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

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.