As part of the solutions to the challenges of climate change, creating sustainable urban green spaces emerges as a vital proposal. These spaces do not only embellish cities, but produce multiple ecosystem benefits, such as cooling temperature and fostering biodiversity.

To further discuss this, we talked to Alejandra Vargas, Agricultural Engineer and Master in Urban Green Areas Management from Universidad Católica’s School of Agricultural and Forestry Engineering and coauthor of the paper “Urban green spaces and sustainability: an ongoing challenge.”

As one of the key pillars of any economy, agroindustry has the potential to play a vital role in sustainable urbanization. By adopting eco-friendly practices and supporting the creation of green corridors, the industry can become a bridge between rural and urban areas, connecting landscapes and improving the community’s quality of life.

– How would you define the concept of “sustainable urban green spaces”?

During our research, we came up with a definition that sets the basic criteria to assess the sustainability of a green space. In some cases, we observed that they were only considered sustainable if they reduced water consumption or the labor required to maintain them. However, we thought sustainability included much more than these elements.

This is why we based our definition on the three fundamental pillars of sustainability: the social, economic and environmental areas. We believe that a “sustainable green space” must provide benefits in all three of them.

From an environmental perspective, we believe that cooling temperature and fostering biodiversity are two key elements. A sustainable green space must be biodiverse, contribute to temperature decrease, and use resources efficiently. This is particularly relevant in regions like Chile’s central valley, where water and labor efficiency are essential.

In economic terms, viability is key. A sustainable green space must be reasonably priced and manageable by local authorities. Hence the dilemma that arises from considering labor costs reductions, a global trend. However, in Chile’s case, green spaces are a valuable source of employment, especially for unskilled workers who might not have access to other jobs. Therefore, efforts related to green spaces can also be considered from a social perspective, as a relevant source of employment for the country.

Also in social terms, a sustainable green space should not be reduced to a place to be observed from a car. It should provide a space for the community to interact and enjoy.

– What are the key conditions for green spaces to contribute to sustainable development?

First and foremost, green spaces must be designed to decrease ambient temperature. They must play this vital role.

Secondly, biodiversity is key, which means that native species must be favored. Not all species need to be native, but a significant presence is important, as it’s the only way to create an effective connection with the natural environment.

Thirdly, green spaces must be designed to be used and enjoyed by the community. They must be accessible and attractive to people.

And lastly, both the creation and maintenance of green spaces must be economically viable. That is, it shouldn’t be an unsustainable burden for those in charge. The design must also be cost-efficient, for its creation and maintenance to be affordable and not too burdensome. 

– Could you give us some examples of international projects that base their goals and metrics on sustainability?

In New York, there is an extraordinary park that has obtained numerous awards. It’s part of “The Green Way” initiative, a green infrastructure network that extends throughout Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Bridge Park was built at a site impacted by coastal erosion and shoreline retreat. To address the problem, sustainable strategies were implemented, which are constantly under review.

The park has received multiple awards and it stands out for its exceptional landscape design, where environmental functionality and aesthetics are meticulously cared for. In addition, systems have been developed to protect the shoreline and prevent its retreat. Biodiversity was recovered following a scientific approach, by reintroducing species that had disappeared from the area, based on exhaustive studies.

The park has also focused on cooling ambient temperature, using grasslands in higher elevations. Additionally, it was conceived as a space for multiple uses, with areas for walking and recreation for older adults and people with reduced mobility. This sustainable model addresses the three pillars of sustainability and this is why it has earned so many accolades.

In Sheffield (United Kingdom), where I currently live, there is a project called “Grey To Green,” led by professors from the school I work for. The project transformed a commercial area with an industrial focus. The pavement was removed and a system of green spaces was created to prevent flooding. The area used to get flooded because the ground was completely sealed. The gardens built in the area absorb water and are home to a variety of species. Water infiltrates the gardens and, additionally, a deteriorated canal was rehabilitated, recovering its old flow. This green space is rich in diverse plant species and offers a wide range of ecosystem services, thus contributing to local sustainability.

It has also attracted a considerable number of pollinators, especially bees, which has led to the celebration of a Pollen Market. The market celebrates the significance of having drawn these pollinators. The Grey To Green project has received various awards in the European Union, for its groundbreaking approach and its contributions to environmental and urban sustainability.

– What lessons could be applied in Chile?

Firstly, that applying science in green space planning is essential. It’s not about choosing beautiful plants; we need to really understand plants, which are the most appropriate and their impact on their environment. Scientific knowledge is key and it must be aimed at creating multifunctional landscapes. We can’t call a green space sustainable just because it saves water; there are many other functions that need to be pursued to make it truly “sustainable.” This requires study, design, and an active search for multifunctionality.

In short, we need to address green space projects with more scientific rigor and strategic thinking. Multifunctionality doesn’t necessarily mean additional expenses; it’s about optimizing the benefits for the location where the project is developed, maximizing its positive impact on the community and the environment.

– What Chilean initiatives to promote sustainable urban green spaces would you highlight?

There are some small initiatives in the capital city, in neighborhoods like Vitacura and Providencia that promote planting herbaceous species for sustainability. However, they are insufficient in certain aspects. For example, although they do attract pollinators and reduce water consumption, they lack shade and the social use of the space. We are moving in the right direction by valuing water conservation and promoting biodiversity, as we say in our study, but there’s still much to be done to provide functional spaces that encompass all the elements of sustainability.

Being critical, I haven’t found any projects that could be considered a comprehensive sustainability model that covers all dimensions. I actually believe that we should look for promising initiatives, learn from them, and work together to create an integrated model that doesn’t yet exist.

On the other hand, I think some current models are wrong, like replacing the vegetation cover with stones, synthetic grass, or concrete to reduce water consumption. This approach is fundamentally wrong, as these changes actually increase temperature and reduce biodiversity, going against the true components of sustainability.

– What guidelines and strategies would you recommend to develop policies and guidelines on green spaces and sustainability?

I believe that public policy should focus on greening the city sustainably and building a network of connected green spaces. Up to this point, the role of public policy should be promoting sustainable construction and interconnecting urban green spaces. This includes promoting green space networks that are connected and constantly growing. However, the details on how to build these green spaces shouldn’t be the responsibility of public policy.

In my opinion, the key is connecting green spaces, which is a fundamental component of sustainability. We shouldn’t limit to creating isolated patches, but rather work on building a network, since the environmental and social benefits are much higher when the vegetation network is expanded. Additionally, we should look for sustainable green spaces models.

Public policy can have an impact by promoting green spaces connectivity and providing general guidelines. However, the implementation falls largely on municipalities, which must find sustainable design strategies that go well beyond species selection. These strategies must be adapted to the specific features of each place, whether it’s located on a hillside, on flat terrain, or near pollution sources. Public policy can provide the initial push, but the detailed implementation is up to local stakeholders.

Ultimately, I think public policy should focus on promoting connectivity and seeing the city as an integrated whole. It can’t limit itself to allowing each municipality to make independent decisions without a shared vision. We need strategies at regional and city level, to promote project connectivity and address urban challenges as a whole, rather than allowing each local authority to act alone and with no coordination.

– From an industry perspective, what could companies do to promote sustainable urban areas?

A strategy that has proven to be highly effective, which some vineyards have already implemented, are biological corridors. One example is Viña Maquis, which turned a water canal into a green corridor with ornamental plants designed to attract more pollinators. The idea of these corridors is to connect natural environments. In this case, Viña Maquis took the initiative to contribute to biodiversity in its own production, a measure that contrasts with the monoculture trend in agriculture. The green corridors they implemented proved to be a valuable addition.

I believe that this practice has a significant potential that the food industry can harness. They’re also doing in the United States and Europe. In France, for example, vineyards build flower corridors and use ground covers under the vines to foster beneficial insects and favor biological pest control. This is a significant opportunity for the agricultural industry, as it could contribute to biodiversity and adopt a more sustainable approach in their production.

– In your opinion, how do sustainable green spaces impact business growth?

The implementation of green spaces entails a series of benefits in different areas. In social terms, they improve the quality of life of workers, as they provide welcoming spaces to rest, have lunch, and carry out social activities, thus promoting a more pleasant work environment that facilitates interaction.

From an environmental perspective, the increase in biodiversity and the presence of beneficial insects produce natural pest control dynamics. This helps restoring a balanced ecosystem, offsetting the negative impacts of monoculture, promoting soil health, and living organisms stability.

In economic terms, these initiatives also have a positive impact by improving soil quality and contributing to the stability of populations, which can result in long-term higher  productivity. Furthermore, green spaces favor pollination, a key element in the production of fruits and other crops. Cooling temperature with vegetation strips is also key to mitigate the urban heat island effect.

The message to the industry is clear: contributing to diverse landscapes and green corridors not only improves the ecological quality of their land, but also provides significant benefits to employees and the environment. It’s not spending, but rather investing in the future, in sustainability, and the well-being of both people and the ecosystems in which they work.

– Thinking about alleviating the water crisis, how can sustainable green spaces help?

Vegetation plays a key role in the humidity of the environment; when we face droughts, the most effective response is not to eliminate vegetation, but to promote its use. A common mistake is thinking that drought is fought by further drying or reducing vegetation, when in reality, it can make matters worse. We have a clear example in Africa, where deforestation has contributed to increased drought, and the solution has been reversing the trend with reforestation, not removing more vegetation.

If you ask me how a public strategy should address the water crisis, I’d say encouraging people not to waste water, avoiding long showers or washing utensils or clothes unnecessarily. Water should always be used consciously, prioritizing its use for green spaces and plants. I don’t agree with reducing irrigation as the first measure to save water. In my opinion, saving water starts with avoiding waste.

It’s important to prefer plant species that need less water, that’s the right decision. However, I don’t think it’s appropriate to reduce vegetation itself. Vegetation plays a vital role in combating drought and preserving ecosystems, which is why we must focus on strategies that promote water efficiency and the conservation of existing vegetation.