Delivering high quality green infrastructure

Posted on

By Danni Sinnett

Globally, more people now live in towns and cities than live in the countryside. With urbanisation projected to increase into the future, and pressure on land for housing, we need to find a way of creating healthy places where both people and nature can thrive. This can be achieved by incorporating high quality green infrastructure into new and existing places.

Providing trees in each front garden in Edinburgh provides benefits as soon as people move in

Green infrastructure is a relatively new term that has gained traction in planning over the last 15 years or so, and differs from previous approaches in that the emphasis is on the creation of a coherent network of green and blue features that provide multiple functions, instead of focusing on individual spaces. These components are varied and include, for example greenspaces, parks and playing fields, street trees and landscaping, allotments, private gardens, wetlands, streams and other water bodies, as well as green roofs and walls. A critical function of this network is to provide connectivity within the urban environment and between the urban and rural.

Barking Riverside includes a network of high quality green infrastructure providing benefits for people and nature

There is now a wealth of evidence of the benefits, or so called ecosystem services, that green infrastructure can provide. For example, it can improve health and wellbeing by providing spaces for play, exercise, rest and relaxation, enhance the quality of development, and reduce air and noise pollution. It can also increase our resilience to the consequences of climate change by reducing flood risk and the effects of the urban heat island. Many of these can also save money, including through protecting communities from flooding, reducing ill health and improving quality of life. Ultimately, green infrastructure brings nature into the city, overcoming the ‘extinction of experience’ where increased urbanisation coupled with a reduction in time spent outdoors has decreased our contact with nature.

New development in Bristol combining a high quality walking environment with sustainable drainage

Despite all the evidence for green infrastructure and its apparent importance in our quality of life there are significant challenges in its delivery and management. Our research has been examining some of the reasons for this and has found that those working in the planning, design and creation of green infrastructure are struggling. For example, many are still unsure of what green infrastructure is, or should be, due to a combination of a shortfall in resources, knowledge or skills (Sinnett et al., 2017; Calvert et al., in press). In addition, developments often regarded as sustainable do not provide high quality green infrastructure. When we reviewed some of the systems that are used by developers to assess the sustainability of new places and buildings, we found that although many do include some measures of the quality of green features like parks and green roofs they rarely consider these features as a coherent multifunctional network (Calvert et al., in press). This can lead to missed opportunities to protect or enhance the existing green infrastructure or create features as part of new development.

High quality green spaces in the regeneration of a social housing estate in Lyon provide opportunities for rest and relaxation

A significant challenge is the current uncertainty over funding for long-term maintenance and management, with many local authorities unable to commit to this once construction has finished and people have moved in. This means there can be a tension between new developments being expected to provide green infrastructure, it being a desirable feature for potential residents, but the funding to manage the assets being precarious or uncertain, particularly over the timescale that vegetation takes to mature.

 

We have used these findings to develop a framework for high quality green infrastructure through a collaborative project with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. The framework consists of a set of principles informed by the literature, a review of existing standards for assessing the quality of green infrastructure, and consultation with stakeholders. The framework aims to overcome some of the challenges outlined above, addressing characteristics such as the creation of a network, local relevance and providing for the long-term management, as well as those aimed to deliver benefits for health and well-being, water management and nature conservation. This framework underpins Building with Nature, a new benchmark for green infrastructure (www.buildingwithnature.org.uk). This benchmark has been tested on a suite of planning applications and policies, and initial results are extremely positive. The framework is effective at ensuring a green infrastructure-led approach to new development, clarifying the expectations for green infrastructure early on the development process, and providing a starting point for conversations between stakeholders.

We hope to see this approach used to improve the quality of green infrastructure across our towns and cities so that people and nature can flourish.

Sinnett, D., Jerome, G., Burgess, S., Smith, N., Mortlock, R. (2017) Building with Nature – a new benchmark for green infrastructure. Town and Country Planning 86(10): 427-431. Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/33406

Calvert, T., Sinnett, D., Smith, N., Jerome, G., Burgess, S., King, L. (in press) Setting the Standard for Green Infrastructure: the need for, and features of, a benchmark in England. Planning Practice & Research. Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/38013/

The Power of Flowers….designing urban meadows for people and wildlife

Posted on

By Helen Hoyle

The power of flowers isn’t difficult to appreciate on a cold, grey November afternoon. Vibrant, colourful flowers lift the spirit at any time of year, but probably more so in winter. Research has shown that a gift of flowers can produce a strong emotional response, a true or ‘duchenne’ smile in the recipient (Haviland-Jones et al., 2005). Positive reactions to flowers cross cultures, and my own research in the UK has highlighted a threshold of 27% flower cover, the critical percentage cover needed to produce the ‘wow factor’ (Hoyle et al., 2017).

Introducing meadows is one way to introduce the ‘wow factor’ to urban greenspaces. In the UK the obsession with meadows started in the wake of the London 2012 Olympics, when media coverage of the exotic Californian poppies and cornflowers around the stadium produced an adulatory response. I worked on the Olympic meadows leading up to the games. The day before the opening ceremony the park was open to gamesmaker volunteers. As people swarmed to photograph the meadows we knew something special was happening. At the same time, the role of meadow flowers in supporting urban pollinators was broadcast by Sarah Raven on the BBC. As local authorities saw the potential to make greenspaces more appealing to the public, support biodiversity and possibly save labour costs on mowing, meadows went mainstream…

Vibrant annual meadows in the London 2012 Olympic Park

Yet urban meadows are not really meadows. Traditional hay meadows consist of forb (flower) and grass species. They are perennials, flowering every year, and are maintained by animal grazing or an annual hay cut at the end of the growing season. In contrast, urban meadows are deliberately designed. Designed annual meadows flower just once before needing reseeding and don’t contain any grasses.

Should we be sowing designed annual or perennial meadows in our urban spaces?

Annual meadows have proved popular with the public because the mixes have included vibrant flowers, usually produced by non-native species: Californian poppies or plains coreopsis, for example. These have the advantage that they provide pollen and nectar at the end of the growing season when our UK species have finished flowering, but because they need annual reseeding, they are far less sustainable than perennials. Once perennials have been sown they flower again year after year if maintained by one or two cuts a year.

Signage can be introduced to manage public expectation about the appearance and biodiversity benefits of meadows after flowering

If the stems are left at the end of the growing season they also have the advantage of providing overwintering habitats for insects. People sometimes object to brown, messy vegetation in public spaces, but our work in Luton and Bedford showed that if people were informed of the biodiversity benefits of leaving the meadows long after flowering, they were much readier to accept them

A Luton site before meadow seeding
The same site in summer the following year: native perennials in full flower

But what sort of meadows do people and invertebrates prefer?

Viper’s bugloss was popular with both people and pollinators

Our research showed that in the case of perennial meadows people reacted most positively to moderately tall meadows with high species (and floral) diversity. Insects also preferred the taller highly floral meadows which provided resources such as pollen and nectar and habitat. Both people and pollinators reacted particularly positively to the blue Vipers Bugloss (Echium Vulgare) in our perennial mixes.

But were these positive reactions to the biodiversity or the colourful aesthetics of the flowers? We conducted a follow-on experiment with annual meadows on a former minigolf site in Wardown Park, Luton. The evidence was conclusive for both people and visible pollinators: colour, rather than species diversity was the driver of preference. But it’s never quite so simple…other, equally important non-pollinating insects responded to species diversity, and were found to be more prolific in the LOW species diversity meadows.

Where should we sow meadows?

Sowing meadows in residential spaces produced a mixed reaction

Our research showed that although some people like to see meadows immediately outside their homes, others don’t. The majority of people we spoke to in Bedford and Luton appreciated seeing perennial meadows in residential areas, yet one described their introduction as ‘a wanton act of vandalism’. The public is really many publics. Our local authority partners thought that many established residents valued ‘tidy’ urban spaces. They observed that the introduction of wilder meadows into new developments had been successful, and had gained support from new residents .

Are meadows cheaper to maintain than amenity mown grass?

The short answer is – unfortunately not. One argument often put forward in favour of urban meadows is the perceived cost saving in regular mowing of short amenity grass. However, regular mowing might be labour intensive, but the small volume of cuttings generated each time can be left to rot on the surface. In contrast, the annual ‘hay cut’ of a perennial meadow generates a large volume of cuttings. Because this is likely to contain litter, dog excrement and other urban hazards, it is not viable as compost, so local authorities must pay to remove and incinerate it. More research is still needed on the potential to use these cuttings in biogas production….

Why should we celebrate World Town Planning day?

Posted on

RTPI Bursary competition winners and MSc Urban Planning students Mojca Sonjak, Rob Palmer, Isabel Daone and George Lewis share their thoughts on why World Town Planning Day, Thursday 8th November 2018, is important…

By Mojca Sonjak, competition winner

“[…] a city, however perfect its initial shape, is never complete, never at rest.”

(Kostof, 2014, p.13)

 

Humans have always understood that living together in a group is safer and beneficial to all. First settlements appeared thousands of years ago when people mostly moved by foot, when indoor plumbing was a distant thought and the only source for heat and light was the sun or a fire. We have since developed, “upgraded” our living space and found a way to move around faster, but we still tend to live in close proximity, whether for social, economic, safety or other reasons.

 

Because of the progress in medicine, agriculture and healthy nutrition, urban population has grown to unimaginable heights in the last century (Kötter, 2004) and by 2050 that figure is estimated to rise to 68%. Population growth as well as migration has spurred expansions of the cities which are struggling to provide adequate infrastructure to ever growing urban areas. Cities with more than 10 million inhabitants have even acquired a new term – ‘megacities’ (United Nations, 2018).

 

In this context, it has become more important than ever to make the spaces we live, work in, and share with others, functional, comfortable and safe, for us and for our descendants. This issue called for town planning to become a discipline in its own right over a century ago (Cullingworth and Nadin, 2002). Planning is not only about physical form of an urban area, it also has to consider social and economical aspects of living as well as determine what the quality of that living will be (Taylor, 2006).

Piran, Slovenia

Town planning is about providing housing and building enough streets; it is also about helping people live as a community, providing them with institutions for education and health care; it is about sustainability and clean air, clean water, green space and much much more. With city populations increasing all over the world it is more important than ever for “plans and planning decisions to rest upon value judgements about what kind of environment it is desirable to create” (Taylor, 2006, p.76). Ideally, the planning of a town should be cost-effective and resource efficient, but should also involve local communities, enhance local areas, and support conservation efforts (Rydin, 2011).

 

Cities are everywhere, in every country, and no matter their history, they all struggle with the same problem: How to provide good quality of life for an increasing number of inhabitants without putting additional strain on the environment. Urban planning takes into consideration a variety of aspects including social cohesion, sustainability and environmental impact. Today this is even more challenging as all those elements need not only to combine in a satisfactory manner but also in a way that foresee future expansion. Therefore, World Town Planning Day is important, and it is a reminder of all that we have achieved so far and what still awaits us in the future.

By Rob Palmer, competition winner

A calm yet authoritative female voice broke through Ada’s thoughts announcing that the pool car she had booked would be arriving in two minutes. “Better get a move on then” Ada said to no one in particular. She was alone in the house, one of the new affordable ‘Homes for Life’ that the local community had campaigned for so vigorously – social capitalism at its best, Ada had often thought.

The sunlight made her blink as she stepped outside, just as the car silently approached between two waiting trams. The only sounds she could hear were the crunch of fallen leaves under her feet and the giggling of school children making the short walk to school.

It still felt surreal, but Ada was thankful that the car was driverless. She needed to run through her notes for the morning’s presentation – she didn’t have the time for small talk. The car sped through the city, working in silent unison with the other traffic. Ada turned her head from watching the cyclists in the adjacent lane and the numerous yoga classes taking place in the various parks they passed to consult her tablet.

A 3D projection appeared before her and she selected the folder named ‘2018’ and then ‘Why Planning Matters’. It still amazed her that these documents were available, as if they had only been saved yesterday. With a swipe of her hand, she enlarged the passages she had highlighted and intended to use in her talk. She wanted her audience to appreciate that even back then “planning was to be found at the very centre of the complex mess of technology, politics, culture and economics that creates our urban society and its physical presence”, (Rydin, 2011, p.2) but that it wasn’t “a panacea for all urban ills” (Rydin, 2011, p.7)

She knew from the stories that her mother had told her, the pressure the author was under to play their part in the “developmental movement form the past to the future” (Cullingworth et al., 2014, p.5) and the “delivery of sustainable development to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same” (National Planning Policy Framework, 2018), a concept which was taken for granted nowadays.

Not many people appreciated the vital role that planning had in the early 21st century in delivering the society of today or knew of the often much maligned people who helped deliver it. Ada knew, and today she hoped to make them proud.

Ada’s mouth was dry as she approached the podium. She could feel everyone’s eyes, some physically within the room, some through monitors, stare at her and the ‘People Who Have Changed The World’ text which was being projected behind her.

Good morning everyone. Today I will be talking to you about someone who may not be one of the great historical figures, but she did change the world, or to be more precise, she, with her colleagues and the help of her community, changed your world. She was my grandmother, and she was a planner.……..”

By Isabel Daone, competition winner

Although World Town Planning Day may be one of the lesser known days of celebration, with the world of social media more focused on events such as ‘National Leave Work at 4pm Day’ and ‘International Cat Day’ (8th  of August 2019, in case you’re interested), it is arguably the most important date on any planning practitioner’s calendar and should be given considerably more attention by the wider public.

Planning is an integral part of global history. Versions of town planning as we recognise it today can be traced back to the Roman period (Smith 2007), some 2,000 years ago. The long, developing history of this practice is a testament to its importance and highlights the need for it to be recognised and celebrated.

For planners, World Town Planning Day is a time to reflect upon not only the effectiveness of planning strategies locally, but on a global scale. The planning sector has a key role to play in addressing current and critical global challenges, such as housing concerns and climate change.

Anyone who reads the news in the UK will know that there is a national housing crisis, albeit to different extents, across the country. However, housing crises also face other countries. For example, Accra, the capital city of Ghana, is also experiencing a housing emergency and has a dire need for affordable housing (Gillespie 2017). Two countries, thousands of miles apart, are united by a common problem. Another issue affecting the global planning sector is climate change. The world’s resources are being stretched and all nations need to play their part in addressing the issue; be that through creating healthier cities or designating space for renewable energy systems, which are themselves interrelated.

A wind farm in North Ayrshire, Scotland (Treehugger 2017), demonstrates how effective town planning has enabled a population and a renewable energy system to share the same space, without the farm encroaching on the village

World Town Planning Day provides the opportunity to collaborate and share knowledge and potential solutions. Talks, podcasts and other media relating to World Town Planning Day are shared online by planning organisations globally, allowing different approaches to these issues to be easily accessible. A united, global approach to sustainability is essential if they are to be addressed. This highlights why this day should be celebrated; to provide a platform for sharing knowledge which might otherwise not be available to planners and the wider public.

 

Perhaps most importantly however, World Town Planning Day celebrates the achievements of planners; big or small. The planning sector is often taken for granted, under-funded and perhaps under-appreciated by the public. It is a day for people to be reminded that the community centre their children play in, the bus or cycle route they take to work, and the park they walk in on the weekend are the results of years of hard work by those in the planning profession.

The planning sector shapes the world that we live in and seeks to facilitate the delivery of better places for people.

World Town Planning Day should therefore be celebrated to enable the sharing of knowledge, engage the communities it shapes and to honour the contributions of planners across the globe.

 

 

By George Lewis, runner-up

National Doughnut Day takes place on the first Friday in June every year when the fried toroidal treat is celebrated in Krispy Kreme establishments worldwide. The profession of town planning has its own day too – November 8th. Which event do you think gets more publicity? (hint: it’s the doughnut day.) While we can all appreciate the enjoyment of a doughnut, the idea of celebrating a profession might seem bizarre – but that shouldn’t be the case. Over half of the world’s population now lives in an urban environment (The World Bank, 2017) and that figure is increasing. The role of the urban planner is becoming more relevant to the health and livelihoods of more people every year – as such, I believe that if we can celebrate the doughnut for a day, we owe it to ourselves to celebrate World Town Planning Day too.

 

World Town Planning Day was the brainchild of Carlos María della Paolera, a professor of Urban Planning at the University of Buenos Aires, in 1949 (Royal Town Planning Institute, 2018). Today it is celebrated in 30 countries worldwide and aims to “recognize and promote the role of planning in creating livable communities” (American Planning Association, 2018).

 

The work of planners affects how we live and navigate our lives in towns and cities every day. Consider who planned the road you drive along to work, helped to regenerate your high street, and approved the housing development you live in. One could argue that these developments would have happened anyway without the ‘red tape’ created by the planning system. I argue that without planners, cities would be chaotic. Roads would be a maze of anarchic dirt paths, high streets would consist entirely of multinational corporations, and residential developments would be intermingled amongst sewage outlets and coal power plants. Without planners, we would live in a chaotic dystopia.

 

Through the efforts of planners, we can aim to build cities that provide the conditions for humanity to thrive. Air pollution causes approximately 400,000 premature deaths in the EU every year (European Court of Auditors, 2018) and will take a combined effort between politicians and planners to overcome. Long commute times have been proven to have devastating effects on happiness – “a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office” (Montgomery, 2013, no page, citing a study by Stutzer and Frey, 2008) – a problem that can be solved through better planning by building housing closer to employment places or transport links. We need urban planners for the future welfare of humanity.

 

Why should we celebrate World Town Planning Day? We need to inspire future generations to build sustainable, healthy cities that can withstand the challenges presented by the billions of people that will soon move into cities. We must share information between nations to solve the coming problems that rapid urbanism will cause. Finally, we owe it to the profession to publicise the benefits that planners have on our lives and wellbeing. Perhaps we should also start giving out doughnuts too.

Congratulations to all! The week after next we shall have more contributions on ‘Why should we celebrate World Town Planning day?’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘The beautiful Scandinavian city nobody thinks to visit’…

Posted on

By Hannah Hickman, Katie McClymont, Adam Sheppard and Stephen Hall

This is how the Swedish city of Gothenburg was recently described (Leadbeater, 2018), yet here we were in July 2018, four members of UWE’s planning research team. We were attending the Annual Congress of the Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP), the biggest planning research conference in Europe, designed to promote excellence in planning education and research.

The UWE team (all first-time visitors to Gothenburg), were impressed by its charms. Being planners, we made much of the excellent tram system, the impressive architectural diversity of recent waterfront development, the preservation of the historic city against the dramatic backdrop of the working shipyards. We marvelled at the ease of access from the city to the thousands of islands constituting the Gothenburg archipelago. This creates an enviable relationship between the city and the sea.

But with such a city as the backdrop, it was essential that the conference, themed this year on the subject of ‘Making Space for Hope’, provided enough stimulation to maintain the attention of delegates.

It more than succeeded in doing this, and the breadth of content was aptly represented by the papers delivered by UWE members themselves, covering such subjects as the politics of growth governance in Oxford and Cambridge (Hannah Hickman), the credibility of development in the absence of legitimacy (Katie McClymont and Adam Sheppard), spaces of secular faith (Katie McClymont), contractual control instruments of the public sector as new forms of accountability in urban development, a comparison of public-private-partnership schemes in Brazil, the Netherlands and the UK (Rob Atkinson, David Williams and Andrew Tallon), and, a Q Methodology Study of climate change activists (Stephen Hall).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the real value of the conference was the opportunity to gain the input of a wide range of international perspectives to challenge one’s own research agendas and findings, as well as the opportunity to foster new collaborations.

Highlights and surprises?

“A definite highlight for me was a roundtable discussion on how to bring an ethos of hope into planning education, and how this might align with students’ early experiences of practice, oh … and the quick dip in the free public swimming pool in the harbour looking on to the city and its working cranes” (Hannah Hickman).

“I was staggered by the revelation that the City of Gothenburg’s planning department has over 300 planning staff, something most Council’s in the UK could only dream of …” (Dr Katie McClymont).

“The diversity of contributions at AESOP never ceases to surprise me; it is such a rich learning environment with the added potential of making new contacts and creating opportunities for future work. As a space for reflection, review, creativity, and inspiration it is hard to beat. As an aside, the Maritime Museum is brilliant!“ (Adam Sheppard)

Looking ahead …

In 2019, the City of Venice will hold the AESOP Congress, hosted by the Department of Design and Planning in Complex Environments at the University Institute of Architecture in Venezia.

More importantly however, in 2020, it is Bristol’s turn, with the Congress being hosted by the University of the West of England. This is a huge opportunity and plans are already underway to ensure the best possible experience for delegates to support the growing international reputation of both the University and the City.

A flying visit to Abu Dhabi

Posted on

By David Williams.

I was off to present at the AMPS Conference Constructing an Urban Future, at the University of Abu Dhabi. I started the first stage of my journey at the bus stop in Bristol on a warm sunny Friday morning.  It felt as though spring had finally sprung.  After said bus ride, and two flights, I landed in Abu Dhabi as dawn was breaking. This made the airport look more like a spaceport on Mars than anywhere on this planet.

After another bus ride into the city, I was able to leave my case at the hotel reception before heading out along the Corniche waterfront. The city of Abu Dhabi has developed rapidly in the past 14 years since Shiekh Khalifa came to power and opened the country to redevelopment. This has created a city of iconic, gleaming towers. However, despite the negative evidence from western countries, much of the development is geared on travel by private car. This has led to the same problems of congestion and air pollution experienced worldwide. The city’s lack of a metro system means the city lacks coherence unless you can drive.

We were warmly welcomed to Abu Dhabi University for the first day of the conference, where the keynote speakers discussed the need for connectivity and the challenges of urban design, when not focussed on people. This is beginning to change in the UAE. Across the country, innovative start-up centres and small-scale shopping centres are becoming increasingly popular, in competition with the large-scale malls.

I presented my paper “Harnessing Energy from Highways” to an interested and informed audience. They asked challenging questions and wanted to know what my plans were for the future. An attendee from Saudi Arabia suggested that the concept had commercial possibilities, but I needed to do more work to get it to this stage. I have subsequently taken this advice forward to inform the next stage of my research.

Attendees came from seventeen different countries, providing a wealth of case studies. These proved that many of the problems we face in the UK are similar to those faced elsewhere in the World. We can certainly learn from some of them too. Exemplars include the innovative, community-based solutions to improve cities in Jordan and new waste management processes being delivered in India. From this perspective, I added to my understanding of these issues and identified potential collaborators for future projects.

The conference ended with whirlwind visit to the iconic Sheikh Zayed Mosque at sunset, before two flights to the UK and a bus ride back to Bristol on a wintery Tuesday morning. Snow was on the ground and a biting wind tore at my springtime clothes. What did you guys do to the weather whilst I was away?

Congratulations to David on his new post at Highways England. He is much-missed in our research centre.