Research Centre Spotlight: Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments

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The Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments (SPE) aims to develop understanding of how to achieve sustainable, healthy places that are resilient and responsive to future challenges. We are a multidisciplinary centre of academics researching different aspects of planning theory and practice, urban governance, green infrastructure, urban design and climate change adaptation. This blog gives a flavour of some of the ways we are doing this.

The world has changed since the emergence of COVID-19. The pandemic has given many of us the opportunity to think about what we want from our neighbourhoods, be it access to local amenities, or reducing our reliance on cars and inequalities. Planning for this deeply uncertain future recognises that the pandemic has propelled cities through a decade of digital transition overnight, promoting new ways of living and working more locally, with potential for major environmental benefits, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and improved air quality. SPE’s CURE and SUNEX projects, led by David Ludlow, are providing targeted policy solutions that recognise the opportunities to rethink urban connectivity and re-energise the economy, whilst delivering carbon neutral cities.

Moving towards sustainable urban futures also requires a consideration of our national infrastructure. Infrastructure for transport, energy, resource extraction, and water and waste management is critical to our wellbeing, but much of our current infrastructure is old and unsustainable. For example, one proposal to address our resource insecurity is to extract the metals needed for smart technology from old metal mines. Our research, led by Danni Sinnett, found that many of these mines are protected for their heritage, geological and biodiversity value, but that those living in former mining communities may be open to remining the wastes if this was combined with sensitive restoration and improvements in water quality. New research is exploring the stakeholder response to new sustainable waste management facilities which will allow resources to be recovered in the future.

Our new colleague, Rebecca Windemer, brings her expertise on the planning of energy infrastructure. Her research has examined the future of our oldest wind and solar farms as they reach the end of their 25-year planning consents. This includes how decisions are made regarding repowering, life-extension and decommissioning and how communities have experienced living with the infrastructure. This is important as if sites are not repowered then overall renewable energy generation could decrease, but decision-making is not simple, particularly where communities were promised removal after 25 years. The findings revealed the range of opportunities and challenges facing our oldest sites and have provided recommendations for policymakers, developers, and communities. This research won the EnergySHIFTS ECR award for innovative research findings and has been shortlisted Economic and Social Research Council’s Celebrating Impact Prize 2021.

Effective planning is absolutely crucial to the delivery of infrastructure and our research, led by Hannah Hickman, for the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) identified five principles of good infrastructure planning: A shared vision of place, with clear objectives; Specific infrastructure priorities identified to achieve that vision, aligned to funding sources; Effective and early engagement to align planning and delivery; Capacity, knowledge and resources and Continuous learning and dissemination. Despite finding pockets of innovation where these principles were being applied, the team found that often this was not common practice, leading the RTPI to warn “that a failure to adopt a more joined-up approach to planning the UK’s towns and cities will make it impossible to meet the challenges of climate change, population growth and environmental risks over the coming decades”.

Green infrastructure, which includes parks and other greenspaces, street trees, river corridors and green roofs, is essential for sustainable, healthy cities. For example, research supported by the West of England Combined Authority and led by Danni Sinnett, on greenspace use under lockdown highlighted the importance of providing green spaces within walking distances of people’s homes. There is increased focus on the role of street trees in improving the quality of the public realm, reducing urban temperatures and pollution, and providing habitats for wildlife. As a result, new planning guidance prioritises the creation of tree-lined streets in new development and many places around the world have set targets for tree planting. We recently worked with one of our MSc students, Max Walters, to publish the findings from his dissertation examining the feasibility of Bristol’s target to double tree canopy cover by 2045. This found that the current planting of 10,000 trees per year would need to be increased to at least 18,000 ‘heavy standard’ trees every year. However, using mortality rates more typical of urban areas increased this to 44,000 trees per year. This highlights the importance of good tree establishment and stewardship practices. However, it is often challenging to establish trees in urban environments, and traditional planting techniques are often unsuitable in adverse growing conditions, resulting in high mortality rates among street tree populations. This reduces the benefits that trees provide and hampers achievement of these planting targets. To address this, Dean Bell is assessing alternative tree pit solutions for their impact on tree establishment, growth and survival in hard landscapes in partnership with GreenBlue Urban and Forest Research.

As the climate changes, we need to balance the different priorities for the design of our green infrastructure. Focusing on the cultural acceptability of climate-adapted green infrastructure research by Helen Hoyle has demonstrated broad support for non-native, climate-adapted plantings, with appreciation of unusual aesthetics and an awareness of climate-adaptation, such as reduced need for labour-intensive watering. Recent research focusing on public perceptions, values and socio-cultural drivers in designed garden settings revealed that climate-adapted settings were viewed as more attractive, but traditional settings more restorative. The restorative benefits of green infrastructure for physical and mental health are well known. We have recently contributed to a review for the Wellcome Trust led by Issy Bray from the Centre for Public Health and Wellbeing which examined these benefits for young people with anxiety and depression. This found strong evidence that walking or being in a green space like a forest or park improves mood and reduces feelings of anxiety for young people aged 14 to 24 years, and that even short 15-minute walks in a green space are beneficial.

Our research emphasises the importance of providing high-quality, well-designed places for people to live. However, research funded by the West of England Combined Authority, revealed there can be a significant drop in the quality of new development between planning permission being granted and delivery on the ground. This drop can particularly affect the aspects of the developments relevant to climate change mitigation and adaptation, such as green infrastructure. This research won the 2021 RTPI Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence, and provides recommendations to improve local authority practice including reducing the potential for a decline in quality in the post-consent process; resourcing planning authorities and empowering planning officers; and building trust between local planning authorities and developers. Our research has been influential in improving the quality of green infrastructure, through our collaborative with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust in the development of Building with Nature. This benchmark focusing on providing green infrastructure that delivers climate-adapted, healthy places that are good for nature.

Finally, SPE is inspiring the next generation of planners through our planning and built environment programmes. This is informed by our research, supported by the RTPI, into the motivations and expectations of planning students. Now in its third year, the study has involved participation from over 20 planning schools across the UK and Ireland, and over 400 students. Particularly revealing has been the student’s overwhelming desire to affect positive environmental change in their future practice as planners, with ‘climate change and energy’ rated as the subject students are most interested in learning about. These findings are a significant contribution to furthering our understanding of young planners and are of relevance not just to educators (both in schools and universities) but to the RTPI, employers and politicians alike. SPE’s research is contributing to our understanding of how we can plan and deliver sustainable places and achieve our ambitious targets for climate change and sustainable development.