Europa United would like to congratulate Madeleina Kay for this article being awarded one  of the winner in the recent EUinmyRegion Blog Contest. Madeleina’s prize was a place on a European Commission accredited journalism course in Brussels in October.

The first time I encountered the Grey to Green Scheme in Sheffield City Centre, I was cycling to a temporary art exhibition being displayed in a converted warehouse in Kelham Island, part of the old industrial area. I remarked upon the considered aesthetic design and vibrant planting with a pleasant surprise. It wasn’t until two years later, whilst studying Landscape Architecture at the University of Sheffield that I discovered that my own professors were involved in this unprecedented example of an urban greening project in a European city.

The Grey to Green scheme is a European Union funded scheme to improve the developing business district in the city. Sheffield, like many other cities in the UK, is deprived by Westminster’s London-centric funding bubble and benefits hugely from European Union regional development funding. This has made it all the more tragic by the fact that Sheffield narrowly voted to leave the European Union by 51% to 49% in the referendum on the 23rd June 2016.

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The scheme provides a settling environment for the public.

Flying the flag

Many of the infrastructure projects in Sheffield that receive funding have been inadequately publicised as coming from the European Union. A few months after the Brexit vote, whilst walking past a building project, I discovered a European Union flag concealed behind layers of scaffolding with the words “too late now bitch” scrawled under it. Most people in Sheffield will not realise that the stunning water features outside Sheffield station, the hugely popular Peace Gardens (both treasured outdoor spaces) and much of the road transport schemes have all received European Union funding. I can’t help but wonder if they all had had huge European Union flags flying above them, people might have voted differently in the referendum.

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The author and her trusted companion – Alba

Grey to Green will ‘transform 1.3 kilometres of redundant roads into attractive new linear public spaces.’ (Sheffield City Council, 2016) The project delivers attractive landscape design combining perennial flower meadows, rain gardens, public art, paved footways and street furniture with a sustainable urban drainage system (SUDS). The result is a beautiful outdoor environment in the heart of the city where nature flourishes in vibrant colours, making a stark contrast to the developing urban area. The project is used by local residents, students and employees who enjoy their lunch on the seating or use the green corridor for recreational activities such as cycling and jogging, as well as travelling to work. Located directly outside the Sheffield Law Courts, I’m certain the natural environment also provides a much-needed respite to families and individuals experiencing difficult legal procedures.

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Urban areas are integrated with ease

The planting design is phenomenal and testimony to the fantastic work done by the Landscape Architecture department at the University of Sheffield. Flood tolerant plants, such as River Birch and Iris are used as part of the SUDS. The plant selection has been carefully chosen to provide annual interest and a variety of height, habit and texture which creates greater visual interest. The flowers also attract wildlife such as insects and bees to the urban area, enhancing the value of the ecosystem.

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Grey to Green has a beautiful array of plants and flowers

The SUDS is the crucial element underpinning the design of the scheme. The devastating floods of 2007 that caused chaos in Sheffield City Centre were in part due to the high level of impermeable surfaces. Planting design that intercepts rainfall and Rain Gardens that absorb and slow the surface flow of water will help to mitigate the impacts of future flood events, which are expected to increase in frequency due to Global Warming.

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Alba seemed happy!

In my mind, the only questionable element of the scheme is the “public art” sculptures. Admittedly, a lot of effort was made to ensure that the 5 “totems” reflected aspects of Sheffield culture and heritage, but personally, I find them a superfluous and gimmicky which can be detracting from the overall subtle and considered design. And to a certain extent they reveal the novelty of the scheme, designers decided that public art was needed to make this unprecedented project appear more acceptable to a public unfamiliar with the prospect of encountering plants in their typically drab grey streets.

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One of the five ‘Totems’

It is of no doubt that Grey to Green is a big asset to Sheffield City, providing many benefits to multiple user groups. The project, however, is currently only one-third complete and the remaining 2 phases are unsurprisingly “subject to funding”. Funding which currently comes from the European Union. My professors confirmed that because of Brexit, they have no certainty over whether the GreytoGreen scheme will ever be realised to its full potential.

End of the project?

Given that the UK government has cut funding for parks and outdoor spaces, and Sheffield City council are currently chopping down healthy mature street trees primarily to reduce maintenance costs, it seems unlikely that additional funding will be provided to complete this wonderful scheme. It is incredibly short-sighted of government and local authorities to neglect our outdoor spaces and deprive British citizens of contact with the natural environment. In a society where sedentary lifestyles and overuse of technology are leading to increasing mental and physical health problems, it is absolutely essential that they invest in green infrastructure which provides the therapeutic benefits of nature.

The future development of the project is in doubt

Seeing the luscious green corridor come to an abrupt end with a concrete bar leading onto bare earth and recycled concrete planters, emphasised the injustice of the Brexit vote. A Union Jack flag flies in the street outside the Sheffield Law Courts and I thought to myself, ‘Where is the European Union flag?’ This fantastic and hugely valuable project was funded by the European Union and everybody in Sheffield who benefits from the scheme on a daily basis ought to know.

For more information on the Grey to Green scheme, just click on this link.

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