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Over the course of the IGNITION project, it became evident that not only the financing schemes and business models to implement nature-based solutions themselves needed to be developed but a range of supporting tools. Among these has been the Greater Manchester Green Infrastructure Explorer (the GM GI Explorer) developed by the project partner University of Manchester.

IGNITION started in 2019 with the ambition of achieving a 10% uplift of green infrastructure in the urban areas of Greater Manchester to tackle climate risks, in particular the risks of flooding. This target posed the question how to measure an increase best and, in particular, how such increase would bring more resilience. It soon turned out that it is not only the area of greenspace per se will bring more resilience, but also the quality of the greenspace and where it is placed. Resilience could also be created by upgrading existing greenspace in order to provide more functionalities and benefits. This situation called for detailed and comprehensive layers of data on green infrastructure in the city region. 

In practice, data available has not been sufficiently detailed and comprehensive to support and deliver the evidence for achieving the ambitions of IGNITION. Varying green infrastructure appraisals have been used by the different authorities across the city region leading to different results. Planning new or upgrading existing greenspace has rather been opportunity driven when, e.g., funding became available, but less systematic on where it would be most needed for supporting climate adaptation and other benefits of nature. The lack of a consistent and sufficiently detailed baseline for the city region was therefore apparent. 

This was the background situation when Jeremy Carter and his colleagues from the University of Manchester started to develop the new baseline on green infrastructure within IGNITION. This new baseline subsequently became the city regions most accurate and comprehensive source of green infrastructure (GI) information. For the first time, integrated two-dimensional baseline information was available – GI on the surface as well as tree canopy cover data. This is important as street trees can also grow over grey areas (e.g. paths) and deliver nevertheless valuable benefits such as shading and cooling. 

However, it was also recognised that the capacity of authorities and planners to access and analyse such spatial data to inform GI planning and implementation is generally low.  Few are sufficiently confident with, or have time or resources to work with, Geographic Information System (GIS) to access and analyse GI spatial data. The new GM GI Explorer shall help to fill this gap, providing easy access to GI data and making it straightforward for planners to analyse this data to inform their work. Figure 1 shows the information held. Its two core functions are: 

  • Querying spatial data to enable the end-users to access and analyse GI data to support their GI priorities and objectives.
  • Enabling the end-user groups to quantify, visualise and analyse the GI data at a range of intuitive and useful spatial scales that are meaningful to their work. 

 

Scheme showing data content
Figure 1: Information held in the GI Explorer database

 

These functions make the GM GI Explorer a useful tool for a range of municipal workflows and tasks. Some potential applications have already been identified through discussions with IGNITION partners and other prospective end-users. The tool could be applied for: 

  • baselining and evidence building for GI planning and strategy development, climate action plans other projects in municipalities and districts (Figure 2); 
  • identifying and prioritising sites for GI intervention; 
  • informing the allocation of funding for GI projects by, e.g., screening funding applications; 
  • understanding user-defined sites such as supporting the development management plans of parks and other urban green infrastructure; or 
  • promoting the inclusion of GI in housing association schemes.

A real test of the tool has been done at a strategical level in Manchester city to learn more about its functions and use options. 

 

map and diagramme
Figure 2: Assessing GI baseline data at neighbourhood scale

 

Cover of the strategy

“We have been lucky. The collaboration with IGNITION came at the perfect time when the city needed to review and update the strategy anyway. In this process, it is really important for us to have strong and consistent evidence.” says Dave Barlow, senior policy officer for environment planning and infrastructure in the city council. He informs politicians on the value and usefulness of green infrastructure and nature-based solutions by trying to make the business case for it and, thus, influence local priority setting. In Manchester city, Jeremy and colleagues at the University of Manchester tested the GM GI Explorer data sets in the Review process of Manchester’s Green & Blue Infrastructure Strategy dated back to 2015. Manchester city is the biggest and most densely populated of the 10 districts of the Greater Manchester city region and sitting in the core of the region. Dave has helped develop the strategy review and mentions that since 2015, also new perspectives on the importance and function of urban greenspace have come into play.  The COVID 19 crisis and the post COVID recovery, as well as the declaration of the climate emergency of Manchester city further increased the importance of having sufficient and high-quality green infrastructure in place. The city looks at nature-based solutions with different lenses now.

With its new baseline data, the GM GI Explorer provided Manchester city with excellent background information at unprecedented levels of detail for developing the refreshed 5-year strategy. There is, for example, more clarity on the extent of tree canopy cover, which incorporates tree canopies over grey areas, and also the role private gardens take is more accurate as they often are only partially green. Furthermore, the spatial pattern became visible, which indicate already, where more green infrastructure may be needed and therefore allowed for a better reassessment of opportunities. 
 

Photo of trees on a grey square
Figure 3: Tree canopy over grey infrastructure at St. Peter’s Square, Manchester. Image: Birgit Georgi


Dave noted that “What really surprised us has been the reaction of council members, when we took the analysis and maps to the Council Committee Meeting in February 2022, they highly appreciated the document. The situation and the needs for GI are immediately visible. The council members have been impressed by the clear and systematic information provided by the new IGNITION GI baseline on GI state and potential in Manchester. Visualisation in the form of maps appears to be a very powerful tool in particular for non-experts. The appraisal became even a technical appendix of Manchester Green and Blue Infrastructure Strategy, and thus, a formal council document. 
This first use of the GI baseline and explorer provided appetite for more. Council members want it to be used on neighbourhood level planning too. There are 32 neighbourhoods and each of these could have their own land use analysis. The goal will be to support this activity using the GM GI Explorer.

 

2 maps
Figure 4: Examples for canopy cover density

 

Within the GM GI Explorer, more functional layers could be added, and the GI and land use data combined with information layers on themes such as air pollution, noise pollution, access to nature, urban heat, pluvial and fluvial flooding areas, demographic and socio-economic data. This would unfold the true potential of the GI Explorer and turns it into an even more powerful tool. Adding the functionalities and benefits of green infrastructure from IGNITION’s evidence base on the benefits of nature-based solutions to such spatial information would help to show where and how it addresses such challenges or where these issues could be tackled by GI upgrades. This level of data integration was not possible within the IGNITION project, and further resources will be sought in the future to further enhance the capabilities of the GM GI Explorer in these ways.

The GM GI Explorer is not limited to urban planners and politicians. The city also plans to use its visualisation options for creative communication and collaboration with citizens. Dave expects that, in combination with socio-economic and social data, the GM GI Explorer will help to break down current barriers. Environmental inequalities therefore become visible – where it can be seen that there is little or low-quality greenspace in areas that also suffer from high levels of deprivation. This type of information can serve as the basis for the dialogue with citizens, community groups, school, planners and decision-makers, actually everybody. There are new opportunities to work with communities that are underrepresented, which may usually be a silent majority in the neighbourhood and for one or another reason don’t think that discussing about green infrastructure development is for them. 
 

meadow and SuDS in a park
Figure 4: SuDS in West Gorton Community Park, Manchester. Image Birgit Georgi

 

With the socio-economic information integrated, the GM GI Explorer would not only contribute to a better green infrastructure, but also inform the local development planners to define the strategic growth priorities in Manchester city. It has the potential to help to convince stakeholders that urban development has to be more than just new houses but greener or, more specifically why certain GI actions should be chosen there is a need to reduce the risk of flooding or poverty for example. It will show that green infrastructure is not just a nice to have but a key component of a liveable city. 

“With the first test application, Jeromy provided us a taster of what the GM GI Explorer could do for us, but so far it was only done by hand by the scientists of the University of Manchester. We would need something more interactive that all our planners can use themselves easily.” raises Dave, which will also be a priority for other local authorities. “This should be complemented with a user’s guide and training. There are many different software tools for land use planning and green infrastructure available, but not as good as the GI Explorer. Therefore, it is really important to turn it into an attractive, user-friendly and useful tool that will be viable.” 

This is also where Jeremy and colleagues are going to next. The GM GI Explorer will soon be available as a software tool that can be used easily by planners to inform GI and land use planning activity across Greater Manchester. No specific GIS skills are needed to use it its multiple functions. The University of Manchester is planning to explore more use cases to make it attractive to many more local authorities and other stakeholders. A challenge they face is the fact that project financing has stopped with the IGNITION project having ceased earlier this year. It is a typical challenge of activities started by projects. Apart from finalising the automatization, a business model and an owner who can take care for maintenance and updates will be needed to keep the tool running and unfold its multiple benefits. This is not yet finally solved, but the interest of former IGNITION partners and other organisations as well as the researchers’ own interest, is important to work to find a solution to this issue and make the GM GI Explorer a central tool in Greater Manchester’s green infrastructure planning.

About this resource

Author
Birgit Georgi, UIA expert
Project
Location
Greater Manchester, United Kingdom
About UIA
Urban Innovative Actions
Programme/Initiative
2014-2020

The Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) is a European Union initiative that provided funding to urban areas across Europe to test new and unproven solutions to urban challenges. The initiative had a total ERDF budget of €372 million for 2014-2020.

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