Social innovation: building blue and green infrastructure in cities

In this edition of Beyond Bax, we discuss social innovation as a tool for the implementation of blue and green infrastructure (BGI) with Jannes Willems, assistant professor in urban planning at the University of Amsterdam and former postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Public Administration and Sociology, Erasmus University Rotterdam.

What is social innovation?

JW. My fellow researchers and I define social innovation in our upcoming policy brief as the development and implementation of novel interventions, processes, programmes, products or models to meet social needs. If we translate that to the context of Interreg NSR project BEGIN, our BGI initiative, we look specifically into new functional combinations (BGI that incorporates multiple benefits), cutting-cross boundaries (working interdisciplinary), and new compelling relationships between governments and local stakeholders.

How would you define blue and green infrastructure?

Green roofs: an attractive example of blue and green infrastructure

JW. Blue and green infrastructure is a nature-based solution that primarily addresses climate change impacts, by providing flood protection or improving air and water quality for example. You could even consider your own back garden a case of BGI. By not paving your garden completely but leaving space for plants, you’re not only aesthetically enhancing the environment, but allowing your garden to soak up rainwater like a sponge.

Traditional grey infrastructure, like underground drainage systems, are increasingly becoming incapable of dealing with intense rainfall and other extreme weather events. This monofunctional infrastructure is expensive to expand and cities are running out of space, so are looking for above-the-surface solutions. That’s where BGI comes into play. It’s helping cities frame water as an opportunity, rather than a threat.

Other BGI examples include community gardens, rain gardens, watercourses running throughout neighbourhoods, green roofs, urban forests etc.

What is the role of governments in the practice of BGI, and how has this relationship evolved?

JW. What I have seen in the Netherlands, and also within the BEGIN project, is that climate adaptation and BGI connects the domains of water management and spatial planning. It used to be very much a sectoral field focusing on water management solely but now it has been connected to other domains. That means that you get more integrative governance structures, which I think are becoming increasingly normal.

Now urban water managers are able to get a seat at the table in discussions about land use and spatial planning processes. I also see, especially in the Netherlands, that spatial planners, landscape architects and designers, are increasingly aware of the need to incorporate water elements in their plans and designs. They are aware of the climate change threats and know they need to do something about it for both public spaces and private properties. They also see how much these blue and green elements can do for their cities, like protecting air quality, increasing citizen activity levels and improving social cohesion, for example.

I think if you want to do justice to the multi-functionality of BGI, you need multi-departmental collaboration. 

How can or should cities involve citizens and communities in BGI practices? What are the benefits for citizens and the main motivations to get involved?

JW. Earlier this year, we published a paper on how citizens can get involved in the construction and development of BGI. I believe there are two particular moments where they can really get engaged. First is in the design phase, where you co-create the infrastructure with residents or other local stakeholders. You can connect many different interests and needs in a multi-stakeholder participatory process. A lot of cities are using living labs, where they collaborate with citizens to come up with solutions.

Citizens can also get involved later on during the maintenance phase. They can maintain an allotment or community garden daily, and feel a sense of ownership over that space.

As for citizen motivations, they can differ. Some are motivated by maintaining an attractive local environment and others are driven by climate change concerns and want to do their bit to tackle it. Such projects or pilots that incorporate this citizen collaboration often lead to important community hubs, so there’s also a social dimension to this. The collaboration can strengthen ties within the community. Also, if you take a community garden, for example, it gives food back to the community while, in some cases, resulting in profits for the seller, so there’s an entrepreneurial element to it too.

Citizen participation is increasing too, I would say it’s quite a strong movement. On the one hand, you have this very strong local dimension that is very context-specific. On the other hand, thanks to technology and specifically the internet, all these local community initiatives are becoming part of a larger network that shares what’s going on in their respective cities.

How can BGI, through social innovation, help cities deal with rapid urbanization and an ever-changing climate?

JW. As cities become more populated, it is all the more crucial for them to put multifunctional structures in place, as no space can be left unused. These structures, like city parks, contribute both to addressing climate change, as BGI enhances resilience to heavy rainfall or drought, and to recreation, providing residents with a nicer living environment and supporting businesses and governments by making the city more attractive and competitive. These structures that cater to all can be created by combining forces with all relevant stakeholders.

In Dordrecht, the lead partner city of BEGIN, social entrepreneurs are starting to involve unemployed residents in the creation of new green spaces and their maintenance. They hope this will give these residents a better sense of ownership, while also providing them with jobs. The city is also introducing community food gardens that function as small urban farms.

Social innovation helps legitimise the new infrastructure that’s being created because it’s more embedded or connected to other stakeholders. From an urban water management perspective, it better legitimises their position and allows acceptance and uptake, creating this sense of community.

What are the main challenges to the implementation of BGI and social innovation?

JW. The research that we have been doing in BEGIN focuses on how urban water managers operate in these multi-stakeholder environments. The city partners have successfully created an integrative shared vision combining multiple goals, ambitions and interests, to ensure multifunctional BGIs have been implemented. But if you look at financing mechanisms and mandates that departments have within municipalities, those are often very clearly assigned and quite rigid; they are difficult to change or combine. It’s difficult to pool resources for one department or one stakeholder might say, “This is beyond my mandate or beyond my responsibility. I do not want to take part in this.” Or, “My interest has priority. We will do it this way.”

I think the successful forms of BGI, so far, are often the result of more voluntary horizontal forms of collaboration between stakeholders or between departments. There must be a real willingness to achieve BGI. If already one or two dominant actors are not willing, then it’s quite difficult to pursue BGI.

Regarding stakeholder involvement, city partners can struggle with representation and identifying which actors to involve and why. Usually, there’s a smaller active group of community members that is very willing to participate, but that may not be an accurate representation of the whole community.

Governments are also hesitant to hand over responsibilities to residents because they want to ensure they can commit to longer time frames, for 10 years or so, rather than one to two years. Often residents and local stakeholders start off enthusiastic, but then when one or two key persons leave the room, so to speak, then the interest diminishes a little bit.

Another challenge is involving the private sector. This was one of the bigger aims within BEGIN but so far it has been quite difficult to really establish partnerships. However, our UK partners have some successful examples of that, maybe because they have a more partnership-driven context. For example, the Coca Cola foundation actually helped fund a new wetland in Broomfield Park, Enfield.

Is BGI included in cities’ discussions on their political priorities or struggling to be brought into the conversation?

JW. I think they do find it important, but it is difficult to realise BGI by itself. You need to connect it to broader urban goals, like social development. In some cases, certain political approaches are compromising BGI implementation if there is no clear business opportunity, whereas other cities are actively making it a central part of their strategy.

Take Dordrecht for example. The city is widely referred to as a water city. There, they embrace this BGI theme and try to connect their heritage –  as a water city – to more future-oriented developments. They are smartly using blue and green elements to boost their city.

Dordrecht: The Venice of the Netherlands

What have you learnt from participating in the BEGIN project?

JW. After interviewing many of the 10 BEGIN city partners I noticed that, although they vary slightly in size, they all face the same problems and challenges.

I can be quite critical towards the city partners and want them to do more, but I have noticed each city is really trying to realise their water objectives on a daily basis. I’ve also noticed in different institutional contexts, the same approach can really play out differently. In the UK for example, there are many public-private partnerships already. However, this is an entirely different situation to Belgium or the Netherlands. Then you have Gothenburg in Sweden and Bergen in Norway, where both cities seem to have abundant financial resources for their projects, whereas other projects are looking for money.

How did you get involved in this field?

JW. Before my university degree, I was already interested in water management and climate change. It’s something I’ve always found important. I have a background in spatial planning and water management and did my PhD research at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Initially, I was mainly looking at national public authorities like the Rijkswaterstaat agency in the Netherlands. Since I moved to Erasmus and started doing my postdoc, I’ve been focusing more on local public water authorities. That’s something I really like because I used to do a lot of research on those national projects and programmes, but my current research projects are at a local level. My work involves specific plots and parks, that involve stakeholders. It really becomes tangible.

On a national level, it’s easy to talk about involving the private sector. But when you get down to the smaller plots, it forces you to look at the specificities of how you work with the local businesses – you need a defined approach for engagement.

I really like researching how urban water managers are opening up and trying to engage with new groups of stakeholders, so they can create a better urban environment, together.

What are your future research interests in this domain?

JW. I’m a part of a research project where we have coined the concept of boundary objects, to help reach different perspectives. It comes from literature on boundary spanning. Some colleagues of mine have done a lot of research on boundary spanners in governments, individuals that are able to connect different departments or different stakeholders. What we would like to complement this literature with is the idea of boundary objects. It’s not only about the individuals but also creating certain objects like a map or kind of visualisation, for example, or you can create certain processes that are able to connect different organisations or departments with each other. So, you can promote cross-disciplinary working.

What I encountered in BEGIN is that BGI can really bring a lot of people together. It’s very appealing to a wide variety of stakeholders, and you can see that everybody assigns different meanings to the term BGI.

What I would like to look into more is how you could get to a shared understanding, or point of reference on how that process is going with certain instruments, tools, or maps, and how boundary objects can help with that. It’s a bit of an abstract term maybe. As an example, in Amsterdam, the local water authority made a map where they showed the impacts of heavy rainfall on public space. This helps them engage with local governments and other stakeholders by showing the impact and starting a discussion. If you connect that to spatial developments or urban developments that are also taking place in that region, if you combine them, then it really operates as sort of one object that can connect different perspectives and disciplines and get this shared point of view.

How do you see the future of BGI, particularly through the lens of social innovation?

JW. Well, first of all, you can see that cities are really becoming aware of the need to take climate adaptation measures, and are seeing the opportunities that it can bring them. It doesn’t have to be a negative, defensive approach of preventing a threat from happening. With a more positive and proactive attitude, it’s about boosting your city to make it more livable or attractive. I’m now seeing many more local community initiatives popping up that want to take action.

Here in Rotterdam, a group of social entrepreneurs have started an initiative which involves creating 1,000 new rain gardens. They are going door-to-door trying to encourage citizens to open up their front gardens to create more BGI excellence. I think it’s a fantastic initiative, and I hope urban water managers within other cities start to hand over responsibilities to citizens or to establish more partnerships with them. Then we can break through this more risk-averse culture, which I think is still very dominant in urban water management.

Further reading

At Bax & Company, we’re lucky enough to work with experts in emerging and existing fields from around the world. Beyond Bax is an opportunity for us to share some of their knowledge with you.

If you have any suggestions or further questions, you can contact Jannes, or a member of the Bax & Company team:

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