How horticulture is influencing UK Business Improvement Districts

A look at what Business Improvement Districts have achieved and what are they planning for the future.

Newcastle NE1: involved in public greening since it was established in 2009
Newcastle NE1: involved in public greening since it was established in 2009

Horticulture has been one of the weapons in the armoury of most UK Business Improvement Districts since the first one was formed in 2005.

Their input has often gone much further than flower baskets and planters, effective as they are. 

Newcastle City Centre’s BID Newcastle NE1 has been involved in public greening since it was established in 2009, with its first intervention being a stone Victorian planter outside the train station the next year, a £5,000 project. This was followed by a green space created on a meantime site, 57 Quayside, a £25,000 investment.

The BID was happy to "get a year or two" out of the site says NE1 operations director Adrian Waddell but in fact got nearer five. "It succeeded in bringing attention to the area." The garden was so popular that when it was built on it was replaced by a similar garden nearby on land owned by the Live Theatre Trust which "recognised the value of the garden" says Waddell.

"The idea of having a publically-accessible nice space in that area has been recognised. Soon the BID was collaborating with Newcastle City Council on the Bobby Robson Memorial Garden, which opened in 2011. Here the BID paid for design and landscaping and the council added Bobby Robson-related fittings and memorabilia.

"Other collaborations on the drawing board include a new green space outside St Richard’s Cathedral, as part of a £5.8m project aimed at making the 900-year-old cathedral a community hub as well as an important historical and religious building, which received a £358,000 Heritage Lottery Fund development grant in May.

A Chinese-themed garden in the city’s Chinatown is another project on the drawing board. The BID has also run a design competition for suggestions of what to do with a road the council is taking out of use, after seeing an opportunity, says Waddell.

"We felt very strongly that what might have been the normal local authority response to just pave it over, while we can work with the council to have some greening and create a very nice space."

The BID is also working with the council to create a green space around the city’s Stephenson Statue, putting up £500,000 seed money. Southern Green is the landscape architect. As a result the council is also investing, as well as using in-house highways staff to build the project. Northumbria Water has also come on board, agreeing to relocate a telemetry box to give designers free reign on the site.

Whatever the size of the project, Waddell says his goal is to have "good quality but fundamentally simple design".

"You have to take the maintenance burden off the local authority," he says. "If it is left with them, they don’t have the budget and things don’t get done. If the local authority feels like it will be something they will be responsible for doing it will affect the design." He says BID members see a return on investment with these projects but maintaining quality is important to them." If we put it in we are happy to invest to keep up with the maintenance."

Newcastle NE1 is also in discussions with the council to pedestrianise Blackett Street, adjacent to the Eldon Square green space and look at an integrated public realm scheme for the whole area. It is also working with Newcastle University and The Royal Victoria Infirmary to the north of the city centre on a project to link up the institutions’ green space through Queen Victoria Road which divides them, making the road more "porous" through greening, in a project worth just under £2m. The area borders the BID’s footprint but both the hospital and university are BID members, have extensive, well-kept grounds and an appreciation of their value.

Another large-scale project worth £3.2m aims to improve the quality of the public realm in Newcastle’s historic BIGG Market, now famous for its stag and hen dos and binge drinking rather than its market shopping. The hope is that well-designed public realm will "bring back quality, give people a decent day-time offer that will bleed into the night" Waddell says.

"People are beginning to wake up. Developers have known about this for a long time. They understand because there’s a direct return on investment for them. But city authorities are now becoming more active in the value of good quality public space. Our job in Newcastle is to make the city centre more active, more vibrant, used by more people who come from further afield and stay longer. All of that means people are spending more here than elsewhere.

"We want Newcastle to be regarded as a European regional centre compared to the likes of Gothenburg, Copenhagen or Hamburg, not ‘how are we doing compared to Sunderland’. Particularly as Brexit comes we are doing all we can to further that relationship building."

Liverpool is another city with an ambitious and outward-looking BID. Liverpool BID is working with Liverpool City Council and Mersey Forest, which developed one of the country’s first green infrastructure plans for a BID in 2011 and Liverpool University on a plan to create green corridors across the city. They have teamed up with organisations in Valladolid in Spain and Izmir in Turkey to successfully bid for 10 million euros of Horizon 2020 European funding, with four million euros (£3.4m) for Liverpool’s URBAN GreenUP project. Work on detailed plans is due to start in the new year.

The project aims is to use nature-based solutions to tackle environmental issues in the city and make a range of environmental improvements, including increasing biodiversity, improving air quality and alleviating surface water issues. Work will include new trees, SuDS, green walls, rain gardens and pedestrian and cyclist routes.

URBAN GreenUP will also be an in-depth research project run by Liverpool University academics, which will include experimental design of technical solutions and practical testing, together with data analysis.

The funding also provides an opportunity to promote the city as a focal point for high-quality research in this sector.

The project delivers on the green corridor recommendations in the city’s Mayoral Review for Green and Open Spaces and builds on the work of the Mersey Forest over the past 25 years.

Mersey Forest completed a green infrastructure (GI) plan for Liverpool in 2011, which has been much copied in other areas, especially as it shared its methodology.

Mersey Forest project development officer Clare Olver says that BIDS are "a very good mechanism to engage" and "really understand GI." A Mersey Forest survey of BID members found that 90% said that GI would benefit the BID. "For BIDs it’s all about quality of space, it’s about improving their land values but it has to be really good quality GI.

Manchester University lecturer in environmental and landscape planning Dr Ian Mell, who was previously part of the University of Liverpool team, believes that BIDS could be a useful way to leverage funding for investment in urban greening.

"Because of their businesses focus it is to be expected that members of BIDs would look to the economic returns of investment before becoming involved. With more businesses now doing this we are potentially seeing a shift in delivery and management that places GI and national building specification (NBS) and so on at the forefront of these discussions.

"This is a useful avenue for local planning authorities to work with as if they can promote their BIDs as economically viable and use GI or NBS as a mechanism for improving the brand of the BID then I think people will buy into it."

"How we promote and sell this process though is open to debate. In places where urban greening is grounded in local planning and or environmental sector thinking this is a relatively straightforward proposition. Liverpool is a good example. It needs to be business-led, its needs to highlight the economic returns and it needs to link into their social and corporate responsibility ideas. If they can do it, and promote the idea of a greener and more sustainable form of business then BIDs could be the way forward."

Victoria BID was also a pioneer. It commissioned LUC and Green Roof Consultancy to produce a GI audit in 2010, which identified opportunities to create more than 25 hectares of green roofs, more than a hectare of GI and improve 1.5ha of existing GI. Soon there were four green walls in the central London district and Sheffield University professor Nigel Dunnett designed two rain gardens – the Diamond Garden in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and one for John Lewis. Victoria BID published a Victoria Vibrancy Report in 2014, and pledged to more than double public open space in the redevelopment of the area next to and around Victoria Station in the central London district.

More recently it has worked with Grosvenor and The Goring Hotel to  Commission Central London Gardening Company to plant a fernery, climbing plants and wildflower turf to transform a paved area into a wildlife oasis.

Vauxhall BID is also transforming its part of the capital, which is undergoing a massive transformation. Alongside RIBA and the Landscape Institute, it ran an international public realm design competition in 2013 asking for sustainable ways to improve the public realm and connectivity in the Lambeth section of Nine Elms on the South Bank, a massive regeneration zone, which attracted 200 entries from 21 different countries.

Competition winners Erect Architecture and J&L Gibbons designed The Vauxhall Missing Link, which opened in 2015, and included a sustainable Green Trail that connected Vauxhall’s parks and new developments to the South Bank using a planted walkway. As well as being a pleasant environment for people, the design included a SuDS that reduces the risk of flooding by taking rainwater from the street drains and re-directing it to rain gardens. An RHS Chelsea show garden, the RBC Waterscape Garden was also transplanted here.

Along the River Thames, London Bridge BID, Team London Bridge is encouraging uptake of vertical rain gardens, after a 10-metre one installed in Tooley Street in 2013 was thought to be the first in the world. In 2015 the garden was extended to 30m long and is now being followed by major developments such as Middlesex University's Forum North building in Hendon and the Cambridge Conservation Initiative's David Attenborough building.

Again this garden came out of a GI audit commissioned by the BID, which also commissioned the garden, with funding drawn from the Greater London Authority’s Drain London action plan.

London BIDS can apply for funding from a number of Mayoral funds,  which the Mayor’s office has brought together under the Green Capital umbrella. 

The authority has supported ‘green infrastructure audits’ for 15 central London BIDs and employer groups and so far more than 500 hectares of London have been audited. The audits showed that more than 300 rain gardens, 200 green walls and more than 100 hectares of green roofs could be created, as well as other small scale interventions like planters and window boxes. 

Key BID Facts (Source: British BIDs)

  • Most UK BIDs are in town centres, however they are also in industrial, commercial and mixed-use locations.
  • The average size of a BID is 400 hereditaments and they range from fewer than 50 to more than 1,000 hereditaments.
  • Annual income is typically £200,000-£600,000 but ranges from £50,000 to more than £2 million.
  • Legislation allowing the creation of BIDs was passed in 2003 in England and Wales and in 2006 in Scotland. The first English BID started in January 2005 and the first Scottish and Welsh ones in April 2008.
  • BIDs were first established in Canada and the US in the 1960s and now exist across the globe, including in South Africa, Germany, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.

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