I was privileged to be invited by Rising Arts Agency as a ‘keynote listener’ in their performance of a conversation on the question of ‘who is allowed space to create in Bristol?’ on 4th October 2020. This was part of the Centre of Gravity exhibition in Soapworks/the old Gardiner Haskins building in Bristol. Sitting in a circle for part of a conversation which carried on all afternoon and featured inputs from various young artists, I was one of a selection of ‘listeners’ who were allowed to contribute only one sentence to this conversation.
I will here try to outline to some of the things I heard, and reflect on where this conversation may lead. I will not do justice to the depth or breadth of the conversation in this small space, nor do I claim that the voice written here is anything other than mine, but I am doing this because I want to express what I heard when I was listening because I feel being in a position which gives me an audience for my words, I have a responsibility to take this conversation forward.
I am going to focus on three themes which I heard weave throughout the conversation: change, ownership, and the nature of space. This does not represent the totality of what was said, or the totality of what I heard (and I don’t assume these to be the same thing), but these ideas resonated with me, thinking as a planner about more equitable and inspiring urban spaces for the future.
The conversation opened with a discussion about the (in)affordability of space, for living and for arts, and the need for the democratisation of space at all scales- the room, the building and the city. This rapidly linked to ideas of gentrification- including a reflection on whether this conversation itself was a form of gentrification- and the nature of change. Participants saw change as inevitable: but the emotional impact (as well as financial benefits) being unevenly distributed. Questions were raised about who has to let go of the things to which they are emotionally attached for change to come about in ‘the ecology of capitalism’. Change in the city is about the movement of people, and the acceptability of this is tied to money- who brings money in by making changes, who brings a cost by arriving somewhere? Who is let in, what is protected?
These questions on belonging, and voice in change linked to the discussions of ideas of ownership. Ownership as paradoxical term- it implies ‘home’, safe space, and comfort but also unfairness, because not all have it- not everyone has somewhere they (feel they) own. Ownership was described as individual, financial, emotional- and questions raised of how can cities accommodate all of these sorts of ownership. More negatively, ownership was also seen as limiting, tying down, holding back, stuck in one place. This relates to the impact a space has on the product or performance of all artists and the implications of the difficult balance between stability and trappedness. Moreover, this is of particular concern to young artists, asking how old do we have to be to be taken seriously- when are we no longer emerging, and therefore have the legitimacy to claim space and to remake the city in their ways, rather than being invited into space: having space for guests and visitors, rather than being visitors and guests in spaces which are owned by someone else.
Debating change and ownership in this way questions static understandings of space and place. These are questions of scale (the city itself as a space) and of purpose (the role of arts as bring about social change). Physical space is important for reflection and connections and for new ways of experiencing ourselves- beyond the space of the phone. A particular point here was the potential of abandoned buildings: emptiness may be seen as a problem in planning/property development but offers so much scope for artists, particularly young artists, who need for ‘test space’ for experimentation without gatekeepers. Emptiness or abandonment here are not just physical or economic states, but ones of meaning-the creation of a vessel waiting to be (re)filled with a different essence. In some ways, this comes back to the first point- about being priced out of the market and the fear of gentrification. Where can be left empty for temporary inhabitation, experimentation and expression when everything has a price tag?
At a time of such uncertainty brought about by Covid, and compounded by proposed reforms to the planning system, we have scope to rethinking priorities in society- and in the cities and neighbourhoods in which this society lives. Can we think more deeply about sustaining places- places which sustain us, and in which we manage change in more inclusive and just ways- so that who is allowed space to create, and allowed to create space, is a question of conversation not just of cost.
By Issy Bray, Danni Sinnett, Rebecca Reece, Rob Hayward and Faith Martin…
Mental health of young people is a serious concern, particularly since the Covid-19 pandemic which has had a massive impact on the lives of young people.
The Wellcome Trust commissioned 30 reviews over Summer 2020 to better understand the ‘active ingredients’ for tackling high rates of anxiety and depression in young people, aged 14 to 24 years. You can read more about their programme and the other projects here: https://wellcome.org/what-we-do/our-work/mental-health-transforming-research-and-treatments. Our team was commissioned to conduct a review of the evidence for better access to green spaces as a means to prevent anxiety and depression in young people. This is a multidisciplinary team bringing together public health (Dr Issy Bray, Dr Rob Hayward, Centre for Public Health and Wellbeing https://www1.uwe.ac.uk/hls/research/publichealthandwellbeing.aspx), green infrastructure and planning (Dr Danni Sinnett, Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments) and psychology (Dr Faith Martin, University of Coventry, Rebecca Reece, Centre for Public Health and Wellbeing). This blogpost is drawn from the summary findings we submitted to the Wellcome Trust as one of the deliverables for the project.
Evidence shows that exposure to green space and having a connection with nature can benefit mental health. However, reviews of the evidence have tended to focus on children or adults. Our review looked at the evidence specifically for 14-24 year olds, and tried to better understand how green space can reduce the risk of anxiety and depression for this age group.
What we did
A review of a wide range of scientific research explored the role of exposure to green space in preventing anxiety and depression among young people aged 14-24 living in urban settings
This evidence was used to develop a model to help us understand the relationship between green space and mental health for this age group
Young people with lived experience of anxiety or depression were consulted about the design of our study and the model.
What we found and what this means?
There’s 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 14-24
This is likely to be due to the restorative (psychologically healing) properties of green spaces. Time away from noise/work/people/social media enables young people to notice and appreciate nature, which encourages mindfulness and increases resilience to cope with stress
Although even short walks (15 minutes) in a green space are beneficial, there is some evidence that larger parks are more helpful, and excursions to natural environments outside the city also have psychological benefits
Green spaces also enable social interaction and physical activity, both of which are likely to prevent depression
Young people tend to under-estimate the mental health benefits of their local green space, and therefore do not use it as much as they might to improve their mood.
These findings are summarised in the infographic below.
What types of studies were included?
Many of the studies included in our review were experiments which involved young people walking through a green environment (e.g. forest, park) or an urban environment. These studies compared mood and feelings of anxiety in the two groups. They tended to be carried out in Asian countries with students as participants. Some studies compared outcomes for young people before and after they completed an outdoor activity programme (e.g. a hike in the wilderness). We also included non-experimental studies that assessed the relationship between levels of neighbourhood vegetation and various outcomes, including mental health.
What were the problems with the studies?
The participants in the experimental studies were not representative of all young people aged 14-24 (e.g. often students), and some of them were based on quite small numbers of people. Few studies had depression or anxiety disorders as the main outcomes of interest, and few studies measured outcomes over the longer term.
How can those planning and designing places use this evidence?
Young people experience high levels of anxiety and depression; 1 in 5 young people have symptoms of these conditions and rates are increasing. Young people are also often disadvantaged in terms of access to private gardens, and the ability to travel long distances from where they live. This means that their neighbourhood green spaces and those in educational settings are crucial. Therefore, those planning and designing places must prioritise better access too these types of green spaces for young people, both in terms of the physical proximity to where they live, but also in ensuring they are designed to accommodate the needs of young people. Given that young people are often not aware of the beneficial role of green spaces for their mental health, there is also a need to engage young people in making better use of the green spaces they can access.
By Stephen Hall with Steven Griggs and Martin Jones…
Austerity, welfare reforms, devolution deals and varieties of localism have hit the poorest authorities the hardest, creating an economy of peaks and troughs across the country. In Stoke-on-Trent, local authority spending fell by 24 per cent in the eight years following the introduction of austerity in 2010. Benefit reform has impacted severely across the city, with the abolition of Council Tax Benefit being the single biggest cause of debt locally in a city of over indebtedness. Indeed, Stoke-on-Trent, with its historical dependency on ceramics and traditional manufacturing industries, now suffers from a cocktail of interlocking social and economic disadvantages, featuring in the bottom 10 UK cities for business start-up rates; number of businesses; gross valued added per worker; residents with high qualifications; weekly earnings; and low property values and housing affordability.
Now, the COVID pandemic threatens to accelerate this uneven geography, with Boris Johnson’s commitment to ‘levelling up’ remaining little more than a timely electoral slogan, unless his government recognises the persistent failure of his predecessors and the marketisation model of regional economic development. The ‘metropolitanisation’ of regional economic development has offered cities and towns like Stoke-on-Trent little more than the promise of conditional support and economic development if they could only become more ‘entrepreneurial’. At worse, the logic of metropolitanisation has risked cutting so-called ‘growth laggards’ off, leaving them as ‘economically isolated’ and ‘overshadowed’ satellites of regional powers.
To understand the challenges facing Stoke-on-Trent, the focus of attention has therefore to shift beyond the geography of the city to capture its ‘bigger’ regional interrelationships, especially the proximity of Manchester to the north and Birmingham to the south. Both conurbations have powerful new Combined Authorities with directly elected mayors such that ‘what little money there is under austerity is getting sucked into the Combined Authority like an agglomerative super vortex!’ Local leaders in the city may well ‘talk optimistically about being the pathway between the Midlands Engine and the Northern Powerhouse’, but for some the other more powerful analogy is that of being caught ‘between the sledge hammer and the anvil’, with the risk that the city ‘disappears off the radar in any real priority terms because it just ain’t big enough.’
Given such policy dynamics, how do we begin to ‘level up’? One quick policy response is further devolution or a ‘real localism’. It is easy to see the ‘grip’ of such policies. On the one hand, the ‘management’ of the COVID pandemic has exposed further the knee-jerk centralisation embedded in the institutions of the British state. And, on the other hand, new forms of progressive localism, associated with community wealth generation and the foundational economy, have emerged as authorities have tried to mitigate the impacts of austerity on local communities. Further releasing such local experiments offers much promise.
Stoke-on-Trent has not stood outside such municipal initiatives. The Northern Gateway (now the Constellation Partnership) Development Zone is focused on delivering 100,000 new homes and 120,000 new jobs by 2040 on the back of HS2. The Council has also led the development of a new local housing company, which utilises council land as a catalyst for the building of new homes. It has successfully bid for resources through government programmes such as Housing Zones, Estates Renewal, and Starter Homes, while gaining national recognition as an exemplar of good practice in facilitating housing supply. The new investment in partnership working has enabled successful outcomes in terms of competitive bidding for government investment such as the Ceramics Valley Enterprise Zone and has raised the profile of the city through bids to become the City of Culture and the headquarters for Channel 4. The depoliticised regime of cooperation has arguably stimulated local stakeholders to establish new working relationships with private sector interests.
However, can localism or municipalism deliver alone for the citizens of Stoke-on-Trent or any other town for that matter? Another round of localism, if the past is anything to go by, risks further shifting of the blame for cuts onto councils and communities, while advancing the clientelistic relationships engendered by competitive funding mechanisms and behind closed door deals. More importantly, how far can councils address the historical legacies impacting upon their communities? Stoke-on-Trent remains affected by the profound socio-economic challenges of a ‘low skills equilibrium, low income economy’. Job creation remains concentrated in low skill sectors such as logistics and warehousing, though there are exciting developments around digital skills and the creative economy, which need to be connected and scaled to create sustainable innovation ecosystems.
The city cannot escape the accumulated historical legacies and failures of regional economic development over the last 50 years. Its culture of low skilled work cannot be divorced from low levels of aspiration engendered by generational unemployment and the failure by national government to invest in skills and training. Moreover, local institutional capacity remains hindered by the legacies of local government reorganisation in the 1970s, experimentation with the model of the directly elected mayor and council manager, the collapse of the traditional working class Labour vote, and the rise of far right populism. In fact, leadership and collaboration are often dependent on the external imposition of formal requirements of partnership working by central government or, in the past, the European Union. Where external frameworks are absent, a parochial localism, due in part to the polycentric nature of the urban morphology, tends to prevail, hampering partnership working across the city: ‘it’s a microcosm world that’s very self-contained. It’s actually 54 villages within this city region and there is rivalry between the 54 villages.’
In addition, the local business sector is ‘incredibly weak’. Larger firms tend to be owned by investors and interests outside the region, while medium-sized firms, the so-called ‘aspirational middle’ are in limited supply. Locally-controlled companies, the interlocuteurs of the council, are consequently small scale with little engagement in any sectoral alliances, dominated by the demands of ‘doing the day job […] too busy trying to survive.’Business engagement in the Local Enterprise Partnership is very low compared to other parts of England. Land is cheap but subject to high remediation costs while much of it, including the old mining areas and the Victoria Ground, the former home of Stoke City FC, is owned by private sector developers, especially St Modwen. Authorities are then beholden to St Modwen’s priorities for land release and development.
Faced with these embedded local challenges, the economic regeneration of a city like Stoke-on-Trent cannot ignore the crucial role of central government in supporting local leadership and redistribution across authorities. But, unfortunately, the strategic focus on spatial planning and institutional capacity has been effectively lost under austerity. The earlier regime of city-regional collaboration built on housing market renewal arguably offered local leaders the horizontal linkages of peer learning, best practice, and mutual support. This sat alongside the vertical linkages of matched funding and policy input from the Regional Development Agency, the Housing Corporation, English Partnerships, and the Audit Commission, as well as access to key decision-makers in Westminster and Whitehall. However, housing market renewal was seen as ‘a highly divisive’ policy locally, with its traditional modes of regeneration and large-scale clearance and rebuilding being seen as disempowering local people. Indeed, for some, there is a new recognition across the city that ‘the answer lies in community development, local democracy, speaking to disempowered people, re-empowering people … we might not have the money but we’ve certainly got the ideas and the answers.’
But local community-led collaboration requires different forms of partnership and participation across the multiple tiers of government. And if the signals of the devolution white paper are correct, with further austerity city-regionalism enacted through ‘simplified’ local government reorganisation and ‘leadership’ metro-Mayors, something radical needs to happen to counter balance a growth model that fuels local patriotism and exacerbates uneven development by pitching cities against each other. The alternative starting point for cities like Stoke-on-Trent is to nurture local institutional capacities, reinstate a spatially-targeted national regeneration policy with people and place mobilised in tandem, working hand-in-hand with local authorities and communities. High value jobs are key, challenging local leaders to ensure the upskilling of local employment opportunities while providing the skills development and training to match. As such, there is much to learn from infrastructural growth models predicated on the ‘foundational economy’ and the socially responsible supply of basic goods and services for citizens. This reconsiders the socioeconomic foundation of the city-regional economy and offers a more ‘constitutional’ model of economic development based on promoting place-based social innovation. It reformulates the local state’s every day (goods and services consumed by all) and future assets (such as 5G-era digital infrastructures) into circuits to capture community wealth and build local strategic capacity. This is not about ‘levelling up’ but rethinking how we approach the wellbeing of our citizens and our cities and shift to patterns of sustainable consumption, while refashioning centre-local relations and reversing the direction of travel of some 40 years of failed regional economic development.
This article draws, in part, on research conducted for the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 project ‘Inequality, urbanization and territorial cohesion’. The authors would like to thank interview participants in Stoke-on-Trent and other members of the research team, especially Dr Ian Smith of the Bristol Business School. It was published in the Municipal Journal on 20.10.20.
Stephen Hall is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at the University of the West of England. @hallsg @UWEBristol @UWE_SPE @UWE_GEM
Steven Griggs is Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Local Governance Research Centre at De Montfort University. @DMULGRC @DMUpolitics @DMUleicester
Martin Jones is Professor of Human Geography and Deputy Vice Chancellor at Staffordshire University. @SpatialityJones @StaffsUni
There will be anonline book launch of Naturally Challenged, 08 October 2020, 17.00 BST. Please join the discussionby booking a ticket on Eventbrite.
The Covid-19 pandemic has heightened our awareness of the mental and physical wellbeing benefits of access to ‘urban nature’ in parks, gardens, green and blue spaces. The monetary value of these benefits is increasingly reported, for example, recent UK research estimated the human wellbeing value of frequent use of local parks and green spaces at £34.2bn/yr1, with the NHS saving £111m/yr1 based solely on reduction in GP visits. Earlier research found the total annual financial value of active visits to England’s parks, woodlands and beaches to be £2.18 bn2.
Yet to optimise the benefits of ‘urban nature’ for people, policymakers and practitioners must be mindful that variability in nature itself matters; variability in flowering and colour, biodiversity and tidiness all have specific impacts on human wellbeing, whilst at the same time socio-cultural diversity –differences in age, sex, professional background and whether people have a background of migration from another country, and how nature-connected people are, all have a bearing on how they relate to or value ‘urban nature’.
My own research3 has revealed a critical threshold flower cover of 27% as key to provoking the ‘wow factor’ amongst people spending time in parks and gardens. Most people find colourful flowering plants stimulating and exciting, boosting their mood and short-term happiness, whereas leafy green planting supports calm relaxation. This is extremely important for planting designers, because focal displays of vibrant, flowering plants can be strategically positioned to provoke human delight, yet green background planting must be prioritised elsewhere to support mental restoration.
Recent research across Europe has also confirmed appreciation of wilder grasslands and meadows in our urban parks and gardens. This may seem like good news at a time when austerity makes any alternative impossible in many urban green spaces, yet a more nuanced consideration4 of this appreciation shows that i) context matters: although people are appreciative of grasslands and meadows, some prefer neater, short-cut grass immediately outside their homes; ii) once people are aware of the habitat-value of taller meadows to urban invertebrates they are more prepared to accept them, even when they may appear brown and unkempt, beyond the flowering season; iii) ‘Cues to care’ matter: people like to see neat mown edges ‘framing’ an area of longer meadow or grassland, showing the area is being managed deliberately, and allowing access at the edge of footways. Although most people are not good at recognising biodiversity at the species level, they gain considerable wellbeing benefits from experiencing it. My recent interviews with parkrun participants confirm this, with one commenting on his own eagerness to see if there were birds on a lake as he ran or walked through a park, although he didn’t know any more than that if they were swans or ducks.
Research has also shown differences in the response to ‘urban nature’ between women and men. My own research in woodlands, shrubs and herbaceous planting of varying structural naturalness indicated that women found all types of planting more mentally restorative than men3 and perceived higher levels of ‘naturalness’5, regardless of the style of planting they walked through. In our work on urban meadow introduction with local authority land managers in Bedfordshire, we found that there was a preference for meadow style planting over traditional herbaceous and formal bedding styles, but the effect was stronger for women. People working in landscape, environmental and horticultural professionals also demonstrate contrasting perceptions and preferences to those of non-professionals, with professionals usually preferring wilder more naturalistic styles than other members of the public. They need to be mindful of this when planning and designing green spaces for other people.
Supporters of the ‘Biophilia hypothesis’ advocate that humans are hard-wired to bond closely with the natural world. Yet for some first-generation migrants with BAME backgrounds, ‘nature’ may appear too wild, dirty and inhospitable and they may be less supportive of urban grasslands than others, preferring tidier, manicured green spaces. This applies to some communities in Luton, Bedfordshire, where I have recently worked on the Futureproofing Luton project, co-producing an arboretum-meadow on a former minigolf site in Wardown Park, with the Parks Service and children from Riverbank Primary School. Parks and greenspaces are often designed with a white wilderness view of the world, and scant consideration for local needs and priorities. Engaging local people to co-create and co-produce the form of urban nature which best supports their wellbeing is an urgent priority. Nature-connection is developed through individual or community experiences over the life-course, often with roots in childhood experiences of nature within urban woodlands and greenspaces. Working with children to explore and highlight the benefits of urban nature for climate change adaptation and mitigation, biodiversity and human wellbeing, as in the Futureproofing Luton project, provides a positive approach to futureproofing our greenspaces.
1Fields in Trust, (2018). Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces.
In my previous piece I discussed how the colour and degree of naturalness of planting in urban green spaces influence peoples’ perceptions and preferences. In addition, people with different socio-cultural backgrounds often experience the same type of planting differently, with some gaining greater wellbeing benefits from brightly coloured non-native meadows and others finding a more subtly coloured native perennial meadow more restorative.
‘Socio-cultural’ is a term used in research at the intersection of people and ‘nature’ to describe both socio-demographic characteristics, such as age, sex, and whether people have a background of migration from another country, and cultural factors including people’s deep underlying or held ‘values’ including ‘nature-connection’. There is strong evidence that peoples’ perceptions and preferences as expressed on a single day are strongly related to these underlying values.
My own research has generated some interesting learning in relation to gender differences in perceptions. Findings from 1400 participants who walked through woodlands, shrubs and herbaceous planting of different degrees of naturalness, indicate that women found the planting more mentally restorative than men1 and perceived higher levels of ‘naturalness’2 regardless of the style of planting they walked through. In our work on urban meadow introduction with local authority land managers in Bedfordshire3, we found that there was a preference for meadow style planting over traditional herbaceous and formal bedding styles, but the effect was stronger for women, concurring with earlier research conducted in the Netherlands showing that women were more appreciative of gardens than men, particularly wild and romantic ones, and that men were more likely to own a ‘manicured’ garden. Landscape, environmental and horticultural professionals also demonstrate contrasting perceptions and preferences to those of non-professionals. My own research has consistently shown that professionals find spending time in green spaces less restorative than other people, maybe because this is their usual ‘work’ environment. Professionals usually prefer a wilder more naturalistic style than other research participants, so need to be mindful of this when planning and designing green spaces for other people.
Researchers and practitioners supporting the ‘Biophilia hypothesis’ advocate that humans are hard-wired to bond closely with the natural world. Yet we all know people, particularly those living in urban areas, to which this does not apply. For some first-generation migrants with BAME backgrounds, ‘nature’ may appear too wild, dirty and inhospitable. This applies within some communities in Luton, Bedfordshire, where the I am now working with a local primary school to introduce an arboretum-meadow. My own research has shown that people who are more ‘nature-connected’ both appreciate the aesthetic qualities of different green spaces and feel more mentally restored than the less nature-connected. This raises important questions. Should we ‘educate’ urban communities to know more about nature, thereby making them more nature-connected, so they can experience heightened wellbeing benefits from ‘nature’? An alternative view is that ‘contact, emotion, compassion, meaning and beauty are pathways to nature-connection.’4 I strongly support this view that ‘nature connection’ / ’nature orientation’ / ‘ecocentricity’ is developed through individual or community experiences over the life-course, often with roots in childhood experiences of nature within urban woodlands and greenspaces. During my own research, participants expressing appreciation for woodlands in Fairlands Valley Park Stevenage, Hertfordshire, recounted visits to Monks Wood 50 years ago as children, or more recent visits with grandchildren to create imaginary woodland characters and stories.
During the COVID-19 pandemic more people have done physical activity and sought mental restoration in parks and greenspaces than ever before. In the months to come, as lockdown eases further, it will be interesting to see if people continue to use and value these spaces, and whether this impacts on their nature-connection.
1Hoyle et al. (2017). All about the ‘wow factor’? The relationships between aesthetics, restorative effect and perceived biodiversity in designed urban planting. Landscape and Urban Planning, 164, 109-123
2Hoyle et al. (2019). What determines how we see nature? Perceptions of naturalness in designed urban green spaces. People Nat.; 00:1–14.
3Southon et al. (2017). Biodiverse perennial meadows have aesthetic value and increase residents’ perceptions of site quality in urban green-space. Landscape and Urban Planning, 158, 105-118.
Last month I commented on how the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the value of private gardens, public parks, green and blue spaces. Many people now have a heightened awareness of how important access to ‘urban nature’ in these spaces is for their physical and mental wellbeing. To reinforce the significance of this to UK decision makers, the monetary value of these spaces is increasingly reported, for example, recent UK research estimating the human well-being value associated with frequent use of local parks and green spaces at £34.2bn/yr1, with the NHS saving £111m/yr1 based solely on reduction in GP visits.
Yet less attention is paid to the pathways between ‘nature’ in parks, gardens and green and blue spaces and human wellbeing. What type of nature is most supportive of human wellbeing, and do different types of urban planting invite or provoke different human reactions? Do people find the same sorts of environments both attractive and mentally restorative? A growing body of research, including my own, is now addressing these questions.
I previously conducted questionnaires with over 1400 members of the public who walked through woodlands, shrubs and herbaceous planting at 31 sites including public parks, green spaces and institutional gardens in England. This research2 revealed a critical threshold flower cover of 27% as key to provoking the ‘wow factor’ amongst the visiting public. Most people found colourful flowering plants stimulating and exciting, whereas green vegetation formed a background and was conducive to relaxation. This is extremely important for planting designers, because focal displays of vibrant, flowering plants can be strategically positioned to provoke human delight, yet green background planting must be prioritised elsewhere to support mental restoration.
Considering the relative naturalness of urban planting, research from an extensive Europe-wide study3, has confirmed ‘broad support for biodiversity’, and an appreciation of a wilder, less managed form of urban nature in our parks and gardens. This is good news at a time when austerity makes any alternative impossible in many urban green spaces. UK research4 involving the introduction of perennial meadows in different urban contexts confirmed this. Conducted with stakeholder partners in Bedfordshire, our findings showed that the majority of site users thought that the introduction of perennial meadows to local green spaces had improved their wellbeing. Three key messages for practice were: i) context matters: although people were appreciative of meadows, some preferred neater, short-cut grass immediately outside their homes; ii) once people are aware of the habitat-value of taller meadows to urban invertebrates they are more prepared to accept them, even when they may appear brown and unkempt, beyond the flowering season; iii) ‘Cues to care’ matter: people like to see neat mown edges ‘framing’ an area of longer meadow or grassland, showing the area is being managed deliberately, and allowing access at the edge of footways. This is particularly important in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, when green space managers need to factor in the need for physical distancing within our valued parks and green spaces.
1Fields in Trust, (2018). Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces.
2Fischer et al. (2018). Beyond green: Broad support for biodiversity in multicultural European Cities. Global Environmental Change 49 35-45
A lot has been written about Build, Build, Build[i] over the last couple of weeks and I share the same level of unease about some of the proposals. But we’ve been here before. Indeed, while you won’t have had the date marked in your calendar, last week marked the 5-year anniversary of when Fixing the Foundations[ii] was published. Back then, this plan for ‘creating a more prosperous’ nation, was penned by George Osbourne (as Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Sajid Javid (as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills). Chapter 9 ‘dealt’ with planning and some of the chapter’s sub-headings, including its promises for releasing land and increasing the urgency of planning, echo what has been said recently by Boris Johnson. Fortunately, the same level of derision was aired back in 2015, with the Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright[iii], for example, highlighting how the planned reform would give us the ‘slums of the future’. Oliver called for better public outcomes and it’s good that campaigning on this agenda has gained momentum since (with the TCPA’s pitch for a Healthy Homes Act being particularly noteworthy).
Chapter 15 of Fixing the Foundations also promised us a re-balancing of the UK’s economy. While some of the proposals in Build, Build, Build could be argued to support such a goal, the call for spreading prosperity was far stronger within the New Deal for Britain[iv] that Boris Johnson also launched a couple of weeks ago. Specifically, via a section on ‘investing in, and accelerating, infrastructure’, the New Deal provided an update on the Government’s Town Fund[v], a £3.6bn scheme that is intended to accelerate investment in town centres and high streets across England. The first tranche of money equates to an individual pot of about £500k-£1m per town but funding of up to £25m per town is ultimately expected from future waves of funding. At this time of gloominess this money cannot come quick enough. But what next? How will this money be spent and will projects be properly planned?
Before we focus on that, let’s remind ourselves on how the Towns Fund originated. Officially the fund emerged from a combination of two other initiatives that had been launched earlier in 2019, namely the Stronger Towns Fund and the Future High Streets Fund. The former had been introduced by Boris Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, with her launch speech targeting those towns with ‘glorious heritage, huge potential, and with bright futures ahead of them’. This same sentiment was pitched by Johnson himself when he launched the Towns Fund shortly after his election in July 2019. Whilst acknowledging that not everyone wanted to live in ‘our country’s great cities’, he promised to ‘start answering the pleas of some of our left behind towns’.
A formal prospectus for the Towns Fund was published in November 2019[vi]. The number of identified towns equate to a hundred, with Swindon, Bournemouth, Glastonbury, Bridgwater, Torquay, Truro, Camborne, St. Ives and Penzance representing the south west. Each of these towns has been funded to establish ‘Town Deal Boards’, authority-led partnerships that are intended to bring relevant stakeholders together. Once in place, each board is required to prepare their own ‘Town Investment Plan’ (TIP) which needs to present a vision for the town, and include action plans for delivering change over the short, medium and long term (although no specific timescales are defined).
A week before Build, Build, Build, the Government released further guidance on the Towns Fund and invited eligible towns to decide whether or not to submit their TIP by the end of July 2020 or in a later cohort, by either October 2020 or early 2021[vii]. Making such a submission will enable the towns to unlock funding. The funds continue to be justified on the basis of promoting local economic growth, but the latest document also acknowledges the impact of COVID-19 and the additional vulnerabilities and weaknesses that the pandemic has exposed across our towns. As for what the money can be spent upon, the guidance outlines six intervention themes. These include improvements to local transport, skills and enterprise infrastructure, as well as funding for the arts, culture and heritage. It will be interesting to see what comes forward given the breadth of possibilities. It is acknowledged that the fund can only go so far and the competitiveness of the programme feels somewhat wrong in these fragile times. It also remains unclear why certain towns were selected, while others were not, and I can’t help wondering what binds these places together. The guidance does talk about encouraging collaboration between the towns so I hope this joint learning is actioned. Although the further guidance mentions planning in a range of contexts, I hope planners are able to take a lead since in my view, the TIPS are essentially mini-local plans. But will they and how will the TIPs sync with plan-making and other local planning activities? By allowing planners to take a leading role, the Towns Fund can hopefully help to dispel recent narratives that have painted the planner as the ‘pantomime villain’ rather than as the un-locker of growth. I do hope the fund can fire-up some much-needed enthusiasm and creativity for pursuing a town-led ‘urban renaissance’ and I will certainly be interested in what is being planned to help bring our
In SPE’s last blog, ‘More haste, less speed’, Adam Sheppard wrote compellingly about the perils of this Government’s drive to create a laissez-faire neo-liberal planning system. This piece follows on from that to offer further commentary on impending reform, this time to linked to some of our current research on planning and design quality.
The Financial Times, amongst other press reports, has intimated that Ministers are preparing for a ‘major overhaul of the planning system’ which would speed up the approval process for new developments in a bid to reboot the economy following the COVID-19 crisis. Whilst the details are scant, the rumours are about the possible replacement of the discretionary system with a zoning system and the use of special development zones. With the Prime Minster having recently launched ‘Project Speed to scythe through red tape and get things done’, the narrative is about further de-regulation, aimed at addressing the ‘appalling planning system’ .
The phrases ‘major overhaul’ and ‘planning system’ now seem almost un-separable. There have been repeated attempts to reform the planning system, the most major of which was in 2010 with the complete abolition of the regional strategic tier within the English planning system. Successive governments of differing political colours have tended towards a market-led view which characterises planning as a regulatory function focused on managing the negative consequences of development, rather than a more positive, place shaping, enabling tool. As the RTPI has recently stated, “with this narrow perception, it becomes possible to see planning as a barrier to growth which can be temporarily scaled back during times of crisis” (2020, 4).
Here, at UWE a team is half-way through an important research study for the four West of England Authorities about achieving high quality design outcomes in major housing developments. This study is focused specifically on post-planning consent, and the mechanisms that local authorities have at their disposal to ensure no denigration in housing quality between consent and delivery. In our research to date, we have found officers across all four authorities committed to providing housing to meet the ever-growing need and improving the quality of places for residents. Yet they find themselves operating in a system which has been so pruned of powers and resources that they feel increasingly unable to control the quality of development, focusing more on the immediate pressure to deliver ‘units’ rather than create places.
Of course it is right that as the impact of Covid-19 unfolds, innumerate and important questions should be raised about the way in which planning can and should contribute to response and recovery, and this includes its role in supporting the economy.
What is more questionable, however, is the extent to which Covid-19 may well become the justification for whatever reality in the form of concrete proposals emerges from the rumours, thereby inhibiting important debate about what planning is for, and how it should be best configured and resourced to achieve its purpose at this time. One thing most people will have experienced much more over the last three months is time at home. Surely there should be scope to reflect on how emerging homes can be developed in ways which are more than fit for habitation- and done in a way which aims to mitigate climate change. To do so is to be collectively prepared for the next crisis, rather than wilfully naïve in the hope that simply, blindly, fuelling the economy will just make it all right.
One of the more promising things to emerge from this Government prior to lockdown had been to reinforce the role of the planning system in achieving high quality design outcomes, as reflected in its revisions to the National Planning Practice Guidance on design and a new National Design Guide, illustrating “how well-designed places that are beautiful, enduring and successful can be achieved in practice” (MHCLG, 1).
We are concerned that once again focusing debate on de-regulation to speed up the economy, this recent progress to re-energise planning’s role in supporting design may be denuded at a time when it is needed more not less. We already see the major housebuilders calling for greater freedoms and flexibilities, and ‘major policy changes’, and a shift in the narrative back to ‘build, build, build’, rather than homes and places.
Whilst there is still much speculation, in any ensuing debate about further reforms, what must be avoided is the pursuit of high-quality design being seen as a regulatory burden that can be chipped away at, avoided even, rather than a reasonable expectation or fundamental necessity, that planning (in whatever form) must promote. Fine words about ‘building beautiful’ or the values of good architecture are worse than useless if they are not backed up with the sorts of tools and policies which practising planners can use to ensure this level of quality is brought about. As our research is exploring, the powers planning authorities do or do not have, really affect what is delivered. And what is delivered will be the homes for our children and our grandchildren; places for lives to be lived, families to be forged not just units on a spreadsheet.
This role for planning is critical, starting with a vision for and expectations about the types of places and spaces we want to achieve, right through to collaborating with developers to ensure that high quality outcomes are achieved in practice. This is what recovery should look like: resilience and togetherness, working out how things can become better.
Build, Build, Build. A dramatic title for a Press Release. Repeating the same word three times is a simple way of communicating that something is not only dramatic, but is going to happen at speed; think Murray Walker shouting Go! Go! Go! as the lights went out back when Formula 1 was exciting. We all want instant satisfaction nowadays (apparently), and right now the current Conservative Government can’t get no satisfaction when it comes to planning and development. So, if we can find enough skilled labour, we’re going to build, build, build. But more than that, we’re going to build better.
The way we’re going to build better is via ‘the most radical reforms to the planning system since the Second World War’. The 1947 Town and Country Planning Act was a pivotal moment in history. Prior to this point planning in the UK was broadly evolving as a regulatory system. But a quest for greater flexibility resulted in a significant change of direction and the introduction of a radical new discretionary system. The implication is therefore that England might be about to do something equally dramatic; are we going back to the future?
There is much debate to be had over the respective merits of regulatory and discretionary planning systems. Ultimately both offer challenge and opportunity in equal measure. Both can be effective, both can be undermined. And there’s the rub. We can’t say for sure what is intended for the long term, but early indications suggest there is reason for concern.
The initial stated changes in the Press Release are:
‘More types of commercial premises having total flexibility to be repurposed through reform of the Use Classes Order.’
‘A wider range of commercial buildings will be allowed to change to residential use without the need for a planning application.’
‘Builders will no longer need a normal planning application to demolish and rebuild vacant and redundant residential and commercial buildings if they are rebuilt as homes.’
‘Property owners will be able to build additional space above their properties via a fast track approval process, subject to neighbour consultation.’
We also know there are plans for wider usage of what the Government likes to call ‘zoning tools’, for example Local Development Orders. Do these initial suggestions give hope for the future? Do they heck. The weasel words of the Government in their press release are that the changes will be ‘making it easier to build better homes where people want to live’. The truth lies in just some of the words in the first half of this sentence; the proposed changes will simply make it easier to build homes. This will be done by effectively circumventing planning. Compromising the current system even further by undermining it more. These new changes aren’t radical, they’re a sham; re-regulation within the current construct, creating new and exciting ways to avoid things like democratic accountability, quality control, social justice, and so forth.
Will freedom give us better? History suggests not. We can look at the Victorian period, with the slums of the under-regulated urban environment evidencing how some will behave in the absence of oversight. But we can also look at recent history for examples too; one is the use of the Prior Approval mechanism to enable the conversion of offices into residential use with only limited opportunities for local authority management. The latter has enabled the avoidance of planning gain (and the associated loss of revenue to provide public goods), the avoidance of space standards, the avoidance of the obligation to provide affordable housing, the inability to effectively consider the appropriateness of location, the inability to control design, and so on and so on. Already we have seen these provisions result in windowless ‘studio flats’. I’m going to write windowless again in case you’re skim reading this. Windowless. More of this type of anti-planning appears to be planned. The question isn’t whether harm will occur, only the forms it will take and how extensive it is.
There has been much reflection recently on our urban environments as a result of Covid-19, including the provision of adequate internal space, access to open space, light, social and physical infrastructures etc, all mindful of both physical and mental health. There is also continuing emphasis upon the need to build truly better places; more sustainable, healthier. The reason for the very existence of planning is to make things better. Not easier, nor quicker, but better. The planning system in the England has issues, but properly resourced, designed, and supported it can be a genuinely constructive, positive, enabler of better. Since the post-war reconstruction of Britain an effective planning system has never been more needed, and equally never has it been under more threat.
The latest step in the current Government’s drive to create a laissez-faire neo-liberal planning system will no doubt find support from some, but for others the risks of build, build, build, are very, very, very real.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the value of private gardens, public parks and green spaces. At the beginning of lockdown, when outdoor exercising was the only outing from home ‘allowed’, we spent an increasing amount of time outdoors in these spaces. Those with their own gardens planted seeds and vegetables, eeking out any remaining compost when garden centres were still closed. Some even walked or jogged in their own gardens. But many households have no access to a garden, so the value of our public parks and green and blue spaces for both physical and mental wellbeing was at last realised.
Yet the temperatures were very warm, little rain fell, and many of our green spaces started to look brown and worn. Although we described the weather as ‘unseasonably warm’, longer term climate data confirm that temperatures are increasing. Parts of the UK are suffering increasing summer aridity, with a negative impact on the planting designed for a cooler, more temperate climate. It is time for us to ‘futureproof’ our valued parks and green spaces by looking to warmer climates to source our urban trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. This has been happening in the UK for some years. The London 2012 Olympic Park in Stratford incorporated South African planting with species such as Kniphofia used dramatically in a prime position near to the stadium. Whereas subtly-coloured perennial meadows were sown in the more naturalistic North Park, vibrant annuals dominated swathes of banking around the stadium. The bright oranges of Eschscholzia californica, (California poppy), gave way to the golden Coreopsis tinctoria (Plains coreopsis) in time for the Paralympics. Such ‘futureproofing’ should happen everywhere. It is happening now on a former minigolf site in Wardown Park, Luton1, where I am working closely with the Parks Service and Riverbank Primary School to introduce an ‘airquality arboretum-meadow’. Working with the support of the Landscape Institute and specialist meadows consultant Pictorial Meadows, we have introduced nine trees, particularly selected to be adapted to a warmer future climate. The annual meadow sown at the beginning of lockdown, including Coreopsis tinctoria, will provide welcome aesthetic delight to local park visitors throughout the summer.
Why don’t we plant more climate-adapted species in UK parks and gardens? This is probably due to a lack of understanding amongst some policy-makers and practitioners, assuming all non-natives to be like Japanese knotweed. To the contrary, many non-native species can make a significant positive contribution, for example, Coreopsis tinctoria, provides late season pollen and nectar to generalist invertebrates after native UK species have finished flowering in September. It also provides a welcome late season burst of sunshine for park visitors. People also like exotic, climate-adapted planting. My previous research2 has shown that 75% people would be happy for non-native climate-adapted planting to be introduced in UK parks and gardens if it were better-adapted to the changing climate than present-day species. A more recent study (article under review) in collaboration with Matthew Pottage at RHS Wisley has shown that awareness of climate change and its implications is directly related to educational qualifications. This highlights the need to raise awareness and widen access and understanding of climate change science beyond formal educational settings. As we appreciate the physical and mental wellbeing benefits of spending time in our gardens, parks, green and blue spaces, through the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, ‘futureproofing’ them should be a priority.