According To Dunnett ... Horticulture needed to 'colour in' green infrastructure

It's now around one year since work started on Sheffield's groundbreaking "Grey to Green" scheme, one of the largest urban green infrastructure projects in the UK.

It has seen the creation of a new inner-city greenway along the edge of the city centre, radically transforming a former dual carriageway into a pedestrian-friendly green route. The first phase has recently been completed and opened, and when all three phases are built the entire length of the scheme will be around 1.3km.

There are two main drivers for this project. Firstly, it is part of a wider flood-prevention strategy - the main planted areas that line the route are all bioswales and rain gardens. But secondly, the landscape and environmental improvements have gone in ahead of further significant commercial, retail and accommodation developments, and the environmental enhancement was seen as being crucial to stimulating further inward investment, economic activity and footfall in what had become a neglected part of the city.

Of course, there are many other identified benefits - the huge increase in green will have a cooling effect, will encourage wildlife and will deliver a much more pleasant environment for people compared with the previous lifeless roads and pavements.

So, a major landscape scheme targeted primarily at meeting the challenges of climate change, and at the encouragement of economic activity and investment. Who says landscape is decorative and frivolous?

But there is one very important factor that distinguishes this green infrastructure project from many others. Horticulture has been at the heart of the idea from the outset and extensive areas of colourful mixed perennial plantings have been used.

To my mind, one of the big barriers for wider implementation of green infrastructure is that it is often mostly "green". The planting and horticultural content is usually very functional, or is led by ecological considerations.

But the planting is the most visible element of green infrastructure. It's a huge new area of opportunity for horticulture, and for these transformational urban green infrastructure projects to become mainstream they are going to have to look so good that people will want to see more and more of them. So it's time for horticulture to take the lead in promoting a new colourful, flowering infrastructure to supplement the basic green.

Nigel Dunnett is Professor of Planting Design at the University of Sheffield

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