Wasteland to wilderness

Sheffield's sustainable Inner Relief Road scheme has surpassed expectations, says Jez Abbott.

Sheffield Inner Relief Road Phase 2 sounds just about as romantic as the age from which many of its surroundings date. And lots of those tarnished hallmarks remain. Many of the highrises of the 1960s are there, as is the urban sprawl and the ring road.

But instead of a massive ball-and-chain blitz like the one that made way for the ring road, today's designers used a finer blend of skills and only partial demolition for one of the UK's biggest post-millennial melting pots of urban planning.

Rather than work against the concrete and Tarmac of that era of doomed optimism, they worked with the urban grain. Into that harsher context went a softer detail almost devoid from canyons of corporate shopfronts in central Sheffield.

This subtler, understated detail focuses on landscape and has helped the city centre rebuild itself seemingly on the quiet. The 1.5km link, which completes the Inner Relief Road around the city centre, is a fundamental part of this ongoing rebirth.

The aim of the masterplan was to unlock several regeneration sites and axe traffic from sensitive city-centre streets, says Sheffield City Council landscape architect Michael Brearley.

"Our primary goal was to provide a setting for the new road and create an attractive place to live, work and rest," he says of the local authority's regeneration projects design team, which worked with the council's highways' design team.

Such a combination can cause problems. Highway crews aren't paid to take aesthetic risks and some don't do aesthetics at all. The team at Cranbook Hall Road, however, proved as flexible as the landscape architects across town in Howden House.

Both nurtured then nudged a £62m scheme from concept to completion. Nurture and nudge were crucial, as weaving between the concrete was the River Don, an older industrial legacy of steel foundries and Tony Robinson's Time Team, which pitched up to check out the local archaeology.

Improvements were to include a boulevard of semi-mature trees, widened landscaped pavements and focal points at key junctions such as three roundabouts. The boldest idea of all was a 1ha area of wildflower meadows in central reserves and other zones.

"Big verges characterised the scheme, and we knew what we didn't want: dense shrubbery," says Brearley. "A meadowland approach with wildflowers would look great and reduce upkeep because we wouldn't have to cut it several times a year."

This meadow planting along Corporation Street to the River Don and along a main central reservation gives strong definition to the redeveloped area, and the two mixes specified provide a welcome contrast to the grey suits and concrete.

A tall meadow mix of perennial wildflowers aims to give long-term impact. Annual species, meanwhile, throw up short-term blasts of colour and were planted as a low-growing tidier edge to the longer, more rampant meadow mix. Flowers include three varieties of alliums, two of camassias, daffodils and bird's-foot trefoil.

Sheffield is home territory to Nigel Dunnett, the bio-visionary university lecturer, and although he played no part in this design, his eco-experimentalism clearly rubbed off on a design team keen to break new creative as well as technical ground.

"We planted bulbs in a high-quality topsoil-compost mix with a sand-capping layer into which went seeds. Apart from a few problems with invasive plants and floods in 2007, the soil profile worked well for the plants," says Brearley.

But trees threw up one of the toughest technical challenges. More than 100 semimature specimens in pavements and central reserves were designed to form a boulevard of pin oak and sweet gum, with roundabouts defined by blue cedar, Austrian pine and fastigiate hornbeams.

Brearley says: "It was incredibly difficult digging tree pits in ground that was threaded through with services. We lost a few trees because the tree pits would have disrupted electricity cables for 33,000 homes."

Main contractor Birse Civils' major project director Ged O'Reilly says such problems were avoided by early contractor involvement. Instead of dealing with a ruck of middlemen like land agents, the contractor was integral from conceptualisation onwards.

This was crucial. Although much of the existing cityscape remained, the proposed route of the new road required the compulsory purchase and demolition of 43 properties. A similar number was altered due to road works, and streets had to be tamed but not completely shut off during construction.

"Early contractor involvement and the size of the scheme have been unique for a local authority. The budget topped £60m and Birse Civils was chosen through tender on price and quality. It was a brave endeavour by Sheffield.

"We arrived when the design was at concept stage and helped to firm it up to carve out savings and see where we needed to spend more. We had to balance what the design team wanted to achieve to meet the urban design plan with technical constraints. These are not small trees, but large ones with big tree pits that could disrupt services.

"And we had the problem of balancing good visual impact against the safety aspect of how large trees would affect sight lines and whether their roots would mess up services underground. All aspects of the landscape had to tie into the needs of the local urban design plan."

Sourcing those trees was the job of Phil Townsend, an area manager with landscape contractor Ashlea, who travelled to Dutch plantations for trees and to local suppliers for shrubs and top soil. What went in made a vast improvement to the site, he says.

"The area is an inner-city bypass and anyone who knows Sheffield will tell you it's a difficult place to get around," says Townsend. "There was demolition, realignment of roads and compulsory purchase orders. It was quite a political exercise.

"And we were working in a live environment. Roads are in constant use throughout the day so we were always restricted in terms of access and mode of operation. The most challenging aspect was getting 10,000 tonnes of soil onto the landscaped areas," he explains.

"Do you pre-mix soil off site, which means purchasing it upfront and securing a single source of material and consistency throughout the job? In the end, we stockpiled on site and laid the material in layers, blending in compost and sand by rotovation."

Ashlea, based in Hemsworth, West Yorkshire, is coming to the end of the second year of a three-year maintenance contract. Landscape upkeep will then be handled by the local authority and Townsend is optimistic Sheffield will sustain a positive impetus.

"Sheffield has stood firm throughout the entire process and made sure the quality of the environment was not compromised at any stage," Townsend says. "It would have been the easiest thing in the world to cut back the number of trees when faced with the eye-watering costs."


Context Inner Relief Road - Phase 2, north of the city centre, links Hoyle Street with the Wicker. The 1.5km link completes the Inner Relief Road around the city centre. It abuts residential areas, the River Don and the Kelham Island conservation area.

Wildflower meadows - Meadow planting hugs the length of Corporation Street to the River Don, between the two bridges over the river and along the central reservations between the Don and the Wicker. Two meadow mixes included a tall mix of perennial wallfowers and one of annual species created as low edging.

Penistone Road and Shalesmoor roundabout - Low-lying evergreen shrubs were used as a setting for a relocated piece of public art by Vic Brailsford. Specimen shrubs along with two semi-mature blue cedars and six semi-mature Austrian pines were dug into reservations around the central island.

Corporation Street and Borough Bridge roundabouts - Seven fastigiate hornbeams define the edge of the first traffic island, along with herbaceous perennials and bulbs within a ground-cover hedge around a central lawn. Seven semi-mature pin oaks and wildflowers were planted on the Borough Bridge roundabout.

Boulevard - The scheme homes in on an avenue of 100 semi-mature trees in pavements including Liquidambar styraciflua and, along the central reserves, Quercus palustris Award of Garden Merit. The trees form one of the most striking visual elements, but care had to be taken to avoid safety hazards.


Landscape design Regeneration projects design team, Sheffield City
Highway design Highway design section, Sheffield City Council
Landscape contractor Ashlea, Hemsworth, West Yorkshire
Main contractor Birse Civils, Tadcaster, North Yorkshire
Trees Van den Berk, Holland
Shrubs and other plants Johnsons of Whixley, Yorkshire
Topsoil Yorkshire Aggregates


The scheme won provisional approval in December 2000, and following a public inquiry three years later into the scheme's compulsory purchase and side-road orders, the project won the go-ahead in March 2004.

That July, ministers fully approved the scheme, and stage two of the Relief Road started in November 2004, with the then transport minister Tony McNulty turning over the first spadeful of soil. The project was opened to the public in December 2007, and cost £62.5m. The Department for Transport paid £56.5m towards the scheme, for which £580,000 was set aside for soft landscaping.

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