The Net-Zero Northern Powerhouse and the Role of Urban Design


As featured in Urban Design Journal: The Northern Powerhouse | Summer 2021

The concept of the ‘Net-Zero Northern Powerhouse’ has burgeoned since the announcement of the Government’s £4bn “levelling up” fund, designed to help cities, towns and regions improve infrastructure and skills, and fundamentally driven by the long-term transition to net-zero.

Indeed, there are many clean industries which are currently based in the North of England, including the UK’s world-leading offshore wind sector, major electric vehicle manufacturing hubs and key industrial clusters that are exploring hydrogen and carbon capture production and storage.

So, where does urban design fit in and how does it play its’ part?

The concept of sustainable development is engrained within the training and practices of urban designers, and there is a strong belief within the profession that built environment professionals should be the vanguards of fulfilling our carbon reduction targets.

This article examines the part that urban design can play in delivering the ‘Net-Zero Northern Powerhouse , with a focus on Planit’s contribution (as the world’s first B-Corp urban design/landscape practice) to three different scale of intervention, each with its’ own unique context.

Sheffield: A City Centre Living Strategy

To support Sheffield’s drive to zero carbon The Sheffield Central Area Strategy (CAS) is the first stage in defining a new approach to delivering sustainable residential growth. As part of Sheffield’s  Local Plan process, it is part of the solution to the City’s declaration of a Climate Emergency and achieving ambitious targets of carbon reduction.

The City Centre has been identified to deliver around 20,000 new homes over the plan period, through a high-level strategic framework for the whole of the city’s Central Area. By taking an informed evidence-led approach to density, longer-term decisions can be taken in order to develop a stronger City identity that delivers a well-connected, safe and vibrant network of neighbourhoods.

A place-based neighbourhood approach is set out, such that the urban fabric can be stitched together and strengthened to develop the identity of the Central Area.

A focused approach to delivery will make best use of public and private sector assets, generate demand for differentiated neighbourhoods, create investment opportunities and ultimately build new sustainable communities. Whilst providing sufficient quantity and quality of green and blue infrastructure presents an affordability challenge to many cities, Sheffield is improving viability and demand for development by repurposing highway infrastructure in the form of new greenways in its’ ‘grey-to-green’ strategy. It has led by example and intends to continue the trend.

The CAS identifies that even where residential markets are not as strong or established as elsewhere, a city can develop synergistic strategies, and work with their assets to develop the conditions for regenerative city-centre living. Indeed, this is the most effective way to support the reduction in energy use and carbon emissions, and for cities to become more resilient to the challenges of climate change. Strategic thinking creates opportunities for both innovation and a joined-up approach to delivering optimum environmental outcomes for a­­ City.

If, as we believe, the design of our cities holds the key to delivering sustainable growth and unlocking the door to achieving zero-carbon, this can only be achieved by thinking strategically at a city-wide scale.

Learning Opportunities:

  • Think liveable cities
  • City-wide vision needed
  • Delivery through market making
  • Cross-sector consideration to align objectives
  • Greening existing infrastructure

Case Study: Liverpool – Integrating neighbourhoods and infrastructure within the city’s WHZ

The creation of five new city neighbourhoods within a 60 Ha stretch of historic dockland with a World Heritage Zone (WHZ), provided the city with a unique challenge – the desire to preserve its World Heritage Status and at the same time capitalise on the opportunity to deliver on its carbon reduction requirements, in partnership with a developer Peel Holdings, who alongside owning and operating the Port of Liverpool, is a leading sustainable energy generator and infrastructure provider.

Such an opportunity was underpinned by the provision of a district heat network that will provide heat for up to 9,000 homes and 4 million sq ft of commercial space that makes up this grandest of grand plans – Liverpool Waters .

In addition to the ‘hard infrastructure’, a new two-hectare public park along the Leeds-Liverpool canal link within the Central Docks neighbourhood, will create a city-scale green asset and bring significant physical health and wellbeing value to North Liverpool and the City Region worth an estimated £34.4m annually.

An independent assessment of the development’s natural capital found that the overall masterplan for Liverpool Waters will capture five extra tonnes of carbon each year as a result of new trees, shrubs, meadows and gardens.

These new green provisions will also improve air quality through the regulation of air pollutants (PM2.5) by 0.03 tonnes each year and help Liverpool City Region (LCR) to meet its goal of becoming zero-carbon by 2040.

A fundamental masterplan principle is to integrate the necessary supporting infrastructure, including the new International Cruise-Liner Terminal and replacement Isle of Man Ferry, with the underlying requirement to retain the character and fabric of above and below-ground heritage assets, with a focus on streets and spaces designed for people – pedestrian/cycle movement and activities and the provision of a high-quality public realm. In addition, there is now a requirement to future-proof the neighbourhoods for shore-side sustainable power, which was achieved through building in flexibility into the Neighbourhood Masterplans.

However, the real challenge is to deliver the scale and quantum of new homes, commercial space and supporting infrastructure required to have the necessary positive impacts without compromising the special character – the ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ – of the historic dockland infrastructure which underpins part of the World Heritage designation, in that it is a ‘supreme example of a commercial port at a time of Britain’s greatest global influence’.[3]

Indeed, it was perhaps the essence of the very designation itself which led to the idea that beauty and infrastructure need not be mutually exclusive. Through the varying scales and levels (skyline, eyeline, and below the ground) of the City, the site and its’ neighbourhoods have utilised the contemporary digital innovations – from BIM to Virtual and Augmented Reality – to create guiding principles that will in turn create sympathetically crafted buildings, streets and spaces that embed into the complex grain and network of heritage assets.

The establishment of the North Shore Vision tested our neighbourhood masterplans further, helping to shape a wider narrative, beyond the Dock Wall and surrounding ‘Ten Streets’ neighbourhood. The vision embraces the Stanley Dock character area of the World Heritage Site and Buffer Zone. Here Planit utilised Virtual and Augmented Reality technology to view the ‘possible futures’ – how new development proposals may look from strategic locations across the River Mersey, measuring the various cumulative impacts on the WHZ and providing a framework to test and adjust plans and buildings where necessary. This approach has employed the United Nation’s guidance for Historic Urban Landscapes (HUL) and looks to embed  the seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals as a tool to measure progress and successful delivery of the multi-stakeholder project objectives.

The North Shore vision will lead the way in heritage-led sustainable development in its widest sense – and, working alongside Liverpool UN2030 Hub, the SDGs are embedded at the heart of this vision, guiding the design of new development and framing the delivery of all existing projects across the North Docks, ensuring positive outcomes for their communities.

Learning Opportunities:

  • Use of integrated design technology and innovation
  • People, movement, character and place at the heart
  • Using a vision for accountability – HUL and the UN SDG’s
  • Future proofing for shore side power
  • Integrating infrastructure and placemaking

Northern Gateway – driving Zero-Carbon through the design and delivery of a large-scale City River Park  

Never before have cities been more in need of high-quality and universally accessible green space for their residents. Even before COVID-19, Manchester’s declaration of a Climate Emergency in July 2019 had brought wider consideration of the role of green infrastructure, and the need to utilise the city’s green and blue assets to the full.

Established through an adopted Strategic Regeneration Framework (SRF), the City River Park forms the binding agent of the Northern Gateway (now to be known as Victoria North) – a series of mixed-use neighbourhoods comprising up to 15,000 homes – equivalent to nearly a third of the size of the extended city centre, delivered through an investment partnership between Manchester City Council and the Far East Consortium (FEC).

Victoria North represents the single largest opportunity to deliver on Manchester’s ambitious carbon reduction targets of Net Zero by 2038, and in turn act as the driver for good change and inclusive growth. With this in mind, the requirement to provide a social and environmental legacy has driven the design and options for a stewardship model for the City River Park and all the partners involved in it.

In response to the declared Manchester Climate Emergency, low carbon solutions to landscape treatments and ongoing stewardship lie at the heart of the of City River Park design. The vision has developed around high-level principles on embodied carbon within the seven parks and how a low carbon approach to design and specification might be employed to focus on climate adaption and in turn address the commitment to Net Zero.

To ascertain a basic understanding of embodied carbon within the constituent parks, the ‘Pathfinder’ Climate Positive Design tool kit has been utilised, which is a web-based application, enabling alternative design approaches and material specifications to be considered.

Deployment of the tool is intended as an early-stage methodology with simple inputs and outputs, that enable users to compare design decisions and alternatives through a ‘to climate change contribution – first’ lens.

Each of the City River Park spaces receives a Scorecard, outlining its contribution to carbon sequestration, and time needed to achieve a carbon positive position. This demonstrates compliance to the 2038 target.

Low Carbon Design measures included:

  • Maximise tree planting, using native species where possible and ensuring management of existing tree stock to preserve / enhance park character.
  • Maximise areas of semi natural green space – consider the specification of planting types that can reuse/ manufacture soils on site and minimise import of topsoil.
  • Maximise areas of wetland and marginal planting and the naturalisation of the river edge for recreational and biodiversity benefits.
  • Incorporate SuDS into the layout and design of green spaces/streets to encourage natural attenuation, reduce run off and improve water quality.
  • Consider hard landscape materials with low embodied carbon values, recycled/ site-won materials or locally sourced.
  • Consider landscape typologies that minimise maintenance operations – this could include lower maintenance semi natural planting, use of mulches and substrates and climate adaptable planting.

The illustration opposite indicates the Carbon impacts of the adopting such an approach.

­­­ In addition to defining the nature, character and components of the City River Park, our work sought to establish the costs associated with these important green spaces and how they might be managed, funded and looked after in perpetuity.

Strategic options for the overall management/ funding approach to the Park considered a range of options from local authority, Friends/ Park Foundation and Lease Income Management Companies models. Collaborative approaches can achieve multiple benefits and attract more diverse funding streams.

Learning Opportunity Messages:

  • Bold Strategic Policy
  • Zero Carbon through good design – Utilising UNSDG’s
  • Long-term and legacy stewardship

This essay has identified that the Northern Powerhouse can utilise its’ assets to become the vanguard in moving towards ambitious net-zero carbon targets. However, a multi-scaled approach is required where urban d­­esigners can play a part in creating synergies at the regional and city level, whilst ensuring that SDG’s become embedded within the design process for new development proposals.

The common themes running through our case studies is the need to provide a contextual, place-specific response, embedding and sympathetically integrating new infrastructure into liveable, mixed-use neighbourhoods, which add to their beauty and sense of place, and bringing the most effective design tools and technology to bare to achieve this.

Whilst we have identified schemes of significant scale, where the greatest gains can be made, it is clear that our ambitious carbon reduction targets will only be achieved if designers consider carbon reduction intrinsically at every scale of project, at every stage of the design process and as part of common design practice.