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October 31 2018
From solar energy road studs and wind farms to green corridors and sustainable office headquarters, the UK infrastructure industry is introducing new ideas on how to improve Britain’s infrastructure while protecting the environment. In this article, we’ll look at 5 key ways the infrastructure industry is going green, and how these practices are being implemented throughout Britain.
The infrastructure industry has taken great strides in being more environmentally-aware. As well as utilising greener materials to build, and considering more sustainable and durable alternatives, the industry is taking on board the needs of the people living in houses, towns and cities in the UK. It would be wrong to say that as a nation we haven’t progressed. But there’s still much more we can do.
The United Kingdom is one of the best nations for wind power in the world and is considered the best in Europe. Over the past two decades, wind farms have been cropping up both onshore and offshore, generating electricity all over Britain. Wind power contributed to approximately 15% of electricity generation in 2017, and in 2018, Scottish Power became the first major UK energy firm to abandon fossil fuels in favour of wind power. The company plans to invest £5.2bn over the next four years to more than double its renewable capacity, according to The Independent. Scottish Power’s chief executive said: “We are leaving carbon generation behind for a renewable future powered by cheaper green energy. We have closed coal, sold gas and built enough wind to power 1.2 million homes. The company is the first of six major energy suppliers to make the switch.
Kate Blagojevic, head of energy at Greenpeace UK added: “Big utilities across Europe have been shedding their dirty fossil fuel infrastructure because it makes economic and environmental sense. This move by Scottish Power shows that the same maths adds up in the UK too. Climate science could not be clearer that renewables are the future for powering our world.”
But Kate also added that the government needs to back the renewable energy industry rather than focusing its efforts and funding on nuclear companies. So, while it’s an excellent step that Scottish Power has embraced renewable energy, there must be support and backing from a higher level to ensure the trend progresses.
Another exciting development in the infrastructure sector is solar road studs, 4,500 of which were recently installed on UK roads by Highways England. The studs were part of an £8.5m improvement to the A38 between Ripley and junction 28 of the M1 near Mansfield, a stretch of road used by more than 23,000 vehicles every day. The solar studs harness sunlight to illuminate the road at night and are said to be effective during heavy rain, mist and fog, according to Highways England. Project manager Matthew Carruthers said: “This section of carriageway has no street lighting, so the solar road studs and improved lane markings make a real difference. At the same time, the new technology is more durable, meaning less disruption for motorists in the long term thanks to fewer roadworks.”
So not only is this sustainable alternative effective, but it’s also improving road usage for drivers. The solar studs last up to five years longer than standard studs, and due to their smaller height, they are much safer for motorcycles. It pays to go green!
Urban regeneration, the practice of restoring disused sites and buildings, has long been a popular way of adding more green spaces to cities. The High Line in New York City, for example, is a public park built on an historic freight rail line elevated high above the streets of Manhattan. It was saved from demolition by neighbourhood residents and the City of New York and opened in 2009. Residents and visitors can now walk along the High Line to take advantage of the green space and fresh air.
While it’s not always possible to regenerate old spaces, the infrastructure industry can take advantage of opportunities to breathe new life into old buildings and areas in a sustainable way. In May 2018, a housing development regeneration project in Finsbury Park London was named RICS London Project of the Year. Woodberry Down is one of London’s largest estate regeneration projects, which replacing 1,890 existing homes with 5,500 mixed-tenure new-build homes and 2.61 acres of parkland and amenities. The regeneration of Woodberry Down was planned in the 1990s after structural surveys showed that the estate would be too expensive and difficult to refurbish, and was in need of total redevelopment. The plans were approved in 2005 and updated in 2014, and work is well underway, with more than 1,500 homes already completed, with more than half for social rent and shared ownership.
A report commissioned into social sustainability at Woodberry Down suggests that new and established residents gave a score of 90% for life satisfaction against a national average of 66%. As well as breathing new life into the estate, through regeneration and providing an improved space, the industry is able to improve lives and wellbeing.
In an article for PBC Today, Liz Peace CBE, former chief executive of the British Property Federation, highlighted the various issues with regeneration, from securing funding and building around infrastructure in busy cities to the importance of having guidance from an industry body. However, she concluded: “While urban regeneration schemes can take years to get off the ground, and often become the subject of drawn-out political debate, there is a strong argument for preferring urban regeneration compared with starting development afresh elsewhere on greenfield sites, often in the Green Belt.
“Large-scale regeneration schemes represent a clear and sustainable solution for the UK’s property sector which developers, builders and the government all need to put effort into making work.”
Going forward, urban regeneration is expected to play a huge role in the infrastructure industry’s efforts to go greener.
In 2017, a ‘green bridge’ was developed by Highways England to reduce the number of road traffic accidents related to animals. The bridge, located at the Knutsford to Bowdon dual carriageway in northern England, is the first of its kind in the UK but has been popular in other European countries for some time. The green bridge, which cost £1.15m to build, has many young plants and trees and allows animals to cross the road safely. Project manager Paul Hampson told Manchester Evening News: “The green bridge was the centre-piece of our work to ensure the new A556 was the most environmentally-friendly road Highways England has ever built.
“We are delighted the planting has really taken hold and we’re looking forward to watching the bridge bloom for many years to come.”
A spokesman for Highways England added: “Installing the green bridge was one of dozens of measures delivered during the 28-month projects to enhance the environment or minimise the impact of the new road, or its actual construction, on its surroundings.”
In 2018, Bloomberg’s new European headquarters in London was awarded the Riba (Royal Institute of British Architects) Stirling prize for architecture. The building was also awarded the title of the world’s highest BREEAM-rated major office building – BREAAM is responsible for assessing and certifying buildings based on their sustainability. According to BREEAM, Bloomberg worked towards high sustainability standards to create a building which ‘looks to the future’. Some of the building’s green features include:
Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg L.P. and Bloomberg Philanthropies, said: “When we embarked on this project, we wanted to create a cutting-edge design that would push the boundaries of what an office building could be, which meant setting new standards for openness and sustainability.
“At the same time, we wanted to honour London’s history and contribute to its vitality. We knew that if we could achieve both objectives, we’d have a building that would inspire everyone who set foot inside it.”
Taking care of our green spaces has long been a point of contention among the environmentally-minded and the infrastructure industry. The simple fact is, we need to build more housing and improve our infrastructure, be it through building new railways such as HS2, or extending and maintaining our motorways. Greenfield sites – those being considered for urban development – and brownfield sites – any previously developed land not currently in use – are constantly being eyed up by the industry. However, in improving our infrastructure, it’s crucial that we maintain our green spaces. This is particularly challenging in cities.
In 2017, Mapping firm Esri UK analysed Landsat 8 satellite images for the 10 UK cities with the largest populations to determine which had the largest amount of green space. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Edinburgh (49.2% green space) was first, with Glasgow (32%) and Bristol (29%) not too far behind. The full list is as follows:
The infrastructure industry has a huge responsibility to find new ways to create greener, healthier cities, and to use space sensibly. With innovative design, and by taking a leaf out of other nations’ books, the UK can strive to achieve greener, healthier cities.
Maintaining existing green spaces is crucial to the success of creating a green city. If firms carefully consider their infrastructure projects, be it building a new bus station or creating a new rail line, they can preserve green spaces which will ultimately benefit residents. UK charity Trees for Cities campaigns to ‘cultivate lasting change in neighbourhoods’ by revitalising forgotten spaces (urban regeneration) and supporting and educating the public to take care of their local communities.
We spoke to Kate Sheldon, Development Director at Trees for Cities to find out whether she feels the infrastructure industry has made improvements to create greener cities: “The infrastructure industry is huge – including the built environment, transport, communication, sewage, utilities etc – and some sectors are engaging in creating greener cities more than others.
“It is essential that green infrastructure is seen as a vital component of our infrastructure; not just a ‘nice to have’. The mitigating effect of greenery, particularly tree canopies, on air pollution and urban heat are well known and well documented. The London i-Tree Eco Project, for example, demonstrated that London’s urban forest provides ecosystem services to the value of £132.7m each year.
“Interestingly, there is a movement towards green or renewable energy, giving a clear indication of what consumers want. Trees for Cities is proud to work with businesses that make outstanding positive contributions towards green cities, including Bulb and Npower ‘Go Green’ (renewable energy providers) and Thames Tideway Tunnel (sewage).”
We asked Kate why it is so important that urban areas plant more trees: “Urban trees provide an array of social and environmental benefits. As well as ‘ecosystem services’ such as helping to clean and cool our air, prevent flooding and provide shade, they also create habitats for wildlife. We mustn’t overlook the simple fact that trees are beautiful – they soften and brighten up the cityscape and connect us with the seasons through their changing forms and colours.
“Sadly, we lose more than 50 urban trees in the UK every day. Sometimes this is through natural ageing, disease or decay, but as our cities grow bigger and hotter, trees are increasingly under threat from city sprawl and pests and disease. With 80% of us now living in urban areas, we now need our trees more than ever to keep us happy and healthy.”
In June 2018, UK ministers announced there would be additional funding for new woodlands along the HS2 route. HS2 Minister Nusrat Ghani announced £2m for the HS2 Woodland Fund to help landowners between Birmingham and Crewe to plant new trees that are native to the area. She said: “As we deliver the new high-speed railway our country needs, it is imperative that we set a new standard for protecting and enhancing our diverse woodlands and wildlife.” While environmental campaigners are sceptical about the announcement, HS2 Ltd’s chief executive Mark Thurston said: “Alongside improving connectivity, boosting the economy and unlocking new jobs and opportunities, I’m determined to ensure that HS2 also works for the environment and local communities.” The so-called ‘green corridor’ will include:
It is clear that architects and the construction industry as a whole are embracing newer, more sustainable methods and practices, but it’s also important to keep the public inspired in order to progress. While the Bloomberg HQ in London has gained worldwide media attention, there are many attractions in the UK and indeed all over the world that are working towards inspiring others to consider greener alternatives.
In Singapore, the surreal and inspiring Gardens by the Bay were designed with sustainability in mind. The entire gardens and its structures were planned and designed for sustainable cycles in energy and water, with every component considered to assist in supporting this unique ecosystem. The impressive conservatories (replicating the climate of the Mediterranean) are a ‘statement’ in sustainable engineering, according to the Gardens of the Bay website, using cutting-edge technologies and energy-efficient solutions in cooling. This works by minimising solar heat gain, cooling only the occupied areas, dehumidifying the air before cooling and generating energy and harnessing waste heat. This fascinating example of sustainable architecture and technology attracts visitors from all over the world while educating the public as to how we can create greener and more sustainable spaces, even within our cities.
In the UK, the iconic Eden Project is a hub for all things environmental. As well as its famous domed greenhouses, the attraction educates visitors about the importance of considering greener alternatives, from reducing plastic usage to building materials and foods. On a much smaller scale, London’s new Sky Garden has incorporated a green space into 20 Fenchurch Street, better known as the ‘Walkie Talkie’ building. There is an increased appetite for green spaces within our cities, and the infrastructure industry is leading the charge.
Another way in which the infrastructure industry can inspire the public is by promoting their work to schools and young apprentices. As the world looks to ‘go green’, educating and inspiring the next generation of infrastructure workers is key. McGinley is proud to offer apprenticeships working with Intertrain, the UK’s largest railway training provider, where they can learn about rail safety and begin to build a future in the infrastructure sector.
We still have a long way to go to ensure that we limit the damage caused to our environment, particularly through key infrastructure sectors such as roads, rail and construction. We are constantly working to provide better connections between cities and parts of the UK but must do so with our environment in mind. Through embracing new methods and materials, urban regeneration, innovative construction and architecture, creating healthier cities and inspiring the public, the infrastructure industry can continue to become greener in the years to come.
Image credits: Maria Eklind