Manchester City Council is protecting residents from flooding, and boosting local biodiversity, by improving green spaces.

How Manchester’s sponge park soaks away flood risk

Manchester City Council is protecting residents from flooding, and boosting local biodiversity, by improving green spaces. West Gorton Community Park – also known as The Sponge Park – is one of the authority’s outstanding achievements. It is a great example of creating flood resilience through SuDS (Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems), tree planting and re-invigorating green spaces.

How is this tackling the climate crisis?

The ‘Sponge Cities’ concept was developed in 2013, and centres on creating features that ‘drink’ excess water into the surrounding natural landscape. Manchester adopted the idea thanks to its long-standing relationship with Wuhan in China, and the GrowGreen Project, a recent European partnership.

The GrowGreen Project was a five-year Horizon 2020 EU funded Research and Innovation project.  Concluding in 2022, it saw six cities come together to become more healthy, liveable, and water-resilient through investment in nature-based solutions. Manchester’s ‘demonstration’ project within GrowGreen was the development of West Gorton Community Park. The climate adaptation work within this was monitored by the University of Manchester.

About West Gorton Community Park

The creation of West Gorton Community Park is the final part of a larger 10 year regeneration project within the West Gorton neighbourhood. The community park is located on brownfield land, partly remaining from housing clearance, that previously featured an outdated playground area. The construction of the new park has revitalised the local area, increasing valuable green space for the community in this economically deprived area.

Alongside its value as a community asset, West Gorton Community Park is a ‘living lab’ showcasing different SuDS and nature-based solutions, which could be applied effectively elsewhere in Manchester and beyond. The park features: bioretention tree pits, community growing area, wildflower meadows, swales (shallow drainage channels where water collects and soaks away), sunken rain gardens, permeable paving and other SuDS features. The park opened in 2020 and has won two prestigious awards: the Landscape Institute Award for Excellence in Flood and Water Management 2021, and the Design Council’s ‘Golden Pineapple’ for Best Public Space.

The park was co-designed with the community and includes three main spaces:

    • Woodland – includes a play area, basketball court and climbing frame. The area is framed by large pre-existing trees.
    • Meadow – includes wildflower planting, orchard trees, picnic tables and a raingarden.
    • Community Plaza – includes an event space, community growing area, permeable paved plaza and a sunken garden with bioretention tree pit.

Each space has a unique function and fulfils community needs, providing ecological and social benefits.


Health and wellbeing  

The park’s features encourage increased health and wellbeing in numerous ways. This includes better nutrition through community food gardens, and various exercise, sports and play facilities. There are well-established mental health benefits from spending time in and around nature.  

Social space 

West Gorton Park has given the area a new basketball court, improved playground facilities, and a local event space. The new event space and plaza are ideal for hosting gatherings, including markets and festivals giving residents a place to gather, communicate and improve community cohesion. A community committee has been created for the park, empowering people to organise events with self-governance over their local park. 

Active travel 

The park is at the heart of the West Gorton community and encourages active travel via bike paths and quality footpaths. Enhanced connectivity and improved sightlines encourage residents to bike or walk to and through the local park. 

Environmental benefits 

The environmental benefits of this park for people and animals are numerous and varied: improved water quality, air quality, biodiversity, and tree cover. The park provides a safe, biodiverse green corridor through West Gorton for local wildlife. The wildflower meadows encourage bees and other insects, whilst the increased tree cover sequesters carbon. The park has been designed to redirect water from the nearby highway, filtering pollutants before the water joins the waterways.  


Research shows the park is expected to increase the economic value of nearby properties by about £1.6million. Revitalisating the local area encourages further investment and economic opportunities. 

What impact has it had?

Water management – The University of Manchester carried out two years of monitoring and evaluation between 2020 and 2022 to determine the park’s effectiveness for water management. The research also considered environmental and health and wellbeing effects. The results showed a fall in water runoff of 87-100%.  

Biodiversity – The project has seen a 48% increase in biodiversity of ground level species in the park, including 50 new different vegetation species, 13 new tree species and new wildflower species.  

Green space usage – The project created a 47% increase in people using local green space and an 89% increase in people taking notice of their local environment. Analysis included monitoring activity levels at a ‘control’ park to confirm that the results at West Gorton weren’t due to a universal post-Covid 19 boost in park usage – West Gorton shows levels of park usage above and beyond elsewhere in the city.  

Economic impact – The economic impact of the development is forecasted to be a 2.5 ‘Benefit to Cost’ ratio over a 25 year period. Avoided healthcare costs have been estimated at about £120,000 a year.  

Physical activity – There has been an overall increase of 35% in vigorous physical activity in the new outdoor spaces.   

Ground Temperatures – ground temperatures were reduced by an average of 5 degrees with previously paved areas recording up to 24 degrees reduction in surface temperature. 

Strategic impact for Green and Blue Infrastructure in Manchester 

West Gorton was created to demonstrate how green spaces can improve resilience to floods and heat stress while boosting biodiversity, as well as communal health and wellbeing. Key findings from the project fed into Our Rivers Our City, Manchester’s strategy to improve local waterways.  

Lessons learned from the park have influenced other projects in the city. For instance, Mayfield Park was opened in September 2022, part of a larger 10–15-year transformation of a significant brownfield. Mayfield Park has a focus on river restoration and integrated SuDS. Similar to West Gorton, it is demonstrating the business case for placing quality green space at the heart of new development. 

“We anticipated that the SuDS would have a significant impact on surface water runoff, but we were excited to see that the social impact has been extra and above what we anticipated – and that’s because those co-benefits were purposefully built into the project from the beginning.”  – Sophie Sheil, Principal Resources and Programmes Officer, Manchester City Council 

What made it work?

Community co-design 

Co-design with the community was essential to the success of this park. In a process overseen by charity Groundwork Greater Manchester, all 612 properties close to the park were visited door-to-door, and consultation sessions were held at nearby community centres, the local health centre and during pick-up and drop-off times at local primary schools.  

Residents asked for community growing spaces, spaces for sport, children’s play areas and disability access. This feedback was combined with the technical expertise from flood risk engineers, landscape architects and academics to produce a final design. As a result, residents report a greater sense of connection with their neighbours and more able to influence decisions in their area – a key principle for achieving a just transition to a low-carbon future. 

Throughout the project lifetime, and beyond, Groundwork hosted nature-building events to engage the community on climate change, biodiversity and the nature-based solutions within the park. Education and raising people’s aspirations about what their local park could look like was an important aim.  

Groundwork’s involvement with shaping and delivering the West Gorton Sponge Park has enabled them to secure further funding to build on their success in the community, working through the Friends of West Gorton Park group that they helped establish.  

University partnership 

This project was developed in partnership with The University of Manchester. As part of this partnership, the university is continuing monitoring and evaluation of the site. This will determine its current and future impact on flood resilience, as well as the project’s overall environmental, community and economic impact, across two years. The work will provide quantitative evidence for the value of ‘sponge’ developments, which will be crucial for making the business, socioeconomic and environmental case for applying similar SuDS initiatives across Manchester. 

What resources were needed?


The West Gorton Community Park was funded by a £1.4 million investment through the European Commission Horizon 2020 Research Programme. The project was delivered by Manchester City Council with Manchester Climate Change Agency, the University of Manchester, Guiness Housing Trust Ltd and Greater Manchester Combined Authority. Groundwork Greater Manchester was commissioned to assist in the community engagement and co-design process. Building Design Partnership (BDP) were enlisted as the landscape architects designing the project and iDVerde was the landscape contractor. 


The areas selected for the project – a space equivalent to roughly three football pitches – were underutilised, brownfield or grassy areas lacking in both biodiversity, amenity and overall usability for residents. Similar SuDS, public space and play improvements could be implemented on a smaller scale. 

Lessons learned

Engage early across council teams 

Urban SuDS projects like West Gorton involve many teams spanning different council departments – make sure they are on the journey from the very start. Key players to engage are the highways and parks teams. They will have insider knowledge of minor but crucial operational details that might otherwise be overlooked. For instance, Manchester’s parks team pointed out that the placement of bins and benches needed to be convenient for grass mowing, whilst the input of the highways team was needed for drainage specifications. Consulting with the right teams early on saves time and cost later by avoiding re-designs.  

West Gorton catalysed a new enthusiasm for SuDS beyond the climate team within the council. Other teams are now keen to find other opportunities to implement them in the city. Taking colleagues on a journey helps embed climate-oriented thinking into wider council culture.  

Thoughtful procurement 

A lesson from West Gorton was the power of procuring contractors under one framework. Those involved learned that, rather than engaging separate contractors for the landscape architecture and build stages of the project, future work might benefit from a single Design and Build contract – perhaps as a consortium with a lead organisation. This keeps responsibility at one central point of contact from the earliest design stages right up to end of the build. Procuring this way minimises complications should there be any last minute alterations needed to the project design.  

Nurturing green skills 

SuDS and other nature-based solutions to climate change are often new terrain for contractors. If possible, find out who the foreman running the project site on a day-to-day basis will be and whether they have any prior experience building SuDS. If not, build in time and capacity for contractors to learn new green skills to enable them to implement the project confidently. Manchester benefitted from the oversight of the University of Manchester researcher who was on-site to handhold and offer guidance as needed. Nurturing the right skills will have a knock-on effect for future projects as a local green skills ecosystem begins to emerge.  

Technical challenges 

A high level of technical knowledge was required to design, implement, and construct the West Gorton Community Park. Due to its complexity, hydraulic engineers, landscape architects and academics worked together to determine the optimal water flow through the park. The level of complexity inevitably raised the project cost. 

Soil contamination 

Due to the heavy industrial past of West Gorton the soils of the park were heavily contaminated with heavy metals and other materials (ash, clinker and asbestos). Construction involved extensive landscaping and addition of new uncontaminated topsoil.  

Maintenance challenges 

Certain areas of the park have had maintenance issues affecting the flow of water and effectiveness of these SuDS interventions. Issues include: blockages caused by leaves and twigs, slate chippings from swales blocking inlets and road debris following other roadworks. Similarly, slate chippings have been redistributed through children’s play, blocking nearby water inlets. The council’s parks team is responsible for maintenance and is working with local residents to educate and manage these challenges.  

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