A blog by Deborah Murray, Executive Director at Groundwork Greater Manchester

My focus in this blog is on green neighbourhoods because Groundwork and our partners are delivering green, safe spaces day in, day out, typically at a neighbourhood level, often in places of ‘need’ and always in close collaboration with local communities. Here’s one example:

West Gorton – A social housing estate subject to significant regeneration over recent years to bring in mixed tenure, better quality housing. But, after all the new building, at the heart of the community was a poorly designed, under-used park. Wind forward 3 years it’s now home to a demonstration ‘sponge’ park which is being used to measure the impact of greenspace on social and environmental outcomes. Environmental outcomes are off the scale in terms of biodiversity and water management. But there has also been a big uplift in usage (+50%) and a change in how the park is used – now a hub of community events, physical activity and people simply engaging with nature. The community who are the experts in their place have been involved throughout and that community have now taken greater ownership of the park.

The success at west Gorton, and similar projects we’ve supported, can be characterised by;

  1. Involving communities as an equal partner, if not the primary partner, and,
  2. Embedding the true economic, environmental and social value of green and blue infrastructure within scheme design.

But this is not yet business as usual. There are valuable proposals in the new Place Strategy for the North, in particular the recognition of the importance of nature in our places and a commitment to retrofitting our built environment as a non-negotiable element of our carbon reduction plan. But what I would like to see more of is a commitment to invest in urban greenspaces as an integral part of the design of liveable places in the North. Not just in town centres but throughout our urban areas.

The interdependency between economic, environmental and health deprivation is well documented. Evidence shows our most deprived communities are less likely to have green space close to home and this is especially true for people of non White backgrounds, 40% of whom live in England’s most green space-deprived neighbourhoods. And despite this, our research shows that less than 5% of Levelling Up funding to date has supported green infrastructure projects.

I would also call for better understanding of how to engage communities in the design of their place, at a scale which is meaningful to them and within a context where they feel enabled and empowered to have a voice. Today we are focusing on pan Northern issues, but we cannot ignore the fact that communities do not work at a pan Northern scale and that any plan for the North must address fairness and equity within it. Vibrant green neighbourhoods should not be restricted to those whose economic power and social positioning makes it easier to make their voice heard. They must also be accessible to those living in ‘left behind’ communities. These are not places of negativity and desperation as the term implies; within those communities there is pride and spirit but that spirit needs support to be unleashed so that it can be used as a force for change.

So what have we learnt and how do we scale up?

  1. Put communities at the centre of place making; start small in places which people understand.
  2. Direct investment into expert civil society organisations who have the trust of communities, especially communities who need support the most to help them organise and amplify their voice.
  3. Move away from competitive bidding & funding allocation processes with unrealistic response times, onerous requirements and large-scale contracts which are out of reach for most civil society organisations.
  4. Afford green infrastructure equal status with physical infrastructure when it comes to investment.

Charities and community leaders are out there every day talking to local people – they know what is needed.

Talk to them, value them and work with them.

In the words of local West Gorton residents Heather and Emma,

(This park) looks like it’s not in the middle of Manchester. Coming to the park has made my children feel better and safer. My physical and mental health has got much better. It’s worth every penny.