Green technologies and services advisor Vicky Wilding explores Greater Manchester’s pioneering plans to create a burgeoning new sector in nature-based solutions for greener buildings and spaces.
When you walk around many of our towns and cities in the UK, it sometimes seems as if nature has lost out amongst the hustle and bustle of buildings, roads and pavements. But here in Greater Manchester, a transformation is beginning to take place. All over the city region, new investments are being made in ‘green infrastructure’ – the technical term for natural or semi-natural green spaces which protect and enhance our environment. A great example is living walls – vegetation-covered facades like the one at the Deansgate-Castlefield Metrolink stop in Manchester (pictured). Living walls improve air quality, absorb CO2, reduce water runoff and provide aesthetic value to urban spaces. These benefits are what is known as ‘natural capital’.
Other examples of green infrastructure include green roofs and vertical forests on buildings; street trees, urban gardens and parks; ‘blue’ roofs that harvest rainwater; sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) such as pervious pavements or rain gardens; passive cooling solutions like reflective roofs and walls or urban water features; and ecosystem restoration works such as re-establishing wetland or woodland. In other words, these are ‘nature-based solutions’ to a cleaner and healthier environment – as opposed to technology-based solutions like solar panels or electric cars.
Not only are nature-based solutions good for the environment, they are also good for us. Exposure to nature is proven to be good for both our physical and mental health, so much so that GP practices are beginning to prescribe time in nature to patients for its wellbeing benefits. In the workplace, greener office spaces can boost productivity and reduce absenteeism. Manchester-headquartered property firm Bruntwood is leading in this area by embedding ‘biophilic’ design – a connection to nature – across its property portfolio.
Greater Manchester leading the way
Greater Manchester is steadily building a global reputation as a trailblazer in developing and investing in nature-based solutions. Enhancing the natural environment is one of the key pillars of the city region’s 5 Year Environment Plan. Progress is supported by a dedicated Natural Capital Group – a partnership of representatives from the public, private and third sectors who act as ambassadors for Greater Manchester’s natural environment. Here are just some of the exciting projects underway:
Since 2017, Manchester City Council has been co-ordinator of the GrowGreen project, an EU-funded partnership between seven cities to integrate nature-based solutions into long-term planning and development. Through GrowGreen, Manchester is delivering a green infrastructure masterplan to demonstrate how green streets, rain gardens, green roofs and other solutions can reduce flooding.
In 2018, Greater Manchester was chosen as one of four ‘pioneer projects’ by government to develop new ways of enhancing the natural environment. As the Urban Pioneer, Greater Manchester is testing new tools and methods for investing in and managing urban green infrastructure. The programme estimates that the city region’s green infrastructure currently provides around £1 billion worth of natural capital benefits each year to residents, businesses and the public purse.
Despite all the benefits they bring, investing in nature-based solutions is a challenge because the benefits don’t easily translate onto a balance sheet. Through the £4 million IGNITION project, launched in 2019, Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) is working with key partners to develop innovative financing mechanisms that solve this challenge. The project aims to identify small individual schemes and bring them together into larger packages for private investors. For example, pilot projects have shown how installing rain gardens in schools can provide a return on investment through reduced water rates. It is hoped that IGNITION will enable a 10 per cent increase in Greater Manchester’s green infrastructure coverage by 2038.
Salford Living Lab
Linked to the IGNITION project is Salford University’s ‘Living Laboratory’, a campus-wide initiative to create a ‘shop window’ for green roofs, walls, gardens and other nature-based solutions. The project, described by Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham as “an amazing visual and technical demonstration”, will use sensors to measure the effect of different solutions on temperature, humidity, energy use, carbon and noise absorption.
Supply chain opportunities
Thanks to the work of these and other pioneering schemes taking place in Greater Manchester, a pipeline of potential green infrastructure opportunities is beginning to form. Around £100 million worth of feasible projects in need of financing have already been identified within the city region. A ‘GM Environment Fund’ is being developed to support investment in these projects, but significant private finance will also be required. Evidence from other countries shows that this is more than achievable – in the US, for example, the private sector already invests around £8 billion per year in nature-based solutions.
According to Environmental Finance, an environmental impact investment consultancy which is working with GMCA to develop the GM Environment Fund, it is actually at the supply chain stage that projects often fall down. In other words, there are plenty of gaps in the supply chain waiting to be filled, from design and installation to maintenance services.
Luke Taylor, co-founder and CEO of Wiilder, a Stockport-based supplier of green roofs and living walls, is eyeing significant growth:
“We’re probably the newest company in the green roof and living wall industry, and the more I see about what’s going on in Greater Manchester, the stronger I feel about our prospects for the future.
“5-10 years ago, a green roof would be seen as a quirky add-on for a corporate building. Now green roofs are serious, pragmatic considerations for all sorts of buildings, new and old. There’s so much opportunity here in Greater Manchester, so we’re trying to be as involved as we can with IGNITION and the city region’s other green initiatives.”
The time is now
The future for nature-based solutions is bright. This spring will see the launch of a new region-wide campaign to inspire residents, businesses and policy makers to contribute to creating a greener Greater Manchester. The opportunities will only continue to grow, and here at GC Business Growth Hub we’re keen to help local solutions providers navigate their way through this exciting sector.
Want to learn more? Get in touch with our Green Technologies and Services Team.
Posted under General Interest on 26 February 2020