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Developing sustainable urban corridors

Dr Sue Hornby explains how the Urban River corridors and SUstainable Living Agendas (URSULA) project is demonstrating the social, economic and environmental gains to be made by integrated and innovative (re-)development in urban river corridors.

urban river

The role of river corridors in sustainable development

River corridors can deliver a wealth of social, economic and environmental services including landscape quality, flood control, water quality, ecosystem vibrancy, economic opportunity, recreation and wellbeing. These potentially attractive and ecologically interesting urban spaces are now prime targets for development, offering the opportunity to create high quality sustainable communities.

The Government’s recently-published vision for sustainable development recognises the three pillars of sustainable development economy, society and natural environment are interconnected; and that the needs of all three must be met in order for us to achieve sustainable growth in the long term.

The Urban River corridors and SUstainable Living Agendas (URSULA) project

The URSULA project at the University of Sheffield integrates research from multiple disciplines and institutions to demonstrate that there are significant social, economic and environmental gains to be made by integrated and innovative (re-)development in urban river corridors.

The project uses a development site on the River Don in Sheffield as a case study supporting a diverse range of research topics including, for example:

  • Quantifying the cooling effect of the river;
  • Quantifying the effectiveness of alternative SUstainable Drainage Systems (SUDS) for the same site;
  • Mapping and analysing patterns of biodiversity across Sheffield;
  • Investigating how people’s perception of biodiversity affects their feeling of well-being;
  • Exploring the impact of alternative urban designs on development costs and values;
  • Using 3D visualistaion to integrate research from different fields and communicate alternative design scenarios; and
  • Understanding how the nature of stakeholder relationships influences river corridor development.

Alternative design scenarios

A key part of this research is the integrated assessment of alternative masterplan designs to inform a knowledge-based model which, in turn, is used to evaluate further scenarios and inform a final design.

Guided by a stakeholder workshop early in the project, key interventions were identified: integrated urban water management, using the river as a microclimate modifier, enhancing public access, and river restoration through modifying an existing weir. Three research scenarios were developed to incorporate alternative versions of these interventions.

river models

The scenarios were visualised using a variety of different media including GIS maps, photomontages, 3D walkthrough models and ‘user controlled’ visualisation software, based on gaming technology, developed by the project.

Integrated assessment

The designs were evaluated by a range of practitioners against 15 sustainability indicators, compared to the As-Is situation. The practitioners also took part in a mind-mapping exercise to identify the relative importance of different elements of the designs in determining the scores for each sustainability criterion.

Preliminary results show the As-Is situation scored below average for most indicators, particularly the economic indicators, safety and security, flood risk, energy and climate change. The three alternative design scenarios all show a marked improvement compared to the As-Is situation, but with a high degree of variation between the criteria improved within different scenarios. The difficult task is to incorporate the high scoring elements of social, economic and environmental sustainability of the various scenarios into an improved design which balances the requirements of the three ‘pillars’.

To aid this, the scores and knowledge obtained from the integrated assessment have been used to develop a Bayesian Belief Network model, which is being used to evaluate potential design amendments and inform the ‘final design’.

The ‘final design’ will be assessed by practitioners against the 15 sustainability criteria, to determine whether the process has indeed led to a better outcome for all three pillars of sustainability, or whether, for the individual development site, some aspects of sustainability must be sacrificed in favour of others.

sustainability criteria

Achieving sustainable design (preliminary results)

The preliminary results demonstrate that alternative designs for the same area can achieve very different results with regards to addressing the three ‘pillars’ of economic, social and environmental sustainability. Integrated consideration of the three ‘pillars’ within the early design stages of a (re-)development project can increase overall sustainability.

For example, by orienting buildings to make use of natural cooling, and integrating features such as stepped building heights and integrated water management into site design, it is possible to make significant enhancements to energy efficiency, resilience to climate change, and water resources while improving economic and social factors in a high quality built environment.

Stakeholder involvement

URSULA studies reveal a variety of different individuals and groups influencing the development of the river. In particular, evidence pointed to the strong presence of the Council and of voluntary organisations with general environmental interests in considering the strategic development of Sheffield’s river corridors.

Find out more

For more information about the URSULA project, visit or contact Sue Hornby:

The outputs will be presented at the Multiple Facets of River Corridor Development conference 17 – 18 November at the St Paul’s Mercure Hotel in Sheffield. To book your place, contact Jenny Chambers:

This ESPRC-funded research is being undertaken by the Universities of Sheffield, Bradford and Durham, with input from external stakeholders including Sheffield City Council, the Environment Agency and URS Scott Wilson.

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