Leeds, UK: Our Spaces

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City Square

Playhouse Gardens

Cookridge Street

Cookridge Street

David Oluwale Bridge

City: Leeds 
Country: UK
2022 Awards: Entrant
Award Categories:         Living Green for Biodiversity IconLiving Green for Health and Wellbeing Icon

* This case study was written by the city and has not been edited by AIPH

Initiative: Our Spaces

The Leeds: Our Spaces Strategy was formally adopted by Leeds as its vision for the creation of vibrant, inclusive and world class public realm through reimagining the city centre, removal of barriers to movement and repurposing of highway infrastructure into new, high-quality greenspaces. The Strategy was developed to address the lack of greenspace in the city centre and to enhance the quality and quantity of new and existing spaces to become more biodiverse, people friendly, improve air quality, manage surface water, and ensure a greener future for Leeds. It identified a number of interventions and projects that could/would be brought forward as a consequence of development proposals – either internal or external to the Council and linkages to other projects, strategies and workstreams which could provide opportunities to realise the vision and ambition to create a city centre that ‘looks as good as it feels’. In the first instance the strategy identified almost 45 projects that could be brought together into a realisable delivery plan. These included the creation of healthy streets with tree lined routes and cycleways to provide better connectivity and improved mental and physical wellbeing and the closure of roads and the conversion of these to provide green spaces that are rich in flowering plant and tree species to improve biodiversity, are fully accessible to people of all abilities, have play features to encourage children and families into the city centre that will meet the requirements of a growing residential city centre population and also incorporate rain gardens to manage surface water and also to assist with ongoing maintenance. in addition, there are also schemes delivered/in delivery around our cultural assets including Leeds Playhouse and the Grand Theatre to provide restaurant, external cafe space for people to enjoy a broader entertainment experience. Through the creation of the strategy engagement with developers brought forward a number of schemes either joint ventures or developer led where the strategy supported the delivery of the development proposals and supported the enhancement of the external green spaces. it has also levered in developer funding as match funding to deliver greening which has been a huge positive as well as creating new jobs (1 scheme has created over 250 jobs since) for people in café/bars utilising the new external seating spaces. The prize scheme the sits and the central space within the city and the strategy is City Square. the proposal is to close City Square to general traffic and bring forward a new space as the city’s showpiece arrival space. This scheme is in design at the moment and has enticed Channel 4 to locate in Leeds and City Square for their office headquarters. to date we have delivered almost 30 schemes identified in the strategy and created over 8 hectares of new greenspace. work to expand its remit beyond the core city centre is already underway following its success. 

Addressing the urban challenge

Breadth of the issue – How are the problem(s) that are being tackled by your initiative affecting citizens/local businesses or a significant component of the local wildlife?

The issue is a city wide one that we are trying to resolve. to put placemaking, biodiversity and high-quality green space at the forefront of our city was the key driver in developing the Our Spaces Strategy as well as challenging an historic approach to placemaking which hadn’t up to the creation of the strategy change for over 20 years. the strategy was important in changing the status quo which hadn’t seen the creation of any new city centre greenspace in decades. the city also has poor air quality with Neville Street being the second most polluted street outside London and movement in the city centre is affected by high traffic levels. Using the strategy as the key driver we have been able to bring the creation of new and enhancement of existing greenspaces to the forefront of our thinking as a city and generate momentum from a pipeline, delivery plan and a finance point of view. this has resulting in schemes being identified and brought forward that removes highway infrastructure and other obsolete sites and use these to enhance wildlife opportunities, increase the city’s attractiveness, attract new businesses – including Channel 4 who are looking to relocate on the edge of city square where traffic will be removed and there will be a recreation of the forest of Leoidis – bringing nature back into the city centre. 

Depth of the issue – How seriously are the problems being tackled by your initiative impacting the life of the citizens/businesses/wildlife concerned?

Leeds City Centre had 10 identified parks and greenspaces (excluding civic spaces) in 2015. None of these existing spaces would meet Leeds’s Quality Parks standard and a habitat and species poor. the opportunities to challenge this position was only able to be overcome through development sites and capital receipt ringfencing as a result of land being sold – this is in part due to the cost of providing new quality, species rich green spaces which isn’t addressed by S106 and the lack of investment in greenspace for many years due to the lack of available funding. in part the opportunity to overcome this historic approach came about as a result of the Council bringing forward an old car park site for development in 2016 with 3 development plots and greenspace at its heart. This ambition (Sovereign Street Informal Planning Framework) was linked across the river Aire to a new city park via a footbridge into South Bank (South Bank Planning Framework) which again would be brought forward as part of development proposals to provide new clean healthy and biodiverse spaces for visitors, residents, and workers. due to the success of green space proposals being delivered and using its momentum and considering how the city can deliver these types of interventions in a more agile and faster way we have brought forward a strategy that allows all city players – business, citizens, and its wildlife to have access to a growing network of greenspaces.

The power of plants and natural ecosystems to deliver benefits

How is the initiative shaped by scientific evidence of the potential for plants and natural ecosystems to deliver benefits?

Earth is losing biodiversity at an alarming rate taking the planet to the brink of a mass extinction. 25% of species are threatened and 1 million species face extinction. In Leeds over 900 trees have been lost in the city centre to make way for development.  

Our space in between buildings is key to overcome it the fight against biodiversity loss. trees, flowering plants and grasses provide habitats food and shelter for millions of insects, fungi, birds, mammals. Our spaces strategy identifies the potential to create new spaces across the city through repurposing of road and other obsolete infrastructure, into new habitat rich green spaces to support wildlife rich habitats. The spaces delivered are more varied in habitat type as a consequence of the challenge to designers to provide more biodiverse, species rich spaces with and increased % of green area, more native trees, flowering shrubs and grasses capable of supporting a wide variety of species.  

Our spaces have also introduced a biodiversification programme for the city centre’s existing green spaces which are generally species poor and offer little value to wildlife. We have linked these new and enhanced spaces through the introduction of greener streets with tree lined routes to enable species to move from space to space to gather the nutrition they need and to pollinate as they go. this approach is already demonstrating benefits with more bees, insects and birdlife being seen within the spaces and in the city centre as a result. 

How has the city exploited the potential of plants and associated ecosystems to deliver more than one benefit?

Greenspaces do not perform one function alone. they are multifaceted. trees absorb carbon. a tree can absorb 48lbs of carbon a year and a forest can absorb twice the annual emissions of a car. trees also provide oxygen with 1 tree providing enough oxygen for 4 people every day. the ability for plants to absorb toxic air particles also provides benefits to people’s health and well-being with reduced respiratory diseases. surface water absorption is a key factor in the Our Spaces ambition with the introduction of rain gardens as part of the scheme designs a key requirement which not only allow water storage but also the removal of toxins before these enter the river systems thereby protecting our waterways and aquatic life. the role trees play in reducing the urban heat island effect has also been an important consideration especially as part of climate change. many of our spaces are now more tree rich to mitigate all of the above notwithstanding the impact from a mental health and well-being and attractiveness viewpoint. the approach to our space’s strategy utilised all of these outcomes in its 7 design principles which have been adopted to support the outcomes and benefits that well designed spaces provide to Leeds. projects such as city square which sits next to the most polluted street outside London will see a scheme brought forward to reintroduce the ancient forest of Leoidis for all of the above. 

Innovative and Collaborative Solution

How does the initiative show evidence of feasibility, including on-going financial and logistical support?

The pipeline of schemes in the first instance was developed on the back of a feasibility pot of £1m being made available to develop design ideas and interventions. this has been used proactively with designers and officers to help support challenge as schemes are developed by others and to develop ideas, designs, and interventions across the city centre. these ideas are brought forward to the Our Spaces Board and considered before feasibility funding is allocated. if the scheme is deemed to be to meet the objectives set out in the strategy, then an allocation of feasibility funding is made. the feasibility fund is renewed every 3 years using CIL, S106 or revenue funding and developer contributions where possible. without this approach, the ambition to deliver our spaces strategy and its benefits would not have been realised. 

In what ways is the initiative innovative?

The Our Spaces Strategy is innovative in many ways. Firstly, it is the first truly transformative strategy for placemaking that cuts across all sectors – private and public and brings together opportunities a clear and comprehensive pipeline of work that was in traction as the strategy was being developed. the engagement alongside a clear articulation of city centre priorities levered support and funding contributions from developers in exchange for opportunities for animation and events; the schemes remove highway infrastructure which was sought in collaboration with internal and external highway planners to identify and bring forward schemes which were either stand alone or interlinked with wider transport programmes that delivered benefits of new and enhanced green spaces and pushed city centre traffic further away from the city centre core and provided safer routes for pedestrians and cyclists and new spaces to sit and enjoy. the tree pit construction provided opportunities to plant greater numbers of trees without service diversions as these were combined into larger subsurface cells to allow root growth with sufficient soil instead of single pits. rain gardens have provided the opportunity to introduce a wider range of plant species thereby aiding biodiversity but also assist with surface water management and ongoing maintenance. the result of all of the above has been a collaborative delivery of new and enhanced spaces – Cookridge Street, Corn Exchange etc that can provide all of these benefits across the city centre. 

How is the initiative supported by collaborative working across disciplines and sectors?

The success of the Our Spaces Strategy sits around collaboration. the city identified opportunities to bring forward infrastructure changes and green space through its Quality Spaces and Places group (a subgroup of Leeds’s property forum), transport planners (internal and external) planning officers, developers, key stakeholders – The Civic Trust, Leeds BID, arts groups, Leeds Culture Trust, Leeds Universities and Yorkshire Wildlife. there were over 45 schemes identified in the first instance that could be brought together as a list of schemes that could be delivered as part of development sites, work programmes, housing growth and education developments. though collaboration challenge was brought to perceptions around the impact of any changes – such as on traffic or businesses however the benefits to be realised were supported by all who were engaged in the process. as a result, the delivery of the schemes has been fast paced and seamless with over 30 of the schemes delivered within the first 2 years since the adoption of the strategy and some even delivered before. the legacy benefit is that the city has a successful ‘placemaking’ tool with which to challenge ambition, set the bar for quality and also to use as a way to continue to identify opportunities for new interventions. this is and will continue to support the work of planners and highway designers when schemes are brought forward. our spaces are also scalable and can be used as a tool for towns, localities, and communities. 

How does the initiative demonstrate evidence of community support? 

The Our Spaces Strategy was extensively consulted upon across the city. firstly, we used ‘commonplace’ as a platform to communicate the strategy, its ideas and ambition and then the scheme pipeline. a series of engagement events with businesses, residents, workers, commuters, key consultees – canals and rivers trust, Yorkshire wildlife, civic trust, Leeds BID, the Quality Places and Spaces group, friends of groups – and direct on street engagement talking directly to people to seek feedback all took place before the strategy was adopted. the online platform had over 5000 direct engagements with over 2,000 direct responses to the vision, the principles and the schemes being received. 

Implementation, Impact and Replicability

How does the initiative demonstrate evidence of a track record of success against pursued objectives?

The Strategy identified 45 schemes as potential for inclusion within the Strategy. Of these up to 30 schemes have been delivered or are under construction. These are as follows: 
Complete – Playhouse Gardens, Cookridge Street, Woodhouse Gardens, Queen Square, the Headrow, Vicar Lane, Park Row, Infirmary Street, Corn Exchange Gateway (3 schemes) 
Under Construction: Corn Exchange, New Briggate, St Johns Churchyard, Meadow Lane, Sovereign Square Footbridge, Crown Point Road, Bishopgate street, Monkbridge, Dandarra site, Globe Road, CEG Water Lane 
Under Design: City Square, Mabgate, Regent Street, lovell park, Briggate;  
This is not exhaustive and the list continues to shape and flex as a consequence of development schemes and proposals being considered. 

How has the initiative had a ripple effect beyond the scope of the initiative itself, thereby demonstrating a change in the city’s and/or its partners’ way of working with plants?

The ripple effect has been felt by landscape practices in the city not just the co-authors of the strategy – Reform Landscape architecture – but other landscape and urban designers who are using the strategy and its approach in their scheme development both in the city and elsewhere as well as the success of the delivered projects to provide a benchmark against which they are working. it is challenging planners – from both transport and policy areas to think differently and identify opportunities beyond their normal parameters who are approaching the city council with ideas concepts and opportunities to enhance uplift and provide new schemes. it also has given planning officers opportunities to seek funding via developments for quality greenspaces and as a result new schemes are being identified and also being delivered. 

How have other cities expressed interest in the initiative, or what potential does it have to interest other cities and be customised to their own circumstances?

Several other cities have approach Leeds City Council with question queries and comments about the innovative approach we have taken inn Leeds and how we are using it to shape our route forward from a placemaking point of view – Westminster Council, South Tyneside, Bradford, Sheffield Councils have all approach the city as well as other organisations including APSE, the Landscape Institute and Leeds Universities are just a few places where our spaces has been presented as a successful approach to placemaking. further engagements with Brighton and its presence at MIPIM are also showing that it is an approach for the long term. 

Sustainability and Resilience

What efforts have been made to reduce the carbon footprint of the initiative?

The key approach from the Our Spaces Strategy is for climate change and carbon absorption to be at the forefront of the schemes – removing traffic and providing trees and biodiverse planting are just part of this. the delivery of schemes and an approach to reuse of materials on site where possible is hugely important. the whole of our transport initiative programme (£300m of cycleways, road reduction park and rides and green streets) which formed part of our spaces pipeline took a focus of material saving, storing and reuse for any schemes that come along as part of this programme or as part of future schemes. all materials were locally sourced and were not imported to minimise its carbon footprint. the city also has a facility for the creation of subbase materials from demolished buildings which are broken up and reused on sites in the city where subbase groundworks are required. 

How have the anticipated impacts of climate change been considered?

The Our Spaces Strategy has been at the forefront of climate change mitigation and response. the approach where people and place come together to provide a greener, cleaner, and healthier environment for the residents, workers and visitors to Leeds is reflected in the opportunity to remove more traffic and parking from the city centre, to provide better cycling, walking routes as well as pedestrian footbridges over the river encourages positive behaviour change. the city centre whilst there is more to do, through the creation of liveable locations in the city centre which are connected by attractive routes to the city core as well as the use of more varied and native tree and plant species in new green spaces and the creation of rewilding areas in existing parks and green spaces has challenged designers to design more varied flower and species rich habitats – not for aesthetic purposes but to support complex biological systems that are important to our future. scheme s has used rain gardens and connected tree pits to ensure that surface water runoff is minimised, and plants can access water and clean it as it passes through their root systems. we have challenged our Council nursery to provide species that will adapt as the environment around them changes being mindful that climate evolution is happening now. 

What processes does the initiative include for it to be considerate in its use of soils and other natural resources?

The city has an onsite composting facility for the city which minimises the need to import topsoil – we utilise waste from the city’s green bins for recycling which is then composted and used to support planting schemes. in addition, we have a topsoil screening process where we can screen soil from brownfield and development sites which can be improved by the removal of bricks/boulders and enhanced by the addition of compost material. 

Monitoring, Maintenance, and Management

How has the initiative been designed and implemented so that long-term needs for management and maintenance are reduced and can be met?

The Our Spaces design brief requires easy maintenance provision – watering points on site so that bowsers are not necessary, rain gardens to maximise surface water capture to maintain planting areas as efficiently as possible. just as importantly a 1 point of contact through which issues can be highlighted and reported and then distributed across service areas for an appropriate response. maintenance funding is identified through scheme design and development and then potential to utilise street licence funding for on street cafes, business rates and leaseholder contributions through ground rents have ensured finances are available. 

What protocols are in place to facilitate monitoring of results?

There is an Our Spaces Board for the Our Spaces Strategy and the Quality Spaces and Places Group which is a sub group of Leeds property forum brings together a range of stakeholders with a focus on greenspace provision and its quality – including Leeds BID, Civic Trust, developers, the City’s Mayor, planners, architects, landscape architects who all have voices as part of those boards regularly scrutinise projects and the associated outcomes as they are considered and brought forward by relevant parties. there are key benefit measures identified within the strategy that need to be met for the scheme to be brought forward as well as the 7 principles against which the scheme can be challenged and improved. in addition, there are also planning processes and policy objectives through that process against which the amount, quality and variety of green space delivery can be enhanced. The Strategy contains benchmark benefits which the scheme can be seen to meet for the improvement of our quality of life, experience and health and wellbeing of Leeds. 

How has the initiative been enhanced in response to monitoring of results?

The strategy approach has now been used across a number of programmes and areas of Leeds to test its robustness but also its scalability, transferability and usability across different places, localities, towns and communities. Currently work is ongoing for Morley Town Deal where the ‘Our Spaces’ for Morley has been developed using the strategy approach and successfully applied to a town setting as opposed to a city centre. the impact of this has been hugely positive and the main enhancements to using the strategy has been around the engagement and using feedback and local knowledge to shape the pipeline of schemes to be delivered rather than changing the strategy approach. by doing this we are ensuring that the outcomes and benefits realised address the needs of the people in Morley as well as the environmental benefits it brings.