Green and Blue Infrastructure innovation to foster the FWEN

The IFWEN project includes research on Green and Blue Infrastructure (GBI), acknowledging that adopting urban GBI strategies is instrumental to the implementation of the nexus, as substitutes or complements to conventional “grey” infrastructure, in addressing the interface and linkages between the natural and the built environment in cities.

The GBI approach is a planning and design proposition that synthesizes several theoretical concepts, principles and disciplines, including landscape ecology, urban ecology, greenspace planning, and ecosystem services (Wang and Banzhaf 2018, Pauleit et al. 2017, Handley et al. 2007, Benedict & McMahon 2002). It is also increasingly associated with the concepts of ecosystem services (ES), ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) and nature-based solutions (NbS) as a strategy for their realization through the process of urban design and spatial planning (Shih and Mabon 2018, Kabisch et al. 2017, Brink et al. 2016). GBI strategies are also recognized as a means to meet several of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as health (SDG 3), clean water and sanitation (SDG 6), besides being a target in itself (Target 11.7); innovation and infrastructure (SDG 9), sustainable cities (SDG 11) and environmental protection (SDG 13) (IPBES 2019).

Ecosystem services (ES)

Ecosystem services (ES) are defined by the UN as “The direct and indirect benefits that humans derive from natural and managed ecosystems, such as provisioning (including food), cultural, regulatory and supporting services.” (UNEP / IWMI 2011:21).

They are the services provided by ecological processes to individuals or society at large. Nature provides the underlying support system that allows all things on earth to survive, and provides services like drinking water, food, and timber. It regulates natural phenomena through processes of pollination, air temperature and climate regulation, and offers cultural services like wellbeing, spiritual comfort and recreation. In 2013, the European Environmental Agency issued the first version of the Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services for Integrated Environmental and Economic Accounting – CICES,to establish common standards for classifying and measuring ES. CICES aims to classify the contributions that ecosystems make to human wellbeing, their most recent report can be found at here. CICES defines ecosystem services as “the contributions that ecosystems make to human well-being, and distinct from goods and benefits that people subsequently derive from them. In its fifth version of 2017, CICES does not recognize “supporting services” for the purpose of environmental and economic accounting.

Table 1. Relationships between different types of green and blue infrastructure and food-water-energy topics, according to GBI-FWEN literature.

Note: Yellow cells – Positive effects; Red cells – Negative effects; Orange cells – Positive and negative effects. Source: Bellezoni et al., 2021

IFWEN research project: Focusing on GBI innovation in the Global South

Urban GBI in the Global South

Although cities in developing countries, particularly the large ones share socio-economic characteristics and vulnerabilities, urban GBI varies widely across the regions. The predominance of certain GBI typologies in a particular region is related to the cities´ demographic and development characteristics. In Africa, where food security is a major issue, urban populations traditionally practice urban and peri-urban agriculture (including food gardens, vertical and roof farming), addressing poverty alleviation, but also flood control. Some more developed cities, such as Cape Town also invest in green areas as a strategy to improve health and the local urban environment. Latin-American cities, with deep inequality issues have implemented the GBI approach, such as green spaces and urban agriculture, focusing on both social and ecological concerns, for example, urban land use, food provision, sanitation and assessment of soil and water quality. In Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), studies on urban GBI highlight vulnerability and social concerns.

In some Asian countries, urban GBI or “green spaces” include parks, green areas, rooftop and vertical gardens and are widely used, particularly in high-density cities to tackle the urban heat island effect and provide recreational areas. In 2014, China established a national program called “Sponge City” that is implemented in several urban areas to address flooding and water shortage.

Adopting GBI as a mitigation/adaptation strategy convergent with national guidelines, or even linked to a global environmental agenda is still not frequent, and the focus is foremost socio-economic. With the exception of China, the main goal of urban GBI is the provision function of ecosystem services. China´s Sponge City concept has a more holistic approach, also addressing climate change and biodiversity loss.

Overall, the focus has been on local developmental concerns, addressing urban-rural interactions, land use policies, food insecurity and poverty alleviation. Many of these issues are intertwined with problems arising from rapid urbanization, such as Informality, lack of access to basic natural resources and sanitation, and environmental degradation, aggravated by inadequate governance, and insufficient financial resources and capacity.

Acknowledging the enormous cultural, historical, and environmental differences between cities in the developing world, there is clearly no “one-size fits all” solution for the consolidation of GBI strategies. Nevertheless, there are huge opportunities for the use of GBI as an alternative approach to improve urban ecosystem services, as demonstrated by some cities. Durban, South Africa, has revitalized a waste landfill to become a reforested area that helps to capture carbon and generate income for the local communities; Medellin, Columbia, successfully implemented a greenbelt development project with landscape and environmental benefits, despite controversies about its social justice implications; and the Sponge City Program in China reports some successful pilot initiatives to address stormwater management.

Source: Macedo et al., 2021

IFWEN Participating cities, 2018-2021

Findings from the IFWEN research – GBI in the project cities

Alluvial plain protected area. São José dos Campos, Brazil.
Source: L.Macedo personal archive, 2019

Bottom-up action inspiring municipality urban agriculture legislation in Florianópolis, Brazil

Florianópolis is one of the pioneer cities in Brazil, along with Curitiba, to have a legal framework for agroecological production of food and medicinal plants, aimed at fostering nutritional security and improved health. The Urban Agriculture Program (PMAU) was established by municipal decree in 2017, amended in 2018 and 2020, to include the promotion of sustainable natural resources usage, such as rainwater and recycled materials reuse, composting and solar energy production. It is managed by municipal departments, the Municipal Environment Foundation (FLORAM) and the Capital Improvement Authority (COMCAP). Activities include management of organic waste through composting and vermicomposting, production of seedlings and seeds and certification of organic production. The PMAU involved organizing community actions such as cleaning up, composting, and implementing community gardens. Civil society engagement included setting up working groups and associations, partnering with NGOs to provide training and capacity building. The initiative, inspired and supported by social movements, resulted in the creation of networks such as SEMEAR, to secure continuity of the program. There are currently 112 community gardens mapped by the city, in Municipal School Units, Health Centres and neighbourhoods. Vacant public lots were used as community gardens and composting facilities, thus avoiding waste dumping and contamination. The program is implemented through a management group composed of the Municipal Environment Foundation (FLORAM), Superintendence of Fisheries, Mariculture and Agriculture, Capital Improvement Authority (COMCAP), Municipal Secretariats of Health, Education, Infrastructure, Urban Planning and Development, and other direct and indirect administration bodies of the municipality. The Decree also established a Forum including several institutions and representatives of civil society, acting as an advisory body and coordinated by the Management group.


Municipal workers and community in composting facility, Florianópolis.
Source: City of Florianópolis, COMCAP 2017
Farmer´s market that sells agroecological vegetables in downtown Florianópolis.
Source: City of City of Florianópolis, COMCAP 2017

Partnership between the private sector, local government and communities in Antananarivo, Madagascar for urban agriculture and sanitation

Loowatt is a private company headquartered in London and working in the sanitation sector in Antananarivo since 2012. The company’s work addresses the liquid sanitation issue in the city and consists of installing mobile toilets in households that pay a monthly fee on solid sanitation services. The collection service currently in place that collects the waste on a weekly basis (Segretain, 2021); patented technology “provides a hygienic, waterless toilet, with a liner that wraps human waste and pulls it into a container” (Loowatt, 2020).

Loowatt partnered with the AULNA (Urban Agriculture Low Space No Space in Antananarivo) program by providing liquid fertiliser from the toilet service system in order to regenerate household agricultural plot substrates (Segretain, 2021). In this case, the entry point within the nexus is water, and the GBI is represented by urban agriculture.

The main collaboration between Loowatt and the local government was through SAMVA (Autonomous Society for the Maintenance of Antananarivo). SAMVA provides formal sanitation services (including waste water treatment and household waste collection) to the commune of Antananarivo. The company signed a 15-eyar convention with SAMVA, which let them access a network of local waste water treatment plants (biodigestors) owned and managed by SAMVA (Segretain, 2021). Loowatt also provided training to employees at SAMVA.

There was strong engagement between Loowatt and the local communities through the RF2s, but also with the informal waste collection sector (Segretain, 2021). The RF2s are associations composed of users and neighbourhood representatives providing daily water and sanitation managements (AfD, 2020). The RF2s provided local knowledge and worked closely with Loowatt and citizens to install the eco-toilets; Loowatt used the data gathered from the RF2 representative to have a better understanding of the neighborhoods and their needs.

The informal waste collections sector is particularly important in Antananarivo, with over 300 informal pickers working just in one landfill – the Andranalitra dumpsite, and many more across the city (Climate and Clean Air Coalition, no date), whose livelihoods are depended on the recovery of materials from landfills. Loowatt hired such informal collectors to help them with the collection of waste from their eco-toilets; the workers were offered a job, trained, and kept in the company.

Partnerships for School Greening in Johannesburg, South Africa

At the city scale, district education departments can offer a key partnership for helping blue-green infrastructure projects to work on the ground. In 2013, the Environment and Infrastructure Services Department in the City of Johannesburg launched a project to support urban agriculture and environmental education in 41 of the city’s schools. Food gardens were set up to support school feeding in areas of the city that experience food insecurity. The gardens helped to add healthy foods to the learners’ diets, helping to fulfil their nutritional needs. As well as the food gardens, some of the schools received an outdoor classroom with landscaping and trees, and alternative technology provisions such as a biogas digester, rainwater harvesting tanks, a solar water heater and waste recycling. These provisions offered educators and learners new forms of engagement with the outdoor environment in their school and created co-benefits such as skills development and work opportunities.

In some of the schools, the children formed eco-clubs and participated in food growing competitions with other schools in the region, which brought opportunities to win prize money to help with more food growing at their school. The project also trained unemployed young adults from the local areas, so that they understood how to install and operate the equipment provided. This offered the participants skills training and a period of employment and meant that the project could be maintained by the local community after it had been set up. By incorporating skills and employment opportunities into the project, the EISD was fulfilling a social need whilst preparing for how the project would be maintained, which was a key contributor to the project’s success. The young adults were trained by CityParks, who maintain the city’s green spaces and work in close partnership with the EISD department at the city. By partnering with the district education departments to implement a BGI project in schools, adding national funds from the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) to support the project, and partnering with CityParks who had environmental knowledge and often run similar projects, the EISD department were able to pull together resources for their blue-green infrastructure initiative. When setting up your blue-green infrastructure project, it is helpful to consider how resources, tools and knowledge can be leveraged through co-operation with other organisations within reach. 

Partnership building like this can improve the scale and impact of the project and help to create the highest possible social benefit. Making the social benefits of the blue-green infrastructure initiative clear can translate into incentives for partners to collaborate, and also incentivise the maintenance of the initiative after it has been implemented. Urban agriculture creates positive social outcomes for community development, such as increased food resilience, skills and knowledge in growing and planting, and better social connection. The school greening project in Johannesburg demonstrated that working co-operatively with other organisations is key to realising and maximising the co-benefits.

Picture Source: Kumba Energy Report on School Greening Project (2016)

Cleaning up the River, Lilongwe, Malawi

The bustling Lizulu and Tsoka informal markets in Lilongwe (Malawi) mostly sell vegetables and, around 70% of the waste produced is organic. A Malawian civil society organization, Our World International (OWI), piloted a project to turn the waste into compost. A group of women makes compost from the waste, which is sold to local farmers. The composting project was a success and in 2017, SwedBio’s partner ICLEI Africa contracted OWI to implement and oversee a waste management project. The initiative is part of a larger plan to restore the Lilongwe River and comes under the regional Urban Natural Assets for Africa: Rivers for Life (UNA Rivers) collaborative project funded by Sida (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency) through SwedBio and led by ICLEI Africa. The Lilongwe River runs through the city and is its primary source of water, as well as supporting numerous communities downstream. However, activities at the markets that have developed along the banks of the river, have been identified as key sources of pollution. These markets are vital community spaces embedded in the urban framework of the city. Based on the importance of the livelihoods and economic opportunities they provide, the Lilongwe City Council selected them as pilot sites for part of an urban revitalization project (UNA Rivers). UNA Rivers was implemented by ICLEI Africa and works to get nature-based solutions into land use planning and local government decision-making processes relating to urban river systems. As part of the project, eight volunteers spent six weeks clearing organic waste from various locations in the markets. They volunteered to take photographs (in a process called photovoice) each week to document their experience of collecting waste and turning it into compost. Their photos and stories revealed a high level of engagement and commitment to participating in a project that aims to improve their city’s river. UNA Rivers helped to revitalize the river through improving coordination and community-based activities. The project’s goal is to build sustainability and resilience at the local level, enhancing human well-being and alleviating poverty.