How future planners’ views on Covid-19 provide grounds for optimism

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by Hannah Hickman….

The news can feel unremittingly challenging and I oscillate between trying to engage with the detail and wanting to ignore it all in the vague hope that next time I look, a future more Covid free reality might be closer on the horizon. Anecdotally, colleagues, friends and family feel similarly.

In a ‘seeking to engage phase’ last month, two headlines particularly struck me: the first, signalled that those aged 25-34 are at the highest risk of redundancy; the second, and more encouraging, suggested ‘amongst, all the doom and gloom there’s positives[1].

It drew me to contemplate the new cohort of planning students starting their studies this academic year. For undergraduates, the 25-34 age bracket may still seem a little way off, but for post-graduates, many of them in or near that age bracket, the desire for a swift move into employment – and employment that offers security – is likely to be a pressing concern. Of course, some students may already be in work, either in planning or in another sector to fund their studies and gain experience- recently increasing numbers taking a ‘degree apprenticeship’ route into their planning studies are an important subset of the former. Whatever a student’s personal circumstances, the derivative economic impacts of Covid are likely to seed worries.

There is contemporary commentary on the student experience in Covid-times and much of this is legitimately focussed on their learning experiences. There has been little commentary, however, on how Covid might be impacting student’s perceptions of their future careers: particularly if their course of study has a defined career path. This led me to reflect on the second headline: have students’ perspectives on planning as a career or course of study changed because of COVID, and in any positive ways?


Source: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/covid-19-what-does-local-lockdown-mean-uk-universities

In 2019, UWE, with the support of the Royal Town Planning Institute, instigated a new longitudinal study to seek to understand the motivations expectations of emergent planners, in response to what was felt to be an ‘empty vessel’[2] of work on young planners and their perspectives[3]. In the second year of the study, in addition to repeating the questions posed in 2019, we asked students new to planning in 2020: Do you feel that Covid has impacted upon your views on planning and your own career plans?”.

I wondered: did their responses provide grounds for optimism in the terms of the second headline, or reveal concerns about their future careers, more aligned with the first headline? With a response from over 220 undergraduate and postgraduate students from planning schools across the UK and Ireland, their views are worth listening to.

Despite some inevitable denigration of individual detail, their responses can be grouped into the following three themes: the first about perceptions of planning; the second about ideas of place; and the third about work.

For several students their experiences of and perspectives on Covid had emboldened their ideas about the value of planning: seeing planning as more not less relevant in a post-covid world:

“it has made me view planning as a resilient tool for making better places”

“it has shown me if the will is there planners/designers could make an immediate difference to streetscapes”

“I have always believed that reasonable planning is the basic aspiration for the development of a city or even a country. This epidemic made me realize the importance of planning and strengthened my views”.

For these young planners, Covid has provided motivation to think about the role of planning, fuelling a desire to build on the experiences of early lock-down to achieve positive change, particularly the environmental benefits of a quietened city. As one student observed: “early lockdown showed us that we can make a difference to pollution and climate change”.

They also alluded to the need to think differently about the ways in which ‘we do planning’, “I think we will need to re-evaluate the places we design and create”, “we should consider the unexpected when we make plans”, and “Planners’ role in the coming decade will be to reimagine these cities once again in the new [Post Covid] context”.

Many students’ ideas of space and place had shifted as a result of Covid. In particular, the value and importance of home has been heightened, along with a desire for more private outdoor space. One student wrote passionately about the disparities in experience between rich and poor: “lockdown has been detrimental to mental health due to a lack of parks, no gardens and extremely small houses”, andanother that “the density of cities in the future will need to be considered, will we all want to live so closely together?”. One student simply stated: it’s made me realise the importance of green space and planning for health”.These students were also quickly attuned to some of the perversities of policy in lockdown and questioned the potential future impacts of, for example, such a major reduction in public transport usage.


Source: https://www.theplanner.co.uk/news/covid-19-green-space-should-be-a-priority-in-local-plans

Perhaps unsurprisingly a significant number responded by focussing on employment opportunities. One student lamented, Covid has complicated an already complicated world while also making career planning more difficult” and the words “concern”, “unsure”, “impossibility”, “uncertainty”, “difficulty”, and “confusing”, were frequently used to express worries about future work. Others, however, suggested that Covid “may open up more job opportunities through more flexible working”, and that the flexible working resulting from Covid “enabled a career move”, and “caused me to re-evaluate my career and choose to go into planning”.

None of these short threads are in and of themselves inherently surprising, and as with all surveys, one is left wanting to more about the individual circumstances to understand perspectives and experiences in greater depth. Nevertheless, briefly delving into this data has led to two brief conclusions that reflect back on the headlines that provided my initial motivation for this piece. Firstly, as a profession we need to be attuned to the concerns that future planners’ have about their career choices in a post-Covid world, and consider what can be done to best support them and alleviate their concerns against the backdrop of the pandemic. Secondly, the many articulate and thoughtful responses to the ‘Covid’ question in our survey signal a motivated cohort of young planners in the pipeline: this provides enormous grounds for optimism.


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/health-55802623

[2] T Taşan-Kok and M Oranje: ‘Young practitioners’ reflections on contemporary ethical challenges’. In T Taşan-Kok and M Oranje: From Student to Urban Planner: Young Practitioners’ Reflections on Contemporary Ethical Challenges. Routledge, 2018, p.17

[3] More information is available via: https://www.uwe.ac.uk/research/centres-and-groups/spe/projects/young-planners-expectations-and-motivations


The Art of Healing: arts-led research to support child wellbeing in Kashmir.

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by Michael Buser…..

Kashmir – set in northern region of the Indian subcontinent – encompasses territories administered by India, Pakistan and China.  The region has long been contested and fought over (India and Pakistan have fought three wars over the territory) and is considered to be one of the most militarised areas in the world.  In the Kashmir Valley, in places like Srinagar and Pulwama, where our research team is working, everyday life is marked by the presence of military, curfews, stone-pelting, demonstrations and violence. Like most of the world, Kashmir has been under various forms of restrictions (e.g., school closures) due to Covid-19. Yet, the lockdown in Kashmir started in August 2019 when the Indian government amended the constitutional provisions and special status which allowed a level of autonomy for this Muslim majority state. Children have been particularly impacted by these events – many young people will have experienced trauma and live in a state of uncertainty and fear.

I have been involved in organising a diverse group to provide support to young people who live in Pulwama – an area that has been the centre of clashes between the army and militants (including a 2019 attack on a military convoy that resulted in 21 deaths).  Our team is funded through the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s ‘Urgency’ programme and ‘Global Challenges Research Fund’ and includes an amazing collection of dedicated people – including UK and Indian-based artists and film-makers as well as experts in public and child health, psychology and arts-based therapy, and international politics.  We are collaborating with a local school whose enthusiastic and caring teachers and administrators have integrated arts activities into the school’s curriculum. 

Children have been working through the ‘land of colours’ as a way of exploring a number of themes including happiness, suffering, heroism, and compassion

Over the past several months, we have been working with about 30 children ages 11 to 15 to support their wellbeing through a range of art-based therapy and arts activities.  These have been delivered online and face-to-face (the school is mostly closed, yet some activities are taking place on campus).  My colleague Anurupa Roy has been leading on the online activities with the children which has led to an amazing outpouring of creative work. This has all been accomplished through lockdowns, internet cut-offs, bandwidth restrictions, and all kinds of technological and political challenges.

Delivery of the in-person activities has also been extremely challenging. I thought this could be best expressed by quoting some words from Vikramjeet Sinha, an arts-based therapist working with the children.  

The breath-taking natural, brutal beauty of Kashmir, the lovely eyes of the children when they speak … keeps me at it and whatever the challenges I face, the children are worth it for they are so sweet. The first week there was a grenade blast on our way back in the evening, and even though it was not a close shave, I could not let the peaceful natural beauty delude me that things are peaceful. Civilians were killed in the blast and during these times the internet often gets cut off and any other zoom call with the world becomes an impossibility. Municipal elections at Pulwama kept the internet off for two days, such unprecedented things often happen out here.

Vikram’s reflections draw attention to some of the difficulties of working on the project – but also, how it is so fulfilling.  For my part, I am honoured to be part of this work and extremely grateful to be an academic who can direct energy and support to the wellbeing of people living in such difficult circumstances.  From this perspective, I have been disappointed to see news about the UK government’s decision to reduce the overseas aid budget from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of gross national income.  Not only are programmes like the GCRF funded through development assistance, but as many others have said, these cuts will have real impacts on the lives of people at risk in areas of the world where support is needed.

At the end of the first round of work, the children gave a shadow puppet performance.  This image shows one of the sets constructed for the show.
 

Going forward we are continuing with online activities with the expectation of some face-to-face (Covid safe!) work in Pulwama in March.  At this stage, we are enjoying watching the artwork emerge – they have produced some spectacular pieces (a few of which I’ve included here).  We are also noting how the children are expressing themselves and allowing their inner worlds to become unlocked through the therapeutic experience of the arts.   

If anyone has any comments or questions, please get in touch: Michael.Buser@uwe.ac.uk

Getting public health evidence into planning policy

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By Danielle Sinnett, Miriam Ricci, Janet Ige, Hannah Hickman, Adam Sheppard and Nick Croft (UWE), Michael Chang (PHE), Julia Thrift and Tim Emery (TCPA)

The Getting Research Into Practice 2 (GRIP2) project was commissioned by Public Health (PHE) England and delivered in collaboration with the Town and Country Planning Association. The project had two aims:

  1. To facilitate the implementation of health evidence set out in key PHE publications by directly engaging with local and regional policy makers, and practitioners across place-making professions and communities.
  2. To provide evidence-informed resources to assist local authorities in developing planning policies to improve health and wellbeing.

Following the publication of Spatial Planning for Health in 2017, PHE commissioned a further research project: Getting Research into Practice (GRIP). This sought to explore the use of the principles set out in Spatial Planning for Health, and the challenges of applying these in local planning policy and decision making. The findings informed the basis of this second phase of Getting Research into Practice (GRIP2).

What we did

We selected four locations to take part in the research and develop local resources from 39 Expressions of Interest. Workshops were then held in each of the selected locations, below, to understand how health evidence could be used in the development of planning policies, with a different focus:

  • Worcestershire: template Technical Research Paper on Planning for Ageing Well that could form the evidence base for new Supplementary Planning Documents (SPD).
  • Hull: template SPD on Healthy Places to address the considerable health inequalities.
  • North Yorkshire, York and East Riding (YNYER): framework for planning for health.
  • Gloucestershire: template to integrate health into neighbourhood plans.

The four workshops took place in November 2019 and each was attended by approximately 30 key representatives from across planning and public health, the relevant local authorities or county councils, and locally identified stakeholders. Workshops consisted of a series of short ‘scene setting’ presentations followed by short interactive workshops.

Written notes from workshop discussions and other background documentation from the local areas were then analysed using the qualitative data analysis software NVivo.

The notes and analysis were used to develop:

·         Framework for a healthy places supplementary planning document (SPD)

·         Developing a healthy planning principles framework

·         Guide to creating a technical research paper on ageing well

·         Guide to embedding health and wellbeing in neighbourhood plans

A suite of guidance to integrate health evidence into planning policies

Key findings and recommendations

We found that across the four locations examined there is a genuine recognition of the ongoing need to develop places that improve health and wellbeing outcomes and reduce health inequalities. However, integration and partnership working across the professions is key, and there are areas of good practice where this is already taking place. It was seen as crucial that all those involved in the planning and development process understand the importance of planning in tackling poor health and health inequalities, including central and local government planning policymakers, and those working in development management, private developers and their consultants.

Despite this, barriers remain related to a lack of leadership, experience, financial resources and capacity in local authorities. Participants were positive that these barriers could be overcome through, for example, increasing communication and joint working between planning and public health teams, learning from best practices and successes in other locations, making better use of the powers available to planners and including a wider range of voices and contributions in the local planning policy process.

There is also an opportunity to make more effective use of health evidence in local planning policy by improving stakeholders’ understanding of the types and sources of available evidence and their strengths and limitations.

The effective use of health evidence in practice, in turn, can further strengthen the case for healthy places at the local level, encouraging buy in from politicians and local communities.

The use of workshops was seen as a key engagement mechanism that helped to initiate and strengthen these local appetites for better integration.

The research report provides a series of recommendations, for example:

  • Tailored local evidence with specific objectives and audiences in mind could be provided to allow planning policies and decisions to be made more effectively and robustly.
  • All stakeholders could develop a shared understanding of the role of planning in improving population health and reducing health inequalities.
  • Make best use of public health evidence, including that generated by communities, to help planners use their powers more effectively.
  • Ensure that health inequalities, and their relationship with the built environment, are well understood and explained in planning policies.
  • Support the creation of an effective evidence base which can be applied within a planning context, including through monitoring and evaluation of planning policies.

The resources provided above provide detailed guidance towards achieving some of these recommendations and are a valuable resource for planning and public health teams.

The key to post COVID-19 recovery: community leadership

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By Robin Hambleton….

As well as causing appalling suffering and misery, the COVID-19 pandemic is opening up new possibilities for the future.  An uplifting feature of the way that communities have responded to the COVID-19 calamity has been the spectacular expansion of self-organising community groups working at neighbourhood, or village, level to help the vulnerable and the needy.

While researching my new book, Cities and communities beyond COVID-19. How local leadership can change our future for the better, I encountered many heart-warming stories of how local communities have responded with great imagination to the disruption of local food supply chains, taken steps to protect the most vulnerable in society, and engaged in all manner of creative, problem-solving activities at the local or hyper-local level.

My research suggests that cities and localities across the world now face four major challenges at once: 1) The COVID-19 health emergency, 2) A sharp, pandemic-induced economic downturn, 3) The climate change emergency, and 4) The disastrous growth of social, economic and racial inequality in many countries.

The good news is that many cities and localities are already developing and delivering progressive strategies that address these four challenges at one-and-the-same time.

An example of good civic leadership – Freiburg, Germany

The photographs in this piece are from one of the cities now leading the way in responding to current societal challenges.  Freiburg is, of course, very well known for pioneering high quality city planning and urban design. 

For example, the Academy of Urbanism joined with the City of Freiburg in publishing The Freiburg Charter for Sustainable Urbanism in 2011.The Academy wanted not just to recognise the achievements of civic leaders and city planners in Freiburg, but also to spread the word about their approach to an international audience.

What is not so well known is that Martin Horn, the young and energetic politician, who was elected as Mayor of Freiburg in 2018, is stepping up the progressive ambition of Freiburg’s policy making.  For example, he is insisting that, as well as meeting very high environmental standards, over 50% of new housing in the city must be affordable. Yes, that’s 50%. 

Detailed plans for Dietenbach, a new eco-friendly neighbourhood for 15,000 people, deliver on this objective.  Submitted to Freiburg City Council last month, these plans also provide open space, schools, sports facilities, day-care centres and local shopping opportunities.  

Meanwhile, the imaginative Freiburg holds together (Freiburg halt zusammen) digital network bundles together numerous citizen-oriented information services and activities for residents struggling with COVID-19 pressures.

Freiburg is just one of the progressive cities featured in my book.  Other cities discussed include Bristol, Copenhagen, Dunedin, Mexico City and Portland.

Children enjoying outdoor space in Vauban, Freiburg, Germany. (Source: the author).

Lessons for UK policy, practice and research

Three lessons for UK policy, practice and research emerge. 

First, the government’s 2020 White Paper, Planning for the Future, needs to be discarded as quickly as possible.  It contains proposals that will not just destroy effective approaches to local planning but also weaken councillor and citizen involvement in local decision-making.[i]   

The evidence from Freiburg, and other enlightened cities, demonstrates that high quality urban development designed to address the climate emergency, provide housing opportunities for the less well off in society, and build liveable communities requires more planning, not less.[ii]

Second, councillors in Freiburg, like all those in Germany, have the constitutional protection to do what they think is right for the people living in their locality.  German local authorities have, then, the freedom to do things differently.  This is not the case in the UK and it is essential to rebalance power within our country via a constitutional convention.  Comparative research can help to make the case for giving local power a major boost.

Third, researchers studying how to create sustainable cities and localities need to give much more attention to power relations.  Advancing our understanding of what needs to be done to co-create liveable cities and towns is vital.  However, just as important, research needs to explore how to bring about progressive change in society. 

What is the power system that is leading to unsustainable urban development?  How can this power system be changed?  What lessons can we learn from cities that are already delivering sustainable development?  These are the kinds of questions that deserve more active consideration by researchers studying modern urban, rural and regional development.

Robin Hambleton is Emeritus Professor of City Leadership at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

Film of book launch

Robin Hambleton’s new book, Cities and communities beyond COVID-19, was published in October 2020.  The book launch, organised by the Bristol Festival of Ideas, includes contributions from Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, who has written a Foreword to the book, and Professor Sheila Foster, University of Georgetown, Washington DC.  This discussion, which was chaired by Andrew Kelly, Director of the Bristol Festival of Ideas, is available here: https://www.ideasfestival.co.uk/events/cities-and-communities-beyond-covid-19/


References

[i] Hambleton R. (2020) ‘Strong place-based leadership is instrumental in the battle against COVID-19’ The Planner, 19 October.

[ii] The key suggestion here is that public policy needs to advance caring in modern society – meaning caring for others and caring for the natural environment on which we all depend.  See Hambleton R. (2020) ‘COVID-19 opens a new political window’, Town and Country Planning, November/December, 89, 11/12, 366-370.

‘Creativity sustains us, and so does community’: reflections on listening to art in the city.

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By Katie McClymont….

I was privileged to be invited by Rising Arts Agency[1] 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[2] 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?

Participating in the the conversation as a ‘keynote listener’

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.


[1] See https://rising.org.uk/ and in particular https://rising.org.uk/who-is-allowed-space-to-create/

[2] https://www.centreofgravity.uk/about

New review finds that better access to green spaces has a beneficial impact on anxiety and depression in young people, aged 14 to 24 years.

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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.

Infographic summarising the main findings of the review

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.

Levelling up or pushing down? Stoke-on-Trent and the repeated failure of regional economic policy.

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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.

Cultural Quarter, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. (Source: Mark Mordecai / www.freeimages.com)

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

Why do we need varied urban nature for diverse urban publics?

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By Helen Hoyle….

A new book chapter by Dr Helen Hoyle highlights why a nuanced approach to urban greenspace provision is essential to human mental and physical wellbeing.

https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-3-030-44480-8_2

There will be an online book launch of Naturally Challenged, 08 October 2020, 17.00 BST. Please join the discussion by 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.

parkrun participants in Fairlands Valley Park in Stevenage, UK.
The total annual financial value of active visits to England’s parks, woodlands and beaches has been estimated 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.

The Punchbowl, Valley Gardens, UK in May (above) and August (below).
People find colourful flowering plants stimulating and exciting, boosting their mood and short-term happiness, whereas leafy green planting supports calm relaxation.

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.

Urban meadows in Bedford UK.
Although people are appreciative of grasslands and meadows, some prefer neater, short-cut grass immediately outside their homes

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.

Tree planting with children from Riverbank Primary School in Luton (February 2020) on the Futureproofing Luton project.

1Fields in Trust, (2018). Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces.

http://www.fieldsintrust.org/Upload/file/research/Revaluing-Parks-and-Green-Spaces-Report.pdf

2 White et al. (2016). Recreational physical activity in natural environments and implications for health: A population based cross-sectional study in England. Preventive Medicine 91, 383-388.

3Hoyle 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 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169204617300701

4Hoyle et al. (2017). “Not in their front yard” The opportunities and challenges of introducing perennial urban meadows: A local authority stakeholder perspective. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 25, 139-149. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1618866716305489

5Hoyle et al. (2019).  What determines how we see nature? Perceptions of naturalness in designed urban green spaces. People Nat.; 00:1–14.

https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/pan3.19

“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder” How do socio-cultural factors shape our preferences?

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…by Helen Hoyle

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.

Stevenage residents demonstrated strong place attachment to Monk’s Wood, often forged through childhood play or visits with their own grandchildren

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

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169204617300701

2Hoyle et al. (2019).  What determines how we see nature? Perceptions of naturalness in designed urban green spaces. People Nat.; 00:1–14.

https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/pan3.19

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.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169204616301554

4Lumber et al. (2017) Beyond knowing nature: Contact, emotion, compassion, meaning, and beauty are pathways to nature connection* E-mail: ryan.lumber@dmu.ac.ukAffiliation School of Applied Social Sciences, De Montfort University, Leicester, United Kingdom . http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0177186

Futureproofing parks and greenspaces beyond COVID-19: The role of colour and naturalness

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By Helen Hoyle

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.

Vibrant planting with a flower cover of 27% or above generates the ‘wow factor’
Subtle greens create a background for quiet reflection and relaxation

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.

Meadow-style vegetation is more acceptable to the public if it is framed by mown edges and information on its biodiversity benefits is provided.

1Fields in Trust, (2018). Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces.

http://www.fieldsintrust.org/Upload/file/research/Revaluing-Parks-and-Green-Spaces-Report.pdf

2Fischer et al. (2018). Beyond green: Broad support for biodiversity in multicultural European Cities. Global Environmental Change 49 35-45

3Hoyle 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 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169204617300701

4Hoyle et al. (2017). “Not in their front yard” The opportunities and challenges of introducing perennial urban meadows: A local authority stakeholder perspective. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 25, 139-149. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1618866716305489