Green infrastructure: a way to support development in Africa

This post responds to an article published by The Conversation in August 2015 which proposes that “green infrastructure in Africa may be bad for development.” As researchers investigating the value and applicability of a green infrastructure (GI) planning approach in the Gauteng City-Region, South Africa, we believe that the article does not adequately present the opportunities associated with GI in developing countries. Some examples of where GI has been used to address local challenges in South Africa demonstrate that it does indeed offer possibilities for supporting development in Africa.

Many developed countries have undergone growth and development in a way that has led to significant environmental loss, pollution, increased disaster risk, urban heat island effects and climate change. In light of these challenges, and the increasing demand for services and infrastructure, there is a growing need to investigate alternative development approaches that do not have unwanted social and environmental consequences. Investigation to this end has emerged primarily from developed countries, in part because of larger research budgets, which creates the potential for these countries to influence policies and infrastructure investments across the world. However, not all alternative approaches from the developed world should be regarded as sinister attempts to manipulate growth and economic trajectories in developing countries. Rejecting alternatives without assessing their merit may limit the uptake of approaches that could prove valuable for informing development.

Green Infrastructure has emerged internationally as an approach to harness ecosystem services provided by natural systems to meet some of the service and infrastructure needs of society. GI is the network of ecological features (e.g. trees, plants, wetlands, parks, gardens, and man-made green-grey design solutions such as constructed wetlands and green roofs) that deliver ecosystem services to society. These ecosystem services include flood attenuation, water purification and control, food production and climate regulation.

Despite suggestions that GI has been developed as a replacement for all traditional infrastructure options, advocates of the GI approach neither consider it a once-off solution to meet all infrastructure needs, nor as a replacement for large-scale infrastructure such as dams. In fact, GI achieves maximum impact in cities when used in tandem with traditional infrastructure. This is because GI can help enhance the functioning of engineered infrastructure and extend its lifespan. For instance, healthy wetlands and parks can reduce erosion and increase the amount of water that is absorbed into the soil, thereby reducing stormwater runoff.

Diepsloot 1

Inadequate storm water infrastructure in Diepsloot leads to erosion, health risks (due to standing water) and flooding. Photo: Kerry Bobbins.

We believe that GI presents an opportunity to rethink the way infrastructure provision and development are envisaged in African cities, because it has the ability to deliver services using a flexible planning approach that can be tailored to address the specific challenges unique to African cities. Furthermore, it can require less capital budget and provide additional benefits compared with traditional engineered infrastructure. GI therefore offers an approach for designing site-specific GI solutions that can enhance service delivery and create jobs, while minimising disaster risks.

GI can provide infrastructure alternatives where the cost of traditional grey infrastructure is prohibitively high. This is true in many informal settlements such as Diepsloot in Johannesburg. Here, communities live without formalised stormwater infrastructure and it is unlikely that a traditional infrastructure network will be developed due to the sheer cost of the investment. Wassup, a community based organisation in Diepsloot, is exploring various GI options to mitigate the combined risks from standing water and flooding, along with academics from Wits University. Initial project findings show that there is potential for low-cost GI solutions to be built, using available resources and local skills.

A pilot soak-away garden developed by Wassap, a community-based organisation in Diepsloot, helps to address water issues by absorbing excess surface water. Photo: Christina Culwick.

A pilot soak-away garden developed by Wassap, a community-based organisation in Diepsloot, helps to address water issues by absorbing excess surface water. Photo: Christina Culwick.

Another example is along the Atlas Spruit, a river in Ekurhuleni, where GI has been used to create site-specific solutions to address flooding problems. GI was used to re-design the river channel and adjacent park to enhance the functioning of the upgraded stormwater culvert. This project not only addressed flood risk at a lower cost to a traditional approach, but has also brought additional improvements to the community including potential increased property values, lowered insurance rates and improvements to the local park. This example illustrates how GI can enhance the functionality of existing engineered solutions, while reducing costs.

In KwaZulu Natal, ecological infrastructure, a subset of GI, is being used to enhance water security. The uMngeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership – a conglomerate of municipalities, private companies, NGOs and communities – is working to improve the health of ecological systems in the uMgeni River catchment to improve water quality and quantity in the catchment that supplies water to municipalities, including eThekwini. This project is anticipated to reduce the cost of water treatment through investing in ecological features such as constructed wetlands. Furthermore, the scheme aims to improve the effectiveness of the existing dams by extending their lifespan and meeting the growing demand for water.

While it is agreed that GI is not the panacea for all the infrastructure and service delivery options in Africa, it does have potential to provide significant opportunities for building liveable, sustainable and resilient communities in a cost effective way. As highlighted here, GI programmes can address site-specific developmental needs and guide infrastructure investments in the future. The concept of GI should therefore not be thrown out completely but should instead be used to spark research and experimentation into the development of locally produced infrastructure solutions that address Africa’s unique challenges.


Christina Culwick and Kerry Bobbins are researchers at the Gauteng City-Region Observatory, a partnership of the University of Johannesburg, the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Gauteng provincial Government and organised local government.

Main photo: Ecological systems are a critical component of infrastructure networks in urban areas. Here, a wetland attenuates storm water flows and purifies water in the West Rand District Municipality. Credit: Christina Culwick.


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