening laneways” program.

H: Why are you passionate about green infrastructure?

TC: I think that our paradigm on urban planning has been really flawed. In the last 100 years. This notion of separate land uses has to be challenged and contested. Especially lately.

You mean zoning?

Yeah especially zoning. And the idea that zones need should single land use. I really think we have isolated ourselves from nature by doing this. Even in cities with excellent park infrastructure. Parks are not something you experience incidentally. Unless you are very lucky and you have to walk through a park on your way to work. So nature is this thing off to the side that you can go to. And then there is this commercial district and this residential district. And what I realised with green infrastructure that excites me is that we can actually have integrated streetscapes, that feel natural.

It sounds like the long term goal of this research project is for cities to include nature based solutions in their implementation processes and not just as an afterthought years later. So let’s assume you find many solutions that work well for varied contexts. How are cities going to be implementing these techniques?

I think it’s very important to acknowledge that there are private and public roles. The public role for most cities is simply doing the basics well. We all know that if you have great street trees, if you have great soil volume, well-conditioned tree and it establishes quickly and is passively irrigated, you get quite a beautiful street, just with that. The approach I am hoping to see out of this project for public spaces is for having spatially explicit 5 year plans.

The private sector is quite exciting. I had a fantastic meeting with the municipality of Rotterdam. They have showed this incredible journey they have gone on since 2008. Particularly with green roofs. They built a demonstration green roof and now they have 270.000 sqm in 10 years. They have to date been subsidising it to get things rolling but in the long term they will probably eventually mandate it. Now people know what a green roof is and value it. People, especially if they are proud of their place, put out their pots, they will put those creepers up. That might simply be a matter of deregulation and encouragement. So there’s lots the private sector can do that may be market driven or emotionally driven.

I am interested in the non-technical aspects. Besides benefits for climate change do you think there are other benefits that these interventions could have?

I think there are a couple. When you talk to your average guy in the street who is having a beer at a pub they don’t care about ecosystem services. What I found consistently inspired people, was the prospect of beauty and amenity and just attractiveness in their streets. People just want to be in beautiful places that feel cared for. And when I did community engagement that was always number one on the list. Beautiful and ours.

Because when you involve the community in projects like this and they feel they are expressing themselves and they are helping choose or whatever it is. You are actually building the capacity for democratic participation. And they are getting to know each other. It was exceptional running workshops and coming back to a laneway five or six times. And the sixth time I have to stop the stakeholders talking. They are catching up. The people in that street knew each other better as a result of this project.

Amenity and inclusion and democratic participation are really undervalued areas of Nature based solutions. Frankly my advice to practitioners is to think about the heat wave, the flood mitigation, mention it if you had to, but be visual. Lead with beauty. And not with technical stuff.

[sighs] Lead with beauty….

Yeah, we are so consumed with the regulations and the techniques. And they are very challenging things sometimes. But for your average guy in the street, you got to understand, it’s emotional. And that’s actually wonderful.

The barriers are common. The solutions might not be.

Are you seeing that each city is working on adapted strategies to their particular situation and bioregion? Or are they copying designs from elsewhere?

That’s a really important question. I have been impressed with the cities that I have been working with. In fact at my meeting in Izmir, where I said “Hey I am the guy from Australia, I am going to help you replicate things!” They were really sceptical. They said “Hang on, replication sounds just like copy/paste. We are unique in our context!” There are a lot of common problems. But the consistent message I get from them is that they really want contextually sensitive nature based solutions.

There are similarities and differences. But what I am finding generally fascinating is the struggles that I had with greening laneways around legal agreements permissions inside departments, stakeholder engagement … all cities believe they are unique and their struggles are very personal. But a lot of the things that are happening I have heard before.

The institutional barriers sounds like they would be quite similar…

Yeah. “How do we pay for maintenance, my legal guys don’t like this thing because it might damage a wall… or the engineers are a bit concerned that if we widen the footpaths it might have an impact on traffic.” We know this stuff. What I think is important to acknowledge that the barriers are common. The solutions might not be.

Perfectly quotable sentence.

[laughs] That’s scary because I can help them talk about the barriers and facilitate those conversations but the creative problem solving around those institutional barriers needs a local champion in each case.

I think this is very important. If you find someone in a council that is interested, then you have much more leverage and one person that knows all the right people to talk to. How important do you think local champions are?

I suppose it depends on the nature of the innovation project. Definitely if you are trying to make it grass roots, you definitely do need someone who is very driven and personally willing to push through those quite difficult stages and inspire people to build momentum. And that’s hard work. Very hard work. Then I see cities like Ludwigsburg. There is a really thorough strategic framework that’s come from very high up. And that then creates quite strong sets of policy.

What would your ideal suburb look like?

Gosh! I have got a couple of candidates that are close to ideal. Bo01 in Malmö, it’s a standard that they just pull out in lectures in sustainability. They are right. It’s exceptionally well done. It’s got integrated tri-gen, so their energy is fantastic but what you see on the street is really nice built-scale with a bit of variation but not too much. It’s quite high density, but it doesn’t feel dense. And their use of stormwater is just brilliant. The gutters go into open drains which go into little local waterbodies, which filter quite nicely and are quite beautiful. You have quite a lot of recreational space in those areas. And in this case it actually has an interface with the ocean as well.

There is another one in Amsterdam which I lived next to. It’s a pedestrian neighbourhood that’s quite walkable and bikeable. That was just awesome. GWLterrein. It’s an old water authority site where they used to do the pumping. They have put up these quite simple brown brick buildings. Their use of green facades and little community gardens around the site. And the exclusion of cars. This is worth a look. It’s got a little canal in it. Some heritage structures form the pump houses. It feels like a little neighbourhood. It’s so so green. Those are my two favourites at the moment.

If you could tell people who work in a city and want to do something to make their city more beautiful. What would be the one thing you’d tell them?

Take space from cars!

Take back the streets! Thank you!

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