How transport chiefs are reacting to Zac Goldsmith's call to transform railway verges

A mix of community input, political support and financial backing could unlock the 'creative and natural potential' of dozens of unloved spaces.

Deansgate, Manchester: Goldsmith challenge invigorated transport chiefs (Credit: Ian Simpson Architects)
Deansgate, Manchester: Goldsmith challenge invigorated transport chiefs (Credit: Ian Simpson Architects)

Zac Goldsmith likes slender margins. The Conservative MP re-took Richmond Park constituency in the June general election by a mere 45 votes. Now he's focusing on narrow margins of another kind.

In early August, Goldsmith called on Transport for London (TfL) and Network Rail to transform hundreds of miles of barren railway verges across London into wildlife havens. He challenged the transport chiefs while opening one such transformation at Kew Gardens Station.

More than 1,500 plants including globe thistles, foxgloves, lambs ears, wood spurge, Hellebores and Verbena went into the design by Suzie Jewell. Goldsmith praised professional gardeners, volunteers, charities, the local council and London community gardening group Energy Garden.

The latter is working on 50 unused rail spaces funded by, among others, Lottery groups. Pulling together big bureaucracies was "no small feat", he said, "but I hope TfL, Network Rail and all the other institutions can get their heads around this and deliver wildlife corridors across our city".

The Energy Garden has clout and cash insists chief executive Agamemnon Otero. It is working with 162 community groups, has plans to extend its reach into the Midlands and Scotland and then the US. The not-for-profit co-operative has a wealthy board capable of raising £2bn and it has friends in places like Bank of America, the World Economic Forum and the Rockefeller Foundation.

"Over the past 30 to 40 years the environmental movement has failed to get the revenue streams to deliver the change it wanted to," says Otero, whose gardens will incorporate food-growing plots and solar systems to provide on-site renewable energy. Where others failed, this effort will succeed, he says, thanks to a big solar-energy site he wants to create to secure long-term income for the gardens.

"We aim to create a 15 MW solar array, from which we will make £800,000. Half will go back to the investors and the remaining £400,000 will go to community groups to pay for upkeep and management. We will go out to tender; we will produce a procurement framework; and we will look to appoint builders, plant suppliers and landscape architects."

Project manager Luke Jones works for Repowering London, which specialises in community energy programmes. He says landscaping railways has the potential for mass popular buy-in, Unlike city farms for example, often tucked away in hard-to-reach locations, railways are in the heart of almost every community and used by millions of people every day.

Ground Control managing director Marcus Watson is not so sure. His company is one of the UK's biggest landscape maintenance contractors for rail companies and while he sees value in landscaping station approaches, verges are another thing. This is especially so given the competing pressures for funding on infrastructure and planned growth through projects like HS2. There are so many miles of verges, and is it "pragmatic, affordable or even needed?" he asks.

In one part of the country the answer is a resounding 'yes'. Last year, landscape architects celebrated an award for Manchester's tram network. Deansgate-Castlefield station is shot through with low-maintenance grasses. A green wall rises 11m from street level to Cumbrian slate platforms with sedum-tray insert panels set between the tracks. Planting includes trees and a wildflower meadow.

Landscape Projects worked with architects at SimpsonHaugh and Partners and the design for Transport for Greater Manchester won a landscape award for natural stone in 2016. The project was identified in a Manchester central masterplan of 2009, suggesting the creative and natural potential of land around railways and tramlines has caught the eye of urban professionals across the country.

"We wanted to create something a bit special out of something a bit ordinary and grey," says architect Ian Simpson. "We designed the plan, along with Transport for Greater Manchester, and the idea was to create a sense of a green oasis as you arrive in the city centre. Many people are coming in from the airport and this will be one of the first things they see. We wanted to use as many natural materials as possible to create a truly natural, green feel to the station."

Groundwork director of communities and environmental services Ben Coles supports the ambition of the likes of Simpson and Goldsmith and believes it is "very realistic to achieve" if the right funding and partnerships are in place. Meanwhile, track-side safety concerns could be addressed by appropriately resourced contractors.

"Community groups could perhaps stick to the station hubs and professional teams or supervised employment training programmes could tackle the trackside works," he explains. "I'm not sure, however, if this is something that Network Rail would consider funding – there may be advantages for them in relation to better managed track-side environments."

Coles, who worked with Goldsmith and the Energy Garden team, adds; "I mentioned to Zac that the best way to achieve it would be to use the Groundwork green team approaches – to have designated teams of individuals who are unemployed on a training programme who gain skills and qualifications while carrying out the work."

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