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17/01/2018

Streets ahead, or one step behind in Sheffield?

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Sheffield's Streets Ahead programme of road improvements has sparked controversy through the felling of 5,000 trees. The city could have avoided bad press if it had taken a multidisciplinary approach to the project, argues Steve Frazer.

A war of attrition between Sheffield City Council (SCC) and protesters has been created by the controversial Streets Ahead Programme, which has so far included the felling of about 5,000 street trees to achieve road improvements. Headlines like ‘Sheffield’s Street Tree Massacre’ have brought stories of dawn felling, pensioner and councillor arrests, and celebrity, political and expert condemnation to national attention.

Streets Ahead is a £2 billion public-private initiative between SCC and Amey, begun in 2012, to improve and maintain the quality of Sheffield’s roads for 25 years.

SCC says felling will not result in the deterioration of a city asset because it intends to substitute lost trees with new planting. But members of the public, backed by technical experts, argue that a tree’s contribution to ecosystem services and amenity is commensurate with size.

The professional consensus is that a large proportion of affected trees cannot be justified for removal based upon arboricultural or highway grounds. Best practice regarding highway standards makes clear that concessions within streets between highway aspirations and trees are possible and desirable.

"Streets form a setting to our lives and their arrangement contributes to our sense of place, health and well-being"

The council has correctly identified a problem with bumpy roads and footpaths that they intend to solve by making them smooth and flat, whatever the consequence. This solution appears logical – if streets are only appreciated as conduits for conveying cars and people. But streets form a setting to our lives and their arrangement contributes to our sense of place, health and well-being.

They house many functions and services, including the ability to communicate with people and services.

Green elements, including trees, offer opportunities for amenity and function, with attractive living forms that can provide for nature and ameliorate our environment, through sensitive stormwater management.

The task of good design here, as with any other space, is to use resources economically, providing multifunctional streets that are integrated with and beneficial to the context – in line with the aspirations of green infrastructure. 

Given the complexities and inherent potential of a city street, I believe such a project should have been forged by a multidisciplinary team of arboriculturists, landscape architects, ecologists, highway, civil and drainage engineers in conjunction with the community. By not following this model, the Streets Ahead programme inevitably falls short of its potential.

Steve Frazer is principal landscape architect at Enzygo Ltd

Image credit | iStock

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