Expert article
Edit 25 November 2021
by Birgit Georgi UIA Expert

Ecostreets – How small-scale action can inspire large-scale solutions

Ginnel garden. winning the competition
Ginnel garden has won in the ecostreet competition. Image: Groundwork
Over summer 2021, the IGNITION partner Groundworks in collaboration with the charity We love Manchester organized a competition among local communities to design their own eco-street in Greater Manchester. The response was overwhelming with 200 interests expressed and 45 community groups applying with their ideas to turn alleystreets or small neighbourhood places into green oases. While residents got very enthusiastic about their ideas to revive the places, how do these small-scale interventions then fit into IGNITION aiming at rather large-scale nature-based solutions in the region? I talked with Amy Wright from Groundwork and Michael Ramsey, the project manager from IGNITION at Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) about their experience.
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The concept of ecostreets became interesting for IGNITION when the team looked closer to ways of engaging citizens in spring 2021. It was in the middle of the COVID 19 crisis, where people started to get stressed and depressed by the restrictions to move around. There was a high demand for positive and comforting community experience. This situation coincided with an underspending in the project due to the inability to organize the originally planned physical interactions with stakeholders. At that time, citizens and other stakeholder engagement was also hindered by the lack of successfully implemented physical show cases of nature-based solutions; the Living Lab at Salford University was just about to take shape. Could ecostreets help to fill that gap? 

During lock down, I’ve got two small children and it was really difficult to play in our gardens and we wanted more space and so on. So we want out into the alley but had constantly do a clear up beforehand.

Elena, Blooming Amazing Community Alley

Alleystreet
Blooming Amazing Community Alley, Stretford, Trafford before its transformation. Image: Groundwork

The concept as such is not completely new; it can take different forms. In common is that local people are empowered to design themselves smaller streets, community backyards, all type of smaller unused or degraded places in their community. In the case of IGNITION, the particular focus is on nature-based solutions and climate change adaptation; community groups of an alleystreet or around a neighbourhood place put their heads together and discuss how these can be made greener and thereby provide a pleasant environment and social space. 

The idea to test the ecostreet approach stems from results achieved in IGNITION’s citizens engagement survey and the park user survey.  Citizens in Greater Manchester wish much more greenspaces and are willing to engage in their implementation and maintenance. In the local authority workshops, discussions also uncovered that the willingness of local communities can be an important source to tap in beyond the scarce municipal budgets and grant funding (Local authority report). But how can this potential be used in practice? There have rarely been any concrete examples in Greater Manchester, where citizens engage directly. Hence, the idea came up to test if the ecostreets approach could deliver a business model for this. 

In April 2021 Groundwork and We love Manchester announced a competition, in which local community groups could apply for grant funding of 6000 £ per project. Would it work? While the citizens engagement survey had shown that citizens are willing to act, it showed also that they lack knowledge on the full benefits of nature-based solutions, i.e., their benefits to adapt to climate change, or even the concept of nature-based solutions at all was unknown, Amy Wright explained to me. For tackling these challenges, they organised preparatory online workshops on green infrastructure such as green walls and roofs, sustainable drainage systems (SuDS); showed good practice, inspiring ideas on what residents could undertake, provided “How to” guides for simple nature- based solutions; and newsletter guidance. In this process, the results of IGNITION’s evidence base on the benefits of different nature-based solutions and different guidance documents around came in handy. It was important for Amy and her colleagues to keep the application procedure simple and less formal as possible to lower the barriers for participation. This should ensure that also applicants that are less experienced in writing such proposals have a chance. 

At the end, the team received around 200 expressions of interest and 45 applications. With this, each applicant could also submit a mood board on the future design of the space. “These have been so appealing and it was very challenging for us to choose the winners” Amy says. The selection criteria considered the action as such as well as the community needs in that proposed area. 10 wonderful projects have been shortlisted of which 4 projects have been selected to receive grant funding. Beyond that, the landscape architects of Groundwork support the projects now on refining the design and provide advice on the implementation.

Explore the four selected projects: 

Ginnel Park Video
Ginnel Garden, Stockport
Pigeon Park video
Pigeon Park, Longsight, Manchester 
Blooming Amazing Community Alleym video
Blooming Amazing Community Alley, Stretford, Trafford
Boscombe video
Boscombe Street Re-Greening, Moss Side
 

 

 

Creating the mood boards and final ideas has been a great journey for the participating local communities to get together, embrace social activities in times of COVID 19. They have the opportunity to actively make a difference in their quality of life during the harsh period. At the same time, they have started learning about climate change adaptation and the role of nature-based solutions. The broader awareness triggered even more support for establishing and maintaining nature-based solutions. The ecostreets competition has been a great experience bringing environmental and social benefits together. Ugly and unused alleystreets and small places will soon be transformed into lovely neighbourhood spaces where people meet, talk, play and grow plants and vegetables. 

 

Isn´t it wonderful how you can turn such an ugly place into such a beautiful place. a child in Ginnel Garden, Stockport

A child in Ginnel Garden, Stockport

I asked Michael Ramsey, the project manager, then how the ecostreets link to IGNITION’s main purpose of developing innovative business models and funding streams to deliver large-scale nature-based solutions. The ecostreets are indeed tiny places, but the small-scale approach has started to establish a valuable, tangible, and replicable business case for the involvement of communities in co-designing, establishing and maintaining greenspace. With little grant funding, it will deliver additional greenspaces, climate change adaptation and high social values. The latter one is probably a key criterion to make the business model work in the short and long term. These learnings and experience can be used now to scale up and integrate into the development of the funding stream models. And even if small-scall, local authorities, communities and other stakeholders can pick up the idea and spread it across the cities.  

 

Moodboard Boscombe

Moodboard Pigeon Park
Moodboards of applicants. Images from Groundwork eco street competition

 

During this process, the team learned even more about the knowledge gaps of citizens and found a very effective and fun way to tackle these. They gained valuable experience on how to co-create with citizens, thereby not just for establishing new greenspaces but also for the maintenance of nature-based solutions with citizens’ support. Soon, the four tangible demonstrators can encourage more followers. Even with the other shortlisted applications and some further projects that didn’t receive grant funding, the enthusiasm is unbroken, and chances are high that they will be implemented nevertheless.

The task ahead is to use that experience in making it scalable and generate a larger scale impact. Options are that charities as well as local authorities pick the approach up; the practical examples supplement and illustrate well the options described in IGNITION’s Local authority report. A further way forward can be to pool different funding sources, as will be done in Pigeon Park, where some of the group’s designs will be covered by other community investment funds. Opportunity could come from the GMCA mayor’s manifesto, which foresees to establish a greenspace fund supporting community groups and businesses, to which IGNITION contributes with its findings.

The eco-street approach with its focus on small, simple, but scalable real-life interventions supplements well the Living Lab, which focusses on presenting the functioning and the multiple benefits of nature-based solutions of a more complex nature. Both pieces of tangible experience inspire potential investors – businesses, homeowners, community groups or local authorities and deliver important input to develop the innovative funding streams. 

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