From Steel City to Green Oasis: Sheffield’s Eco-Transformation

Green Oasis

Green Oasis The sunlight was dancing inside the large warehouse of Sheffield’s Kelham Island Museum. The massive River Don Engine, a 425-ton, 12,000-horsepower industrial beast designed for rolling armor plates, was starting up. I was with a group of spectators ready to see Europe’s most powerful operational steam engine, a symbol of the industries that made this city famous.

Sheffield is a city of hills. The neighborhoods are spread over seven gentle peaks that circle the city center nestled in a valley. It’s also where five rivers – the River Don and its four tributaries, the Sheaf, Rivelin, Loxley, and Porter Brook – come together, which played a big part in shaping the city.

The fast-moving water once turned waterwheels which powered hundreds of factories, starting from the 12th century. Sheffield was where small steel items such as cutlery and knife blades were first made. As technology advanced and factories got bigger during the Industrial Revolution, Sheffield became known for steel production, leading to its nickname, “The Steel City.”

But now Sheffield has the greenest city center in the UK. Over 60% of its area consists of parks, woods, and gardens, including a third of the Peak District National Park.

In 2012, the city made news when council contractors started cutting down many healthy trees to plant new ones. This decision upset many locals. This conflict over Sheffield’s trees went on for years until December 2018 when an agreement was reached. Out of this came the Sheffield Street Trees Partnership (SSTP) in 2019.

Sheffield’s Eco-Transformation

Nathan Edwards, Chair of SSTP, believes Sheffield’s people always valued green spaces. The tree-cutting controversy only highlighted this connection and made it stronger.

Today, Sheffield has about 4.5 million trees, way more than its human population of just over 550,000. This makes it the city with the most trees per person in Europe, with around seven trees per person and nearly one-fifth of the city’s surface covered by trees.

In 2022, the work of the SSTP was recognized internationally, and Sheffield was named one of the international Tree Cities of the World.

Visitors can experience the city’s green side using the Greenground Map, a widespread project aiming to celebrate Sheffield’s green spaces by highlighting many different trails and walking routes.

Helen Ilus, the Estonian graphic designer who created the Greenground Map in 2021, shared, “I don’t know any other UK city with so much open space and opportunities to go out and get active.”

During my visit, I took parts of the Sheffield Round Walk and added a section into the city center, hoping to uncover both its history and green initiatives.

Sheffield’s long history of using its natural resources can be seen with a glance at the waterwheels, dams, and man-made river channels. My journey included visits to Porter Brook, Endcliffe Park, Sheffield Botanical Gardens, and Weston Park.

Weston Park was Sheffield’s first public park, opened around 1873. Back then, factories were everywhere in Sheffield, and this park would have offered wealthier people a small escape into clean air and peace.

Now, access to nature is recognized as essential for everyone’s well-being. An example of this is the innovative “Grey to Green” project at West Bar, where a once forgotten part of the city is now a thriving, biodiverse corridor full of flowers, sculptures, benches, and information displays.

The large green spaces make Sheffield the second-greenest city in Europe, behind Oslo. However, according to Mark Mobbs of Sheffield City Council, what makes Sheffield special is how the green spaces are arranged so they can be used as part of daily life.

Sheffield is a city “where nature and culture go hand in hand,” says Mobbs. Its green spaces are part of the city’s identity. This could ensure Sheffield continues to go green for future generations.