Nature-based solutions for improving well-being in urban areas in Sheffield, United Kingdom

Area characterisation: 

Despite rapid urbanisation and heavy industrialisation in UK, Sheffield always retained a reputation for having an attractive setting throughout its history, with beautiful countryside being visible throughout the city. In 1760, Horace Walpole wrote that Sheffield was: ‘one of the foulest towns in England…’ set ‘in the most charming situation’. Sheffield was always well known for its green areas and woodlands, which both surround and penetrate the city. This was formalised in Abercrombie’s civic survey and development plan, which proposed protection and extension of the green corridors that span the city along its major urban rivers that shaping development patterns up until present times. Sheffield has 22% of its urban area classed as green space, making it the 6th greenest city in the UK.

Sheffield has a long history of environmental volunteering, partnership working and activism linked with ecological issues, but its green city reputation was significantly tarnished by the street trees debacle during the last decade. Nowadays, the city has a generally good reputation as a place to live, work and invest, and is growing with a predicted 5% population growth between 2016 and 2026. However, socio-economic inclusion and skills gaps remain significant challenges in this part of England. At the time of writing, unemployment stood at over 6%, with claimant counts rising sharply since the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly amongst young people.


María Alejandra Cruz Suarez. Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, based on: Buchhorn, M.; Smets, B.; Bertels, L.; Lesiv, M.; Tsendbazar, N.-E.; Masiliunas, D.; Linlin, L.; Herold, M.; Fritz, S. (2020). Copernicus Global Land Service: Land Cover 100m: Collection 3: epoch <2019>: Globe (Version V3.0.1).

This case study examines in particular the interface between four sets of plans and strategies, providing important context for further examination of meso- and micro-scale interventions covered in subsequent sections. This case also touches on other formally adopted plans and strategies only in relation to the above meso- and micro- scale initiatives, in an attempt to better understand contexts.



At the macro- level, the city and wider sub-region have together implemented a series of spatial green infrastructure strategies and socio-ecologically informed plans.

  • Sheffield City Centre Breathing Spaces Strategy: This Strategy built on a range of existing policies (such as Sheffield’s local plan and its parks and countryside strategies) to deliver a programme of open space projects in the city centre. The Breathing Spaces initiative, starting in 2009, set out a vision for new high quality open spaces, linked by a network of pedestrian routes, with many of these spaces and links being heavily landscaped and featuring regreening interventions.
  • South Yorkshire GI Strategy: This was one of several GI strategies adopted nationally. Natural England lists GI Strategies in place in England. The Strategy set out a vision and delivery programme to create and improve the sub-region’s ‘green network’. It sought to “provide a framework and a programme to support local action”. The strategy’s vision of a “multi-functional green network” with “the capacity and strength to link South Yorkshire’s communities” recognised and addressed the challenge that the sub-regions GI was not yet achieving its full potential, and that doing so required significant efforts to boost partnership working across sectoral siloes, professional disciplines and most importantly, geographical administrative boundaries. The Strategy was intended to build on the progress made with environmentally-led regeneration brought about as part of the South Yorkshire Forest (1991-2016), which led to the planting 1 million trees, and over £32 million investment in community-led restoration programmes.
  • Sheffield Waterways Strategy and Action Plan: The Sheffield Waterways Strategy Group was formed in 2003, and is a long-standing partnership between voluntary sector groups and statutory organisations having an active role in the care and regeneration of Sheffield’s various rivers, waterways and water bodies. The partnership group has together delivered many co-created NbS schemes. The Strategy, accompanied by an action plan, proposed a vision that “By 2022 our rivers will once again be central in Making Sheffield, providing places where people choose to live, work and invest. Our watercourses and river corridors will be the defining features of a modern competitive, sustainable and attractive city, rich in wildlife and offering a wonderful quality of life to its residents, workers and visitors.”
  • Sheffield City Region (SCR) Sustainable Urban Development (SUD) Strategy: This strategy, drafted by this case study’s author and Ben Morley (SCR), delivered significant investment in NbS as part of a wider transformational programme for green growth. It focussed on the provision of funding for ‘whole-place low carbon’ solutions and ‘build-with-nature’ approaches. The result was the local government and EU’s funding of calls for proposals for large-scale NbS interventions, with a total value of £7.5m, including the high-profile ‘Grey to Green II’ sustainable drainage retrofit scheme.


  • Riverside parkways: blue-green corridors plan for Sheffield proposed a radial park system for Sheffield, based on a network of ‘riverside parkways’. These linear parks would be established along the city’s major watercourses, and the rivers Rivelin, Loxley, Don, Sheaf and Porter. Two connected NbS schemes provide a particularly useful illustration of the potential value and processes involved in creating these blue-green routes. The Wicker Riverside scheme involved the creation of a ‘pocket park’ at Nursery Street (funded by Yorkshire Forward and Interreg MARE project), connecting with a separate multi-functional intervention at Blonk Street (funded by the Interreg VALUE project).


  • Retrofitting sustainable drainage systems (SUDS): The Grey to Green schemes are probably the most high profile NbS interventions in Sheffield. It has been called the UK’s largest19 and most successful21 retrofit SUDS scheme. The approach combines various NbS in an attractive package, including sustainable drainage, urban tree planting, cyclepaths and walkways and other landscape improvements.

Deculverting: daylighting and restoring buried rivers: Deculverting or daylighting can be defined as ‘opening up buried watercourses and restoring them to more natural conditions’; to date, two Sheffield river daylighting projects have been completed and reported in the literature.23,24 These two NbS projects were implemented in parallel, one being positioned in a central urban setting, the other in a borderline peri-urban/rural location. Pinkham describes the daylighting of culverted rivers as a ‘radical expression’ of river restoration.

Potential impacts/benefits: 

The cases presented have demonstrated the impacts and benefits from the NbS actions in Sheffield. Those cases interrelated in three scales and a long-term period strengthening the potential impacts.

  • The Breathing Spaces Strategy was forward thinking in how it brought together proposals for schemes to deliver direct benefits for people (mental health, community cohesion), alongside other invaluable environmental benefits (biodiversity provision; climate change mitigation and adaptation). The Strategy provided the impetus for NbS integrated within public realm investments worth multiple millions.
  • The South Yorkshire GI Strategy sought to respond to a series of global and local challenges including climate change, inclusion, brownfield regeneration and wellbeing. The Strategy, which has been the subject of significant research and study was arguably fairly successful in “supporting sustainable change within a resilient and biodiverse ecological network while helping to deliver social cohesion”. identified individual and connected schemes described in the subsequent sections, an provided the framework for partnership support of these as well as other NbS in the neighbouring districts of Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster.

Others benefits identified in all cases are:

  • Improve water quality.
  • Increase amount of green open spaces for residents.
  • Increase Biodiversity.
  • Increase quality and quantity of green and blue infrastructures.
  • Greater ecological connectivity across urban regenerated sites.
  • Increase awareness of NbS solution & their effectiveness and co benefits.
  • Increase willingness to invest in NbS.
  • Reduce flood risk.
NbS benefits 
  • Developing climate change adaptation; improving risk management and resilience
  • Developing climate change mitigation
  • Restoring ecosystems and their functions
Transferability of the result: 

NbS implementation in Sheffield continues apace, being primarily focussed on SUDS, urban forestry and also natural flood management schemes in rural areas. NbS designed specifically for certain outcomes such as urban heat island and new urban food allotments are less common. Anecdotally, the rapid proliferation of green roofs that occurred in the city in the early 2000s and 2010s has slowed greatly, especially since the introduction of new national planning policy guidelines and relaxation of the planning conditions for most large new buildings to incorporate green roofs, although this may change with time. Extensive use and retrofitting of NbS can be anticipated in Sheffield’s city centre linked with the £15.8m Future High Streets Fund and the Heart of the City II project. Tree-planting in the has received a boost through the Mayor’s recent commitment to plant a million trees in the city region. It remains to be seen whether the proposed natural capital assessment provides a further impulse for the upscaling of NbS implementation.

Lessons learned: 
  • The more celebrated and pioneering NbS in Sheffield tend to relate strongly to historical development and deeply embedded challenges including environmental quality degradation, urban flood risks, and oversupply of brownfield land. These issues cannot be separated from extant socio-economic conditions and land-use dynamics, including property values and markets.
  • South Yorkshire benefited significantly from EU funding for green infrastructure and Nature-Based Solutions, especially in relation to market-failure locations. It is not yet clear what will/ not replace those resources.
  • Spatial planning has until now exhibited a relative high degree of connectedness across spatial scales of NbS implementation, and between different sectors as regards innovative approaches. However, in comparison with neighbouring cities such as Manchester, its global reputation in this field does not necessarily match this capacity or track record (which may reflect a commonly held view in the city that it is better not to shout too much about one’s successes).
  • The city’s reputation for NbS type innovation is perhaps overshadowed by other areas of R&D such as advanced manufacturing and healthcare; its green credentials have undoubtedly been tarnished by some fairly high profile adverse cases.
  • There is a risk that natural capital mapping and accounting approaches, using methods currently under development in the UK, may be insufficiently nuanced or sensitive to address critical, underlying socio-economic conditions and processes (e.g. highly- fragmented land-use and ownership patterns; divergent deprivation), undermining meaningful application in cities like Sheffield.

Tom Wild

University of Sheffield

Further information