Green infrastructure for a healthy city

Sheffield is known as the ‘Outdoor City’ and yet its planning strategies are light on Green Infrastructure, ignoring the numerous health and biodiversity benefits it can bring. Dr Lee Heykoop calls for Sheffield to place green networks at the heart of planning to ensure a healthy future for the city.


Chris Page

Sheffield is one of the greenest cities in the UK.

Dr Lee Heykoop

Sheffield, the ‘Outdoor City’, has wonderful steep contours that racing cyclists and runners love to challenge. For those who like to spend their free time at a more leisurely pace and who would like to commute without too much sweat, the city's topography can offer relatively gentle inclines along river valleys.

But in order to make more of these car-free routes first choice for residents, we need investment in Green Infrastructure and Greenways – strategically located and connected green networks that function for travel, leisure, biodiversity, clean air and flood attenuation. My focus is all of these in Sheffield and I want to give additional emphasis to active travel in clean air to ensure that green routes make great and frequently used commuter routes.

The talk needs to stop and we need to act if we want these green networks to become a reality. We need to start with an agreed understanding about lifestyle damage to us as individuals and to the NHS that has resulted from obesity, stress, lack of exercise, poor sleep, loneliness, depression and anxiety. We also need to understand that so much more needs to be done urgently to improve biodiversity, plants and wildlife – the visible, the hardly noticed and the invisible ones, as well as the terrain that supports them.

And how long should we wait before actually implementing transformative Greenway projects? Until we become a wealthier country? Or should Greenways be a priority now?

I wanted to see how much Green Infrastructure is brought forward by the hefty arm of planning legislation here in Sheffield. With the ‘Sheffield Local Plan’ already five years behind schedule, what do we find in preparatory documents such as the pre-consultation document ‘The Sheffield Plan: Citywide Options for Growth’? Encouraging words include 'tackling climate change' and 'actions ... creating and maintaining Green Infrastructure'.

Yet the 'transport challenge' fails to mention green routes. Dedicated walking and cycle routes seem limited to demarcated pavements, while users will still experience hassle at road crossings while breathing in exhaust fumes, with none of the relaxing stimulation of travelling on green routes and beside rivers and woodlands.

More trees and green places plus spending more time in them brings impressive health benefits. Translating this into business talk, Greater Manchester's ‘Natural Capital Investment Plan’ puts the economic benefits of improved air quality at a value of £38 million, and benefits to mental health at £264 million. Other headline benefits roll out from increased physical activity, carbon sequestration and noise reduction.

The talk needs to stop and we need to act if we want these green networks to become a reality.

Not just for leisure: A green commute

A lot of Green Infrastructure strategy thinking seems fixated on leisure. Does this mean we can only live healthily in our leisure time? It misses the point. Greenways are about nature and bringing us humans back into the heart of nature in as much of our lives as possible.

Greenways are interconnected routes sharing different human, biological and wildlife functions. People could also commute on these routes. E-bikes have extended cycling as a feasible option for many more people who wouldn't otherwise think of cycling ten miles to work. Work journeys along a green route would make a more regular and sustained impact on people's health. For this reason, strategies that constrain discussion of outdoor activities to just leisure – as important as that is – miss the importance of the two hundred plus journeys many of us make to and from work each year. Similarly, strategies that think of active travel but without giving it green routes miss all the benefits of green space.

I found that Sheffield's ‘Green and Open Space Strategy 2010-2030’ says nothing about green routes for journeys, or even active travel – a strange omission for a green and open space strategy. The ‘Sheffield City Region: Integrated Infrastructure Plan’ (2018) gives a gentle hint there might be such a consideration sometime in the future. Sheffield's ‘Waterways Strategy’ (2014) more properly endorses green, or rather ‘blue-ways’, since they are necessarily constrained to river and canal routes.

Looking to our neighbours, Barnsley was already enlightened in its 2010 ‘Green Infrastructure Strategy’, while Manchester's 2015 Green Infrastructure Strategy is reinforced by the ‘Greater Manchester Natural Capital Investment Plan’, announced by Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham at the 2018 Green Summit and delivered ten months later.

Sheffield Council at least has a report it might draw on. Sheffield's ‘Green Commitment’ (2018) has indicated there should be Greenways for cycling. Once Sheffield Council 'get' the vital importance of Green Infrastructure they will need to commit to making it happen in their policies and funding resources. Sources should be investigated and it should move onto the list to receive Community Infrastructure Levy monies.

Why hasn't Sheffield done this yet?

Dr Lee Heykoop is a landscape designer, researcher and consultant.