Liverpool is a front-runner city in the EU funded, Horizon 2020, URBAN GreenUP project, whose remit is to retrofit a range of nature-based solutions (NBS) across the city and to monitor them for their multiple environmental, social and economic benefits.
The project team comprises of the City Council, the University of Liverpool and Mersey Forest and brings together city influence, academic challenge and green infrastructure expertise. This 5-year and €4m pioneering research and innovation-led project of using nature to deliver ecosystem services in Liverpool has provided an opportunity for the city to visibly deliver on agendas for climate change adaptation, resilience and biodiversity.
Recently installed Nature Based Solutions include two living green walls completed in the summer of 2020. The first at 200m2 is over 65m long and on a shopping centre near the main bus station, where in addition to biodiversity, the wall is helping to contribute to local air quality improvements.
The second green wall is 130m2 and is tucked away on an urban back street, ever changing and fully accessible to pedestrians who can stop to pick strawberries from it in the summer.
As a coastal city, Liverpool is a fitting location to trial of one of the first saltwater floating ecosystem islands to enhance biodiversity in the docks. With the innovative features of raised planters, shallow freshwater trays, a suspended shingle shelf and an underwater reef made from empty oyster shells, the island ecosystem has attracted interest from Seattle, Melbourne, Romania and even a First American Indian tribe, who are keen to adapt it for growing traditional medicinal plants as an adaptation to climate change.
Trees in all their forms have formed the backbone of many NBS schemes in the city. Tree sustainable urban drainage (SuD) systems channel excess highway surface water run off through tree pits to ‘slow the flow’ and clean and reduce the final outflow to drain.
Experimentation with pollinators for enhanced biodiversity has included plans to hydroseed on hard and gravelled surfaces, to plant pollinators in shady spaces under tree canopies, as well as to create a green pollinator pavement in a high footfall location.
Aspiring to improve sustainability practices, the project has sought to avoid herbicides and trial flame throwers to remove grass under tree canopies (with the obligatory 20 minute bug hunt to save any inhabitants before work starts!); an approach considered to offer better protection to both tree roots and ground nesting bees. In a handful of urban locations, a Smart Pollinator Pillar is being tested. These planted structures wrap around lamp post columns and come with a solar powered irrigation reservoir.
Delivering a range of nature-based solutions in a city was a challenge with many barriers, challenges and learning points. Some of the challenges were anticipated and others unexpected.
At the beginning it was anticipated there may be some practical problems in finding suitable sites, consulting the community and seeking various permissions and approvals. There was also some concern about being able to find suitable contractors that could deliver these 'new' types of schemes in the city.
In reality, there were many more surveys and approvals needed than initially envisaged. Site surveys helped to inform and shape the schemes but there were some additional ones we had not anticipated such as DNA testing of local water bodies for newts (who knew you could do that?) as well as the need for road safety audits for any vegetated structures near carriageways to determine safe traffic sight lines etc. Some of these incurred unexpected costs, but all proved valuable and helped the project to engage with a range of different partners and stakeholders.
As the Urban GreenUP project was seeking to do something different, the surveys needed and the processes for approval were not always clear and on-site visits with all parties were sometimes the only way to determine the best way forward and the next steps. Procurement of specialist Nature Based Solutions (NBS) also created issues as many of the green and blue installations were not available in a framework or via general contractors and exemptions were needed to procure directly.
Limited markets existed for some larger NBS and although at first these seemed the hardest to do, they were delivered professionally by some great companies. In fact, it was the small, bitty projects at a very local level that often took the longest to deliver and caused the most problems.
Delivering in a pandemic was not something we'd initially put on our risk register and the periods of lockdown, contractor unavailability, staff on furlough, supply shortages of plants (coupled with new Brexit import rules) etc. at times conspired to defeat the project. But, trees stranded in the depot for almost a year were cared for by kind hearted staff, contractors went on and off sites as covid restrictions allowed, landscape architects revised planting plans to use available plants and other partners adapted to engage communities remotely on webinars, and host individual family events and biodiversity recording activities.
Some replacement trees and plants were needed (to replace those that had suffered during a mini heatwave when no-one was allowed out to water them), but the need to work differently in the pandemic provided some other unexpected opportunities. The extra time allowed us to reflect on works, join up delivery of different schemes for better impact and take a far more sustainable approach to the materials and delivery on some of the delayed works. There is always a way to make it happen and happen better