A New Green Space in Birkenhead
Kassy Price, our community blogger in Liverpool visited a community engagement event around the designs for Dock Branch Park in Birkenhead and these were her thoughts...
The Building of Dock Branch Park
Birkenhead Dock Branch was a stretch of railway that ran through the centre of Birkenhead. Built in 1847, it was used to transport coal, iron ore and grain, but due to the decline of the docks and decreased rail freight traffic, it was abandoned in 1993. The area was left to its own devices, and nature took over.
After being left for so long, the land became overgrown. It was inaccessible to the public, but people sneaked in anyway, leaving litter and graffiti on the old brick arches. Fly-tippers came too, dumping household waste and the land became untidy and unsafe.
But now, thanks to the Birkenhead 2040 framework, the railway line is undergoing a makeover, turning it from grim to grand, into something wonderful for the community to enjoy.
The plan is to regenerate the town, creating family-friendly and well-connected neighbourhoods. Sustainable homes will be built, with tree-lined streets that are cyclist and pedestrian-friendly. Currently, the railway line cuts the community in two, and two flyovers loom over it. The flyovers will be removed and Birkenhead town centre will be opened up and transformed, with new places to eat and drink. Meanwhile, the disused land is to be turned into a unique, linear park.
In a nod to its heritage, it will be called Dock Branch Park. The clean-up has already begun and the goal for its completion is 2024.
Dock Branch Park will be a welcoming green corridor, connecting new and existing neighbourhoods. A place for relaxation and recreation, it will showcase Birkenhead’s history, combining the beautiful, old-fashioned railway arches into the new design, with sculptures, local art and a community space. A museum called The Transport Shed will be there too, with one of the best transport collections in the UK on show.
This distinctive park will be eco-friendly and promote biodiversity, with ponds, water features and native plants to keep the wildlife happy and flourishing. With sustainability and self-sufficiency in mind, it will be powered by renewable energy and the council hope to include community gardens.
The inspiration for the park came from the High Line in New York, which is a popular tourist destination. It was also a former railway and is now a slice of nature meandering through an urban environment.
The project is being funded by the government’s Town Deal and the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority.
Images from how the area designated for the park looks now
What Matters Most
In a country where lots of our once green land has been swallowed by concrete and brick, it’s reassuring that existing land will be tamed and turned into something that will benefit Birkenhead.
What the council wanted, though, was access to residents' voices and to find out their priorities. So they engaged with them in several ways.
In September 2021, an online ideas board for Dock Branch Park was created on Wirral Council’s Have Your Say website, where people can post what they think about local projects. There were 253 ideas posted, including preserving the arches, a skatepark, a separate area for cyclists and even an all-year-round, wild swimming pool was suggested by one brave soul.
There were also workshops, where members of the public could meet face to face with stakeholders, and pop-up events, which were held in the Pyramids shopping centre. These were called BirkenEd’s Place and anyone could turn up for a chat with somebody from the council, and give their point of view in creative ways, using interactive posters where they could vote for what matters the most to them.
All types of people had their say. Young and old, disabled people, ex-military, families and members of the LGBTQ+ community. The most popular talking points involved walking and access for disabled people. A wildlife-friendly park and play areas for children were other priorities, and socialising and cycling were also well received.
By being involved in this way, residents of Birkenhead had a say in how the old railway should be used.
When residents were asked what future benefits will be achieved by creating Dock Branch Park, the top two answers were ‘climate change’ and ‘health and wellbeing’, and here’s why they were right.
The nearer people live to a green space, the more likely they are to use it. Dock Branch Park will be a leafy haven in the middle of a busy area, surrounded by new neighbourhoods and the town centre. It will act as a link for several different parts of the town and all of these places will contain people who it will have a positive impact on.
Activity in towns produces noise and air pollution, but green spaces reduce both of these things. Plants can absorb sounds and they clean air too, so while traffic and buildings are guzzling energy, green spaces help keep the balance.
Navigating through the park will be fun and easy on the eye. It will be an interesting place to be, so people will use it as an alternative way to get to work or to different parts of town. Whether they’re walking or cycling, this means fewer cars on the road, fewer carbon emissions and even better air quality.
Over-urbanisation and the resulting pollution needs to be tackled, because it affects children, whose bodies are still developing and who are closer to the ground where there are more chemicals in the air. According to the World Health Organisation, polluted air is giving children health problems such as asthma, respiratory infections and is affecting their cognitive development too.
Green spaces also help to counteract the urban heat island effect. During heat-waves, towns and cities become hotter, sweatier and more uncomfortable than rural areas. Concrete and roads trap heat, and cars and buses increase the temperature even more. Green spaces help to reduce this, providing ventilation and cooling things down.
While the UK is hardly known for tropical weather, the planet is warming up and when we do have heat-waves, we need green spaces that are shady, with cool grass to relax on. So a park through a town centre is a great idea for now and for the future.
Artist's vision for the designs of Dock Branch Park
Children living in the Dock Branch neighbourhood and attending the nearby school will have easy access to the park.
With various creatures flitting and scuttling about, they will be taught the value of wildlife, plants and how crucial it is to preserve our green spaces. The more time a child spends in nature, the more they will appreciate and understand it when they grow up. Studies show that spending time playing outdoors is vital for a child’s development and can improve attention span, social skills, ease anxiety and help combat obesity in later life. Lack of sunlight by staying indoors can also cause vitamin D deficiencies, resulting in fatigue and a poor immune system.
It won’t just be kids running around the place though. Suggestions on the ideas board were to have distance markers for runners and dedicated areas for sport and cycling paths.
It’s so important to have somewhere aesthetically pleasing, free and safe to exercise, to keep our bodies fit, improve our mental health, combat lifestyle illnesses (such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes and some cancers) and leave us feeling energised. Running and walking on the streets is not as safe or pleasant as in a park and the linear layout of Dock Branch Park will be perfect for an invigorating jog.
Exercise can relieve stress too, but so can green spaces in general. When we go into nature, without the hustle and bustle of the streets, it can make us feel calmer. Sights that are pleasing to us, like trees, flowers and wildlife, and green and leafy surroundings, can boost our mood. In the same way humans decorate their homes in ways that please them, our surroundings outdoors should please us too.
A Resilient Community
The aim is to create a park that people will visit whether they live in the area or not, creating economic growth for Birkenhead. However, with activities, school trips and a place for local groups to gather, Dock Branch Park will mostly act as a hub for the local community.
Being part of a community gives people a sense of belonging and combats social isolation, which is linked to health problems. Lonely people are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, dementia, heart disease and premature death. Community events increase the chances of residents making new friends and forming connections, giving them a sense of purpose and emotional support.
Loneliness can also be brought on by overcrowding in cities and towns, and spending time in nature can ease those feelings.
‘Friends Of’ groups are a great way for people to meet too. These groups exist for parks all over the UK and are created by and for locals in order to take ownership of their green spaces.
A plan for Dock Branch Park to have its own Friends Of group is underway and they will help maintain the park. These groups provide opportunities for those who are keen to socialise, are interested in the outdoors, and don’t mind getting their hands dirty. Friends Of groups in other parks meet up for walks, talks and events, and hold free classes, focusing on conservation, horticulture and environmental education. They plant trees and chat to passers by, and they love what they’re a part of.
Overall, the regeneration of Birkenhead and Dock Branch park will have a positive effect on the town and the lives of the residents, some of whom have felt ignored as they watched their town go into decline.
Perhaps the railway’s transformation from a tangled fly-tipper’s dream, will inspire other towns to revamp neglected land too, bringing more green spaces to urban areas and improving the well being of us all.
1 - Birkenhead Dock Branch wikipedia
2 - Have Your Say Consultation summary
3- Assessing the role of urban green spaces for human well-being: a systematic review
4 -Plants and noise reduction
5- Children and air quality
6- Children and green space benefits
7 - Loneliness and overcrowding
8- Urban green space affects citizens' happiness
9- Social relationships and health
Kassy Price, Community Blogger, Liverpool