COMMENT | Place leadership in GM: continuity or change

Lucy Wallwork LUC GM Update CropWe are all busy “levelling up”. But what values should be guiding this next round of transformations of Greater Manchester’s towns and cities, asks Lucy Wallwork of environmental consultancy LUC. Do we need more of the same or something new?

At the Place North West Greater Manchester Development update, with a great deal of change on the horizon, this choice between continuity and change was at the centre of the debate.

The challenges the city region faces in 2021 feel distant from those of Manchester’s transformative 1990s, when the first towers were being planned for Salford Quays.

Today we are all planning, designing and placemaking against a backdrop of legally binding net zero goals, the COP26 negotiations and the jarring Dasgupta Review on biodiversity, not to mention air quality levels that contribute to 1,200 deaths a year.

The dramatically different approach to placemaking this demands is one centred on resilience in terms of climate and the economy, and which is focused on the needs of future generations. But it is also one that sets a precedent – “does things differently”, as we Mancunians like to say.

So how can the planning system respond? Here I set out how the approach of both local authorities and the development community need to shift to align with 21st century challenges.

Local authorities: place leadership and breaking down silos

Local authorities are being faced with a raft of new duties under the Environment Bill. That means every bit of land at every scale must work harder for nature recovery and climate resilience.

A huge uplift in resourcing is required to lead on these design and environmental challenges. But it also means breaking down silos, so that every department has ownership of net zero strategies and Green and Blue Infrastructure Strategies. It needs place leadership.

Swinton Combined Now And Could Have Been

Missed opportunities for place resilience in Swinton town centre. Credit: LUC

Resources are undeniably tight. But even with those financial constraints, there are opportunities for new approaches.

Oldham Council’s plans for town centre recovery, for example, are not shaped around another shopping centre, but instead start with a linear park and an 160-acre urban farm.

This is what place leadership looks like in a climate emergency, in three steps:

1. As the active travel Bee Network comes to life over the next decade, 50% of parking space is removed, and 50% of that land is gifted to the city as parks and public realm. Where publicly owned, the rest could be disposed of to raise funds for green and blue infrastructure.

This would work on the principles of something like ‘induced public life’ – just as ‘induced traffic’ theory has demonstrated over the years, providing more space for people and nature will encourage public life to flood back into our town centres.

Usefully, the students at the Manchester School of Architecture made a start for us on this in 2019.

2. The Bee Network being rolled out across GM needs to perform multiple functions – other teams beyond transport planning need to be brought on board with a holistic approach so that new infrastructure performs multiple functions beyond travel, such as providing pollinator corridors and soaking up stormwater.

Leicester Mill Lane

Leicester Mill Lane rain gardens (implemented as part of the Connecting Leicester Initiative) bring active travel together with climate resilience and placemaking. Credit: Tom Jonson

3. A dedicated Green Infrastructure officer at each authority tasked with bringing together teams including highways, environment, planning and regeneration. They would be responsible for not only ensuring that multifunctional green spaces are delivered in every town and city, but that they are weaved together with green routes to create a blue-green trellis on which the rest of the place grows.

None of this is unprecedented. We have seen it happen in towns and cities within the UK and abroad. It just takes imagination.

Development community: being bold and leading with the green and blue

Development schemes need to start in a different place too.

Green and blue infrastructure has too long been an expensive add-on to the leftover space around the buildings, and that sits at the roots of many a problem.

So, find a seat at the table on day one not only for the engineers, architects, project managers and quantity surveyors, but also for the landscape architects and ecologists. Only by designing in the blue and green at the very first stages can we start to tackle the thorny challenges of ongoing maintenance .

The precedent exists to do this – just look at the initial ‘Building with Nature’ , which prove we can add both economic and social value to schemes simultaneously.

The newly minted Environment Bill now legally requires 10% biodiversity net gain, so why not let it sit at the heart of your placemaking strategy?

New voices

Finally, rethinking how we do things this fundamentally will need a new set of voices at the table.

We need to listen to the younger generation within our organisations – sustainability runs in their DNA in a way it might not for senior leadership figures. Let’s keep finding space for them on our conference panels too.

  • Lucy is a senior planner at LUC. The planners, designers, ecologists and heritage experts at LUC are guided by the goal of leaving a better legacy through the places they create – supporting developers on individual schemes as well as providing strategic planning and critical friend services to local authorities.

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