Hedges: Infrastructure Past and Future


Hedgerows in the Lincolnshire countryside near the small village of Aslackby. Photograph: Steven Booth/Alamy

Not everywhere in the world uses hedges. But Britain has about 500,000 km of hedgerow – despite losing half of them since 1945, as industrial scale farming has taken hold here. One of my very earliest memories is being driven through a patchwork, hedged landscape in the middle south west of England. And it was magic.

Hedges are not just fence-equivalents, worth the investment for that alone. They also store carbon, of course, as linear (if metre high) woodland.

“Hedgerows help slow down the runoff of water, guarding against flooding and soil erosion, and act as barriers to help prevent pesticide and fertiliser pollution getting into water supplies. Studies show they can improve the quality of air by helping trap air pollution.

“They are perhaps the largest semi-natural habitat in Britain, refuges for wild plants and corridors for wildlife to move through, often in barren farmland landscapes.”  Paul Simons, the Guardian, 18 Aug 2021

For these reasons, the UK Climate Change Committee recommends planting 40& more hedgerows by 2050.

They are only semi-wild, of course, because they are trees manipulated (‘laid’) by humans, and so require effort, and skill. They are very definitely infrastructure.

And magic.

We are the In-Between

Thinking about Waves 3 and 4 of Asset Management, this quote from a recent novel struck me:

It is difficult for anyone born and raised in human infrastructure to truly internalize the fact that your view of the world is backward.

“Even if you fully know that you live in a natural world that existed before you and will continue long after, even if you know that the wilderness is the default state of things, and that nature is not something that only happens in carefully curated enclaves between towns, something that pops up in empty spaces if you ignore them for a while, even if you spend your whole life believing yourself to be deeply in touch with the ebb and flow, the cycle, the ecosystem as it actually is, you will still have trouble picturing an untouched world.

You will still struggle to understand that human constructs are carved out and overlaid, that these are the places that are the in-between, not the other way around.”

– Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Monk & Robot Book 1), 2021

What’s Next?

In a previous post, there was a diagram showed how each of our ‘waves’ could also be conceived of as particles, embedding and building on each other. .This is our latest version, to capture the ideas of ‘grey assets’, as opposed to green and blue assets.

For the last 40 years the economic focus has been on growth.

And so infrastructure decisions have also focused on growth. But now this growth focus is changing as we realise the damage we are causing – and so asset management and infrastructure decision making needs to change, too.

 We are now at a pivot point.

We have been at pivot points before. This is what Talking Infrastructure’s THE ASSET MANAGEMENT STORY is now documenting.

At each pivot point in Asset Management (the beginning of each wave), we have expanded our understanding of the world we operate in. Starting from simply maintaining and recording in Wave 1, we moved, in Wave 2 or Strategic Asset Management, to using this information to optimise decisions concerning our existing portfolios.

Then, in Wave 3, we look to take on a bigger role, infrastructure decision making, where we go out into our communities to work on whether the size and shape of our portfolio is what it needs to be. Wave 4 extends our understanding of our asset portfolios to the impact we are having on society and planetary health, and actively seeks to improve these impacts. The task in Wave 4 is to make all infrastructure decisions ‘future friendly’.

Wave 4 is the challenge that Talking Infrastructure was surely set up to address

It is our most critical pivot point yet in asset management. This is the challenge that Talking Infrastructure CEO, Jeff Roorda, is leading at the Blue Mountains City Council where he is Director of Economy, Place and Infrastructure services. The city’s focus is on Planetary Health and Social Wellbeing. And we will be reporting what the City, and others with whom it is working, learns so that everyone can move in a saner direction than we may have done in the past.

If this interests you, watch this space, for a new series of blogs about infrastruture and biodiversity.

And, of course, become an active part of the dialogue on Talking Infrastructure.

Waves Plus

In May 2018, Penny Burns and Jeff Roorda wrote here about three revolutions in Asset Management later renamed ‘waves’, because that captures better the idea that one wave doesn’t supersede another.

Since then, we have discussed with each other and many others how Wave 1, Asset Inventory, is more successful if you already have in mind the vision of Wave 2, Strategic Asset Management and how you are going to use all of the information you collect. 

We have looked at what Asset Management practitioners need to develop to move on from this, to be able to look beyond our own organisations, to a bigger role in supporting our communities. We called this Wave 3, supporting better ‘Infrastructure Decision Making’

We have even begun to imagine Wave 4.

As Penny puts it: whereas Wave 1 looked at WHAT we had, and Wave 2 looked at HOW we needed to manage it, Wave 3 started to ask WHO we were serving by our efforts. This has brought us now to start thinking more deeply about this question and about the next move, looking at the critical question of WHY.

As Asset Management practitioners, we have to ensure we are in the right positions of influence to be able to challenge existing infrastructure assumptions, which is what I think Wave 3 is all about. To look ‘up and out’, as Lou Cripps of RTD puts it.

But we can already spot that there is no point in being able to ask hard questions, if we don’t have the right questions to ask….

What do we mean by ‘better’?