How can I produce a high-quality research dissertation with impact? Top tips and reflections

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By Megan Streb…

About 9 months after I handed in my dissertation, Sustrans published a report based on my findings, which was picked up by national media, and has been included in an LGA briefing to local authorities.

Some of the strategies I applied to planning, researching, and submitting my dissertation on time will doubtless be useful for future MSc Urban Planning students. Here I share my tips and reflections:

  • Build your understanding of the issues

When I started the course, I signed up for a few planning mailing lists, joined the RTPI and Urban Design Group, and followed a bunch of people on Twitter. I kept abreast of issues between our lecturers, Twitter, and reading a lot of Executive Summaries.

By the time I was mulling over my dissertation topic, I had a few issues in planning that I was interested in researching.

  • Decide what you’re aiming for, even if you know it might change.

I knew I wanted my dissertation findings to be directly useful to officers in Local Planning Authorities (LPAs). Having that aim shaped my research in terms of how I settled on a topic, chose its scope, and how hard I worked to get a high response rate. Once I’d handed it in, that aim influenced my decision to find an organisation to publish it as a report rather than as an academic paper. 

I also knew I wanted to hand in by September, as my hours were going back to full time at that point. So all my project planning (yes, I had a Gantt chart) was working backwards from that date.

  • Grow and use your network

To narrow down my dissertation topic, I wanted to speak to people in the planning profession about what research they felt would be most useful.

I was really surprised by how many people responded to a cold introduction on Twitter or by email that introduced my broad area of interest and asked “can I pick your brain for 20 minutes?” I think the amount of Zoom and Teams calls has helped. I made sure to keep the calls to under 20 minutes, but those brief chats helped me refine my topic and get important feedback.

If the idea of reaching out to complete strangers gives you cold sweats, start with your existing network. If fellow students work for LPAs, ask if they can share your survey or help you identify someone to interview. If you know someone who works in a consultancy and want their thoughts on a topic, drop them a message and offer to buy them a coffee.

  • Narrow your scope far more than you think you need to.

If you want to say something interesting and meaty about a topic, you need to pick a narrow topic. Too broad and you’ll spend most of your time trying to bring it all together, and most of your word count just explaining things.

I thought I had a narrow topic around walkability in new developments, but I needed to narrow it further to talk about site allocations rather than site layouts in masterplanning. It was hard because I felt like I was leaving really interesting topics out, but I was able to say more of substance as a result. 

  • Know that there will be a lot of ‘grunt work’ and plan for it

I watched all of Bridgerton and a season of Drag Race AllStars while collecting email addresses for planning policy teams to send my survey out. It was unbelievably tedious, but I’d planned my time to allow for that. (I’ve now shared that list publicly so you don’t have to do the same!) That prep work plus a tailoring my emails (competition between regions for response rate was very effective) paid off. I had responses from ⅓ of LPAs in England outside London.

In contrast, I didn’t allow for enough time to process my survey results–my estimate was about one-quarter of what it actually took me.  That meant writing up my results and final editing was compressed into painful final months. Learn from my mistake and don’t underestimate the time grunt work takes.

“Don’t underestimate the time grunt work takes.”
  • Edit, edit, and then edit some more.

Whether writing for an academic audience, or with civil servants in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) in mind, editing is such a crucial part of your dissertation. To help me with editing, I had a separate document called “what I’m trying to say” which outlined the “story” of my research to help me stick to a structure. Give yourself time to edit based on that narrative separate to proofreading.

When writing the report based on my dissertation, a lot of time was spent deciding what to cut to make sure the report was concise and to the point.

Doing an MSc gives you the space and opportunity to really explore a topic. Take full advantage of that, whether you want to further your career, make an impact in the sector, or dig into a fascinating academic debate.

If you’re interested in reading my dissertation If you treasure it, measure it: examining the use of walkable distances to amenities in the site allocation process, it’s available here.

Why do Space and Stuff Matter in Housing Design?

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By Elena Marco

The UK housing sector has significant challenges, not least the shortage of homes available, the time it takes to build new homes, balancing affordability versus developers’ profit margins and other factors.  Basing housing statistics and estate-agent marketing on the number of bedrooms, rather than overall dimensions and floor areas, or the suitability of the physical configuration of space, does not help a focus on the quality of the provision, nor address the space needs of those inhabiting the homes we currently build.  As house sizes can vary significantly between those with the same number of rooms, this leads to a deceptive impression of homes being bigger than they actually are. The modern desire for en-suite bathrooms, study rooms and utility areas, means that more rooms are being squeezed into the same footprint. Living room, kitchen, corridor and bathroom sizes have all reduced as a consequence. At a time when we have more possessions than ever, space for storage has been eroded to minimum (for example, the under stairs cupboard is the utility room, the attic space is the master en-suite).

Do architects really understand the needs of the inhabitants they are designing for?

I don’t think so.

Let’s take my household for example. I wake up in the morning, get my special feeling good dressing gown, then I sit in my kitchen where I get my cup and spoon for my relaxation moment double espresso, a plate for my toast, and a glass of water from the fridge. Then, I make my toast, drink my water and start my day. My son wakes up, brushes his teeth with an electric toothbrush, throws his pyjamas on the floor, goes to the wardrobe and puts on his school uniform. He comes down to sit in his gaming chair and watches some YouTube videos on his phone whilst I tidy-up after him (Yes, I know, completely the wrong thing to do!) before I get ready (shower, teeth, make-up, clothes) myself. We pick up our rucksacks, of course checking that we have what we need for the day. Next to the door we have our shoes, keys, wallets, and coats at hand to leave the house (below). By this time my husband has not yet opened his eyes! Each of us within the same house has a  different daily, weekly, monthly and yearly routine and activities that require ‘stuff’ to carry them out. All this ‘stuff’ needs a place to be stored. The space where the activities take place and the storage associated with these activities are important parts of our lives and facilitate our interactions as a family unit. Storage needs to consider these cycles and the frequency at which this stuff needs to be accessed (short, medium and long-term). These cycles of activities have a rhythm and synchronisation that are important to us. At times, these cycles facilitate social activities (with others in the household or invited guests) and other times facilitate activities where our own personal and private space is important. At those times, the stuff we surround ourselves with (a special picture, a good book, a coffee cup) has an emotional dimension. It is stuff that helps us unwind, retreat, feel better or regroup.

Mum & son’s morning routine

There are times, when you arrive home and don’t want to do homework, cook or tidy but simply lay on the sofa and watch TV or play computer games. You leave your shoes in the living room instead of their proper place near the door, the junk mail is left in the dining area, the pen you had in your pocket gets dropped near the sofa, you get a takeaway and leave the containers and plates scattered in the kitchen and the pile of ironing keeps growing in the spare bedroom (below).

Accumulation of clutter

A good tidy-up, that places stuff in its proper place, brings a sense of relief, a mental and physical sense of well-being. To make it possible to tidy, sort and store, space for storage needs to exist and be valued. Each family member might have different routines and different ways of storing things.

Synchronisation in space and time, and the sequence of key activities by household members, must be considered when designing homes. Storage needs to be seen as a fundamental dimension of design, but there is currently a disconnect between what is designed and the number and type of possessions that a household has.

I advocate for architects to acknowledge the relationship between material possessions and housing design. By better understanding the nature of ‘stuff’ and ‘space’, houses can be better designed. Storage needs to be valued, and flexibility must be the default, so that new models of housing can emerge that address the well-being and health implications associated with the cluttering of space. These new models cannot ignore the viability and affordability of housing, but neither can they ignore the needs of us, the inhabitants.

Water security and climate adaptation in the Himalaya – exploring ecologies of water-care in Changthang, Ladakh.

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by Michael Buser…..

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been researching some of the relationships between climate change, water security, and culture in the Changthang region of Ladakh, India.  Changthang is located at the western edge of the Tibetan Plateau with an average altitude of 4,800 metres (15,748 feet) above sea level. It is a rural area consisting of small villages and settlements. It is also home to nomadic pastoralists who migrate with their livestock (sheep, pashmina goats, and yaks) across the highland grazing ecosystem.

During the past two millennia, a general warming and a wetter climate have been reported in this region (UNEP, 2022). One impact has been increasing glacial retreat – a recent study found that glaciers in the Ladakh Range had decreased by over 12% between 1991 and 2014 (Chudley et al. 2017). Warming trends are leading to significant ecological change and projections show the potential for more extreme consequences caused by a warmer and wetter climate in the future. People living in Changthang have substantiated these findings, noting significant climate volatility, increased severity of winters, and higher precipitation in summers. 

Participant drawing of the village and its water resources

In my research, I’m studying the way climate change is contributing to water insecurity and impacting traditional ways of life. The majority of this effort has been developed through a collaboration with the Ladakh Media and Arts Organisation (LAMO), an NGO based in the city of Leh. As part of our collaboration and scoping, LAMO has conducted a series of workshops in Ladakhi villages, asking people to speak about their experiences with water and climate.  This has involved working with young people who have been asked to express themselves through drawing, paintings, and photography. The team has also engaged community elders to explore cultural knowledge around water through oral history, stories, and songs. 

The most recent workshop, led by LAMO, took place over five days in the village of Chumathang, Ladakh. The village is located along the Indus River and is well known for its hot water springs.  Indeed, people come from over the region to experience the healing properties of the springs. The team was told that the village name – Chumathang – is likely derived from ‘chu’ (water), ‘maan’ (medicine) and ‘thang’ (plain) which means the plain where medicinal waters are found.  The workshop, held in the spring of 2022, explored the role of water in the village with young participants and village elders.  The team also organised excursions around the area to look water resources and infrastructure that support life.  

Young participants at our recent workshop

Now, with our scoping efforts largely complete, the next phase of research will involve deeper explorations into the relations between environmental change, culture, and daily life in Ladakh. Our framework for understanding these processes is based in the concept of ‘ecologies of care’ (Buser et al 2020; Buser and Boyer 2021).  For my part, this framework helps draw attention to the ways in which water is an interdependent and entangled part of life. With care as a central organising theme, we will look to draw out multiple forms of managing and adapting to water security challenges and how life is made possible in this dynamic and fascinating landscape at the leading edge of climate change.

Special thanks to Monisha Ahmed, Tashi Morup, Sonam Landol and the rest of the team at LAMO, the community of Chumathang, and all of the others involved in these activities. Your dedication is an inspiration.

Buser, M. and Boyer, K. (2021) Care goes underground: thinking through relations of care in the maintenance and repair of urban water infrastructures. Cultural Geographies. 28(1), 73–90.

Buser, M. et al. (2020) Care and blue space: water and the cultivation of care in social and environmental practice. Social and Cultural Geography. 21(8), 1039-1059.

Chudley,T., Miles, E., and, Willis, I. (2017) Glacier characteristics and retreat between 1991 and 2014 in the Ladakh Range, Jammu and Kashmir, Remote Sensing Letters, 8:6, 518-527,

United Nations Environment Programme (2022). A Scientific Assessment of the Third Pole Environment. Nairobi.

What planners need to know about the British energy security strategy

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By Rebecca Windemer

Last week (7th April) the UK Government published the much awaited British energy security strategy. The strategy sets out plans for the future of energy generation in Great Britain. In this blog post I discuss the changes that are expected to occur for the planning system. Before doing so I will firstly provide a reminder of the headline figures from the strategy.

Key figures from the energy security strategy

The Energy Security Strategy sets out an ambition for up to 95% of Great Britain’s Electricity to be low carbon by 2030. This is expected to be achieved through the following:

– Up to 24GW nuclear by 2050

– 50GW offshore wind by 2030 (5GW of this from floating offshore wind)

– A licensing round for new North Sea oil and gas projects

– Heat pump manufacturing support

– Up to 10GW of low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030

– Exploring the potential of increasing solar capacity

So, what changes are expected for the planning system?

  • Nuclear

While there is no direct mention of the planning system in relation to nuclear energy, the strategy states that the “government will work with the regulators to understand the potential for any streamlining or removing of duplication from the consenting and licensing of new nuclear power stations”. There is an evident ambition to progress projects as quicly as possible, and ‘the Great British Nuclear Vehicle’ will be set up in order to assist projects through the development process.

  • Offshore wind  

In order to achieve the new target of 50GW by 2030 the strategy recognises the need to speed up the planning system. Specifically, the strategy aims to reduce the planning consent time from four years to one year. A fast-track consenting route will be created for “priority cases where quality standards are met”. This will be achieved through amending the 2008 Planning Act in order to enable the Secretary of State to set shorter examination timescales.

The offshore wind section of the strategy also notes that the energy National Policy Statements will be updated in order to “reflect the importance of energy security and net zero”.

  • Onshore wind

Onshore wind was a subject of debate in the lead up to the publication of the strategy. The reason for this is that in 2015 the government changed the planning policy for onshore wind farms, as a result wind farms can only currently be built in 11% of local planning authorities in England and any applications then have to meet a community backing requirement. Despite calls to change the planning policy, the energy security strategy states that the government will not make “wholesale changes” to planning policy, but will consult “on developing local partnerships for a limited number of supportive communities who wish to host new onshore wind infrastructure in return for benefits”. It goes on to state that “the consultation will consider how clear support can be demonstrated by local communities, local authorities and MPs.” How this will be achieved and what a ‘limited number’ means is currently unclear, but given rumours of a large number of MP’s opposing onshore wind this could prove challenging.

The strategy also confirms that the government will “look at arrangements to support the repowering of existing onshore wind sites”. My research revealed existing challenges in decision making for repowering applications, so further policy / guidance will be useful.

Onshore wind turbines
  • Solar

Changes are anticipated for both rooftop and ground-mounted solar. The statement recognises that simplifying the planning process for rooftop solar could lead to a decrease in energy bills and an increase in jobs. It states that there will be a consultation on permitted development rights for rooftop solar, but there is no detail on when this can be expected. The statement also sets out the ambition to “consider the best way to make use of public sector rooftops. ” It also states that they will “design performance standards to make installation of renewables, including solar PV, the presumption in new homes and buildings.”

For ground-mounted solar there will be a consultation on “amending planning rules to strengthen policy in favour of development on non-protected land, while ensuring communities continue to have a say and environmental protections remain in place.” Again, there is no suggestion as to when this consultation will be expected. The strategy also states that they will encourage the development of large scale solar projects on land that is lower value or previously developed and  “ensure projects are designed to avoid, mitigate, and where necessary, compensate for the impacts of using greenfield sites.”

It is positive to see that the strategy sets out a commitment to supporting the co-location of solar with other land uses (e.g. onshore wind, storage or agriculture).

  • Energy network infrastructure

Increasing our domestic energy generation will require developing the necessary energy network infrastructure. The strategy sets of a target of developing a blueprint for the whole network system by the end of the year. It confirms that National Policy Statements will be updated to “recognise these blueprints in the planning system, increasing certainty for the planning inspectorate, developers and other stakeholders, and speeding up delivery”.

Looking to the future

It is clear that there will be a lot for planners to look out for. Currently, no consideration has been given to potential challenges for the resourcing of the planning system. Additionally, with the exception of onshore wind, there is a lack of consideration regarding how community input and acceptance will be assessed.

New research suggests that cemeteries provide many of the same benefits as green spaces

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By Katie McClymont and Danni Sinnett…..

Cemeteries in many cities provide functions beyond that of bodily disposal and remembrance. Thinking about our own city of Bristol, Arnos Vale Cemetery provides a historic setting for numerous events and activities, a space for nature, and opportunities for community involvement, alongside its natural burial and crematoria services. Cemeteries can therefore contribute to the network of greenspaces in our towns and cities, as spaces for recreation and nature conservation providing multiple benefits, or ecosystem services, including improved health and wellbeing, flood risk management, improvements in soil, water and air quality, pollination and climate adaptation. Often historically planned to sit on the outskirts of cities, older cemeteries now offer accessible spaces in the neighbourhoods that have grown up around them, where there may be little or no other greenspace, and limited possibilities to provide more. If planned for thoughtfully, new cemeteries can be deliberately multifunctional spaces; designed from the outset to provide benefits and functions in addition to remembrance.

Informal swing at St John’s Burial Ground which also includes orchard trees

However, there has been little in the way of research on the contribution cemeteries make to our overall provision of greenspaces. In our research we have sought to address this by examining the extent to which cemeteries in England provide accessible greenspace for people and, using Bristol as a case study, explore some of the benefits that they may provide as greenspaces.

Contribution of cemeteries to greenspace provision

We used the Ordnance Survey Open Greenspace data along with data from the 2011 Census to examine the proportion of greenspaces that are cemeteries and how this varied between urban and rural areas and different types of neighbourhood. There are 120,876 greenspaces in England of which 4992 are cemeteries (4.1%) (OS, 2021). Our key findings are:

  • The amount of cemetery space in each local authority varies across England, from less than 5 ha in some areas to 183.5 ha in Birmingham.
  • The proportion of local authority comprised of cemetery space also varies from 0.0006% in West Lancashire to 3.6% in the London Borough of Newham.
  • The proportion of greenspaces that are cemetery space range from 0.24% in West Lancashire to 31.4% in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
  • On average, there are 30ha of cemetery space across English local authorities, occupying 0.3% of local authority area and 3.7% of greenspace area.
  • Cemeteries make up a greater proportion of greenspaces in urban versus rural areas; 3.8% in cities and towns to 4.9% in major conurbations.

This means that, although varying, cemeteries form an important part of the landscape across England.

Older graves at Arnos Vale Cemetery

Potential benefits provided by cemeteries

We examined the potential benefits, or ecosystem services, provided by cemeteries through a review of the literature related to cemetery design, management and use, further spatial analysis of the OS Open Greenspace data, and surveys of eleven cemeteries in Bristol, UK that were found to be important in meeting national standards for greenspace access set by Natural England. Key findings were:

  • In England, cemeteries provide the only access to doorstop (0.5 ha greenspace within 200m of home), local (2ha within 300m of home) and neighbourhood greenspaces (10ha within 1km of home) for around 2% of the population, or 1.18m, 1.09m or 1.39m people respectively.
  • In Bristol, cemeteries are providing important functions of greenspaces contributing to walking routes, providing spaces for rest and relaxation, and social interaction.
  • Older spaces appear to be primarily functioning as greenspaces, whereas cemeteries that are or were until recently accepting burials appear to be at more transitional stages providing some limited recreational function.
  • Many cemeteries are providing space for nature with relatively mature trees, and evident from observations of birds and invertebrates, again particularly in older sites. Some cemeteries are clearly being managed for nature to some extent, for example, we saw bug hotels, unmown grassed areas.
  • The vegetation in cemeteries means that they are likely to be contributing other benefits in terms of flood risk mitigation, cooling and air quality benefits.
  • We observed new tree planting, including orchard trees, at some sites, and cemeteries may offer an opportunity to increase tree cover contributing to the target to double canopy cover across Bristol.
  • The cemeteries we visited were generally well-maintained with lower levels of incivilities, such as litter and dog mess, that can be a problem in urban greenspaces.
Signage at Arnos Vale Cemetery highlights the opportunities and challenges of multifunctional cemeteries

Although the cemeteries we surveyed are providing many of the benefits of greenspaces, planners and those managing and promoting these need to be attentive to the potentially competing needs of this ‘multifunctional’ space, such as diverse religious and spiritual practices around death and remembrance. To achieve this, we would like to see national policy guidance as well as increased funding for staff time to understand how cemeteries and greenspaces could be planned and managed as multifunctional spaces. We would also like to see green infrastructure strategies incorporate specific proposals for increasing ecosystem service delivery in cemeteries. New cemeteries could also be specifically designed to incorporate features for ecosystem service delivery.

You can read the full, open access paper here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frsc.2021.789925/full.

Climate-adapted, traditional or cottage-garden planting? How acceptable is ‘climate ready’ planting to the public, and what drives these reactions?

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By Helen Hoyle…..

The UN COP 26 2021 Climate Conference heightened public awareness of the need to act now to mitigate the climate crisis. This in turn precipitates a call to ‘futureproof’ cities by introducing resilient urban green infrastructure compatible with future climates. Yet how do the public respond to ‘climate-ready’ planting in public places, when this may be unfamiliar and very different aesthetically to native vegetation? My earlier research indicated strong public support for the introduction of aesthetically exotic, climate-adapted planting in public parks and gardens, particularly if it was better adapted to the changing climate than traditionally-used species, yet understanding of the values underlying this acceptance, and the socio-cultural drivers of people’s perceptions, was lacking. Matthew Pottage, the Curator of RHS Wisley, was also keen to know more about public attitudes to climate-adapted planting, having recently (2017) introduced an Exotic Garden at Wisley. Incorporating species such as dramatic cannas with large vibrant orange flowers, and Chinese dwarf bananas, this is an innovative experiment to gauge the response of exotic planting to the UK climate.

Our research at Wisley involved a comparative study of public reactions to three contrasting garden styles: the exotic, an informal, English cottage-garden style, with a wilder aesthetic, incorporating familiar native species such as foxgloves, geraniums and roses, and a traditional, English formal style of planting in blocks, incorporating plant species both native and non-native to the UK such as the dahlia, rose, and clematis.

The three contrasting garden styles at RHS Wisley, Surrey

We asked:

  • What is the key driver of people’s perceptions in relation to aesthetics, self-reported restorative effect, and plant and invertebrate biodiversity: planting style or socio-cultural variability?
  • What are the socio-cultural drivers of people’s held values in relation to climate change, the introduction of non-native species, and nature-connectedness?
  • Do the perceptions and values of people with a personal interest or professional involvement in landscape, horticulture or the environment diverge from those of other members of the public?

The research was conducted on-site at RHS Wisley, Surrey, UK. Members of the public were invited to walk through one specific area of planting. We wanted people to report their own responses to engaging directly with the planting, because “the environment is experienced rather than simply looked at” (Ittleson, 1973). The questionnaire addressed participants’ perceptions of the aesthetics, biodiversity and how mentally restorative it was to walk through the planting, participants’ beliefs and values including climate-change awareness and nature-connectedness, and participants’ socio-demographic characteristics.

The Exotic Garden, most preferred aesthetically, incorporates dramatic cannas with large vibrant orange flowers, and Chinese dwarf bananas,

Our findings revealed that:

  • Aesthetically, the exotic climate-adapted planting was preferred over other two styles, whereas the cottage-garden style was perceived as the least attractive to walk through, significantly less so than other two styles
  • In contrast, the cottage-garden style was found to be the most mentally restorative to walk through
  • Members of the public accurately perceived lower levels of native biodiversity perceived in the exotic climate-adapted garden-style
  • There was a direct relationship between climate change awareness and participants’ educational qualifications. Those with no formal qualifications had significantly lower awareness of the implications of climate change than other participants.
Although perceived as the least attractive garden, the Cottage Garden was the most mentally restorative to walk through

We also found that:

  • Participants who were professionally involved landscape, horticulture or the environment perceived lower aesthetic value, restorative effect, and native biodiversity for the planting overall than non-professionals
  • Those with a personal interest enjoyed the aesthetics of nature more intensely and had stronger climate change concerns than other participants.

Our findings inform policy and practice towards the realisation of environmentally and socially sustainable urban green infrastructure in public parks, gardens and greenspaces. That participants expressed a significantly higher aesthetic preference for the Exotic, (climate-adapted) Garden over the other two garden styles provides further evidence of public support for this unfamiliar style of planting, a positive transferable finding informing policymakers and land-managers seeking to ‘futureproof’ cities by introducing climate-adapted UGI in parks and gardens. Nevertheless, the cottage-garden style, perceived as the least attractive, was considered the most mentally restorative to walk through. This provides further evidence that different stimuli elicit contrasting responses in the public. Landscape planners and designers should draw from these findings to inform practice on the ground, also providing opportunities for restoration amongst familiar, naturalistic planting in public parks. When planning and designing culturally acceptable urban green infrastructure, professionals should also be mindful of the divergence of their own perceptions and preferences from those of the wider public. That we identified significantly lower levels of climate change awareness amongst people with no formal qualifications is a striking finding. It highlights a need to consider novel science-communication strategies to transcend formal educational channels if the public is to be better informed about the challenges of climate change and their implications for urban green infrastructure. This will also broaden understanding of the positive potential for climate-adapted urban green infrastructure to deliver ‘futureproofing’ benefits for climate-change mitigation and human mental wellbeing.

You can read the full open access paper here.

Thank you to Matthew Pottage for the opportunity to conduct this research at RHS Wisley.

Are Bristol’s plans to double tree canopy cover by 2045 feasible?

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by Danni Sinnett and Max Walters….

Trees provide many benefits to people and wildlife in urban environments. Seen as an opportunity to address climate and ecological emergencies, many cities are developing targets for increasing tree canopy cover and Bristol is no exception. Bristol’s One City Plan includes a target to double tree canopy cover by 2045.

We investigated the feasibility of Bristol’s target and explored different planting scenarios for its achievement. We asked the following questions:

  • How many trees would need to be planted between 2018 and 2045 to achieve the Bristol One City Plan target to double canopy cover over this period?
  • How does the timing of planting, size of trees when planted and tree mortality affect canopy cover and leaf area index over this period?

In 2018, the Forest of Avon Trust and partners assessed the benefits provided by Bristol’s trees using the i-Tree Eco software. This estimated canopy cover at 11.9%, lower than the 18.6% from the One City Plan. We used i-Tree Forecast to project future urban forest growth under different tree planting scenarios over 27 years. Because iTree Forecast requires an existing i-Tree Eco assessment we needed to model canopy cover growth from 11.9% to 37.2% (i.e. more than doubling) over the 27-year period, which is therefore a more ambitious target.

Three tree stock sizes were used, selected to be representative of the typical diameters of commercial nursery stock:

  • Small: equivalent to feathered trees
  • Medium: equivalent to light standards
  • Large: equivalent to heavy standards.

We calculated the number of small, medium and large trees needed to achieve the target under the following scenarios:

  • An equal number of trees planted each year to reflect continuous investment in tree planting
  • Intermittent planting every 5 years to reflect large scale projects such as major housing developments that might deliver significant tree planting in bursts
  • Planting concentrated between 2018-2027 to test the effectiveness of planting trees in the near term and allowing them to mature
  • Planting concentrated between 2036-2045 to reflect, for example, shortages in funding that might necessitate more planting towards the end of the period.

These were compared against a scenario of no new planting over 27 years and planting 10,000 small, medium or large trees per year, representative of current planting levels. The impact of tree felling was not considered but two annual mortality rates were used: 0.5% chosen to represent the best-case scenario and 3% to represent typical mortality rates in urban areas.

Key findings

We estimated that:

  • Assuming a 0.5% annual mortality rate, planting no additional trees or planting 10,000 small, medium or large stock trees per year will not achieve the 37.2% canopy cover target but would achieve a doubling of canopy cover from a baseline of 11.9%.
  • Assuming a more realistic 3% annual mortality rate, planting no trees results in the canopy cover decreasing to 11.4%, whilst planting 10,000 trees each year results in an increased canopy cover of around 4%.
  • Late planting between 2036 and 2045 achieves the desired canopy cover but requires the greatest number of trees to be planted and provides between 12% and 75% less leaf area than the other scenarios, which means less air pollution removal, carbon storage and sequestration.
  • Early planting between 2018 and 2027 achieves the greatest canopy cover for the smallest total number of trees, therefore requiring fewer planting locations. It also allows trees to mature providing the greatest benefits in terms of air pollutant removal, carbon storage and sequestration. However, it would require 35,000 heavy standards to be planted each year at 0.5% mortality increasing to 104,000 with 3% mortality.
  • Planting the same number of trees each year for 27 years requires more total trees but would result in a more stable population over time, ensuring that tree replacement strategies are more manageable. It would require between 18,000 and 44,000 heavy standards to be planted each year.

The greater the annual mortality rate, the more trees will need to be planted to achieve the canopy cover target. Given that Bristol’s current planting is around 10,000 trees per year, planting at least 35,000 trees per year is ambitious, especially given that higher mortality rates may require a greater number to be planted, increasing costs. Whereas adopting a continuous planting regime of 18,000 trees may be more feasible. This demonstrates the importance of good stewardship and long-term maintenance to allow urban trees to reach full maturity and provide the greatest benefits.

Trees along the Malago Greenway, Bedminster

Existing tree cover is not evenly distributed across the city, a study by Bristol City Council (2011) found that Greater Bedminster and Ashley, Easton and Lawrence Hill have the lowest levels of canopy cover in Bristol at 11% and 9% respectively. These neighbourhoods have also been identified to be some of the most deprived within the city. Although city wide targets are useful tree planting should be targeted to address inequalities across the city.

Summary of results for large tree stock equivalent to heavy standards

ApproachAnnual mortalityCanopy cover %Total number of treesSequestrated Carbon/tonTotal value of air pollutant uptake
No planting0.5%23.1469,545322,595.7£22,496,779
3%11.4240,384219,637.7£15,501,257
Current planting of 10,000 trees per year0.5%31.4723,186349,003.2£26,933,674
3%17.4433,596240,316.8£18,948,113
Continuous planting0.5%37.9927,384370,216.6£30,499,555
3%37.41,089,482310,457.8£30,642,603
Intermittent planting0.5%37.3898,114370,082.8£30,570,412
3%37.31,082,534314,760.9£31,520,209
Early planting 2018-20270.5%37.3787,282384,941.7£33,201,379
3%37.3821,568357,659.7£38,942,266
Late planting 2036-2045s0.5%37.31,154,472339,476.5£25,244,798
3%37.31,511,676251,159.4£20,664,378

You can read the full open access paper here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S161886672100323X.

Tricks of the trade: why design quality diminishes post-planning permission

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by Hannah Hickman….

The ambition to achieve high quality design outcomes in the delivery of new homes is undisputed and currently prominent on the political agenda. Most recently, we have seen amendments to the National Planning Policy Framework to strengthen its design focus, a new National Model Design Code, the creation of a new Office for Place to “drive up design standards[1] and the appointment of a Head of Architecture within the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. These initiatives have been heralded by some commentators as signalling “a moment of potential national change in the relationship between design, planning and development in England”[2].

One aspect of the planning and development process that has hitherto received little attention in relation to ensuring high quality design outcomes has been post-consent: the journey of a development from the point of receiving planning permission (either through outline permission or full planning permission) through to on-site construction, occupation and on-going management. This was the subject explored by SPE’s Hannah Hickman, Dr Katie McClymont, Dr Hooman Foroughmand-Araabi, Nick Croft and Adam Sheppard (now at the University of Gloucestershire) in recent research commissioned by the West of England Combined Authority.


Are schemes build out as initially approved?
Source: PlanningServices.net

This study explored all post-consent stages including the discharge/variation of planning conditions; reserved matters; non-material and minor-material amendments; subsequent planning applications; monitoring; compliance; and, if necessary, enforcement, to assess the extent to which these stages may result in reductions in design quality and why.  

The journey from concept to detail
Source: Designingbuildings.co.uk

Whilst the team concluded that what happens post-consent is not the main determinant of design quality, it was clear that post-consent processes can result in a significant drop in the quality of a scheme. They found a range of design elements being regularly impacted post-consent, from key details such as brick choice, materials, and window detailing, to green infrastructure and landscaping, and, on occasions, substantial scheme re-configuration and density alterations. The challenges associated with managing the cumulative impact of multiple changes were particularly problematic for guarding against reductions in design quality.

Some planning officers involved in the study were concerned that developers use post-consent rather unscrupulously and described post-consent change as being frustratingly routine and occurring in nearly all schemes, whatever the scale. They described schemes as being ‘watered down’ andreferredto conversations with developers’ post-consent that started with phrases such as ‘this wasn’t what we agreed guys’. Developers, on the other hand, saw the need for post-consent change as not only inevitable but necessary: the need to respond to the circumstances of a site once at the delivery stage, and development viability were the most common justifications for post-consent change.  

The research highlights five areas for action to improve practice as follows:

The report’s five areas for overarching action
  • The first is about ensuring that post-consent is viewed as an integral part of the development process from project inception to on-site delivery, occupation and ongoing management. This is to address the fact that post-consent often falls below the radar.
  • Part of this is about the second set of actions focussed on resourcing and empowering officers so that they the capacity to best support a development’s journey at post-consent and the confidence to advocate for the need to maintain particular design aspects of a scheme to achieve quality outcomes.
  • The third set of actions is about implementing specific improvements to post consent processes: a more careful consideration of their effective operation in practical terms to enable officers and developers to see how processes can be altered to lead to better maintenance of quality.

Beyond these more practical and system/resource-related suggestions, there is also a need to widen the conversation about development mechanisms and design quality.  The research focused predominantly on local authority practice, but bringing forward successful, high quality – development is clearly enhanced by successful collaboration between local authorities, communities and developers. Greater understanding of the post-consent journey from the perspective of all players is needed, and moreover, needed to address wider issues of trust between players best manifested in concerns about whether post-consent change is sought is for legitimate and justifiable reasons.

The team were delighted and honoured to win this year’s Royal Town Planning Institute’s Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence for this piece of research, praising it for its strong practice relevance.  The team is also currently exploring further research to look at practice and outcomes across the four nations of the UK.

The research report can be downloaded via:

https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/7318606

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/office-for-place

[2] [2] https://matthew-carmona.com/2021/02/01/78-design-quality-have-we-reached-a-moment-of-national-change/

Learning from Tower Hamlets Health Impact Assessment (HIA) policy implementation programme 2019-2021

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By Laurence Carmichael…..

Tower Hamlets (TH) Health Impact Assessment (HIA) policy was adopted as part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets (LBTH) Local Plan in January 2020.

The policy aimed to be part of a set of local planning policies addressing major health challenges in the borough, including poor housing quality, overcrowding, social isolation, poor air quality, lack of access to affordable healthy food, and lack of green spaces.

Tower Hamlets HIA policy aims to tackle overconcentration of hot food takeaways and betting shops and promote healthy habits and environments (Credit: Laurence Carmichael)

In September 2019, I was recruited as HIA Officer on a secondment from UWE Bristol’s WHO Collaborating Centre to lead on the policy implementation programme. The focus of this shifted quickly from its original quality assurance ambition towards a broader political-economic approach to maximise HIA policy leverage. Outputs of the programme included:

  • An internal cross sector planning/public health partnership to maximise the legal levers of the policy
  • A suite of capacity building and review tools including:
    • Guidance tools for officers and applicants
    • Training for internal and external stakeholders
    • Evaluation work (NIHR funded)
  • National HIA policy advocacy and development:
    • Contribution to Public Health England’s national HIA guidance[1]
    • Leading on submissions to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government consultations on the reform of the English planning system on behalf of London Association of Directors of Public Health[2]

Over the two-year review period a number of significant challenges were identified, including:

  • A lack of cross sector knowledge and silo working

The programme had to be adapted to reflect planning governance and policy drivers. These challenges reflect earlier findings from the literature[3].

  • The lack of a HIA statutory policy

HIA was not a statutory instrument despite being embedded into the local plan. Planning power is also limited as the local HIA Policy does not benefit from a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) which would give it more leverage. Planning officers will decide to give or refuse planning consent on the basis of interpretation and judgement in the light of the development plan and other material considerations. They weigh up HIA evidence potentially against other material considerations and other legal obligations and this can be at the expense of health (e.g. Heritage considerations, established land use)

  • Housing policy drivers

The London Plan sets high housing targets for TH, leaving upper density levels open and giving developers the opportunity for more speculative planning applications. Government policy requires local planners de facto to lower scrutiny over some standards which have health implications and could be highlighted by HIAs (e.g. reducing affordable housing requirements)

A challenge for Tower Hamlets planners and public health officers: managing housing targets in the highest density environment in London – Here residential developments in Canary Wharf (Credit: Laurence Carmichael)
  • Poor understanding of HIA and emerging practical issues

Over a period of 22 months, the HIA Officer commented on 64 planning applications. HIAs were in the main very weak (poor methodologies, poor identification of baseline, no recommendations).  

The practice of HIA in development management process also raised a number of practical issues in relation to various types of planning applications, for instance, can we expect a detailed HIA on a S73 amendment application? (i.e. minor amendment)

The in-depth understanding of these challenges acquired over the two-year period of the review facilitated the following recommendations:

HIA in development management:

  • Focus HIAs on the largest applications
  • Ensure a public health presence in pre-applications
  • Review assessment criteria of the HIA guidance focussing on assessment topics where end user/community knowledge is most appropriate.  
  • Strengthen the Statement of Community Involvement guidance for applicants
  • Continue capacity building efforts internally
  • Design a quality assurance framework “for the reality of planning “  
  • Supply developers with a locality baseline
  • Continue monitoring/evaluating HIA effectiveness through research 

HIA in planning policy:

  • Consider the upstreaming of HIA in planning policy and strategy
  • Identify a timeline of strategic masterplans to ensure health is considered in strategic place-shaping decisions.
  • Promote HIA approach for local design guides or codes
  • Learn from HIAs over time to inform design policies in local plans

Local authorities interested in progressing their HIA agenda on urban developments are advised to learn from Tower Hamlets experience and be mindful of challenges. This should not deter them from ensuring new urban developments promote health and equity, in particular as the Covid-19 pandemics has further demonstrated the importance of the living environment on health.

For more information on the Tower Hamlets HIA policy, please contact Matthew Quin, Public Health Programme Lead – Healthy Environments Public Health, London Borough of Tower Hamlets matthew.quin@towerhamlets.gov.uk

For information on the two-year LBTH HIA review and NIHR funded evaluation,

Please contact Laurence Carmichael, Senior Lecturer in Healthy Cities, UWE, Bristol. laurence.carmichael@uwe.ac.uk


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/health-impact-assessment-in-spatial-planning

[2] https://adph.org.uk/networks/london/2020/11/03/https-adph-org-uk-networks-london-wp-content-uploads-2020-11-adphlresponse-planning-wp-final27102020-002-pdf/

[3] •           Carmichael, L., Townshend, T., Fischer, T., Lock, K., Sweeting, D, Petrokofsky, C., Ogilvie, F and Sheppard, A. (2019). Urban planning as an enabler of urban health: challenges and good practice in England following the 2012 planning and public health reforms, in Land Use Policy, 84, p. 154-162, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264837718307361 .

New report by WHO Europe examines the urban redevelopment of contaminated sites

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By Danni Sinnett and Issy Bray

Across Europe there is a vast legacy of contaminated sites from past industrial, commercial and military activity, waste disposal, mineral extraction and other uses. WHO Europe published a report examining the Urban redevelopment of contaminated sites, which summarises the findings from an expert discussion which considered a review of the evidence on environmental and health impacts of remediation, a suite of European redevelopment case studies and a reflection on the applicability of impact assessment tools during remediation and redevelopment processes.


Redevelopment of part of the South Crofty tin-copper mine in Cornwall to provide sustainable housing, a heritage centre and community space.

This blog focuses on the findings from our evidence review commissioned by WHO Europe. The review sought to answer the question: to what extent does the remediation and subsequent redevelopment of contaminated sites reduce environmental and health risks to new and existing populations and ecological systems, and are there any effects on equity in terms of the distribution of risks and outcomes or the identification of disadvantaged groups either pre- or post-remediation?

A search strategy was developed that brought together three sets of terms related to: the contaminants (e.g. lead, polyaromatic hydrocarbons) and land uses (e.g. mining, industrial); remediation and redevelopment; and the outcomes related to health (e.g. mortality, cancer). A search of standard academic databases resulted in 6903 papers. The titles and abstracts of these were then screened based on whether they reported changes in outcomes related to the environment or human health, in either new or existing populations, as a result of the remediation and, where possible, subsequent redevelopment of contaminated sites.

The vast majority of studies report soil and water concentrations, outcomes related to ecotoxicological or human health, or risk assessments pre-remediation, the findings from laboratory or field-scale experiments testing the efficacy of remediation technologies, the results of studies that model exposure or provide commentaries or reviews of remediation technologies. This meant that only 50 papers met the criteria for full-text screening.

In total sixteen papers based on outcomes related to health were taken forward to evidence synthesis:

  • Three studies that examine the outcomes related to the health of new residents following remediation and redevelopment of contaminated sites;
  • Nine studies that examine the outcomes related to the health of children in existing neighbourhoods previously exposed to lead (n=8) and chromium (n=1) following remediation and public health campaigns to reduce exposure (e.g. by removing hand to mouth behaviour in children, improved hygiene and home cleaning);
  • Four studies that examine the outcomes related to the health in existing populations following remediation of contaminated sites.

Most of these studies were set in the United Sites and focused on reductions in blood lead concentrations in children, following a combination of soil remediation and/or public health campaigns to reduce exposure. Two further studies examined the impacts of remediation on soil contaminated with chromium and sediments contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Some studies suggest that soil cover alone is not sufficient without an excavation of contaminated surface soils to prevent upward migration, and area-wide remediation is required to prevent recontamination of residential gardens. Although it appears that soil remediation is largely responsible for the declines in soil, water, dust and blood concentrations, there is also consistent evidence that public health campaigns are effective at reducing exposure pathways where existing populations are present.

Wapping Wharf in Bristol is a mixed-use development on the site of a former goal, timber and coal yard.

The evidence suggests that remediation via removal, capping, and replacing soil, with planting vegetation on bare soils is effective at reducing concentrations of lead and chromium in blood and urine in children, although this approach to remediation is not considered sustainable. Very few of the studies explicitly considered equity in their study design or reporting of outcomes, despite it being widely reported in the environmental justice literature that disadvantaged groups are more likely to live near contaminated sites.

The review considered a further 31 studies related to environmental outcomes following full-scale remediation and/or redevelopment of contaminated sites. Eighteen studies examined various environmental outcomes following remediation of inorganic contaminants, including metals and metalloids, and asbestos, mainly through removal and/or capping of soil and thirteen studies examined the environmental outcomes following remediation of organic contaminants including pesticides, PCBs, total petroleum hydrocarbons and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.

The nature of research and development of remediation methods for contaminated land mean that there are very few studies in the academic literature that report on the outcomes related to human and environmental health following full scale remediation. Instead, the literature focuses on laboratory and pilot studies, with the results of long-term monitoring programmes tending to not be available in the public domain. In addition, the report summarises other limitations in the evidence and provides recommendations to improve the quality of evidence.

Overall, the review found that there is consistent evidence that, when best practice is employed, remediation of contaminated soils is effective at reducing both direct and indirect exposure to pollution in nearby populations and for reducing environmental risk.

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