Northern Flowerhouse: the seed has been sown

Nature Still Draws a Crowd: Jamie Reid

Nature Still Draws a Crowd: Jamie Reid

Top: Everton Park and landmark wildflowers. (Mark  McNulty)

Bottom: Nature Still Draws a Crowd: Jamie Reid (Suburban Press Archive)

There is a huge pride in Northern communities which, since the decline of manufacturing, mining and shipbuilding and the rural labour force, manifests itself in different ways. 

An emergent sign is in large-scale, and highly visible and provocative, wildflower creations. These encompass recognised techniques such as soil inversion in The Plant Diversity Challenge, The UK Response to the Global Plant Strategy 2004 (Target 6), as highlighted in Landlife’s Wildflowers Work (2004), and in UK ecological restoration circles.  It is important for people actively to acknowledge and promote more colours than Green and Blue, and to find other ways of approaching nature via creative conservation.  All too often green infrastructure is just about grass and trees. Green infrastructure and associated natural capital should not be a tram line we can get stuck in, but a platform from which we can leap.

Natural features are assets that can be spread more expansively, diligently and creatively in unexpected and surprising ways.  They can add to and restore a sense of place and an active connection to the earth and the seasons.  Together with the harvesting of seeds, wildflowers are an adaptive element of a whole economy given the relentless decline in biodiversity.

Landlife:  a 40-year old experiment

Landlife was a small NGO based on the fringes in Liverpool, which established the National Wildflower Centre in Knowsley in 2000.  Propelled by its own seed harvest, which sustained the charity and visitor centre until 2016, its legacy is continuing in collaboration with the Eden Project.

There is a unique opportunity to bridge North-South divides in proactive exchanges of people and place. The Northern Flowerhouse is an active link, launched by Mayors from Liverpool and Manchester and to be celebrated this year in Hull.   Its roots are in the surrounding Boroughs of Knowsley (the Wildflower Borough), St. Helens, Sefton and Halton. New interest is being found in Blackpool and from the Association of Public Service Excellence. In Liverpool we launched the Northern Flowerhouse Beach Hut at the 2016 International Business Festival.

Andy Warhol said “Land really is the best art”. British Artists like Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long and Charles Jencks have proved this in the North of England. Landscape Parks feature prominently in Northern England including the efforts of the RHS at Harlow Carr, and the work of the Landscape Department at Sheffield University. We have the bones of a movement.

The Northern Powerhouse has the opportunity to promote the energy of the Northern Flowerhouse, which could be a growing movement to link rural and urban identities in partnership with the Northern Forest. Its playful potential is engaging iconic British artists like Jamie Reid and nature writers like Robert MacFarlane to make use of and create new linguistic diversity and to defeat the identikit regeneration and development that are found in shopping centres everywhere.

Soil inversion in Alvanley, Cheshire.

Soil inversion in Alvanley, Cheshire.  Breaking with tradition, wildflowers were sown before the trees were planted on weed free inversted soil. Landlife acted for Woodland Trust who now have a new Northern Forest in planning phase.

“Nature unreserved.”

The joint Landlife/Eden Project bid based on the idea of creating new national nature reserves.  This bid is designed to show that nature has no boundaries and can link to people and the conversations to hope.

Professor John Rodwell,  appreciative fan the Sleaford Mods, and architect of the UK National Vegetation Classification, makes consistent pleas for scientists not to get boxed in by typologies and to keep pushing boundaries and evolving vegetation science in its cultural context, particularly in post-industrial and Northern rural landscapes.

Creative conservation journeys.

Some of the best ecological and landscape solutions have been made in towns and cities, while the countryside and rural communities have missed out. People talk of urban renaissance in urban agriculture in cities like Detroit, but researchers in urban and rural environments have often failed to acknowledge possible work on their own doorsteps. This cost-neutral, pioneering site in Knowsley (below) was funded by selling the topsoil in 1993, and is probably the most sustainable landscape in the UK in the heart of a council estate.

Woolfall Heath, Huyton, Merseyside.

World class creative conservation with keynote grassland species Succisa pratensis.  Woolfall Heath, Huyton, Merseyside. The site has no official conservation designation.

Casting the net.

Landlife’s Tale of Two Cities Project was Winner of Kew Gardens England Flagship. It delivered astonishing areas of wildflower in prominent city locations across Liverpool and Manchester for 1.5% of the money awarded to Kew Gardens Grow Wild Programme by Big Lottery (£11.3 million).   In casting a net for ideas the following points should be taken into account:

  • Adopting Trojan mouse Philosophy, working in a town mouse and country mouse way to introduce adaptation incrementally. Looking for Tortoise beating the hare solutions. Being prepared to be educated by accident.  Consistency, confidence and context are key to engineering this;
  • Linking community energies, celebrating differences and commonalities, starting where people are at and responding to their thoughts and pathways through the flowers;
  • Building skills with a set of training in wildflower conservation and harnessing European and global best practice through collaborative field trips;
  • Being responsive to local stories and weaving and spinning new narrative futures that look forward, rather than being overtly nostalgic. Avoiding museums in the landscapes, create living and flowering seed banks that expand the seed resources quickly and at a scale to make a difference in response to environmental change;
  • Writing and recording new collaborative songs, co-creating ceramics and textiles, celebrating views and images through artistic co-productions which link place-making projects. Journeying from place to place and inviting people from all walks of life to experience the flowers;
  • Working with technologies to collect and share data and connect different spaces;
  • Creative conservation as a showcase for the North of England Academy and a new truly national iteration of the National Wildflower Centre;
  • Re-launching and stretching the Northern Flowerhouse across Liverpool and Manchester Metro regions and re-visiting Will Alsop’s M62 corridor. The timing is right to action these ideas collectively.

The forging of unique partnerships and creative collaborations will be important.  Talking up the North, not just Looking North (like the BBC regional news programme), but “Being North”, with confidence in the place of the North.  In 1996 eco-artists Newton and Helen Meyer Harrison charted connecting sites of biodiversity from Liverpool to Hull, and in ‘casting a green net’ uncovered the shape of a flying dragon.

The China connection

Liverpool has signed a Friendship Agreement with Kunming in China, which is famous as a Flower City. This initiated Chinese Wildflower Seed industry via Merseyside.

Turning things on their head

Inventing new and clever cycles of land re-use will be important.  Meanwhile sites awaiting development can be used creatively.  Biodiversity offsetting, in a similar way to carbon offsetting, could be a driver for this in relation to housing policy.

Ideas to kick-start the revolution or cycle include:-

  • establishing a Nature Project equivalent or allied to the Big Lunch idea of conversant citizenship for young people;
  • travel fellowships and personal rather than institutional exchanges that mobilise a common purpose and drive leadership development, for example with the Gold Standard ecological parks in Amstelveen or the playful green spaces in Nantes;
  • an opportunity of metro regions to reach out, rather than pull in, leaving no borough behind;
  • cultural tourism based on living landscapes;
  • re-birth of canals, water infrastructure and their associated landscapes;
  • exploiting the opportunity to influence HS2 and other transport infrastructure developments that “Look North” beyond hard engineering solutions;

Building a Northern Song

There is an enormous opportunity to create a vibrant Northern Song cycle inspired by creative conservation, drawing on a live lexicon for our British landscape, as called for by the  nature writer, Robert MacFarlane.

Tale of 2 Cities has already inspired several new songs to be written so the momentum exists. In terms of what the North is and can become, authentic lyrics and infectious melodies, will be important. The landscape of our song cycle should represent the best of science, the best of art and the best of culture. It is fitting for a distinctive Northern voice as part of a real Northern Renaissance. Shattering conceived imagery and stereotypes. A poetic and lyrical / Hip Hop/Dub/ Punk/ Jazz / Brass Band approach to landscape conservation running alongside classical autonomies of designated areas- National Parks etc. Delivering soil inversion on a large scale.

Any northern strategy should aim for a great start. Starting points rather than end points are critical. It will be important to add up the edges, breaking away from parochialism and uniting distant energies, Cornwall – Liverpool, and building social cohesion as a result.  Driving pride in places by colourful displays of rich and exuberant biodiversity. All of this can happen quickly. For example delivering annual field margins in concentrated blocks, close to rural community centres, turning notions of the placement of environmental delivery on it’s head creating smiles and putting nature at the heart of rural and urban life.

Liverpool and Manchester children swap wildflowersThe switch: Liverpool and Manchester children swap bunches of wildflowers at the National Wildflower site in Knowsley.

The Northern Flowerhouse

The Northern Flowerhouse installation at the Liverpool International Business Festival.  2016.  Design by William Hulme Grammar School, Manchester.  Liverpool Beach, Beach Huts and Ideas Walk.  Metalculture Artist Sally Gilford One 69a, Liverpool.


Richard Scott has worked for environmental charity Landlife for 26 years, championing, and delivering creative conservation projects nationwide, which included building the National Wildflower Centre in Knowsley, on Merseyside in 2000.  He has farmed wildflowers in urban and rural locations; and delivered Kew Garden’s England Wildflower Flagship for Liverpool and Manchester (2015-17). Richard Chairs the UK Urban Forum, and a member of the UK Unesco Man and the Biosphere Committee. He was chosen for the Independent on Sunday’s Happy List (2012), and as Campaign Hero for Ecologist Magazine (2011). He is now working with the Eden Project to progress Landlife’s legacy. For more information, see Grow Wild’s twitter on the Tale of Two Cities project in Liverpool and Manchester.