Article

Cities, pollution and climate change: to what extent can green infrastructure help?

Francesc Baró, postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA-UAB); "la Caixa” Social Observatory Award for the best article in the field of Science

The available evidence indicates that urban green infrastructure (urban parks, street trees, green roofs and walls, etc.) can make a modest contribution to remedying carbon emissions, reducing heat stress and lowering atmospheric pollution in cities. If we wish to solve these problems, we need to take action on pollution sources because compensatory measures based on nature are far from sufficient. Urban green infrastructure strategies can play a role by complementing, but not replacing, pollution reduction strategies.
Key points
  • 1
       Urban policies on mitigating climate change and atmospheric pollution need to focus primarily on pollution sources (traffic, transport systems, heating, etc.) rather than the so-called ‘sinks’ (solutions in the form of reservoirs capable of absorbing or countering contaminants but which have a very limited capacity).
  • 2
       Urban parks, street trees and plants on buildings can act as areas and corridors of clean, cool air in cities and are particularly important due to the lack of available land in urban population centres. Most of these elements serve multiple functions for the three ‘ecosystem’ services in question: air quality, local temperature and carbon sequestering.
  • 3
       To improve human health in cities it is essential to improve air quality and thermal comfort, aspects on which urban green infrastructure can provide good support at a local level.
  • 4
       With regard to the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, local and metropolitan authorities need to foster carbon offsetting beyond their urban boundaries, as this is a challenge on a global scale. Green infrastructure can be employed to impact on transport systems and pollution sources (power stations, large industrial companies, etc.) that are located at a distance from urban population centres.
Ability of urban green infrastructure to mitigate problems associated with pollution
Ability of urban green infrastructure to mitigate problems associated with pollution


In urban areas, priority is usually given to infrastructure that contributes to improving the quality of the environment and the health and wellbeing of the urban population. This infrastructure is focused, for example, on air purification, noise abatement and urban temperature control. However, the extent to which green infrastructure can provide these ‘ecosystem’ services effectively depends on numerous structural, functional and environmental conditions.

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