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Balloon flowers in city centre Manchester

The garden city of downtown Manchester


‘Why don’t we just create a huge forest in the city centre?’

And so Dig The City was born. Or reborn, to be totally accurate.

The nine-day gardening festival which rolled in and out of Manchester at the start of August began life as a Manchester Cathedral project in 2012, to create a pocket of greenery in the city’s most medieval corner.

But it was clear the event had growth potential, if you’ll pardon the pun.

So when Manchester’s Business Improvement District (BID) launched in April – a £1m a year investment in Manchester’s retail core, funded by the 380 or so members within its boundaries – Dig The City took on extra importance.


As a responsible city centre, it’s obvious that we should think about our environment, and the creative ways that we can make even the most urban setting more attractive.

But from a business perspective, Dig The City was also a big opportunity to pull a broad cross-section of people, especially families, into the city centre at a traditionally quiet period for retailers as people disappear for their summer holidays.

‘Why don’t we just create a huge forest in the city centre?’

As a subject matter, gardening has probably never had such broad appeal. It’s no longer the preserve of the retired or the pottering pensioner. Its explosion in popularity has seen events such as RHS Chelsea pull in huge numbers and a TV audience of almost three million.

But we liked the idea of bringing gardens and forests to the workers of residents of the city centre, rather than them having to head out to the countryside to get their flower fix.

And when we looked around the country, we couldn’t see anything of a similar nature anywhere.


But the event itself and the BID more broadly is all about driving footfall to the city centre, increasing dwell time and creating an environment where retailers and shoppers want to be.

So it wasn’t enough just to throw a few hanging baskets up here and there. We needed scale. And we needed to make sure the key retail hotspots were at the heart of the activity.

So apart from a 75-tree forest and marquee hub in Exchange Square, visitors to Dig The City will have seen three giant pieces of balloon artwork suspended high above New Cathedral Street and Exchange Square, talks and appearances from Gardeners’ World stars Monty Don and Rachel De Thame, a horticultural and flower market on King Street, six stunning show gardens installed on New Cathedral Street and the National Trust’s treehouse where kids could make dens and mud pies to their hearts content.

Around the Cathedral, community gardens were lovingly tended and a fine food market pitched up for the final weekend, bringing artisan local producers into the city centre to join the mix.

It wasn’t enough just to throw a few hanging baskets up here and there. We needed scale.

Key retailer members got involved too – one of the key strategies behind all BID events is to make sure they have a chance to engage with it, through commercial opportunities, increased branding and awareness and even the most basic things such as getting staff and customers involved.

Lots of the retailers held in-store events or promotions around the theme of greening, to bring the outside in and create something that reflected the event.

M&S saw flower sales rise by more than a third against the previous period the year before – a nice little stat to take from the event.

But there were big benefits across the entire BID area.


King Street, home to the Dig the City horticulture market, had an increase in footfall by a staggering 150pc on the opening Saturday of the event compared to the previous year, while Selfridges reported a fifth more shoppers and New Cathedral Street was 14pc up against 2012.

People were stopping to enjoy the gardens and photograph the sculpture, spending time in the pop up bars or lunching in the marquee hub; Monty Don sent women of a certain age into a flush when he decided to stroll down New Cathedral Street and the Dutch Flower Man spread colour into St Ann’s Square.

But the event also left a legacy – an important bi-product of Dig The City.

The 75-tree forest, sourced by Groundwork, was sponsored by The Co-operative and the trees are now sitting happily outside their new NOMA head office development a few hundred yards away, next to the former Angel Meadow. Even when it was over, Dig The City was helping create new green spaces in the city centre. And that’s important too.

Getting them in to the city centre and then on to the Co-op was a challenge of epic proportions for our team and our delivery partners at Don’t Panic. But the rewards were worth it.

And one of the show gardens from New Cathedral Street now has a new and permanent home in Piccadilly Basin, as part of the Manchester Garden City scheme.

As a BID project, ultimately the retail members will decide if Dig The City will return next year, but so far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

As an event, it’s only limited by the scale of its own ambition and level of retailer engagement across the entire city – and there was plenty of that in August. Dig can really grow across the city, but it also has a strong commercial proposition for businesses looking to push their own green agenda.

It generated more than £1m of PR coverage for Manchester city centre too.

Putting down roots? Let’s hope so.