Growing Northern Roots

‘The vision for Northern Roots is bold, timely and innovative.  There is no blueprint for it – this hasn’t been done in this way before.  It will not be easy to deliver and there are many potential pitfalls on the path.  We are learning as we go, trying to draw in and knit together local communities and wide-ranging expertise to build a new model for harnessing green space in a way that delivers sustainable benefits to people, place and planet.

We thought that it would be helpful to share the way we are approaching the development of the project, and some of what we are learning.  We welcome insights, challenges and suggestions that can help strengthen this approach, and make Northern Roots the best it can be.

Northern Roots is a pioneering project creating the UK’s largest urban farm and eco-park on 160 acres of stunning green space in the heart of Oldham, Greater Manchester.

The aim is to develop Northern Roots in a way that creates jobs, skills and business opportunities for local people, while preserving and enhancing the biodiversity and environmental value of the site. To utilise the Northern Roots site to mitigate climate change, further Oldham Council’s aspiration to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 and contribute to targets set out in Greater Manchester’s Five Year Environment Plan. And now, with the Covid 19 pandemic impacting all of our lives, to use this green space to support communal health and wellbeing.

The Northern Roots site is an amazing asset.  Stretching from Alexandra Park, along the River Medlock and almost down to Daisy Nook Country Park, this 160-acre green space encompasses flat grass land, heath, boggy wetlands and dense wooded slopes.  Even at the top of the site, encircled by residential areas, it is almost impossible to see a building.  Towards the bottom it feels truly remote.  It’s remarkably easy to get lost!  To have such an expanse of diverse and open green space in the middle of a large urban area is precious.  There are those who have known and loved the site for many years who use it frequently – for dog walking, horse riding, biking or nature watching.  But for many it is an unknown, or unwelcoming place.  It is easy to spend a few hours there and not meet another soul.

Fast forward then a decade and imagine how it could be, if we succeed in realising the vision for Northern Roots.  The empty fields at the top of the site which currently house some football pitches have become a bustling market garden – polytunnels, raised beds, orchards, edible hedges and glasshouses producing a range of seasonal fresh produce.  Beehives are scattered across different areas, aiding pollination.  The football pitches have been relocated, upgraded and furnished with improved changing facilities and parking.  The soggy boggy area in the centre of the site has been harnessed to create a series of ponds and reedbeds, maybe even a swimming or fishing lake, helping to manage the vast volume of water that flows through the site while creating new habitats for nature. The woodlands have been brought under active management and several more hectares of trees planted. An area has been dedicated to growing saplings, for planting on here and across the region.  A busy forestry workshop and timber yard is running apprenticeships and creating and selling timber products.  Adventure play facilities weave through the woods, alongside routes for mountain bikers, hikers and horse riders.  A shop and café are selling and serving produce grown and made on site.  An outdoor education centre is hosting schools, clubs, courses and parties.  Spaces have been set aside for pop up performances, festivals or retreats.

Simply delivering a transformation of this scale would be a challenge.  However, at Northern Roots the way in which we seek to effect this transformation, and the opportunities we intend it to deliver, make the project infinitely more challenging.  The intention is to develop Northern Roots in a way that simultaneously creates jobs and businesses, improves biodiversity, and enhances the health and wellbeing of local people.  That’s a complicated Rubik’s cube of a project.

At the heart of Northern Roots is the ambition to develop the project in such a way that the biodiversity and ecological value of the site is improved.  That a wider range of habitats, supporting more and more diverse populations of insects, plants, fungi, birds and mammals are created.  The site should become a valuable corridor and haven for wildlife in the vulnerable urban fringe.  We intend the site to be carbon neutral – harnessing a range of solar, hydro, biomass and heat exchange technologies to fuel and heat the buildings.  We will also capture more carbon from the atmosphere by planting trees, improving soils, and using sustainable building techniques.  We plan to introduce a range of water management systems to provide water for irrigation and habitats, reduce flooding, slow the flow, and improve the quality of the water than runs off the site and into the River Medlock.

Simultaneously we need to do this in a way that creates opportunities for local people.  To learn, work and play.  To start businesses and develop skills.  To visit and meet and collaborate.  To grow plants, ideas and community.  We are currently in the process of setting up a Northern Roots charity.  That charity will then license and support a wide range of operators to run the different enterprises across the site, and potentially beyond.  These operators might be cooperatives, charities, social enterprises or commercial businesses.  They could be running a market garden plot, a bike training and repair service or the bee farm, growing hops and apples and brewing beer and cider, and so much more.  In exchange for their license the operators will all be required to commit to further the broader aims of Northern Roots – by enhancing the local environment, creating apprenticeships and jobs for local people, or hosting volunteers or people referred through social prescriptions.

At the same time Northern Roots will work with local health and care providers to connect people with the well documented physical and mental health benefits of spending time with plants and nature.  We will work with Oldham’s social prescribing network to support access to increased physical activity, healthy food and therapeutic gardening and farming.  We will also work with schools, colleges and universities to deliver courses, qualifications and apprenticeships.

The Northern Roots Beekeeping project is, in microcosm, an example of how Northern Roots hopes to work.  A local Oldham beekeeper has been recruited to run the programme, care for the bees and train up a new cohort of community beekeepers.  Oldham residents and organisations have been invited to apply to join the free training programme.  Over the course of 11 months they will learn the skills needed run a beekeeping business, including creating and marketing products like honey, candles and lip balms.  In time they could become bee farmers on the Northern Roots site.  Or perhaps set up their own apiaries at home or school, with access to Northern Roots beekeeping equipment and to selling their products under the Northern Roots brand.  The bees will help to pollinate the crops grown by Northern Roots market gardeners, increasing their yields.  And being outdoors, connecting with nature, and caring for living creatures and each other will deliver health and wellbeing benefits to participants.

As it develops Northern Roots needs to be a resource, first and foremost, for local people.  However, over time, if we succeed in delivering this vision, Northern Roots should also develop into a unique visitor destination, along with Alexandra Park and its new Eco Centre, and Park Bridge Heritage Centre.  It should draw new people, spending and investors to Oldham.

And that is the final, crucial element of Northern Roots.  The project is being developed to attract capital funding and commercial revenues from outside Oldham.  A wide range of funding is available to such a wide-ranging project – from government, charities, foundations and social investors.  In time, Northern Roots needs to become financially self-sustaining if it is to succeed as a catalyst for local wealth building.  We are creating a business model that includes revenues from sources as diverse as biodiversity net gain payments and carbon banking, licensing fees, commercial revenues and health and social care commissioning.  And who knows, in time, perhaps we could even add franchising fees to that list if Oldham can show that this works, and then help others adopt the same approach to cherishing and harnessing urban green space.’

Over the next 12 months you’ll hear from experts working on the emerging approach to green technologies, business modelling and nature-based solutions, and we’ll be sharing how all these elements fit together as we continue to engage and consult with local communities.

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Oldham has an amazing natural and built environment, which is why we’ve worked hard to bring together and showcase the very best of our green spaces, places, people and initiatives. Schemes such as Northern Roots, the new Eco Centre and the work we have done around the green Oldham campaign will help us lead the way as a ‘green’ council. This is all part of our aim to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 and become the greenest borough in Greater Manchester

Councillor Abdul Jabbar, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Finance and Green, Oldham Council, & Chair of the Board of Northern Roots

There is something inspirational happening in Oldham.  Northern Roots is a powerful example of what the currently fashionable idea of a Green New Deal might look like in practise. The project is a visionary response by Oldham Council to the pressure of austerity on local authority budgets.

Tom Burke, Chairman, E3M