Features: May 4th, 2012

John Williamson explains how local authorities use floral displays to boost the local economy.

We all know that appearances are important. There can be few more depressing sights than a deserted high street with boarded up shops and litter everywhere. Unfortunately, this is becoming an all too common sight in our town centres and it seems that dilapidation simply begets yet more decay, creating areas of depression and poverty.

An attractive commercial centre or high street is vital to attracting prosperity – which is one of the reasons that local authorities continue to invest their limited budgets in floral displays within the community. Ultimately, an investment in communal landscaping is also an investment in the community – both residential and commercial. It is truly amazing the difference that plants and flowers can make to the landscape and feel of a place.

A boost to the economy

As councils and many businesses are aware, these floral displays do more than make an area look pretty and prosperous; they play a significant role in boosting the local economy, attracting visitors, shoppers and businesses. With Britain currently the focus of so much global attention due to the forthcoming Diamond Jubilee, Olympic Torch Relay and the Olympic Games, the opportunity to showcase our villages, towns and cities to the world is too important to miss.

An online threat

In addition to the continuing gloomy state of our double dip economy, the steady growth of online shopping is a very real threat to our commercial centres. The online retailer offers convenience and comfort, so if the high street retailer is to maintain its presence on the high street, our town centres have to offer something more. And this is where floral displays can play an important part. In order to attract visitors, shoppers and businesses to the high street, we have to make the experience itself attractive. One of the best ways of achieving this is by making the environment a pleasant place in which to spend time.

Nottingham City Council

One local authority which recognises the importance of bringing horticulture to the built environment is Nottingham City Council. Ranked the 13th most deprived local authority area in England according to the Index of Multiple Deprivation, the city has some significant social and economic challenges. However, the council is firmly committed to maintaining floral displays as much as budget allows with the Parks and Open Spaces team looking after 136 parks and gardens across the region.

One of the team’s aims is to offer a wide range of attractions to entice visitors to the city, including floral displays in public spaces. With this in mind, a highly successful floral initiative was launched during the summer of 2011 in the form of a retail flower trail which linked the city’s main shopping areas.

A trail of flowers

The initiative was jointly sponsored by the Retail Business Improvement District (BID) and the city council as part of the Nottingham in Bloom campaign with the goal of encouraging visitors to the city’s shopping areas. The trail consisted of specially designed willow sculptures with surrounding floral displays in metre square containers placed around the city centre. The trail was a key factor in achieving both a Judges and Gold Award in Britain in Bloom, as well as taking the title for East Midlands in Bloom ‘Best Large City’. In their report, the judges commended the trail praising “the innovative floral sculpture trail in the city centre which has features appropriately placed to correspond with the retail outlets.” The Civic Society also presented the floral trail with a Civic Award in recognition of the positive effect that it had upon the area.

A positive response
Keen to evaluate how successful the initiative had been, NCC also carried out a survey of shoppers and their response to the trail. The survey found that 71% of visitors reported that it had enhanced their shopping experience in a variety of ways, including creating a more peaceful atmosphere, improving their mood and making the overall experience more pleasant. 60% said that they would bring visitors to the city specifically to see the floral trail and almost half said the trail would encourage them to visit Nottingham again. The initiative also generated a lot of positive free publicity for the city.

“The introduction of Business Improvement Districts has been positive for the city,” comments Caroline Elmhirst, Nottingham in Bloom Partnership Manager. “The BID looks set to become increasingly involved in the Britain in Bloom competitions because trades and businesses realise that consumers are more likely to visit or use them if the surrounding area looks attractive.”

In addition to the floral trail, which is due to be repeated this year, the council use planters and three tier planters to create attractive displays in commercial areas as well as barrier baskets on railings along traffic routes.

Commercial support

But public funds are short and so any communal planting has to be within a careful budget. Business sponsorship is an important way of funding communal displays, whilst Britain in Bloom has done much to raise the profile of horticulture and improve the appearance of public areas. Recognising its importance, commerce has also come on board in the competition, with around 63% of In Bloom groups receiving support from their local businesses.
However, whilst few would dispute that making an area aesthetically pleasing is an important strategy in revitalising our high streets and town centres, some might query the wisdom of this spending at a time when public sector budgets are being pared down. My argument is that this investment pays for itself. Increased footfall, the financial rewards of tourism, improved retail and an increase in business all directly impact on the prosperity of a place. Remove that and an area can assume an air of neglect, with people increasingly disinclined to visit. It’s a classic vicious circle – and far more significant than simply investing in a few pretty flower beds.

The maintenance issue

However, it makes sense for councils, In Bloom groups and other organisations to manage their limited resources as cost effectively as possible. Apart from the plants themselves, which can often be grown relatively cheaply, maintenance in the form of labour costs is a substantial expense. One way that many local authorities have addressed this issue is through the use of self watering containers which need watering only once a week, as opposed to daily visits during the summer months. These specially designed containers, used by Nottingham and numerous other local authorities across the UK, have a built in water reservoir with a series of capillaries to ‘suck’ up the water which is dispersed via an expander pad. Because the water is stored under the soil, it doesn’t evaporate, meaning that maintenance crews can reduce their visits. Local authorities such as Bury St Edmunds have also found legitimate ways around the recent hosepipe ban by using a bowser, which is filled using collected rainwater.

It would be a tragedy if the government spending cuts forced local authorities to neglect the appearance of their retail and commercial centres. The investment in floral and public displays is repaid in so many ways – not just financial. We all want somewhere pleasant to live, work and visit – and community horticulture plays a significant part in achieving just that.

About the author
John Williamson is the Marketing Manager at Amberol www.amberol.co.uk Tel: 01773 830 930.