© Getty/Andrii Zastrozhnov

In practice

Nature-based solutions for city centre revitalisation


Liverpool, United Kingdom—

  • While visitors have returned to Liverpool’s city centre at pre-pandemic levels, local businesses continue to face challenges such as the cost-of-living crisis.

  • To address these challenges, the city identified the value of nature in promoting greater connectivity, encouraging investments and making Liverpool an attractive place to live and work.

  • Short-term impacts are already visible, for example in a local high street, where businesses have benefitted from the broader greening efforts in the area.

What are the objectives?

Liverpool City Centre is one of the UK’s leading retail areas, with an annual footfall of 78 million in 2022. While visitors have returned to the city centre at pre-pandemic levels, maintaining and enhancing the City Centre experience, attracting more visits and increasing spend is crucial for the long-term growth and development of local retail centres. As local businesses continue to face challenges such as the cost-of-living crisis, making best use of all available assets is essential to drawing in visitors and provide a positive experience, influencing return trips and the amount of money spent.

To address these challenges, the city identified the often-overlooked value of nature to promote greater connectivity, encourage investments and make Liverpool an attractive place to live and work.. The Liverpool City Council Planning Business Unit and Liverpool Primary Care Trust commissioned the charity network Mersey Forest to develop a Green Infrastructure Strategy, and the City Council later joined the EU Horizon 2020 funded URBAN GreenUP project as one of three frontrunner cities. The project ran between 2017 and 2022 with the objective of developing, implementing and replicating Renaturing Urban Plans in a number of European and non-European cities.

How does it work in practice?

As a result from the above-mentioned efforts, Liverpool has now implemented over 40 nature-based solutions (NbS) across the city, which can be divided into four groups:

  • Re-naturing urbanisation: solutions covering larger urban areas and mitigating the effects of climate change;

  • Singular green infrastructure: plant-based interventions, tackling environmental problems in specific urban areas;

  • Water interventions: tackling the effects of heavy rains and reducing surface water floodrisks; and

  • Non-technical interventions: to engage local communities with Liverpool’s green mission.

In the city centre, where space is scarce, these interventions mainly include smaller solutions, such as street trees and green walls. For example, two shopping centres were equipped with “living green walls”, spanning 27 and 65 metres in length respectively. The installations encourage more biodiversity in the city centre, improve air quality and enhance the overall experience for visitors. Such complex interventions (the larger green wall is filled with over 14 000 evergreen plants) required collaborative efforts by the project’s multiple stakeholders, including Liverpool City Council, Liverpool University, and the Mersey Forest and relied on funding from the EU Horizon 2020 grant.

Particularly in the local Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) there was strong support for implementing green infrastructure. The results of a survey in 2017 showed that 92% of city centre businesses thought that green infrastructure would enhance the BIDs and 69% believed local greening would directly benefit their own business. The most impactful perceived benefits were increased footfall, higher customer spend and the attraction of new businesses.

The implementation and maintenance of NbS relied on external funding and required facilitation of agreements with and among stakeholders. Most of the NbS planted on City Council land were incorporated into the Council’s maintenance programme. When the maintenance was not affordable for the City Council, sponsors or partners were sought. Interventions on privately owned land required legal agreements with property owners on ownership and maintenance (e.g. the City Council covers the installation costs while the property owner is responsible for ongoing and longer-term the maintenance). In some cases, such agreements also needed to be made between stakeholders (e.g. landlords and tenants). Overall, financing the implementation of NbS was only possible due to external funding, such as the Horizon 2020 grant or the national government’s (DEFRA/HLF) Green Recovery Challenge Fund.

Local Community engagement was a key part of both the Horizon 2020 project and the Green Recovery Challenge Fund. Under these funding initiatives local communities were actively consulted and engaged in planned NbS schemes and encouraged to use and enjoy green space though initiatives such as the Natural Health Service, which promotes the use of green space for wellbeing. This community focussed work has included supporting asylum seekers and working with minority groups to encourage them to access and enjoy green spaces.

What has been the impact?

Based on forecasting models, a number of long-term benefits are expected. These include environmental benefits, such as, lowering the ambient temperature around NbS by up to 7°C during summer (depending on the type of intervention), reducing flood risk (by storing and slowing rainwater) and improving air quality. These benefits are particularly relevant for high streets and the overall city centre as they contribute to a better visitor experience and make these places more resilient for temporary shocks such as heat waves and floods that are posing an increasing threat. Additional long-term benefits include improved mental and physical health for residents as well as an increasing awareness of the (importance of) local biodiversity and uptake of related bottom-up initiatives and volunteering due to educational and engagement activities.

Short-term impacts are also visible, for example in Stafford Street, where local businesses have benefitted from the broader greening efforts in the area. Responding to a survey, 82% of local businesses state that greening the area has benefitted their business to some or a great extent and 52% believe that increased footfall is the most important benefit. This perception aligns with the responses of local residents, as 94% rate the appearance of their area nearly twice as highly post-greening and 68% feel encouraged to spend more time outdoors.

The work to introduce NbS into the city landscape and the development of the Renaturing Urban Plans has left a legacy of demonstrator projects across the city. Ongoing work has helped to ensure that the legacy and influence of the URBAN GreenUP project is not lost. The city has recently produced a new public realm planning document that has a strong emphasis on city greening and the Mersey Forest plan refresh has adopted the renaturing urban planning approach to help embed NbS for improved environmental, social and economic outcomes.

What can other communities learn from this example?

Implementing green infrastructure in city centres requires careful planning and engaging with the right stakeholders. While new greenery in the city centre generally comes with multiple benefits and most people welcome it, tight budgets and a lack of resources, space and specialised skills can limit a large-scale uptake. Therefore, it is important to identify specific areas where NbS can have the strongest impact from an environmental, social and economic perspective. This implies prioritising areas that face economic and social challenges and/or targeting places that are particularly prone to flooding, high temperatures or have poor air quality. Depending on the complexity of the intervention it may be necessary to hire experienced contractors to ensure successful longevity. Similarly, the question of ownership and maintenance needs to be answered before implementation in collaboration with property owners and other relevant stakeholders.

The efforts in Liverpool also revealed some challenges and barriers that other communities can learn from. Even after a careful planning process and finding agreements with relevant stakeholders, logistic and technical problems may still hinder the implementation of NbS. Such problems include infrastructure (e.g. cables under the street), public approvement and procurement processes, or political agendas (e.g. the most suitable area is not of priority for the City Council). Furthermore, a lack of specialised skills within the city or broader region in installing and maintaining more complex NbS, such as raingardens or green walls, can sometimes pose a major barrier. Some of the biggest barriers and logistical challenges were on smaller urban street- scale projects, which drained resources and often resulted in amended designs to ensure successful delivery.

OECD resources

From “mom and pops” to “pop-ups”: Local development and the future of retail (webinar held on 12 July 2022): https://www.oecd.org/local-forum/events/webinars/localdevelopmentandthefutureofretail.htm

Main streets at a crossroad: Experiences from Australia (webinar held on 29 November 2022): https://www.oecd.org/local-forum/events/webinars/main-streets-at-a-crossroad.htm