Research: A Collaborative Approach to Green Infrastructure Planning, Protection and Use

Research: A Collaborative Approach to Green Infrastructure Planning, Protection and Use

Résumé en français

Le projet de recherche Integrative Green Infrastructure Planning (GRIP) s’est concentré sur la planification et la gestion des infrastructures vertes urbaines (IG) à Tshwane, en Afrique du Sud. Des recherches approfondies ont été menées sur plus de deux ans (mars 2021 – juin 2023), comprenant des enquêtes communautaires, des examens des politiques et des ateliers participatifs. Les défis identifiés pour les infrastructures vertes comprenaient une propriété indéfinie, un faible entretien et des risques pour la sécurité, conduisant à une dégradation écologique et à une augmentation des risques d'inondation. Il existe des opportunités d’incitations socio-économiques susceptibles d’accroître la copropriété et la co-maintenance des IG. Le projet a développé des principes directeurs en matière d'IG et un outil d'aide à la décision pour la planification au niveau métropolitain. Compte tenu des risques climatiques en Afrique du Sud, il est crucial d’équilibrer l’utilisation et la protection des IG par l’éducation et les initiatives communautaires. L'intégration spatiale de l'IG avec les environnements bâtis peut atténuer la fragmentation de l'habitat et accroître les risques climatiques sur les itinéraires de transport non motorisés. Cependant, les considérations d’accès doivent être élargies pour surmonter les obstacles sociopolitiques grâce à une planification et une conception plus inclusives – avec la participation de la communauté. Les résultats pointent vers une gouvernance collaborative, une citoyenneté active et des partenariats intersectoriels pour formaliser et améliorer les activités IG dans la ville. Le projet a abordé le renforcement des capacités à différents niveaux et a fait progresser le co-développement et l'adoption de l'IG dans le métro en prônant les avantages environnementaux et sociaux de l'IG urbaine pour tous.

The Integrative Green Infrastructure Planning (GRIP) research project focused on the planning and management of urban green infrastructure (GI) in Tshwane, South Africa. Extensive research was conducted over more than two years (March 2021 – June 2023), including community surveys, policy reviews, and participatory workshops. Challenges identified for green infrastructure included undefined ownership, low maintenance, and safety risks, leading to ecological degradation and increased flooding risks. Opportunities exist for socio-economic incentives that can increase GI co-ownership and co-maintenance. The project developed GI guiding principles and a decision support tool for planning at the metro level. Given South Africa's climate risks, balancing the use and protection of GI through education and community initiatives is crucial. The spatial integration of GI with built environments can mitigate habitat fragmentation and enhance climate hazards on non-motorised transport routes. However, access considerations must be broadened to address socio-political barriers through more inclusive planning and design – with community involvement. The findings point towards collaborative governance, active citizenship, and cross-sectoral partnerships to formalise and enhance GI activities in the city. The project addressed capacity building at various levels. It advanced the co-development and uptake of GI in the metro by advocating the environmental and social benefits of urban GI for all.


The Integrative Green Infrastructure Planning (GRIP) project is an interdisciplinary research project that aims to provide new knowledge on urban green infrastructure (GI) in South Africa.

Urban GI includes the environmental features spread across a city, from nature reserves and natural streams to parks, street trees and gardens.

The research project focused on knowledge exchange and capacity building to improve the coordination, planning and maintenance of urban GI in the administrative capital of South Africa, the City of Tshwane. Systematic integration of GI concepts in urban planning shows promise in protecting biodiversity, reducing climate hazards and improving health as Tshwane faces rapid urbanisation and struggles to address the depletion and degradation of existing GI. Therefore, the research team and public and private partners aimed to co-develop context-specific proposals and actionable principles to realise multifunctional GI benefits in Tshwane.  

This research is the most comprehensive multidisciplinary study on GI in sub-Saharan Africa that the researchers are aware of.

The project extended over two years, with most fieldwork conducted between May 2021 and October 2022. The project considered both managed and unmanaged green space areas in the city and how to improve their multifunctionality so that they can meaningfully contribute to improving social and ecological health while reducing climatic risks.

Figure 1: The two study areas were selected unmanaged green spaces located in Mabopane, Region 1 and Atteridgeville, Region 3 (Source: I Breed)

Two municipal-owned 100-hectare study sites were co-selected with municipal stakeholders to consider unmanaged green spaces with social and ecological potential and challenges on river systems. On the ground, the project conducted a community survey among 200 residents, a rapid assessment of multifunctional benefit provisions, and first-hand observations of local stormwater systems. The researchers reviewed 28 policy documents at the metro level and conducted 18 semi-structured interviews with officials. Four design studios were held with landscape architecture students, and eight cross-sectoral co-creation workshops explored GI benefits, spatial planning, and design in the city. The researchers examined the challenges, opportunities and local proposals for GI applications and facilitated the uptake of GI principles in planning and management.

Figure 2: The students were engaged in workshops to gain understanding from the local communities about the sites and how they were used (Source: I Breed)

The researchers found that on-the-ground GI challenges include a complex mix of undefined ownership, low maintenance, invasive plants, safety risks and current informal and illegal uses. These challenges infringe on vulnerable ecologies through erosion, sewer leaks, blocked stormwater pipes and dumping, which can decrease ecological integrity and increase risks, including the increased risk of flooding. Opportunities for GI enhancement include co-ownership and maintenance, which can be achieved by creating socio-economic incentives for stronger human-nature relations, multifunctional benefit provision and greater care for GI in local communities.

Figure 3: Challenges on the study sites included low maintenance, invasive plants, safety risks and current informal and illegal uses (Source: Eyescapes)

At the metro level, GI planning challenges include scarce resources, the low valuation of GI, competing interests, limited enforcement and cross-coordination, and the need for technical knowledge and skills. Opportunities to overcome these lie in collaborative investment and partnerships towards a shared vision to co-create multifunctional urban GI.

On the ground, there is a general conflict between human presence, nature's quality and GI's biodiversity.

However, the study proposes that interactive, creative research can facilitate increased local awareness, engagement and co-existence, with GI leading to greater stakeholder benefits in time and space.

Access to GI benefits is physically constrained and socially determined by knowledge, networks, and safety factors. However, unmanaged green spaces have current benefits and potential that could become accessible through design. This includes co-design with municipal departments and communities.

There is willingness and potential within current communities to co-manage green spaces. The study, therefore, argues for socio-economic incentives that could encourage stronger human-nature relations, the provision of multifunctional benefits and greater care for GI in local communities across genders and generations.

Figure 4: the GRIP project managed to build capacity at various levels (Source: L Cloete)

GRIP managed to build capacity at various levels. It addressed GI planning and management at the metro level by proposing and integrating GI guiding principles that target Tshwane's planning policy documents. At the same time, remote sensing and geospatial analyses led to a GI decision support tool to inform large-scale GI planning to protect and upgrade urban GI. The study improved the aptitude of students and researchers to engage with multifaceted GI design and planning problems across disciplines and develop socially just and environmentally sound multifunctional solutions. The study's creative outreach projects moved beyond typical one-way dissemination towards community dialogues that spoke to local capacities and the means to engage with residents on GI. GRIP also effectively expanded environmental potential by shedding light on GI benefits and enhancement for risk management across sectors and stakeholders involved.


Urban GI planning in Tshwane emphasises environmental protection, multifunctionality, multi-scaled approaches and safety. This could be achieved locally by encouraging and elaborating on a joint, metro-wide vision that includes collaborative governance, active citizenship and cross-sectoral partnerships

Figure 5: GI planning needs collaborative governance, active citizenship and cross-sectoral partnerships to be more effective (Source: D Schoulund)

A cross-sectoral co-development of policies is required to formalise and legalise activities enhancing GI locally. Socio-economic activities generate local income, and  informal uses, such as pocket parks and urban gardening; and develop an incentivised basis for co-ownership and care, which preserve green spaces for different activities and uses. Existing policies can potentially formalise such engagements if they are creatively adjusted.

Use and overexploitation must be balanced through educational activities and community initiatives, strengthening social connectivity and nature appreciation through enhanced ownership and care.

South Africa faces a future with a higher risk of the heat island effect and severe flooding, where urban green spaces can be a part of nature-based solutions and increase resilience, making their protection and optimisation for multifunctionality an urgent matter.

Figures 6 and 6a: GI's spatial planning and built fabric integration can mediate current habitat fragmentation and alleviate climatic hazards (Source: D Schoulund)

GI's spatial planning and built fabric integration can mediate current habitat fragmentation and alleviate climatic hazards. These coincide with non-motorised transport routes where people can move safely while appreciating contact with nature. The spatial decision support tool developed by GRIP can aid the metro with sound decision-making on the development, upgrading, and upscaling of GI.

In South Africa, there is still a need for access considerations to be broadened to explicitly embrace both spatial and socio-political barriers that shape people's ability to benefit from GI. Physical access can be improved through design that specifically targets access, diversifies use and increases safety through visual access and surveillance.

The provision of benefits and access can be further enhanced through strategic and inclusive planning and design that builds upon trans- and interdisciplinary collaboration and the co-management of green space. Building on communities' inherent local knowledge and innovative power, effective participation must be expanded to include empowerment and instilling a sense of care and ownership. The follow-through requires the co-development process to continue, anchored and embedded in the metro.

For further reading:

GRIP Research Project:

Breed, C. A., Engemann, K. and Pasgaard, M. 2024. A transdisciplinary multiscaled approach to engage with green infrastructure planning, restoration and use in sub-Saharan Africa. Urban Ecosystems.

Breed, C. A., Du Plessis, T., Engemann, K., Pauleit, S. and Pasgaard, M. 2023. Moving green infrastructure planning from theory to practice in Sub-Saharan African cities requires collaborative operationalisation. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 128085.

Pasgaard, M, Breed, C, Heines, M, Knudsen, L, Brom, P, Schmidt, A and Engemann, K. 2023. Citizen science beyond science: A collaborative approach for transformative sustainable development. Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, 8(1): 41, pp. 1–14.

Brom, P., Engemann, K., Breed, C., Pasgaard, M., Onaolapo, T. & Svenning, J.-C. 2023. A decision support tool for green infrastructure planning in the face of rapid urbanisation. Land, 12(2), 415.