Informal greenspace as
and future directions
Christoph Rupprecht (@focx)
Jason Byrne (@citybyrne)
Environmental Futures Research Institute
AAG Annual Meeting 2016
Formal green space vs. green infrastructure
• Parks, gardens,
• ‘Nice to have’ (Benedict
& McMahon 2006)
• Focus on recreation
• Planned & designed
• Conflicting definitions on what
counts as green infrastructure
• ‘Must have’ (Benedict &
• ‘human-modified’ ‘intentional
landscapes’ (Matthews et al.
2015/Byrne et al. 2015)
Functions & problems of parks and green infrastructure
Potential functions, e.g.
• Air quality regulation
• Temperature regulation
• CO2 absorption
• Water management
• Noise filtration
• Conservation, habitat
• Recreation, human health
• Aesthetic improvement
• Food/fuel production
• Economic development
(e.g. real estate value)
(Luque & Duff)
New York High Line,
David Berkowitz, Flickr
Potential problems, e.g.
• Implementation & maintenance
costs (Naumann et al. 2010)
• Expectations of economic returns
• Eco-gentrification (Wolch et al. 2014)
• Failure to meet diverse needs of
local residents (Campo 2013)
What about spontaneous, informal green spaces?
Street verges Gap spaces
Overgrown structures Powerlines
Informal greenspace: A shift in perception
Nuisance Nice to have Must have?
Decay Temporary use
Abandonment ‘Just green enough’ tool
Dead space Novel ecosystems
Urban ecology ‘de facto natives’
Invasives Diverse habitats
Beyond parks: Research on informal green spaces
Recreation studies (>65)
(e.g., Jorgensen & Keenan 2012; Campo 2013;
Barron & Mariani 2013; Franck & Stevens 2007;
Foster 2014; Rupprecht et al. 2015a/b)
Lack of official recognition leads
to freedom from purpose
Can be used flexibly as needed
✗ Aesthetic value contested (wild
vs. orderly & bucolic)
✗ Vulnerable to development
Biodiversity studies (>170)
(e.g., Bonthoux et al. 2014; Brandes 1983, 1992;
Cilliers & Bredenkamp 1998, 1999a/b; Kowarik
2011; Rupprecht & Byrne 2014; R. et al. 2015c)
Important role for conservation
‘De facto native vegetation’
~14% of urban green space
✗ Maintenance common and
negative impact on diversity
✗ Can harbor invasive species
Informal greenspace as green infrastructure: Functions
Function Evidence level Studies (examples)
Recreation (human health) Systematic review Rupprecht & Byrne 2014
Conservation, habitat Systematic reviews
Bonthoux et al. 2014, Rupprecht et al.
Food/fuel production Case studies
Diaz-Betancourt et al. 1999, McLain
et al. 2014
‘Just green enough’ devel. Case studies Foster 2014, Rupprecht & Byrne 2015
Air quality regulation Case studies
Weber et al. 2014, McPhearson et al.
Temperature regulation Case studies McPhearson et al. 2013
CO2 absorption Case studies McPhearson et al. 2013
Water management Case studies McPhearson et al. 2013
Aesthetic improvement Mixed evidence
Rink and Emmerich 2005, Qviström
2012, Rupprecht et al. 2015
Noise filtration Not studied?
Economic development Indirect negat. effect?
IGS as green infrastructure in shrinking cities
• Expansion of vacant land, but:
• Lack of resources to convert it
easily into formal green infra
• ‘Depopulation dividend’ (Matanle):
chance for sustainability,
reconfigure urban space
• Shift to needs-based
• Coming to terms with loss of
control over urban nature?
• Intentional ‘rewilding’ vs. non-
intervention approach (Hard 2001)
• Potential to satisfy growing
demand for urban agriculture &
gardening, shrink cities’ food
IGS as green infrastructure in growing cities
• High land cost for green infra
• Strong development pressure
• Sinking per capita private &
public green space provision
• Temporary benefits from
spontaneous vegetation in
• Source of ‘unclaimed territory’
(Cloke & Jones 2005),
that ‘disciplines neither people
in their actions nor nature in its
development’ (Nohl 1990)?
• Opportunity to maximize
benefits via policies (e.g.,
interim use, street verge
Informal greenspace as green infrastructure: Problems
IGS as green infrastructure: Roadmap for future research
• IGS quantity
• IGS types
• Current usage
• Past usage
• Lifecycle / generation
• Towards theory of IGS?
• Implications for theory
• Ecosystem (dis-)services
• Potential future usage
• Management approaches
• Anti-gentrification potential
• Legal dimensions
• Planning & policy…
IGS as green infra: Interdisciplinary research endeavor!
Barron, P., Mariani, M. (Eds.), 2013. Terrain Vague, Interstices at the Edge of the Pale. Routledge.
Benedict, M.A., McMahon, E.T., 2006. Green infrastructure. Island, Washington, DC.
Berkowitz, David, 2009. High Line Park - New York City - July 09. Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidberkowitz/3692427372/in/album-72157620875473693/
Bonthoux, S., Brun, M., Di Pietro, F., Greulich, S., Bouché-Pillon, S., 2014. How can wastelands promote biodiversity in cities? A review. Landscape and Urban Planning 132, 79–88.
Brandes, D., 1992. Flora und Vegetation von Stadtmauern. Tuexenia 12, 315–339.
Brandes, D., 1983. Flora und Vegetation der Bahnhofe Mitteleuropas. Phytocoenologia 11, 31–115.
Byrne, J.A., Lo, A.Y., Jianjun, Y., 2015. Residents’ understanding of the role of green infrastructure for climate change adaptation in Hangzhou, China. Landscape and Urban Planning 138, 132–143.
Campo, D., 2013. The Accidental Playground. Fordham University Press, New York.
Cilliers, S., Bredenkamp, G.J., 1999. Analysis of the spontaneous vegetation of intensively managed urban open spaces in the Potchefstroom Municipal Area, North West Province, South Africa. South African
Journal of Botany 65, 59–68.
Cilliers, S., Bredenkamp, G.J., 1998. Vegetation analysis of railway reserves in the Potchefstroom municipal area, North West Province, South Africa. South African Journal of Botany 64, 271–280.
Cilliers, S.S., Bredenkamp, G.J., 1999. Ruderal and degraded natural vegetation on vacant lots in the Potchefstroom Municipal Area, Noth West Province, South Africa. South African Journal of Botany 65, 163–173.
Cloke, P., Jones, O., 2005. “Unclaimed territory”: childhood and disordered space(s). Social & Cultural Geography 6, 311–333. doi:10.1080/14649360500111154
Diaz-Betancourt, M., Ghermandi, L., Ladio, A., Lopez-Moreno, I., Raffaele, E., Rapoport, E., 1999. Weeds as a source for human consumption. A comparison between tropical and temperate Latin America. Revista
de Biología Tropical 47, 329–338.
Foster, J., 2014. Hiding in plain view: Vacancy and prospect in Paris’ Petite Ceinture. Cities 40, Part B, 124–132. doi:10.1016/j.cities.2013.09.002
Franck, K.A., Stevens, Q. (Eds.), 2007. Loose space: possibility and diversity in urban life. Routledge, Abingdon.
Garvin, E.C., Cannuscio, C.C., Branas, C.C., 2013. Greening vacant lots to reduce violent crime: a randomised controlled trial. Injury Prevention 19, 198–203. doi:10.1136/injuryprev-2012-040439
Hard, G., 2001. Natur in der Stadt? Berichte zur deutschen Landeskunde 75, 257–270.
Jorgensen, A., Keenan, R. (Eds.), 2012. Urban Wildscapes. Routledge, Abingdon.
Luque, A., Duff, M., n.d. Urban Green Infrastructure: Capturing Ecosystem Value [WWW Document]. URL https://www.rudi.net/books/8935 (accessed 3.25.16).
Matthews, T., Lo, A.Y., Byrne, J.A., 2015. Reconceptualizing green infrastructure for climate change adaptation: Barriers to adoption and drivers for uptake by spatial planners. Landscape and Urban Planning 138,
McLain, R.J., Hurley, P.T., Emery, M.R., Poe, M.R., 2014. Gathering “wild” food in the city: rethinking the role of foraging in urban ecosystem planning and management. Local Environment 19, 220–240.
McPhearson, T., Kremer, P., Hamstead, Z.A., 2013. Mapping ecosystem services in New York City: Applying a social–ecological approach in urban vacant land. Ecosystem Services 5, 11–26.
Naumann, S., Davis, M., Kaphengst, T., Pieterse, M., Rayment, M., 2010. Design, implementation and cost elements of Green Infrastructure projects (Final report to the European Commission, DG Environment,
Contract no. 070307/2010/577182/ETU/F.1, Ecologic institute and GHK Consulting.).
Nohl, W., 1990. Gedankenskizze einer Naturästhetik der Stadt. Landschaft und Stadt 22, 57–67.
Qviström, M., 2012. Taming the wild: Gyllin’s Garden and the urbanization of a wildscape, in: Jorgensen, A., Keenan, R. (Eds.), Urban Wildscapes. Routledge, Abingdon, pp. 187–200.
Rink, D., Emmrich, R., 2005. Surrogate Nature or Wilderness? Social Perceptions and Notions of Nature in an Urban Context, in: Kowarik, I., Körner, S. (Eds.), Wild Urban Woodlands. Springer, Berlin/Heidelberg,
Rupprecht, C.D.D., Byrne, J.A., 2014a. Informal urban green-space: comparison of quantity and characteristics in Brisbane, Australia and Sapporo, Japan. PloS ONE 9, e99784. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0099784
Rupprecht, C.D.D., Byrne, J.A., 2014b. Informal urban greenspace: a typology and trilingual systematic review of its role for urban residents and trends in the literature. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening 13, 597–
Rupprecht, C.D.D., Byrne, J.A., Garden, J.G., Hero, J.-M., 2015a. Informal urban green space: A trilingual systematic review of its role for biodiversity and trends in the literature. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening
14, 883–908. doi:10.1016/j.ufug.2015.08.009
Rupprecht, C.D.D., Byrne, J.A., Lo, A.Y.H., 2015b. Memories of vacant lots: How and why residents used informal urban greenspace as children and teenagers in Brisbane, Australia and Sapporo, Japan. Children’s
Rupprecht, C.D.D., Byrne, J.A., Ueda, H., Lo, A.Y.H., 2015c. “It”s real, not fake like a park’: Residents’ perception and use of informal urban green-space in Brisbane, Australia and Sapporo, Japan. Landscape and
Urban Planning 143, 205–218. doi:10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.07.003
Weber, F., Kowarik, I., Säumel, I., 2014. Herbaceous plants as filters: Immobilization of particulates along urban street corridors. Environmental Pollution 186, 234–240. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2013.12.011
Wolch, J.R., Byrne, J., Newell, J.P., 2014. Urban green space, public health, and environmental justice: The challenge of making cities “just green enough.” Landscape and Urban Planning 125, 234–244.
When we talk about green infrastructure, it’s important to understand what exactly that means. In this regard, it helps to have a look at both green space and green infrastructure and some subtle differences in terminology.
- Green space points. Compared to green space, the term green infrastructure is less clearly defined. Green infrastructure points.
Before we look at the question whether more informal green spaces could be a part of green infrastructure, it’s important to recall the variety of functions green infra performs.
Potential function points. However, as the green infrastructure literature has grown, people have pointed out that simply investing massivly in greening has some downsides as well. Potential problem points.
With these functions and problems of green infrastructure in mind, what about green spaces beyond parks, gardens and conservation areas? Over the last years, my colleagues and I have worked on a group of spaces we call informal greenspace. We’ve put out a preliminarly definition of informal greenspace as anthropogenic, socio-ecological space covered partly with spontaneous vegetation, that is not recognised/managed by owners as recreational, agricultural or conservation space. Could these spaces perform similar infrastructure-like functions as formal greenspaces?
To answer this question, let’s have a look at how their perception has shifted.
Until around the 1980s, such spaces were perceived almost completely negatively. Planning side, Ecology side.
Starting with some pioneering studies in planning and ecology, this slowly changed from the 1980s onwards, with another big jump in interest over the last 5 to 10 years. More recently, some people are arguing that such spaces may have qualities more formal greenspaces are lacking, and may therefore have a value of their own, not just as a substitute.
Most research on informal greenspace to date looks at either urban recreation or urban biodiversity. Recreation and biodiversity details.
But what if we look at the whole range of functions we expect from green infrastructure?
The current evidence we have about informal greenspace functioning as green infrastructure is mixed. For some aspects the answer is clear: yes, IGS performs as green infrastructure, even if we don’t recognize it as such. For other aspects, some early studies suggest a similar picture, but it’s really too early to say. For aesthetic improvement, there is mixed evidence. Finally, there are infrastructure services we know nothing about, or those where past research indirectly suggests a negative effect.
To summarize the current status: there’s a lot more work to be done! But is it really worth? Let’s look at two different scenarios – shrinking and growing cities – to see how they could use IGS.
Shrinking cities often have a problem growing cities would love to have: more land than they can easily use. How does this play out?
Example from fieldwork I did: Sapporo, a city of about 2 million inhabitants located in northern Japan. Like most Japanese cities very high density, little private greenspace. Lots are largest IGS type, residents use it for example for urban agriculture.
Growing cities struggle to provide soaring population with green space and green infra services, but land cost and development pressure is high. Other points.
Example from my fieldwork: Brisbane. Street verges dominate IGS but are still mostly unused.
Is IGS then an ideal solution with no downside? Of course not.
The problems can be largely divided into 5 categories. IGS is not always accessible. Legal liability issues produce incentives to keep it inaccessible. IGS sites can have a history of industrial pollution, creating problems for agriculture. How do you plan for something that does not exist on your maps? Finally, the shift in perception is slow. Many residents but also planners and scholars still have largely negative views.
So what questions do we need to tackle moving forward?
When it comes to IGS as green infrastructure, we’ve barely scraped the surface. First there are basic questions which affect if and how IGS can work as green infra. Such as. Then there are applied questions. As you can see, this topic clearly goes beyond geography.
I know interdisciplinary research has been both hyped for a long time and simultaneously called a career killer, but when trying to understand complex phenomena there is no way around it: all these fields and probably more are needed to understand and unlock the potential of IGS as green infrastructure.