It’s time for ambitious investment in greener cities

With even the US is investing in its streetscapes – there’s no excuse for Scotland to be left behind on green infrastructure says Alison Johnstone.

The mood music coming out of America’s new administration when it comes to infrastructure and transport is really quite astonishing, when you think of the way so much of the United States is built around the motor car.

When new Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg talks about infrastructure, he isn’t just talking about motorways. He’s talking about ‘equity’ when it comes to public transport and safety on roads.
Reliance on the motor car is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Considering there are so many places stateside that don’t even have pavements, it’s incredible to hear Buttigieg talk about the safety of pedestrians and cyclists. He is even talking about taxing motorists by the mile.

It’s becoming clear that President Biden’s American Jobs Plan will be a strategic one, and will recognise the need to cut climate emissions fast. He has pledged a trillion dollars in infrastructure and jobs, the biggest investment plan seen in the US since the Second World war.

The EU is making €265 billion available to invest in a green recovery as part of their Recovery and Resilience Fund, and individual member states are adding much more to that.
Governments across the world are investing in their nation’s recoveries. We need to invest too, and our priority must be securing our survival, whether that is across Scotland or here in the Lothians.

The Scottish Greens manifesto pledges that level of ambition, investing billions in renewable energy, public transport, warm homes and restoring nature, creating 100,000 jobs directly and many more as a knock-on effect.

And as indicated by Pete Buttigieg, new infrastructure spend needs to be equitable, and keeping pedestrians and cyclists safe is part of that. The Scottish Greens have already increased Scotland’s budget for walking and wheeling, but it has taken several years to convince the SNP Government to spend 3 per cent of the transport budget on this agenda which is too small to deliver the transformation we urgently need.

We need to look at how our towns and cities are used. I’ve written before here about how Edinburgh is an outlier in European capitals for having its medieval centre dominated by traffic. Our manifesto pledges a town and city centre green transformation fund to re-orient these places towards people, especially vulnerable road users like the elderly and disabled people.

Edinburgh is renowned for its beautiful buildings, but much more care needs to be taken about the spaces between those iconic structures. With the rise of internet shopping, the function of town centres is changing, and they need to be attractive places to be.

In places that have reduced traffic, small local businesses have benefitted from greater footfall. As we recover from the pandemic we need to be looking at that kind of evidence and plan town centres that will welcome us back when we are all allowed to socialise again.

Culture can play a big part of that. Artist-led galleries, cafes and venues can breathe life into streets blighted by empty units, so we should be encouraging that kind of innovative creativity as the kind of place we’d like to visit.

We also want to boost public transport and reinvigorate the national cycling and wheeling network, so that the car isn’t the only choice for travel between towns.

When even the United States is recognising the need to invest in greener cities, there’s no excuse for Scotland to be left behind. Our future depends on it.