Last month I commented on how the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the value of private gardens, public parks, green and blue spaces. Many people now have a heightened awareness of how important access to ‘urban nature’ in these spaces is for their physical and mental wellbeing. To reinforce the significance of this to UK decision makers, the monetary value of these spaces is increasingly reported, for example, recent UK research estimating the human well-being value associated with frequent use of local parks and green spaces at £34.2bn/yr1, with the NHS saving £111m/yr1 based solely on reduction in GP visits.
Yet less attention is paid to the pathways between ‘nature’ in parks, gardens and green and blue spaces and human wellbeing. What type of nature is most supportive of human wellbeing, and do different types of urban planting invite or provoke different human reactions? Do people find the same sorts of environments both attractive and mentally restorative? A growing body of research, including my own, is now addressing these questions.
I previously conducted questionnaires with over 1400 members of the public who walked through woodlands, shrubs and herbaceous planting at 31 sites including public parks, green spaces and institutional gardens in England. This research2 revealed a critical threshold flower cover of 27% as key to provoking the ‘wow factor’ amongst the visiting public. Most people found colourful flowering plants stimulating and exciting, whereas green vegetation formed a background and was conducive to relaxation. This is extremely important for planting designers, because focal displays of vibrant, flowering plants can be strategically positioned to provoke human delight, yet green background planting must be prioritised elsewhere to support mental restoration.
Considering the relative naturalness of urban planting, research from an extensive Europe-wide study3, has confirmed ‘broad support for biodiversity’, and an appreciation of a wilder, less managed form of urban nature in our parks and gardens. This is good news at a time when austerity makes any alternative impossible in many urban green spaces. UK research4 involving the introduction of perennial meadows in different urban contexts confirmed this. Conducted with stakeholder partners in Bedfordshire, our findings showed that the majority of site users thought that the introduction of perennial meadows to local green spaces had improved their wellbeing. Three key messages for practice were: i) context matters: although people were appreciative of meadows, some preferred neater, short-cut grass immediately outside their homes; ii) once people are aware of the habitat-value of taller meadows to urban invertebrates they are more prepared to accept them, even when they may appear brown and unkempt, beyond the flowering season; iii) ‘Cues to care’ matter: people like to see neat mown edges ‘framing’ an area of longer meadow or grassland, showing the area is being managed deliberately, and allowing access at the edge of footways. This is particularly important in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, when green space managers need to factor in the need for physical distancing within our valued parks and green spaces.
1Fields in Trust, (2018). Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces.
2Fischer et al. (2018). Beyond green: Broad support for biodiversity in multicultural European Cities. Global Environmental Change 49 35-45
In SPE’s last blog, ‘More haste, less speed’, Adam Sheppard wrote compellingly about the perils of this Government’s drive to create a laissez-faire neo-liberal planning system. This piece follows on from that to offer further commentary on impending reform, this time to linked to some of our current research on planning and design quality.
The Financial Times, amongst other press reports, has intimated that Ministers are preparing for a ‘major overhaul of the planning system’ which would speed up the approval process for new developments in a bid to reboot the economy following the COVID-19 crisis. Whilst the details are scant, the rumours are about the possible replacement of the discretionary system with a zoning system and the use of special development zones. With the Prime Minster having recently launched ‘Project Speed to scythe through red tape and get things done’, the narrative is about further de-regulation, aimed at addressing the ‘appalling planning system’ .
The phrases ‘major overhaul’ and ‘planning system’ now seem almost un-separable. There have been repeated attempts to reform the planning system, the most major of which was in 2010 with the complete abolition of the regional strategic tier within the English planning system. Successive governments of differing political colours have tended towards a market-led view which characterises planning as a regulatory function focused on managing the negative consequences of development, rather than a more positive, place shaping, enabling tool. As the RTPI has recently stated, “with this narrow perception, it becomes possible to see planning as a barrier to growth which can be temporarily scaled back during times of crisis” (2020, 4).
Here, at UWE a team is half-way through an important research study for the four West of England Authorities about achieving high quality design outcomes in major housing developments. This study is focused specifically on post-planning consent, and the mechanisms that local authorities have at their disposal to ensure no denigration in housing quality between consent and delivery. In our research to date, we have found officers across all four authorities committed to providing housing to meet the ever-growing need and improving the quality of places for residents. Yet they find themselves operating in a system which has been so pruned of powers and resources that they feel increasingly unable to control the quality of development, focusing more on the immediate pressure to deliver ‘units’ rather than create places.
Of course it is right that as the impact of Covid-19 unfolds, innumerate and important questions should be raised about the way in which planning can and should contribute to response and recovery, and this includes its role in supporting the economy.
What is more questionable, however, is the extent to which Covid-19 may well become the justification for whatever reality in the form of concrete proposals emerges from the rumours, thereby inhibiting important debate about what planning is for, and how it should be best configured and resourced to achieve its purpose at this time. One thing most people will have experienced much more over the last three months is time at home. Surely there should be scope to reflect on how emerging homes can be developed in ways which are more than fit for habitation- and done in a way which aims to mitigate climate change. To do so is to be collectively prepared for the next crisis, rather than wilfully naïve in the hope that simply, blindly, fuelling the economy will just make it all right.
One of the more promising things to emerge from this Government prior to lockdown had been to reinforce the role of the planning system in achieving high quality design outcomes, as reflected in its revisions to the National Planning Practice Guidance on design and a new National Design Guide, illustrating “how well-designed places that are beautiful, enduring and successful can be achieved in practice” (MHCLG, 1).
We are concerned that once again focusing debate on de-regulation to speed up the economy, this recent progress to re-energise planning’s role in supporting design may be denuded at a time when it is needed more not less. We already see the major housebuilders calling for greater freedoms and flexibilities, and ‘major policy changes’, and a shift in the narrative back to ‘build, build, build’, rather than homes and places.
Whilst there is still much speculation, in any ensuing debate about further reforms, what must be avoided is the pursuit of high-quality design being seen as a regulatory burden that can be chipped away at, avoided even, rather than a reasonable expectation or fundamental necessity, that planning (in whatever form) must promote. Fine words about ‘building beautiful’ or the values of good architecture are worse than useless if they are not backed up with the sorts of tools and policies which practising planners can use to ensure this level of quality is brought about. As our research is exploring, the powers planning authorities do or do not have, really affect what is delivered. And what is delivered will be the homes for our children and our grandchildren; places for lives to be lived, families to be forged not just units on a spreadsheet.
This role for planning is critical, starting with a vision for and expectations about the types of places and spaces we want to achieve, right through to collaborating with developers to ensure that high quality outcomes are achieved in practice. This is what recovery should look like: resilience and togetherness, working out how things can become better.
Build, Build, Build. A dramatic title for a Press Release. Repeating the same word three times is a simple way of communicating that something is not only dramatic, but is going to happen at speed; think Murray Walker shouting Go! Go! Go! as the lights went out back when Formula 1 was exciting. We all want instant satisfaction nowadays (apparently), and right now the current Conservative Government can’t get no satisfaction when it comes to planning and development. So, if we can find enough skilled labour, we’re going to build, build, build. But more than that, we’re going to build better.
The way we’re going to build better is via ‘the most radical reforms to the planning system since the Second World War’. The 1947 Town and Country Planning Act was a pivotal moment in history. Prior to this point planning in the UK was broadly evolving as a regulatory system. But a quest for greater flexibility resulted in a significant change of direction and the introduction of a radical new discretionary system. The implication is therefore that England might be about to do something equally dramatic; are we going back to the future?
There is much debate to be had over the respective merits of regulatory and discretionary planning systems. Ultimately both offer challenge and opportunity in equal measure. Both can be effective, both can be undermined. And there’s the rub. We can’t say for sure what is intended for the long term, but early indications suggest there is reason for concern.
The initial stated changes in the Press Release are:
‘More types of commercial premises having total flexibility to be repurposed through reform of the Use Classes Order.’
‘A wider range of commercial buildings will be allowed to change to residential use without the need for a planning application.’
‘Builders will no longer need a normal planning application to demolish and rebuild vacant and redundant residential and commercial buildings if they are rebuilt as homes.’
‘Property owners will be able to build additional space above their properties via a fast track approval process, subject to neighbour consultation.’
We also know there are plans for wider usage of what the Government likes to call ‘zoning tools’, for example Local Development Orders. Do these initial suggestions give hope for the future? Do they heck. The weasel words of the Government in their press release are that the changes will be ‘making it easier to build better homes where people want to live’. The truth lies in just some of the words in the first half of this sentence; the proposed changes will simply make it easier to build homes. This will be done by effectively circumventing planning. Compromising the current system even further by undermining it more. These new changes aren’t radical, they’re a sham; re-regulation within the current construct, creating new and exciting ways to avoid things like democratic accountability, quality control, social justice, and so forth.
Will freedom give us better? History suggests not. We can look at the Victorian period, with the slums of the under-regulated urban environment evidencing how some will behave in the absence of oversight. But we can also look at recent history for examples too; one is the use of the Prior Approval mechanism to enable the conversion of offices into residential use with only limited opportunities for local authority management. The latter has enabled the avoidance of planning gain (and the associated loss of revenue to provide public goods), the avoidance of space standards, the avoidance of the obligation to provide affordable housing, the inability to effectively consider the appropriateness of location, the inability to control design, and so on and so on. Already we have seen these provisions result in windowless ‘studio flats’. I’m going to write windowless again in case you’re skim reading this. Windowless. More of this type of anti-planning appears to be planned. The question isn’t whether harm will occur, only the forms it will take and how extensive it is.
There has been much reflection recently on our urban environments as a result of Covid-19, including the provision of adequate internal space, access to open space, light, social and physical infrastructures etc, all mindful of both physical and mental health. There is also continuing emphasis upon the need to build truly better places; more sustainable, healthier. The reason for the very existence of planning is to make things better. Not easier, nor quicker, but better. The planning system in the England has issues, but properly resourced, designed, and supported it can be a genuinely constructive, positive, enabler of better. Since the post-war reconstruction of Britain an effective planning system has never been more needed, and equally never has it been under more threat.
The latest step in the current Government’s drive to create a laissez-faire neo-liberal planning system will no doubt find support from some, but for others the risks of build, build, build, are very, very, very real.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the value of private gardens, public parks and green spaces. At the beginning of lockdown, when outdoor exercising was the only outing from home ‘allowed’, we spent an increasing amount of time outdoors in these spaces. Those with their own gardens planted seeds and vegetables, eeking out any remaining compost when garden centres were still closed. Some even walked or jogged in their own gardens. But many households have no access to a garden, so the value of our public parks and green and blue spaces for both physical and mental wellbeing was at last realised.
Yet the temperatures were very warm, little rain fell, and many of our green spaces started to look brown and worn. Although we described the weather as ‘unseasonably warm’, longer term climate data confirm that temperatures are increasing. Parts of the UK are suffering increasing summer aridity, with a negative impact on the planting designed for a cooler, more temperate climate. It is time for us to ‘futureproof’ our valued parks and green spaces by looking to warmer climates to source our urban trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. This has been happening in the UK for some years. The London 2012 Olympic Park in Stratford incorporated South African planting with species such as Kniphofia used dramatically in a prime position near to the stadium. Whereas subtly-coloured perennial meadows were sown in the more naturalistic North Park, vibrant annuals dominated swathes of banking around the stadium. The bright oranges of Eschscholzia californica, (California poppy), gave way to the golden Coreopsis tinctoria (Plains coreopsis) in time for the Paralympics. Such ‘futureproofing’ should happen everywhere. It is happening now on a former minigolf site in Wardown Park, Luton1, where I am working closely with the Parks Service and Riverbank Primary School to introduce an ‘airquality arboretum-meadow’. Working with the support of the Landscape Institute and specialist meadows consultant Pictorial Meadows, we have introduced nine trees, particularly selected to be adapted to a warmer future climate. The annual meadow sown at the beginning of lockdown, including Coreopsis tinctoria, will provide welcome aesthetic delight to local park visitors throughout the summer.
Why don’t we plant more climate-adapted species in UK parks and gardens? This is probably due to a lack of understanding amongst some policy-makers and practitioners, assuming all non-natives to be like Japanese knotweed. To the contrary, many non-native species can make a significant positive contribution, for example, Coreopsis tinctoria, provides late season pollen and nectar to generalist invertebrates after native UK species have finished flowering in September. It also provides a welcome late season burst of sunshine for park visitors. People also like exotic, climate-adapted planting. My previous research2 has shown that 75% people would be happy for non-native climate-adapted planting to be introduced in UK parks and gardens if it were better-adapted to the changing climate than present-day species. A more recent study (article under review) in collaboration with Matthew Pottage at RHS Wisley has shown that awareness of climate change and its implications is directly related to educational qualifications. This highlights the need to raise awareness and widen access and understanding of climate change science beyond formal educational settings. As we appreciate the physical and mental wellbeing benefits of spending time in our gardens, parks, green and blue spaces, through the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, ‘futureproofing’ them should be a priority.
It was once put to me by an ex colleague that urban tree professionals are designing “concrete coffins” in order to integrate trees into paved urban environments. They were in essence indicating that conventional approaches to urban tree pit design are driving high mortality rates across urban forests. There is some justifiable logic to this claim. However, the term ‘conventional’, and thus the approaches to tree pit design, vary considerably among those responsible for their delivery. This blog summarises some of the challenges of urban tree establishment in hard landscapes, and introduces technical solutions that may increase tree survival.
Urban forests, defined here as ‘all the trees in the urban realm’, play a pivotal role in maintaining healthy, sustainable communities and mitigating some of the negative impacts of urbanisation. The benefits of incorporating trees into the urban fabric have been the subject of considerable academic literature in recent years. Well-maintained urban forests provide an array of benefits to people and nature, commonly referred to as ‘ecosystem services’.
The recent recognition of the benefits of urban trees has sparked a number of new national and local planting schemes across the UK. Examples are the Northern Forest and the current Government’s commitment to plant one million urban trees. Similarly, recent declarations of climate emergencies by local authorities have in many cases come with pledges to plant a significant number of trees. Whilst these are well received, there are concerns among urban tree professionals that planting pledges may be favouring ‘fashion’ over ‘function’, as tree growth and survival are often compromised in the built environment – where conditions are much less favourable than for their rural counterparts.
Establishing trees in hard landscapes presents significant technical challenges. Trees experience a litany of physical stresses that can pose profound threats to their biology, especially if exposure is routine. To name but a few, these include soil compaction, water deficits and nutrient deficiency. Either singularly, or cumulatively (as is typical), the consequences of these harsh conditions are strongly correlated with high urban tree mortality rates.
High tree failure was first highlighted in the 1980s where 30% mortality was recurrently recorded. However, more recent indications suggest mortality rates of 30-50% are commonplace within the initial year after planting. Although there are several reasons for this, perhaps the most significant threat to urban tree survival is the scarcity of soil suitable for root growth. Soil volume is a critical element for the success, or failure, of urban trees – the provision of an adequate rooting environment is essential to achieving a good canopy cover.
The reality is that there are many inherent conflicts involved in establishing urban trees in hard landscapes. First, street and highway design results in significant competition for space. Securing adequate soil volumes for tree pits is a substantial and ongoing challenge. Second, highway construction standards require trees to navigate a landscape below ground constructed to a highly engineered specification. This is almost exclusively designed to restrict root growth.
In order for trees and infrastructure to coexist in modern urban conditions, tree pit design in hard landscapes must invariably serve a dual purpose: to provide both a soil environment that does not detrimentally limit root growth and a load bearing capacity conforming to engineering specifications. This balance is fundamental, as the soil environment to support urban tree growth is in direct contrast to the characteristics sought in highway/pavement design.
Fortunately, a suite of engineered tree pit solutions has been developed that enable root growth whilst supporting pedestrian and vehicular traffic. The leading solutions are structural growing media and crate systems. Structural growing media are load bearing substrates achieved through a skeleton of larger mineral particles such as sand or aggregate, whereas crate systems are high strength modular structural cells made from plastic or concrete that protect the root system and act as a vault to support a large volume of uncompacted soil.
My PhD research investigates the impact of these solutions on urban tree survival, growth and physiological functioning, the delivery of a range of ecosystem services and examines whether the solutions can support the diversification of UK urban forests.
Simply put, trees are forest plants. They did not evolve in asphalt. Many cities have very ambitious targets to increase tree canopy cover, including our home city of Bristol, which hopes to double the cover by the end of 2045. If we are to achieve such a target, a sustainable, multidisciplinary approach to urban tree pit design is essential, to mitigate high levels of maintenance incurred from poor tree establishment and to promote tree survival in hard landscapes.
Realising the many benefits delivered by urban trees depends on their survival, and trees must reach their species potential at maturity to optimise delivery. The mantra of ‘right tree, right place’ is embedded in a tree professional’s practice. I would also add the need to focus on tree pit design, including use of engineered solutions where appropriate – to aid successful establishment and promote the delivery of the benefits for which urban trees are planted.
Researcher positionality is an intrinsic feature of research, especially qualitative research. Being reflexive and adaptive to the changing, iterative conditions of one’s research, and recognising where one is situated in the world and as a researcher when considering one’s participants, is crucial to researcher positionality. Covid-19 has resulted in researchers reflexive and adaptive skills coming to the fore. Existing insecure employment contracts are becoming even more so, and funding streams are being repurposed. Research projects are being put on hold or extended, and qualitative data collection methods are being rethought and going online to facilitate social distancing. However, it is my researcher positionality within my PhD – working with Somali immigrants living in Bristol, examining their food, energy and water values and practices for positive influences in the broader population – which I focus on here.
When I agreed to write this
blogpost, before Covid-19, my thoughts around my researcher positionality
related to my being a white, middle-class woman, researching with members of the
Bristol BAME community. Theories of postcolonialism – which highlight
entrenched and unequal power relations throughout all spheres of life – frame
my research and so filled my mind. Specifically, the stark warning by Robbins
(2006:415) that postcolonial research needs to be robust and extensive,
mutually beneficial, and that “anything less is theft”. So, while
vital to know, recognise and act on these inequalities, when thinking about undertaking
my fieldwork, they unhelpfully served to create chasms and pitfalls into which
I was bound to fall. To bridge these gaps, I found fortitude in theories of
care. Care theory provided an academic framework which helped elucidate that
central to my researcher positionality is a caring approach: towards my topic
and its importance, for conducting good research, and towards my participants –
rightly valuing them and their insights.
In these days of Covid-19 – where ‘take care’ has become a mantra, the societal contributions of key workers who care for society are revalued and as Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities (BAME) across the United Kingdom are disproportionally affected due to Covid-19 – I am revisiting care theory. In particular, the writings of Joan Tronto. In Moral Boundaries, Tronto (1993), argues that care takes place in public and is political as well as in private and being personal, and highlights that many forms of care work are undervalued in our society, as well as being racialised, classed and gendered. On my rereading of Moral Boundaries, I was also struck by Tronto’s (1993) theorising on the concept of social distance; explaining that as well as it being the physical distance between two people, it also describes the ways that people perceive and act towards each other, due to the political, economic, social or anthropological bonds that connect them. Considered thus, despite the tragic and uncertain conditions that Covid-19 has created, it has also provided a common bond between us and provided ways of reaching out, connecting and closing the gap of social distance to friends, family and many kinds of others. Which, for myself, includes across postcolonial divides.
Through the Somali community
group, Talo, working
with me in my PhD research – and working to support families in St Paul’s and inner-city
areas through activity-based projects or housing, employment or benefits
support – I have started volunteering at a new Bristol foodbank: The Food Hub Consortium Project
(FHCP). The FHCP was established in April 2020 as a response to the need for
foodservice and delivery created by the Covid-19 pandemic within local BAME
communities in Bristol. This consortium will operate for three months, funded
by the Quartet Community Foundation, with Black South West Network (BSWN) as the grant holder and
project managing organisation. All volunteers and individuals operate from
the Malcolm X Community Centre. The FHCP is
currently supported by Fareshare for food and Karshare who
provide the van and driver to collect the food donated by Fareshare, and also
receives ad-hoc donations from other local organisations, community groups and
individuals. As such, the FHCP demonstrates the proactivity of BAME communities
across Bristol and beyond for establishing initiatives that provide community
support during Covid-19. However, it also illuminates the existing
disparities for BAME communities which are further exacerbated by Covid-19.
Yet, despite these inequalities, I am deeply grateful for this volunteering opportunity. At a time when personal connections have been reduced to the household and the virtual, my involvement enables me to reach out practically across communities and to close my positionality of social distance.
In these ways, in addition to
assisting with an invaluable volunteering service, I am hopeful that my time at
the foodbank, will help close social distance gaps and create new bonds of
friendship to demonstrate that I care about people as well as my research.
Thus far, during the pandemic, I have not been a facemask wearer. However, as lockdown restrictions are to loosened, and we venture out again into public spaces, it feels wise to follow protection advice on cloth facemask wearing which have also been recommended for their comfort and environmental credentials. So, during this time of stay-at-home creativity and repurposing, I have engaged the sewing services of my Mum to make facemasks from pre-loved fabrics for the food hub volunteers, as a small, gesture of caring and connectedness as we go about our duties.
As is the way with qualitative
research, writing this blogpost has been an iterative process. What began
solely about my positionality as a researcher has broadened into being
multipurpose. During my writing and while reflecting on the ethics of
conducting postcolonial research, I recognised that I must share my writing
with Talo and the FHCP to let them know of its existence and for them to have
the opportunity to comment and contribute. I also recognised that, with their
agreement, this blogpost could provide an opportunity to publicise the FHCP and
Bristol’s BAME Covid-19 food situation to a wider audience.
Additionally, I reflected further on care theory and that it contains vulnerability: it is that by opening up and making oneself known to others that relationships can be enriched and become closer (Engster, 2019). Thus by sharing this writing with Talo and the FHCP, I revealed myself and my caring position. There were moments in the temporal gap between sharing and response when I wondered how Talo and the FHCP would react towards my writing. So I’m grateful that Talo and the FHCP’s response was positive. They both agreed that this blogpost would be an opportunity for exposure to a wider audience and so were happy to be mentioned and provided comments, text and photos.
Going forward, I recognise that in both my
volunteering and researching, I am still likely to encounter postcolonial pitfalls
into which I will stumble. But I hope that sharing my caring position has also
reached out across postcolonial divides and helped to close the social distance
So here it is. A blogpost about my researcher positionality, which has been reflexive and adaptive. And which has evolved, I hope, to be mutually beneficial to Talo and the FHCP, as well as to myself. I like to think that Robbins (2006) would also approve.
Engster, D. (2019) ‘Care Ethics,
Dependency, and Vulnerability’, Ethics and Social Welfare, 13:2,
P. (2006) ‘Environmental enquiry in a postcolonial world’ in S. Aitken and G. Valentine (eds) Approaches to Human Geography: Philosophies,
Theories, People and Practices. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
J. (1993) Moral Boundaries. London: Routledge,
Thank you too, to my Mum for the facemasks and researcher friends Dr.
Nathalie Hyacinth and Arif Jamal for their insights and comments.
Strange times we
are in. Somewhere in the midst of transitioning to online teaching (or at least
attempting to- I’ll leave it up to my students to be the judge of how
successful this has been), home-schooling three children, standing in busy yet
spacious queues for fruit, veg, bread, milk and other necessary elements of
daily fuel – my mind has drifted to what all this means to us as planning
researchers and educators. Aside from the practicalities of Zoom meetings, Skype
for interviews and tutorials via blackboard, what things should we be offering
comment on, and what things should we be reassessing ourselves?
The first is about housing and the idea of home. The message of ‘stay at home’ is loud and clear, but the implications of this vary vastly between households. The media has noted efforts to find accommodation for rough sleepers (BBC, 2020) and Arwa Mahdawi (2020) has eloquently written about the increasing risks of domestic violence, and for those for whom ‘home’ does not equate with safe space. It is right that these immediate concerns are at the forefront of policy responses, but there are longer-term, less-apparent issues for some ‘staying at home’. This includes those in overcrowded, unsatisfactory housing, with poor access to outdoor space, or even natural light. With public playgrounds now closed, those in social housing denied access to purportedly private gardens seem even more unfairly treated than before (Grant, 2019a and b). Moreover, research revealing the shockingly poor resident units developed under relaxations in change of use for offices showcases what ‘home’ will be for some people (Clifford et al, 2018). Units, some as small as 13 square metres (Park, 2019) and some without windows cannot be seen as fit places to be ‘locked-down’ within. This is only one part of the issues- including poor ventilation and exposure to excessive noise- with much contemporary housing as highlighted by the TCPA within their healthy homes campaign (Howie, 2019). Now, more than ever, (staying at) home should evoke safety, security and some comfort- for all of us as we all share the restrictions imposed for the national good. At its core, planning is premised in making decisions for collective interests- now is a time which acutely demonstrates how far from acceptable some of these decisions have been.
This leads me to
think further about public and community spaces, and their value. Aside from
fears for health and fears of uncertainty, the current pandemic has provoked
disquiet through the myriad impacts of ‘social distancing’. As much as missing
the pub, the theatre, attending football matches and swimming in public pools,
the removal of spaces for incidental ‘encounters’ with others- in libraries,
cafes, the (school and public) playground changes the emotional pattern of
daily life. It is too soon to know, personally or more widely, what the impact
of these changes with be, but the removal of such ‘common’ places- or social
infrastructure as Eric Klinsberg (2018) articulately defines- from everyday
life, does offer a unique vantage point to reflect on their role. As planners,
we do not often or readily articulate the value of such places: our language
for the importance of community, public, semi-public spaces is under-developed.
What is the difference between a church hall and community music venue? Does it
matter who owns it? Who uses it? How does this vary between different setting-
urban, rural, wealthy, mobile, declining, aging and all the other ways we are
able to define an area?
Planning has a
role in offering hope in the dark times: hope not for a return to business as
usual, but hope for a better, shared future: one in which home can be a
sanctuary supported by resilient and well-understood social infrastructure.
Moreover, these quick comments are only a beginning. Can we emerge from this
current crisis with renewed and refreshed ideas about the decline of the high
street as a social space with increased online shopping, changes to our daily
travel patterns which can minimise pollution and increase air quality (one
silver lining of the current situation) as well as the key challenge of our
generation: taking collective and state action to tackle climate change?
Stephen Hall, Centre for
Sustainable Planning and Environments, UWE Bristol
Aksel Ersoy, Department of Management in the Built Environment, Delft University of Technology, Netherlands
As scholars living in Bristol, we are fascinated by this old port city and its on-going transformation. Prosperous Bristol has been named as the ‘Happiest city in the UK’ and often features in the ‘Best Place to Live in Britain’ lists. In addition to its high quality of life (for most, if not all, residents) Bristol is home to numerous environmental groups that advocate a stronger ecological approach – i.e. one that acknowledges and respects environmental limits to human development –to urban governance than the traditional economic growth oriented model. This makes Bristol an anomaly among the UK’s ‘Core Cities’. There is a broad spectrum of environmental activism in Bristol: green think tanks and pressure groups, energy co-operatives, waste recycling groups, a local currency (the Bristol Pound), local food networks, community self-build housing groups, and major national environmental actors such as the Centre for Sustainable Energy, Sustrans and the Soil Association. Bristol, thus, hosts a critical mass of green activism and expertise. We believe that the dissemination of such a wide range of ‘alternative’ voices locally is crucial to the debate on urban futures.
was awarded the title European Green
Capital 2015. Its bid as a ‘green, inclusionary and diverse’ city was
framed in conjunction with a strong emphasis on community involvement. The
policy discourse that had previously been based on economic development was
reoriented towards environmentalism and collaboration. Bristol’s stated
aspirations as European Green Capital shifted from the high profile events that
might be expected of an orthodox urban entrepreneurialism to a set of ambitions
oriented towards citizen engagement and inclusivity. This prompted us to write
our paperThe Bristol Green Capital Partnership: an
exemplar of reflexive governance for sustainable urban development, in
which we argue that Bristol represents, perhaps, an atypical approach to the
‘urban sustainability fix’ (the balance sought between competing economic,
social and environmental demands) in the UK.
There exist, in Bristol, genuine differences of substance between local partners, including recent polemical debates on resident parking zones, 20mph speed limits and the planning of the new Bristol Arena. However, in contrast to other UK Core Cities, there is less a sense that environmental interests are left to oppose an apparently antagonistic local authority from the political margins. In other words, Bristol represents a prima facie ideal incubator for the processes that characterise ‘reflexive governance’. The emerging literature on reflexive governance offers a normative framework for understanding a ‘learning-based approach to governance’. Reflexive governance prioritises organisational adaptation over technological advancement as a response to the complex challenges of climate change and resource scarcity. It focuses primarily on the process of governance, rather than outcome. It respects and exploits diverse forms of knowledge (scientific, political, everyday), and champions continuous institutional transformation to enable, and respond to, broader social dialogue.
argue that the governance of Bristol – embodied in the Bristol Green Capital Partnership (BGCP) which was formed by
Bristol City Council to develop the concept of a ‘low carbon city with a high
quality of life’ in 2007 – displays many ‘reflexive’ characteristics. Bristol
stakeholders have created a space for dialogue, an interface for diverse voices
and forms of knowledge that eschews the pursuit of simple consensus; in the
words of one local official “if you’ve
got something to say, join in … I do not know of another partnership in which a
multinational German insurance company would sit down with a dreadlocked
activist from St Pauls” It has exhibited considerable institutional
adaptability, partly in response to the exhortations of the European Green
Capital competition. BGCP, for example, has evolved from a core group of
stakeholders, to a large and heterogeneous membership organisation, a grouping
of over 800 organisations, ranging from transnational corporations to local
community groups. Nonetheless, the discursive space within which it has
achieved this transformation remains tightly bounded, defined primarily by
actors that exhibit an a priori interest in the ‘green’ agenda; civil
engineering companies, for whom the sustainable city discourse is framed as an
infrastructure investment challenge, and grassroots environmental activists,
rather than representative of mainstream business or public opinion, especially
in more disadvantaged areas of the city. Moreover, there are multiple and
contested visions within BGCP itself; as another local official noted “discussions about renewable energy in Bristol
attract many suits and very few community activists, whereas meetings about
local food attract very few suits”.
findings challenge Bristol’s self-image as a ‘green capital’, notwithstanding
the very real achievements noted above, and highlight the limits of reflexive
governance – a practical approach to inclusion, learning and adaptation – but
one that, in focusing on dialogue and inclusion, underestimates the real political
tensions, some of which we also highlight above, that define the actions
required to realise the sustainability of cities, including Bristol.
A and Hall, S (2020) The Bristol Green Capital Partnership: an exemplar of
reflexive governance for sustainable urban development, Town Planning Review, Vol.91, No.4, forthcoming
On Monday this week MSc Urban Planning student William Cottrill and I had the privilege of spending the morning with 10 young Eco-warriors from Riverbank Primary School in Luton. The main objective of our morning was to plant nine significant climate-resilient trees of different species on a former minigolf site in Wardown Park, as part of our new Airquality arboretum-meadow project.
The morning dawned hopefully; a cold, dry, blue-sky day, the calm after storm Ciara, who had ripped a tree from its roots just outside Riverbank School. We started at Riverbank, with a workshop exploring the benefits of trees for pollution and climate change mitigation. You could feel the excitement radiating from the Eco-warriors as they entered the room; they had been looking forward to some hands-on tree planting in the park for weeks. First we distributed the #chooselandscape t-shirts which were de rigueur for the day. The Landscape Institute is one of our main project partners and President Adam White and CEO Dan Cook would later join us for the planting.
The first activity was a masterclass in teamworking. Sarah Deacon, the Eco-warriors’ science teacher, had devised a cunning simulation of trees absorbing carbon and other pollutants using a bucket of water and sponges, so Will and I were left standing, holding dripping sponges whilst the Eco-warriors looked on. I was dumbstruck by the children’s curiosity, knowledge of climate change and the role of carbon dioxide, the value of trees as habitats as well as their confidence to express themselves. We moved to another activity involving placing creatures in their appropriate habitat within the tree (using a giant tree poster and model creatures), whilst trying to identify the random crustaceans Sarah had added to catch us out.
We then moved to some artwork, involving drawing the leaves of the nine very distinctive trees including Tilia platyphyllous (Broad-leaved lime), Tilia cordata (small-leaved lime), Pinus nigra Austriaca (Austrian Pine), Junglans regia (Walnut tree), Acer pseudoplatanus (Sycamore), Acer campestre (Field maple), Gleditsia tricanthos (Honey locust), Cedrus atlantica (Atlas cedar) and Liriodendron tulipfera (Tulip tree). We had selected these with the help of Stan Carter, Tree Officer at Luton Parks Service, who had chosen them to provide aesthetic interest whilst being adapted to local conditions, but also geared up to a future, warmer climate.
The intention is that once the trees are established, we will add signage to the individual trees in the arboretum, using the Eco-warriors drawings. As we worked on our drawings I noted the different approaches the children took to the task, and we chatted away about differences in the size of insects in the UK and parts of India.
It was now time to move outside and get our hands and feet dirty. Riverbank School is conveniently located just across the road from Wardown Park, so it was a short walk across to the arboretum site. Once there we met with other project partners including Jane Conway (Operations manager) and Steve Battlebury (Greenspace manager) from Luton Parks Service, Adam and Dan from the Landscape Institute, the Marshalls Group (the tree sponsor), the Rotary and the Friends of Wardown Museum. After a brief introduction to the project, discussion of the positive role of Landscape Architecture as a placemaking profession and some ‘thank yous’, we got down to the serious business of planting the nine trees. The Eco-warriors threw themselves into the task with considerable vigour and enthusiasm, only stopping periodically to examine and then name the many worms found in and around the tree pits.
Once the trees had been planted (I was amazed at how much soil the Eco-warriors shifted and at their speed) we posed for some celebratory photos, before the Eco-warriors returned to school for lunch. We are all looking forward to the next phase of the project; seeding the meadow, which will take place in April.
During the planting event we reflected on the power of
positive engagement and collaboration between diverse partners from different
sectors. This collaboration started seven years ago, whilst I was at Sheffield
University and worked closely with Luton Parks Service to co-produce an urban
meadows experiment as part of the NERC-funded Urban BESS project. In 2015 we
together delivered flowering meadows to this very same disused minigolf site,
subsequently winning a Community Business Award. Our new “Futureproofing Luton”
project began with a Community Engagement Award from the Faculty of Environment
and Technology at the University of the West of England, to work on project
with Riverbank Primary School and Luton Parks Service to return the flowering
meadows to Wardown Park. This award was complemented by a generous donation of
meadow seed from Sue France, CEO of Pictorial Meadows, the Sheffield-based
specialist meadows consultancy. A chance (if persuasive) conversation with Andy
Morris at the Landscape Institute Jellicoe Lecture in November then resulted in
the generous donation of nine trees by Marshalls, a company with a strong sense
of environmental responsibility, also serving as a carbon offset for the impact
of the Landscape Institute awards in 2019, the 90th anniversary of
the Landscape Institute. I knew of ambitions to introduce an arboretum to the
minigolf site here, but no significant funding for this had yet been
forthcoming – so I decided to ask! This was followed quickly by an additional
pledge of two further trees from the Rotary, and then another two from the
Regiment Gallery in commemoration of VJ Day.
This new Arboretum-meadow in Wardown Park will provide an educational resource for local people and wider visitors to the park and museum. It will focus on the benefits of urban trees and meadows for air pollution and climate change mitigation, biodiversity and human happiness and deeper wellbeing. It will be accessible to local children and adults, as well as visitors to the park and museum from outside Luton. We hope the children here today will bring their parents and continue to visit the arboretum through spring, summer and autumn 2020 and into the future. We all believe it is a positive exemplar for future projects throughout the UK and beyond.
A similar comment could be made about
community-led housing (CLH). Both its
proponents, and government sources and commentators, view it as a solution to
many of the problems associated with the contemporary UK housing market and
unhealthy and unhappy urban lifestyles more widely. However, there is surprisingly little robust
evidence used to back up many of these claims. Little is known definitively
about the benefits of community-led housing, despite the assertions made for it
as a mode of development and living. The
review which we have just undertaken, and the seminar on which this blog reports,
aims to take the first steps in remedying this lack of evidence, as well as
outlining the directions in which we think future research agendas need to go.
however, a few steps of clarification are needed. Most readers may well be
familiar with what is meant by the term ‘community-led housing’ but for those
who are not, a useful definition is provided in the CLH Toolkit. It stresses three aspects which are necessary
for any development to be defined as CLH: first – for there to be meaningful
engagement throughout the process; second – for a local group to
own/manage/steward the development; and third – that the benefits of
development are asset-locked to that area.
commissioned by Power to
Change to undertake a comprehensive review of CLH and Health; to investigate what evidence there is that CLH
influences both the health of those involved in it and people in the wider
neighbourhood. The idea of linking
planning, development and built environment factors to health outcomes is not a
new one. Substantial research has demonstrated that the built environment has
an important effect on people’s wellbeing (see RTPI, 2014, PHE, 2017), and
specifically that housing plays a major role in this, with poor quality housing
being linked to both mental and physical health problems (Toms, 2019). The aim
of our review, expressed in the seminar and report, was to explore the specific
role that CLH does or could play in this agenda.
We outlined four key strands from the literature where a
link between CLH and health outcomes can be found. These are each addressed as statements: CLH supports healthy
aging, CLH promotes social inclusion, CLH may lead to improved physical healthand CLH can support people who are
disadvantaged or in need of additional support.
seminar, each statement was discussed in a ‘world café’-style workshop, as
described below. The aim of the event was to ensure that the review was open to
scrutiny and feedback from other experts, but also to begin dialogue about the
gaps in existing evidence and ways of improving communication to enhance both
practice and understanding. The 22 participants divided into four small groups,
and each group discussed the findings from a strand for ten minutes with the
help of a facilitator. The facilitators
then rotated around the groups so that all participants had the opportunity to
provide input on each statement. The
participants came from a wide range of backgrounds: academics, community
activists, those involved already in CLH in various forms, planners and
the debate further by raising the question of how to involve the widest range
of people in CLH, but how also to make this equitable and inclusive, rather
than intrusive or assuming that all have the same aspirations about where and
how they live. They considered how the process of being involved in
establishing, developing and building a CLH settlement could change the
self-image of a community from being ‘vulnerable’ to ‘empowered’. However
caution was raised that CLH may further segregate marginalised groups if the
housing is not integrated within a wider neighbourhood too. Health was viewed
as a useful lens by participants who were advocates for CLH – it was seen as
offering the potential to quantify some of the positive outcomes of CLH in a
way which would be understood in ‘cost-benefit’ analysis. The feeling was that
this event marked the start of a conversation – a very lively and engaging one
which as chair and timekeeper I had to work hard to keep under control!
The final report has now been published, and we hope it is useful to practitioners, funders and researchers. We also hope it will be a first step in developing new research projects which begin to address the gaps which we have identified. Most of all, we hope that this work plays a small yet important part in changing policy and practice to bring about healthier, happy, more inclusive and more empowered communities through increased control of housing choices and benefits.