Talk of the Town

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by Nick Smith…

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


[i] Prime Minister’s Office (2020) Build, Build, Build. Press Release. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-build-build-build. Last accessed 06/07/2020

[ii] Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and HM Treasury (2015) Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous Nation. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/fixing-the-foundations-creating-a-more-prosperous-nation. Last accessed 06/07/2020

[iii] Wainwright, O. (2015) ‘Osborne’s planning reforms risk creating slums of the future’. The Guardian. 10 July. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/architecture-design-blog/2015/jul/10/george-osborne-planning-reforms-risk-slums-house-building. Last accessed 06/07/2020

[iv] Prime Minister’s Office (2020) A New Deal for Britain. Press Release. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-a-new-deal-for-britain. Last accessed 06/07/2020

[v] Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government[MHCLG] (2019) Town Fund Prospectus. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/towns-fund-prospectus. Last accessed 06/07/2020

[vi] As above.

[vii] Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government[MHCLG] (2020) Town Fund: Further Guidance. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/towns-fund-prospectus. Last accessed 06/07/2020

Challenging, unsettling and obscure! Exploring unknown intellectual lands with a reading group

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by Hooman Foroughmand Araabi

Academics often have very focused thinking, leading to a narrow range of reading. We often either read personal texts (the novel we might read before sleeping) or professional texts in our own field (the literature we come across in relation to research or teaching). Something is being missed here, as reading can make new ways of thinking, but this rarely happens if our reading choices come from what we already know.  

During my PhD, I ran a reading group for 4 years. The group was a particular space to read and think together about texts which we would not have read individually.  I gained perspectives on those texts, from our group discussions within the carefully curated spaces where we met, which I could not have achieved alone. Thinking is a social phenomenon, as its subjects and methods are both socially constructed. Back in ancient Greece, philosophies emerged from dialogues and discussion which in turn led to philosophical texts. This method of dialogue and discussion was then used over many centuries to help us understand the ensuing philosophical texts. So, why now, are discussion groups such a rare species within our contemporary academic jungles? Are we now trapping ourselves in intellectual enclaves woven from the devastated reading list leftover from our systematic literature reviews? Or are we just choosing to read texts which do not inspire or require group discussion?

It‘s understandable that, as academics, we could easily be overloaded with papers and books, some of which may be less useful than others. It has also been claimed that, in this time of social media, people read less and have fewer critical discussions. So, why then, when we can easily be overloaded and, at the same time, anyone can easily find relevant texts, would we explore unknown intellectual lands with a reading group? Well, perhaps because it can provide us with unpredicted inspiration and maybe a joy beyond any established need!  

Not exploring unknown intellectual domains whilst engaged in academia would surely be a missed opportunity. In a search for continued explorations of such domains, I started a reading group at UWE a year ago. The reading group has been, and will be, open to everyone with the intention of finding texts that challenge us, unrest us and hopefully open new ways of thinking. Meeting in the heart of Bristol, at Arnolfini art gallery, also offers us the opportunity to include film and theatre along with the texts.

The ABE reading group meets in the heart of Bristol

The reading group is a way to enjoy group thinking in an unmeasurable way (unlike REF, TEF or KEF). Yet, it has inspired my teaching and research. To be honest, this is not a surprise!  When interviewing successful urban design academic and practitioners for a research study, I found that one of the key contributors to their success was chance or accidental encounters with people, texts or job opportunities. The role of chance in discovering the unknown and progressing human knowledge has been acknowledged within philosophy of science, particularly by Paul Feyerabend. As known processes often result in known outcomes, attempts to explore the unknown are vital if we are to expand our knowledge.

The reading group will carry on in the coming academic year, and hopefully beyond, to pursue the mission. Hopefully more challenging, unsettling and obscure texts will be explored with willing fellow explorers!…

Sharing a vision for high quality green infrastructure..

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By Helen Hoyle….

Organised by our own Hannah Hickman and Sarah O’Driscoll (Bristol City Council), the inaugural joint Bristol City Council – UWE Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments (SPE) Symposium on Green and Blue Infrastructure took place at Bristol City Council’s Cash Hall on Monday 11th February. This provided an excellent opportunity for planners and researchers to come together to share policy and practice experience relating to the delivery of high-quality green infrastructure (GI).

First up was Bristol City Council’s Richard Goldthorpe, from the City Design Team. Richard focused on “Policy towards delivery” and highlighted some of the gaps and new developments in place-shaping policy. Richard introduced the need for a West of England Green Infrastructure Plan to bridge between the West of England Joint Spatial Plan (JSP) and the Bristol Local Plan. The JSP will set out a prospectus for sustainable growth to help the combined authority meet its housing and transport needs for the next 20 years, to 2036. He also emphasised the need for the Local Plan to link to the provision and design of specific parks and green spaces. Richard closed by emphasising the need for good research data to inform GI policy and delivery.

Richard Goldthorpe (BCC) presenting on “Policy towards delivery”

Next on the floor were Liz Kinsey (South Gloucestershire Council) and Kathy Derrick (Bristol City Council) who introduced “The Frome Reconnected” a collaborative project focusing on future-proofing the river Frome, involving Wessex Water, the Environment Agency, South Gloucestershire Council and Bristol City Council. They described the specific challenges facing the Frome and its catchment: urbanisation and an increase in impermeable surfaces increasing flood risk; diffuse pollution; heavily modified sections involving culverts and restrictive fish barriers and fragmented habitats. Possible positive strategies to address these challenges included river restoration to facilitate fish passage, with an increasing focus on health, recreation and the possibility of introducing green prescribing activities on the Frome.

Introducing “The Frome Reconnected”

Our own Associate Professor Danni Sinnett was the next to present the framework that underpins the RTPI award-winning “Building with Nature: a national benchmark for green infrastructure”. https://www.buildingwithnature.org.uk/. This was developed through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust funded by Innovate UK and the Natural Environment Research Council. Danni explained how developers’ and policymakers’ lack of understanding of the characteristics of high-quality GI had driven the development of the benchmark. She went forward to explain how the framework can be used to deliver high quality GI, setting out the core principles, (distinguishing a GI approach from a more conventional green space approach), and those focused on achieving benefits for health and well-being, water management and nature conservation. Danni highlighted specific case study projects including Elderberry Walk, awarded a Building with Nature Design Award for the entire Masterplan for 161 new homes on a brownfield site in Bristol, and Gloucester Services on the M5 motorway. The services (both N and S-bound) incorporate an outdoor picnic area, play facilities and habitat provision.

Danni Sinnett presents the framework underpinning “Building with Nature” the national benchmark for green infrastructure

The final presentation by Dr Helen Hoyle (SPE) focused on co-producing urban meadows in green spaces with local authority land-managers in Bedfordshire. This was part of a larger Natural Environment Research Council-funded research project, Urban BESS http://bess-urban.group.shef.ac.uk/ (Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service Sustainability). Researchers from the University of Sheffield and Cranfield University introduced native perennial meadows of different floral content and heights to areas of amenity mown grassland in contrasting urban contexts in Luton and Bedford. This was done to gauge public reaction and invertebrate response to increasing biodiversity on the sites. Helen worked in the bridging role between researchers and practitioners on the ground and reported on research focusing on the land-manager perceptions of the challenges and opportunities of making such changes. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1618866716305489 Findings highlighted the key factors as: Economic resources; Aesthetics, or the appearance of the meadows, and specific Locational context. Land-managers were aware that introducing floral meadows could make some areas of green space much more attractive for the public. Nevertheless, disposing of meadow cuttings at the end of the growing season was expensive, currently ruling out the possibility of introducing meadows as a cheaper management approach than mown grass. They were also aware that although many people now accept messier urban planting, there were still those who prioritised tidiness directly outside the front of their homes.

Helen Hoyle highlights land manager perspectives on introducing urban meadows

Watch this space for news on the next joint Bristol City Council – UWE Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments Symposium.

WHO Collaborating Centre for Healthy Urban Environments welcomes new visiting fellows and professors

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..by Laurence Carmichael

First meeting of the partnership at UWE, Bristol 29 January 2019 with from left:
Laurence Carmichael (Head, WHOCC), Carl Petrokofsky (PHE), Elena Marco (Head, Department of Architecture and Built Environment), Michael Chang (TCPA/PHE), Helen Hoyle (Senior Lecturer in Healthy Built Environments), Rachael Marsh (Public Health Registrar), Liz Green (PHW), Paul Olomolaiye (Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean, Faculty of Environment and Technology), Louis Rice (Senior Lecturer in Architecture), Aude Bicquelet-Lock (RTPI) and Mark Drane (PhD student and architect).

At the end of January the WHO Collaborating Centre for Healthy Urban Environments (WHOCC) at UWE Bristol welcomed four new four visiting fellows and professors:

Dr Aude Bicquelet-Lock (Deputy Head of Policy and Research, Royal Town Planning Institute);

Liz Green FFPH, ACIEH (Principal Health Impact Assessment Development Officer, Research and International Development Directorate, Public Health Wales and also HIA Lead in the new WHOCC on investment for health and well-being);

Carl Petrokofsky FFPH (Public Health Specialist, Healthy Places team, Public Health England);

Michael Chang HMFPH, CMRTPI, MCMI (Lead on healthy Places at Town and Country Planning Association, recently appointed project manager to the Healthy Places team, Public Health England).

In addition, the WHOCC has recently welcomed Public Health Specialty Registrar Dr Rachael Marsh MFPH as a Public Health Practitioner in residence, who will contribute to WHOCC projects in collaboration with South Gloucestershire Council in 2019.

At the core of the next phase of work is cross fertilisation with these key organisations in the field.

Synergy between the new partners and creation of a shared knowledge base is an important aspect of future WHOCC activities to support the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular SDG11 and support phase VII (2019-2024) of the WHO Healthy Cities programme. A meeting took place recently at UWE, Bristol to consider opportunities in joint research and capacity building. Projects are now under way for instance Health Impact Assessment guidance for planners, contribution to modules and joint publications but other plans considered too on how to best  support capacity building in the WHO healthy Cities.

The WHO Collaborating Centre for Healthy Urban Environments (WHOCC) at UWE Bristol is part of a network of 800 institutions spread in 80 countries and collaborating with various WHO programmes. In the UK, it is the only WHOCC out of 58 and embedded in a Department of Architecture and Built Environment with strong links with public health academics and practitioners.

As a leading centre of expertise on healthy urban environments, the WHOCC champions health as a fundamental human right and offers an interdisciplinary hub of practice and research. Activities are practically oriented, from interdisciplinary research projects to capacity building of the future generation of practitioners with a focus on environment where people live, work, learn or play, be it at building, street, neighbourhood or city scale. Topics covered by academics associated with the WHOCC range from shaping sustainable neighbourhoods, improving air quality in urban centres, promoting active travel and sustainable local food systems, policy formulation to mainstream health within urban and transport planning. The synergy between environmental and human health and of social and cultural conditions needed for populations to thrive has also emerged as a core thinking in recent years.

Over the past four years, our international work has included supporting the WHO/UNECE Environment and Health Process: (http://www.euro.who.int/data/assets/pdffile/0020/341615/bookletdef.pdf?ua=1).

Nationally, the WHOCC briefed the House of Lords Select Committee before its enquiry resulting in the Building Better Places report: (https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201516/ldselect/ldbuilt/100/100.pdf ).

Members of our team have given oral evidence to parliamentary enquiries and supported the NHS England Healthy New Towns programme since its inception. UWE WHOCC academics have also developed practice-friendly tools assisting the development process, for instance a spatial planning tool identifying healthy planning features commissioned by Public Health England (www.gov.uk/government/publications/spatial-planning-for-health-evidence-review ) and a green infrastructure benchmark ( www.buildingwithnature.org.uk ) in collaboration with  Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. WHOCC Academics are also regularly asked to take part in project and conference steering and scientific committees and have develop strong regional and local networks, for instance working group on the development of a HIA guidance for planners, community engagement exercises and capacity building supporting  local authorities.

In the future, the WHOCC will carry on supporting WHO Healthy Cities programme in

1. promoting the scientific underpinning of the built environment as a determinant of health, wellbeing and equity in the WHO Healthy Cities and

2. developing capacity building activities supporting mainstreaming of health in local urban planning and design policies.

The WHOCC has also entered a partnership agreement with the Cities and Health Journal to disseminate research findings and good practice in healthy built environment from around the WHO Europe region. Last but not least, WHOCC will play a major steering role in the 2020 AESOP Congress (www.aesop-planning.eu/en_GB/aesop-annual-congress) hosted by the University of the West of England, Bristol, a key event to place health and wellbeing  at the core of planners’ agenda and share innovative practice from around the world.

For enquiries on the work of the WHOCC. Please contact Laurence Carmichael, laurence.carmichael@uwe.ac.uk @laurencecarmich @UWE_WHOCC

Thoughts on ‘Something’-Friendly Cities

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By Katie Williams….

My blog this week is on a subject that I’m yet to research professionally, but have thought a lot about in recent years. In my job I spend much of my time reading other people’s research, looking at various book ideas and new publications, perusing conference marketing and so on. One thing I’ve noticed is the growing trend from academics, NGOs and others to label cities worldwide as ‘something-friendly’. That ‘something’ could be ‘child’ (i.e. child-friendly cities), ‘age’, ‘cycle’, ‘disability’, ‘tourist’, ‘dementia’, ‘bike’, ‘autism’, ‘family’, ‘LGBT’, ‘eco’, ‘climate’ or ‘women’. This list is growing, and new city movements, identities and research agendas are being invented all the time. Recent additions I’ve come across are ‘bee-friendly’, ‘vegan-friendly’ and ‘food-truck-friendly’ (yes, really!). And, as an aside, in the USA there seems to be a demand by some for ‘RV-friendly cities’ – with one motoring journalist helpfully warning us to ‘Forget trying to drive a 40-foot diesel pusher through Manhattan’[i]. I digress.

Source: Cambletown City Council, Australia

Some of these ‘something-friendly’ labels are devised by the tourism industry, seeking to differentiate places and highlight the benefits to certain groups of travellers. But many are relatively established, serious movements, backed by academic research and with policy clout to improve existing places for certain groups, or to achieve environmental or economic benefits. The majority of these movements have a solid social or environmental rationale, with many seeking to eradicate urban problems such as inaccessibility, poor public health, or exclusion.

On the whole, I am positive about these initiatives (well, maybe not the RV-friendly cities) and can see how and why they have grown. Cities are such complex and multi-faceted entities that it makes sense for people and organisations to focus on one thing. Researchers are funded, and rewarded, for specialising. And single-issue politics is also at play here.

‘Cycle-friendly cities’ is a good example of a movement that has pretty clear objectives and is making a real difference. There are cities where sustained pro-cycling strategies have delivered major infrastructure projects that prioritise bikes and support active travel. In other cases, labels such as ‘climate-friendly city’ seem to be given to mark an aspiration for a place – and to help guide the trajectory of future decisions. Again, this seems to be a positive idea, as long as action follows.

But deep down I feel uneasy about the narrow focus that these titles imply. As a planner and urban designer I know that all of these ‘friendlies’ need to come together in any given space, in any given city. Who wants a place that is great for cyclists but not for older people? Or a city that works for women but not for bees? As a tourist, does it matter how friendly the visitor facilities are if the residents are living in poverty and have no access to clean water?

Source: www.inhabitat

Our task is to make cities ‘friendly’ for all groups and the environment. We have to understand how to ensure that the same city can be accessible for people with disabilities and support ecosystems and be safe and attractive for families and be beneficial in terms of climate change, and so on. We need help and evidence from different sectors on what works best for them. We need to work with, for example, ecologists, climate scientists, accessibility specialists, transport engineers, sociologists, and health experts. But we must be able to synthesise the evidence, and sometimes make compromises or trade-offs. Then we need to plan and design places that work for us all. So instead of aspiring to ‘Something-friendly’ cities, we should try to make our cities ‘Everything-friendly’ or, as I like to call it, ‘well-planned’.

This reminds me: there is also a movement for ‘Friendly cities’, and apparently we all need to head to San Miguel de Allande[ii] in Mexico, to experience the most sociable city on earth! Sounds like a plan for 2019.

 

[i] www.campanda.com.5R-Vfriendlycitiesaroundtheusa

[ii] www.cntraveller.com.friendliestcitiesintheworld