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The long read: planting a sense of pride, by Julian Dobson

27 February 2015

Julian Dobson, director of Urban Pollinators, looks at how the inclusion of green infrastructure within regeneration activity in Birkenhead and Wirral Waters has improved local environments and helped to lay the ground for further investment. This article originally appeared in the TCPA journal in February 2015. 

After a morning of unseasonal squalls, the sun has broken through at Ilchester Park. Children are gathering in a giant tipi where African drummers are ramping up the party mood. Others are preparing costumes for a street parade.


An avenue of young silver birch trees has been yarn-bombed in bright colours. Below them there are clusters of wild flowers planted by local children.


It might sound like a typical August bank holiday community festival in many parts of Britain. But until recently nobody would have imagined doing it in the North End of Birkenhead.


Ilchester Park itself was never considered a park until this year - it has only recently been adopted as a park by the local authority. Before that it was simply a neglected green space in the middle of a windswept housing estate that had seen better days.

Ann McLachlan, the local ward councillor and deputy leader of Wirral Council, explains how much has changed:


'The area where we're standing now, ten years ago when I became a councillor it had tenement buildings on it, it had a pub known as the Blood Tub, it was called the New Dock Inn, and it was known as the Blood Tub and the old tenement style courtyard was known as the Bull Ring. It was a rough, tough area. But people from the North End live in the North End, stay in the North End, their families live here.'


In recent years a series of housing upgrades by Magenta Living, the largest social landlord in the borough, have provided new external cladding and energy-saving improvements. Homes deemed unfit or unsuitable have been demolished. A private developer, Keepmoat, is starting to build homes for sale on the demolition sites.


But housing hasn't been the only change. Ilchester Park is at the heart of The Mersey Forest's Green Streets initiative, a key part of the jigsaw which is the regeneration of the former industrial heart of Birkenhead and the neighbourhoods that served the dock areas.


Green Streets is a programme to plant thousands of trees across neighbourhoods in Merseyside and north Cheshire, funded through a range of agencies including the Forestry Commission's Setting the Scene for Growth programme, the Interreg ForeStClim project and the government's Local Sustainable Transport Fund.


In the Wirral, it dovetails with long-term plans to improve the green infrastructure around Wirral Waters, one of Britain's biggest development sites around the former Birkenhead docks. Already more than 1,200 trees have been planted, greening more than 12km of streets.


'I think local people feel a garden's been brought to them. Where people have no gardens, they feel the greening of their community now is a welcome addition to their life.'

The creation of Ilchester Park out of a boggy and neglected triangle has been one of the most noticeable changes. As well as the avenue of silver birches, other trees have been planted to provide shade and variety, and new natural play equipment is being introduced to attract children and families. The Veolia Environmental Trust has contributed £67,000 through the Landfill Communities Fund to construct a network of paths across the park.


'The community have got wide open green space for their children to play in, for them to breathe in really, rather than them being in an overcrowded environment,' Ann McLachlan says. 'So I just think physically there's a big difference, but it's raised aspiration in the community as well about a better quality of life.


'I think local people feel a garden's been brought to them. Where people have no gardens, they feel the greening of their community now is a welcome addition to their life.'


Anna Barnish, manager of North Birkenhead Development Trust, the main community organisation for the area, sees the greening of local streets and the revitalisation of the park as part of a long-term change in the fortunes of one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK.


'In spring when the trees are in blossom it looks lovely and people comment on how uplifting it is to walk down a street which is lined with trees in full blossom,' she says. 'If you look at the trees there's been very little damage to them, which shows the impact that the process of education and engagement has had.'


That engagement has involved close partnerships between Mersey Forest staff and community organisations to involve local people in choosing which trees are planted where, building a sense of ownership of the greening of the wider area. North Birkenhead Development Trust is now supporting plans to set up a friends' group to plan events and activities and help care for Ilchester Park.


'There are people that genuinely really enjoy living here and using the space and want to see it develop,' Anna says.


'It's a very up and coming area - the new housing development that Keepmoat are doing, Wirral Borough Council are doing loads and loads to encourage positive development, new shops in the area, the fact that there's new private development in housebuilding says a lot. It says that people want to live here.'




Prouder neighbourhoods

Frank Field, the local MP, is a strong advocate of The Mersey Forest's work in greening North Birkenhead and the key routes into the centre of the town and the Wirral Waters development sites. For him the key is to link the physical and visual enhancement of the neighbourhood with job opportunities that will help to address the entrenched deprivation of the area.


He is particularly excited about the prospects for new automotive and energy-based industries on the nearby site of the former Mobil oil plant, which could bring up to one thousand jobs to North Birkenhead.


'For once instead of losing jobs that site will gain jobs. It's been a long time but that will be hugely important,' he says.


'This is a real turning point because before they [local residents] talked about yesteryear. Now they've got something to say about how the future's going to develop, and you can physically see it happening.'


'The area has always been poor with high unemployment. The planting recognises it as a viable place to grow up and live,' one resident said. Another commented: 'It softens the urban landscape and makes it look much less stark and barren.'

That sense of a growing civic pride is underscored by The Mersey Forest's research to examine the attitudes and views of local people. A baseline survey conducted at the beginning of the Green Streets project found that only one fifth of local people rated the appearance of their streets as 'good'. While the sense of community and neighbourliness was strong, nearly half would move away if they had the opportunity.


But nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said they would spend more time outdoors if there were more trees on the streets, and almost three-quarters said a Green Streets project would benefit the area.


After the Green Streets project had begun, a Picnic in the Park event in Ilchester Park in June 2013 gave residents the opportunity to say how they thought the area was changing. Their comments confirmed a growing sense of optimism.


'The area has always been poor with high unemployment. The planting recognises it as a viable place to grow up and live,' one resident said. Another commented: 'It softens the urban landscape and makes it look much less stark and barren.'


One of the main areas of tree planting in 2014 has been the Connaught Estate, where Magenta Living has been running a major housing improvement scheme. Steve Jackson, Magenta Living's contracts manager, says there was previously little sense of pride and a high turnover of tenants on the estate.


Although the trees are still new, he comments that residents have been positive about the improvements and that fears of vandalism have proved unfounded.


'The impact will be in five, ten, fifteen or twenty years, it's planting for the future, and I think that the positive feedback will come in ten or twenty years or more,' he adds.


The Mersey Forest's own research suggests a more immediate impact too. Two thirds of residents surveyed at the start of the planting programme said tree planting would improve the area, and one quarter said a tree-lined route would encourage them to walk or cycle to work.




A scene for investment

Frank Field's emphasis on linking neighbourhood improvements to better job opportunities reflects a key theme of the Green Streets initiative and of the wider programme to plant trees and improve green infrastructure across Birkenhead and the Wirral Waters sites.


The ambition of Wirral Waters is huge: 20,000 new jobs and 14,000 new homes over a 30-year period. Frank Field, The Mersey Forest and developers Peel Holdings share a common desire to help bring this vision to life by making the area more physically attractive, creating a sense of pride and positive activity.


The investment in greening the area has already been substantial. It includes £2.7 million through the Forestry Commission's Newlands programme to create a community park at Bidston Moss; another £1.4 million secured via the Newlands scheme to fund tree planting; and additional funding for green infrastructure through section 106 planning agreements for development sites.


For The Mersey Forest there are clear environmental and climate benefits, creating a more resilient and sustainable area. For the local community there are benefits in terms of physical improvements and, further down the line, job opportunities. For Peel the benefits are that the Wirral becomes more attractive to commercial investors.


Already there are signs of activity, although the biggest investor so far is a public body: Wirral Metropolitan College is opening a new campus within the Wirral Waters boundary. The £11.5 million investment is expected to support 50 jobs and serve 1,000 students.


Work began in autumn 2014, with an ambitious goal of opening for the first students in September 2015. Remediation work on the site has been funded through a £2.5 million loan to Peel from the Homes and Communities Agency.


The college has already launched horticulture courses that tie in with the Green Streets initiative, and will play a major role in teaching construction skills to local residents, putting them in a position to apply for the jobs that are likely to be generated as development in and around Wirral Waters takes off.


Richard Mawdsley, projects director at Peel Holdings, is adamant that those jobs should benefit local residents.


'If we don't allow local people to benefit from the opportunities of Wirral Waters then we will have failed,' he says. 'So I think making sure that the demand side of the job opportunities and the supply of skills are married up is really essential.


'How do you create demand for 15 million square feet of floor space out of nothing? That's the fundamental issue that we've got. And confidence is a big thing, so how do we generate confidence? It's by demonstrating that things are happening.


'So site preparation demonstrates that things are happening, creating some small building projects like the college demonstrates things are happening, investing in energy centres demonstrates things are happening - and also the trees, that's an early intervention to demonstrate that things are happening around Wirral Waters.'


"There are clear environmental and climate benefits, creating a more resilient and sustainable area. For the local community there are benefits in terms of physical improvements and, further down the line, job opportunities."


He draws inspiration from projects like the development of Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm, a new community with a strong emphasis on green infrastructure; the revived network of parks and green spaces that has helped to put Chicago back on the map; and the hugely popular High Line linear park in New York.


Yet he recognises that he still has to overcome scepticism within the development industry because it is difficult to generate quantitative measures of the value of green infrastructure and the health and social benefits it brings.


'We're a hardnosed commercial organisation, it's about how much money we're going to be putting in and how much money we're going to get out,' he says.


'If we invest X million pounds in trees and green infrastructure, what does it do? How do I explain that to my finance director? Where do I get my return on that investment? So therefore the key for me is looking at placemaking regeneration precedents and where values and rents have escalated the highest, and what are the sort of components which enabled that to happen.'


But like his counterparts at The Mersey Forest and among the local community, he recognises that the returns are long-term. There are some more immediate illustrations of the value of the tree planting, however: Chinese visitors have been impressed that the planting schemes include gingko trees, the national tree of China.


'We've always said that this is a thirty year project, a thirty year delivery project which is jobs driven, it's all about jobs,' Richard Mawdsley says. 'It's not housing led, it's not retail led, it's all about diversifying the economy and growing the economy.'


That emphasis on jobs as well as on the quality of life is a thread that is becoming increasingly visible. A recent exhibition by the photographer Len Grant, commissioned by The Mersey Forest, visually links the variety of work done by people in the area with the tree planting scheme and marks the 170th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone for Birkenhead Docks in 1844.


There may still be work to do to demonstrate the link between trees and work to economists and civil servants, but the connection and the pride it generates shines out from the faces of Len Grant's portraits.


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