Why Living Infrastructure Is Vital For Sustainable Cities

Why Living Infrastructure Is Vital For Sustainable Cities

Cities Of The Future

Today’s societies are completely reliant upon infrastructure. They’re the fundamental structures and systems that we utilize everyday. So it’s obviously important. But there’s more! Due to rapid urbanization (the shift from rural to urban dwelling), 55% of the global population now lives in urban areas. If that number doesn’t already appear massive to you, it’s only expected to grow.

Indeed, urbanization is projected to increase to 68% by 2050! Given that urbanization isn’t slowing down, clearly we need to make it sustainable. That’s where living infrastructure comes in! 

Living infrastructure refers to all of the interconnected ecosystems within an urban catchment… Living infrastructure builds upon and combines the concepts of ‘green infrastructure‘ (focuses on vegetation) and ‘blue infrastructure‘ (focuses on water management) in urban landscapes.”

Jason Alexandra
Singapore: the living city
Singapore has successfully integrated nature into their rapid urban development and is ranked as Asia’s greenest city. Click the image for more. [Image: Emily Cashen/BD Destinations].

Going For Green

The purpose of living infrastructure is twofold. A) To lessen the environmental impact of large urban centers, and B) to make cities more resilient against climate change. I personally find living infrastructure fascinating! I became very interested in it after taking an ecosystem management course during my final year of university. It was genuinely eye-opening.

There’s definitely a lot to explore! Since deep diving into living infrastructure, I’ve discovered so much, and have plenty to share. As a result, this post will be the first of a three-part series. In this one, I’ll be introducing living infrastructure. In my following posts, I’ll explore the best known branches of living infrastructure (green & blue).

"Let's Go" - Seinfeld gif.

Forward Thinking

The first Earth Day kicked off in 1970! With it, came a boom of scientific research in environmental advocacy and attention. Citizens in the United States and beyond were becoming increasingly aware of the growing dangers to the environment. They went looking for solutions.

Science had plenty of answers! Indeed, things really started to pick up with the rise of computers and the use of modelling. By the 1980s, urban planners were recognizing the need for sustainable cities.

They began with pitching concepts for management practices that would “achieve more holistic management goals.” At the time, those goals involved stormwater runoff reduction, erosion prevention, and aquifer recharge.

Green urban planning is an excellent example of living infrastructure.
New York City’s Central Park was the beginning of a nation-wide urban park movement. [Image: GreenCity Times].

Evolved Planning

Living infrastructure has since evolved into ecosystem-based management and urban planning concepts. Ecosystem-based management is an environmental management approach that considers all interactions within an ecosystem, rather than single issues or species on their own.

It has the potential to protect existing natural capital. Also, it helps to limit urban sprawl. This can be achieved by providing a framework for arranging infrastructure within urban containment boundaries.

Seth Rogan, "It's alive!" gif.

What Counts as Living Infrastructure?

As a whole, living infrastructure incorporates green and blue infrastructure. That pretty much means vegetation and water management. The most common examples of green infrastructure are green roofs, parks, community gardens, and tree-lined streets.

Blue infrastructure ranges from stormwater storage and filtration technologies, to entire engineered wetlands. I’ll get into the details of these in my next two posts. 

There is however something missing from those two sub-groups. That’s the implementation of animals in urban infrastructure. These strategies don’t fall under the green or blue categories, but they’re still living forms of infrastructure. For example:

  • Nesting towers
  • Beehives
  • Vegetation installations for specific insect communities
  • Insect hotels
Pollinator hotels also represent living infrastructure.
Insect hotels can be installed near pollinator-friendly vegetation to support overall biodiversity. [Image: Anna Killen/Beach Metro Community News}

A Dynamic Approach

But living infrastructure isn’t all rainbows and butterflies. Of course, there’s a whole lot of work involved. When it comes down to getting it done, there are two main components: preventative and responsive. It means we should be designing our cities to prevent further climate impact, while also making them more resilient to the threats posed by climate change.

Between the 2 options, we normally want to be working hard on the preventative measures. However, responsive forms of living infrastructure work very well too! For instance, following the coronavirus lockdown over the spring of 2020, the city of Barcelona (Spain) implemented various bat and bug support infrastructure. During that time, there was little to no human pressure on those species. They thrived as a result! Urban planners now hope to sustain these various revived populations.

Indeed, nature did rebound in a number of places because of the lockdowns. They represent a great example of some of the positive effects pandemic lockdowns had on the environment. It’s now crucial that we work to maintain these benefits.

The benefits of living infrastructure support all three pillars of sustainability: environment, society, and economy. [Image: ACT Government]

Climate Benefits of a Non-Concrete Jungle

The main climate regulating benefit of living infrastructure is reducing the urban heat island effect. Urban centers are constructed of heat absorbing materials. Large areas of dark asphalt absorb and retain much more heat than light surfaces.

Additionally, climate change has caused increased frequency and severity of extreme storms. Storm water runoff and flooding puts extra pressure on sewer systems. Increasing green and living surfaces allows water to be absorbed. Thus, reducing erosion and stress on systems.

A beautiful autumn afternoon on the Toronto Island, 3 people enjoying the scenery.
Toronto has devised a strategy to improve its climate resiliency. Click the photo for more. [Image: Sandro Schuh/Unsplash].

Building Resilience

Greening our cities increases climate resilience, making them safer and healthier to for everyone. The bottom line: nature = living infrastructure.

Getting back to our roots will improve city life and lessen urban impact on our environment. If you want to learn more about green and blue infrastructure, keep an eye out for my March and April articles!

Living infrastructure is pretty neat!

Editing by Marc-Antoni Tarondo.


7 thoughts on “Why Living Infrastructure Is Vital For Sustainable Cities

Add yours

  1. I loved learning about the bats and bugs thriving in Spain! I’ve lately been working on planting a pollinator garden in the backyard and I think its working too because there are always bees in the summer!


  2. I found this article by reading a story about oysters in Italy, then I was intrigued about your article title, living infrastructure… I am wondering, do you think Living Walls can be included and be considered part of “living infrastructure”? I believe Living Walls can be a viable solution and be part of a wider strategy that we need to take if we want to make progress in reducing our carbon footprint and Improve biodiversity into cities.


    1. Hi! I definitely think living walls are living infrastructure. In fact, I wrote a follow up article about green infrastructure that you might find interesting. Living walls sort of fall under the same category of green roofs. I see “living infrastructure” as an umbrella term that encapsulates both green- (vegetation) and blue- (water) based sustainability strategies.


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