Urban Futures Salford Manchester. Research in the City

Perspectives Essay: Understanding Sustainability in GM

What is sustainability?

In my opinion, sustainability, particularly in terms of an urban context, means different things to different people and different organisations across Greater Manchester (GM).  This is because GM is a large and diverse place with a population of 2.6 million people and 7 million people within one hour travelling distance. This creates different backgrounds, experiences, belief and age distributions.  For example there are 100,000 students in GM, but 220,000 of the population have no qualifications and 270,000 are claiming out of work benefits.

Generally, I think that the language around sustainability does not have a consistent use and it is now becoming blurred with issues associated with climate change and low carbon living. The language surrounding sustainability in GM and beyond is discussed in outline below.

Brundtland Definition: The Brundtland Commission's report Our Common Future (1994) stated that “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Triple Bottom Line Sustainability:  This is an approach to sustainability that recognises the impacts on stakeholders in terms of environmental, economic and social issues, taking all three elements into account when planning and implementing solutions. This is illustrated by the British Standards Institution definition of sustainable development which is “an enduring, balanced approach to economic activity, environmental responsibility and social progress”. The Technology Strategy Board TSB recently (June 2012) defined a Future City as “one that can provide a thriving economy and good quality of life with a reduced environmental footprint”. This reinforces the importance of the triple bottom line.

Environmental/Green Sustainability:  For many individuals when they are talking about sustainability they are referring to environmental or green issues. This can also be associated with a drive to lower our carbon footprint or a recognition that we are using the planets resources in an unsustainable manner.

Climate Change: The scientific world has been aware of the impact of climate change for a number of  decades and the consequential need to reduce our carbon emissions.  Over the last decade there has been a growing acknowledgement of the importance of climate change from some of the wider business community and the general public. Some people do not accept the scientific evidence about climate change.  Regardless of people’s views on climate change there is a real issues about the rate that we are consuming our natural resources. With our population predicted to rise from 6.6 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050 this means that we cannot continue to use our resources in such an unsustainable way.

Low Carbon Living:  During the last few years there has been a greater emphasis on the need to transition to low carbon living. This is evidenced by the 2009 document published by Manchester City Council (MCC), Manchester – A Certain Future. The document was prepared by MCC with inputs from many stakeholders from across the City. The document has a 41 % target reduction for CO2 by 2020 (from a  2005  base year). It also recognises the need to improve people's carbon literacy. The GM Climate Change Strategy was launched in 2011 and has a 48% aspiration target reduction for CO2 by 2020 (from a 1990 base year). 

Building & Infrastructure Sustainability: From a commercial property perspective, sustainability is often associated which national certificates/ratings of buildings. There are a range of national indicators that attempt to grade buildings in terms of their impact on their surroundings. In the UK, this is typically associated with British Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM). This assessment tool was developed some time ago with the aim of improving the building stock in terms of the green environment and good design & construction practice. It tends to focus more on quantitative issues such as thermal efficiency.  As a consequence it does not assess buildings in terms of Triple Bottom Line Sustainability i.e. taking account of economic and social wellbeing issues.

Sustainable Urban Regeneration: I have worked on several major urban regeneration projects which take many years to carefully plan, design and deliver. However, it can be many years before such regeneration work can be truly evaluated in terms of its economic, environmental and particularly its social success. These challenges are magnified when the requirement is to integrate new elements of urban regeneration into an existing community and particularly where level of unemployment, crime and poor health are high.

So, what is sustainability in GM?  When the majority of people talk about sustainability they are generally talking from an environmental/green sustainability viewpoint rather than in terms of Triple Bottom Line Sustainability. The problem is that few make it clear which definition of sustainability they are talking about.  The language surrounding sustainability also gets blurred when climate change and low carbon living are included in the discussion. Therefore, in my view we should continue to use and reinforce the Triple Bottom Line Sustainability approach.  However, as we move forward sustainable solutions will become more sophisticated as they seek to find the right balance of outcomes for stakeholders in terms of economy, quality of life, and the impact on our environmental and resource utilisation. This will include more attention on the contribution that behavioural change can make to urban living.  This is what Arup have referred to for several decades as holistic solutions.

Key challenges in Greater Manchester?

The key challenge in delivering these plans is resources, i.e. to have the right delivery support in terms of human and financial resource available.  This challenge is amplified when the economy is weak and uncertain.

Whilst the low carbon sector is one of the fastest growing sectors in the UK there is still much to do to, as the scale of the challenge is considerable.  The pace of sustainable urban regeneration and the transition to a low carbon economy are being stifled by insufficient available funds for such projects and to train people to deliver these solutions.  To maximise the benefits of transitioning to a more sustainable and low carbon economy, it needs to be done at a scale and pace that recognises the impact of climate change and our use of natural resources.  Strategies and actions plans are necessary at both a GM scale and for individual buildings.  However, the most powerful scale in my opinion is at the neighbourhood or community scale whether that is domestic or business or a mix of the two.  It is at this level that economies of scale and more holistic solutions can be found to find solutions across a range of existing urban areas within GM.  To do things at such scale requires the cooperation and commitment of many stakeholders from across both the public and private sectors.

"Effective sustainable urban regeneration is about recognising the diversity and richness of the different communities and neighbourhoods which make up Greater Manchester"

The lack of understanding and clarity about why sustainable living is important, and that we all need to act now and not in 2020, 2030 or 2050, is a big challenge.  In my experience many people do not understand the need or consequences of not changing and see it as someone else’s problem in the future.  GM are about to rollout carbon literacy programmes which should provide better information and evidence to allow people to make informed choices.  The challenge is amplified in those parts of the GM community where people live in a state of deprivation and are effectively divorced from many of the sustainability debates.

Population is increasing and will place more pressure on urban living, making the problem even more challenging for our cities and towns. GM’s challenge is to plan and deliver sustainable urban solutions that meet the needs of changing population growth, urbanisation and changing demographics.

GM has a long history of working in close partnership with the private sector.  In difficult economic times there is risk that this is likely to be even more important if GM is to achieve its targets.

The final challenge is to ensure that sustainable living is not being seen as an option or a bolt on; it must be embedded as a logical part of everything we do.

Examples of sustainable urban development

For almost three decades, GM has developed an international reputation for regenerating its rundown and derelict urban sites. Some of these projects were early examples of sustainable regeneration, before sustainability was really on the agenda.

The following three projects demonstrate the importance and diversity of sustainable urban regeneration across GM.

In 1991/1992 Manchester made an unsuccessful bid to host the Olympic Games in Manchester on a site in New East Manchester called Eastlands. However, Manchester City Council (MCC) was determined to regenerate Eastlands with a major sports complex and in 1995, MCC won the right to host the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

In 1998, Arup was commissioned to design a new the stadium which would be the centre-piece of a range of other sports venues called Sportcity.  In terms of the physical impact on the environment, the Eastland site was derelict and contaminated by previous industries, including being underlain by extensive mine workings and numerous shafts.  A site reclamation strategy was developed to reuse as much (90%) materials on site as possible and thereby minimising the amount of waste or contaminated material being taken off site to be tipped elsewhere.  This strategy also had economic advantages as it was more cost effective to treat the contamination on site,

MCC recognised the need to develop a long term (legacy) use for the stadium and surrounding facilities. This legacy use was a key lesson MCC had leant from other major athletic events.   The Stadium was designed for two separate and different events. The first being the 2002 Commonwealth Games, with a stadium capacity of 36,000 and immediately following the Games the stadium was converted into a 48,000 seat capacity football ground for Manchester City Football Club (MCFC).

The stadium is 1.6km from the city centre and many people make the decision to walk to events.

In 1999 the New East Manchester Urban Regeneration Company was created to continue the regeneration programme which the Sportcity had started.

It was a requirement of MCC that the construction contractor employed a substantial number of people local to the Sportcity thereby providing much needed local employment.  Hundreds of volunteer local people helped make the Commonwealth games a tremendous success.  The games and its legacy stadium were the centre piece for the regeneration of New East Manchester and it gave the community a great sense of pride and hope for the future of their area. MCFC’s outreach programme reaches 400 schools in GM.

The sustainable urban regeneration story continued after MCFC moved from Main Road to Eastlands. MCFC have continued to actively engage with the local community and now over 70% of their staff is from New East Manchester. MCFC has recently announced a substantial investment in new training facilities on an adjacent disused site demonstrating its ongoing commitment to the community.

Piccadilly Gardens

The site of Piccadilly Gardens is located within a two minute walk of Manchester's Mainline Piccadilly Station.  It is one of the very few green public spaces in the City Centre. Unfortunately, by the 1990’s the garden and surrounding space had become neglected and run down, and was being used by drug addicts who discarded their needles into the flower beds. MCC recognised there was a need to regenerate this 4Ha area in the heart of Manchester.  It is also now the location of a bus station and platforms for the Light Rapid Transit (LRT) tram system which provide vital public transport links into the city.  Consequently it is considered an important facility to the public, both in terms of public space and as a transport hub. 

The challenge was to develop a solution which addresses the conflicting needs of this major transportation interchange and 32 businesses which totally surrounded one of the most important public realms in Manchester.

A concept plan was developed during the competition which introduced a large water feature and a mixture of formal and informal gardens.  A strong and important component of the plan was the creation of a long curved pavilion which served a number of uses. It created a barrier between the gardens and the busy bus station, it was an elegant sculpture and finally it is used as a cafe and meeting area.  One interesting sustainable feature was that the existing underground toilets were converted into the pumping station for the water feature.

The design encourages movement through the gardens whilst providing sufficient area to allow people to stop and enjoy the gardens. The gardens also make a valuable contribution in helping to counter urban heat island effects,

The gardens are a place where citizens can meet as equals – a safe and relaxing space where children can play in the fountains. It is estimated that 13 million people use the gardens every year.


Arup was asked by Salix Homes to prepare a low carbon options project as part of their Decent Homes Plus programme on the New Barracks Estate, Salford.  Solutions needed to be cost effective both in terms of capital and operational costs, have minimum impact on the environment and contribute significantly to the lives of the community and in particular the health and wellbeing of the tenants.  Arup reviewed from first principles various retrofit alternatives in terms of CO2 and energy saved per year.

A key aspect of this work was to properly engage with the New Barracks Estate community.  Arup carried out comprehensive pre- and post-retrofit tenant engagement programmes across the entire estate, including  presentations and interviews to gather extensive data relative to each household.

In 2010, pre-retrofit, tenants were interviewed about their energy behaviour awareness and energy spend, and again in September 2011, post retrofit, to establish what changes the retrofit programme had brought to their lives, energy spend and carbon savings.

Using energy data and other information gathered, Arup used the New Economics Foundation's Social Return on Investment (SROI) tool to articulate and measure the environmental, economic and social value resulting from the programme and associated investment.  The results showed a significant social return over and above the energy savings. Overall the project was judged a success by both the tenants and SALIX and provides a strong example of Triple Bottom Line Urban Regeneration Sustainability – it is also gaining national recognition.

Who is addressing the challenges of sustainability in Greater Manchester?

The strategy for sustainability across GM starts with the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA), which was established over 20 years ago on a voluntary basis as the voice of the ten Local Authorities which make up GM.

The Greater Manchester Strategy (GMS) was issued in July 2009 and sets the AGMA strategic direction up to 2020. The AGMA web site states “ The GMS is based around a series of priorities – eleven in total – which can help us to deliver prosperity for all and a higher level of sustainability and quality of life for the city region”. These 11 priorities cover The Triple Bottom Line and specifically about achieving a rapid transformation to a low carbon economy.

AGMA now works alongside the newly formed (1 April 2011) Combined Authority (CA). The CA aims to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of transport services, economic development and regeneration. The private sector led GM Local Enterprise Partnership came into being in April 2011 to work alongside the CA/AGMA to help accelerate sustainable growth.

Six GM Commissions were established in 2009 with representatives from the public and private sectors and the voluntary sector.  Whilst all the Commissions would probably argue that sustainability was important to them, it is the Environment Commission and the Commission for the New Economy which have the major responsibility for delivering the sustainability and climate change agenda.  In July 2010 the Government, via the GM Environment Commission, established the GM Low Carbon Economic Area (GM LCEA) for the Built Environment. The GM LCEA aims to reduce carbon whilst increasing employment opportunities in the low carbon sector. It has six work programmes:

  • Residential retrofit
  • Non-residential retrofit
  • Low carbon infrastructure
  • Skills and employment
  • Business growth
  • Low carbon laboratory

These work programmes are led by senior individuals from the private and public sector.
Going forward the GM LCEA will morph into the new Low Carbon Hub which is part of the recent Deal for Cities agreed between Central Government and GM.

The GM Climate Change Strategy was launched in 2011 and has the following key aims:

  • We will make a rapid transition to a low carbon economy
  • Our collective carbon emissions will have been reduced by 48%
  • We will be prepared for and actively adapting to a rapidly changing climate
  • ‘Carbon literacy’ will have become embedded into the culture of our organisations, lifestyles and behaviours.

GM has established a number of Commissions and Boards made-up of experienced private and public sector representative. The private sector individuals contributing to these initiatives can be clearly identified and many represent substantial organisations based in GM – companies like the Co-operative, Siemens, Bruntwood and Arup.  What is not clear is how other private sector organisations are addressing sustainability-type initiatives.

Finally, Central government also has a significant role to play in providing policy, national guidelines and legislation.

GM sustainability knowledge gaps

There is a need to ramp up the pace and quality of information and engagement on sustainability at all levels.  Appropriate evidence, communicated in a clear and unambiguous manner is needed across all aspects of life to allow everyone to make informed choices about the activities in our daily lives and where we could make a real difference. More engagement with school children, students, teachers, lectures, citizens, business leaders and politicians is needed.   We need to stop talking about 2020 and 2050 targets and focus on what should be done this year and the next and the next.  Everyone needs a set of simple actions and timelines based on reliable and easy to understand evidence.  All of us need to understand and accept the contribution we need to make to sustainable urban living.

What does ‘success’ look like?

Success has got to be about living in a world where everyone understands the consequences of their actions in terms of the Triple Bottom Line – taking into account issues like climate change and resource depletion. Some might call this low carbon living but it is much more. Therefore, we will have success when everyone understands and accepts their individual and collective responsibilities and actions in their business, home and leisure activities.

We will know what success looks like when sustainable solutions and particularly urban regeneration solutions aim to create the right balance of outcomes for stakeholders in terms of economics, quality of life, and the impact on our environmental and resource utilisation. Appropriate evidence and metrics will have been developed (currently being considered by GM) where everyone can see and understand the positives and negative impacts of their actions, and are making informed sustainability choices which are not at the expense of others.  There will be greater co-operation across neighbourhoods in the planning and delivery of sustainable urban solutions.  The public, private and third sectors which make up GM will all have stepped up to lead by example.  In other words there will have been a significant shift in everyone behaviour in order to develop holistic solutions.

What are the implications for GM?

Greater Manchester has set out its ambitions, targets and timescales for creating an urban setting which is sustainable. GM recognises the long-term importance of embedding sustainable solutions if it is to remain a vibrant place for its citizens to flourish and if it is to be internationally attractive & distinctive. Therefore, GM’s polices need to move the sustainability agenda forward at pace, whilst appreciating the different challenges and capacity facing the diversity of the GM region.  It would be unwise to advance its policies too far ahead of national polices, but GM is an international player and it must continue to be seen as being at the leading edge.

I believe that the solution for effective sustainable urban regeneration is about recognising the diversity and richness of the different communities and neighbourhoods which make up GM. I believe that GM should develop policies and actions which will drive forward community/neighbourhood (business & residential) scale regeneration, addressing both physical and social issues. This should include improving the understanding and behaviour of GM citizens.  Further legislation, evidence and metrics to support such policies are inevitable if we are to achieve a step change.


This Perspectives Essay was written as part of the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform's (GM LIP) 'Mapping the Urban Knowledge Arena' project. The GMLIP is one of five global platforms of Mistra Urban Futures, a centre committed to more sustainable urban pathways in cities. All views belong to the author/s alone.

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