COP 27 concluded on the 20th of November 2022 and stressed how the unprecedented global energy crisis underlines the urgency to rapidly transform energy systems and the need to accelerate towards a clean and just transition to renewable energy. Seizing the opportunities of cheaper renewables will play a major role in the forthcoming decade and as countries move towards carbon neutrality goals, reaching these goals will require increased efforts in renewable energy development and deployment. While there are numerous benefits globally from the growth in renewable generation, a pertinent environmental and policy issue in the next decades- one that has been given only limited and recent attention- is the consideration of the end-of-life of low carbon infrastructure.
Existing energy infrastructure, from conventional power generation plants to wind farms, have a technical and/or economic lifecycle predetermined by the gradual decreases of their performance or conversion efficiency over the infrastructure’s lifetime. At the end of this lifetime, it is expected that this infrastructure will contribute to a dramatic increase in waste generation. Most of the attention towards renewable energy infrastructure has predominantly focussed on the planning, design and construction of renewable energy projects driven by the need to decarbonise the energy sector, while overlooking the processes required for the management of the end of life and the decommissioning options of renewable infrastructure. Nevertheless, as waste arising from end-of-life renewable energy infrastructure is projected to grow over the next 10 years this is considered one of the biggest emerging environmental sustainability issues faced by countries globally.
To date, there have been limited number of studies that have focused on life extension, completed repowering, and or full decommissioning projects from which lessons can be learned. To address this knowledge gap, Dr Rebecca Windemer and I have joined forces- and research interests- to undertake a research project entitled ‘Is there an afterlife for wind installations in Italy?’. The project, funded by an Environmental and Sustainability Research Grant of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS-IBG), aims at investigating and understanding the different end of life moments, opportunities and challenges that are emerging in wind infrastructure in Italy. The Italian case offers a pertinent opportunity to investigate the supporting governance, environment, and business models of proposed solutions as approximately 50% of wind capacity is expected to reach end-of-life by 2030.
The research is ongoing and has so far included a number of qualitative interviews and a short survey with wind farm developers, operators, renewable consultants, and policy makers. We had a really successful visit to Italy in October 2022 where we conducted fifteen interviews, which we are in the process of analysing.
Initial findings suggest that, while determining end of life options for wind infrastructure is undoubtedly a decision unique to each project, there are a number of factors that are also influencing such decisions. Life extension, repowering and full decommissioning of wind infrastructures are multifaceted issues affected by technical, legal, economic, financial, social and environmental challenges. There is great value in understanding how these challenges coalesce as it provides an opportunity to better understand how much waste will be generated in the future and the range of possible options for dealing with that waste.
by Rebecca Windemer, Torik Holmes and Carla De Laurentis
The three of us met during our respective ESRC post-doctoral fellowships during the Covid pandemic. Eager to strengthen existing connections and forge new ones, during a time when researchers were grappling with learning new ways of academic working, we engaged in a number of online discussions related to our research interests. We soon realised that although from different disciplinary backgrounds (planning, innovation, and sociology), our research areas overlapped and we shared a topical concern with energy transitions and their material, spatial and temporal dimensions.
We have now organised two workshops, written a book chapter and a journal article (both currently under-review) focused on the connections between infrastructures, climate change and sustainability. Under the artistic direction of Mair Perkins, we also produced the embedded animation above. It draws on insights from our independent and combined research.
The video’s title – ‘Where are ‘smart’ sustainable cities made?’ – is one of the questions we have raised and responded to in conjunction.
The animation tells an important story about socially, institutionally and geographically saturated and stretched energy infrastructures and the interconnections between various sites of demand and systems of provision. Indeed, it conveys the importance of ‘following the wires’ to reveal points of tension along networks of provision where sustainable transitions are calibrated. This somewhat bucks against the norm.
‘Smart’ city research has typically involved turning to cities with smart and sustainable aspirations to address empirical questions, examining, along the way, local discourses, strategies and sited innovations. A great deal of resources, time and effort have been poured into smart city discourses and, indeed, into making cities smarter and, so the rationale goes, more sustainable.
Researchers have taken a great deal of interest in these topics and things going on ‘in’ cities. Recognising this and drawing on our knowledge, we were drawn to focus instead on the wider ordering and management of key service infrastructures and the provision of renewable sources of energy, both of which have received less attention in smart city literature. This is the case even though these are critical for smart and sustainable city ambitions. In quite rudimentary terms, without an ability to connect to electricity networks and without the provision of clean energy, smart and sustainable city buildings, technologies, policies and initiatives would not (and will not) materialise.
We hope the video speaks for itself and sparks discussion and consideration of what changes are needed in and indeed beyond cities to facilitate sustainable shifts. Through doing so, we hope it also reveals the benefits of interdisciplinary collaborations in facilitating broader discussion around sustainability and net zero agendas.
We are thankful to the ESRC for funding our post-doctoral fellowships as well as the video produced.
A short note about the authors:
Dr Rebecca Windemer is a senior lecturer in environmental planning at UWE and a member of the Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments. Her teaching and research crosses the disciplines of environmental planning and energy geography. Her teaching and research interests involve the regulation of renewable energy infrastructure and how the planning system can help achieve net zero ambitions.
Dr Torik Holmes is a sociologist and social science researcher based in the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester. His research interests focus on connected systems of provision, consumption and disposal, with electricity and plastics forming central subjects.
Dr Carla De Laurentis is a lecturer in Environmental Management in UWE and a member of the Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments. Her research interests converge around the geography of innovation and low-carbon transitions. She is particularly interested in understanding the mechanisms that lead to an effective diffusion of renewable energy technologies and how energy infrastructure networks, and their reconfiguration, might influence renewables deployment.
The HERA Public Spaces: Culture and Integration in Europe funding stream, of which this project is a part, marked its formal end with a two-day closing conference in Wroclaw, Poland on 8th and 9th September 2022. Twenty projects representing researchers from twenty-four countries were represented through posters, films and discussions, along the theme of ‘Humanities in Crisis, Crisis in Humanities’.
Wroclaw (pronounced more like ‘Vrot-swaff’ than English speakers may imagine), formerly known as Breslau, is a beautiful ancient city in the South-Western Silesia region of Poland; a city of many bridges and rivers, high-quality reconstruction following damage the second world war, and a local tradition of gnome sculptures. The city also has a long-standing and more recent Ukrainian community and the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag was flying from public and private buildings, chiming with the conference’s theme of crisis, at this of war in Europe.
Our CeMi delegation (Avril, Christoph, Marianne and myself) opened our visit by a trip to the Old Jewish Cemetery. Pleasing to the planners in the delegation, we quickly travelled there by busy tram. It was easy to access the space, but harder to find; being behind a high, unlabelled wall along a main road with little signage or ceremonial entrance. The Cemetery itself is officially a museum, part of the City’s combined museums trust and known as the Museum of Cemetery Art.
This meant that the space was beautifully preserved, and graves of famous former residents well marked out; however its identity as a public space was therefore more problematic. We had to buy (albeit reasonably priced) tickets to enter, an immediate barrier to publicness, even if necessary for the maintenance and preservation of the site.
On exiting, we noticed a long avenue of trees leading to the entrance from a different direction from how we entered, presumably a former more formal approach, now dislocated by changing road and land-use patterns. Even in a city of such fine reconstruction, there is churn, change and forgetting. Unlike the playful gnomes which entice the visitor to seek out less-seen aspects of public space, the Old Jewish Cemetery felt hidden and out of sight and separate from its environs.
There is not the space here to reflect more fully on the wider themes and projects presented at the conference which spanned post-war social housing, night, markets, public transport and much more. Two terms raised in discussion particularly resonated, and I will briefly reflect on these. The first was the idea of ‘unlearning’- unlearning (post) colonial scripting of spaces and identities. Taking such ideas to think about cemeteries as public space can challenge the ordering of these spaces, too often received as apart and away from daily life. With processes of ‘unlearning’, the sense of belonging and needs of diverse groups can be repositioned, as our project has explored. The second was the idea of ‘visual nuisance’, raised in discussion about street homelessness and substance abuse. Are cemeteries and memorials a visual nuisance, or can certain practices within these (or spilling out of them) become so? As public spaces, what practices, if any, conflict with their publicness and should be controlled? Does such designation hide less welcome publics and stories? Should they therefore be hidden away?
Although the funding stream draws to a close, the discussion emanating from these two days demonstrated that there is so much more to explore. Projects which have been restrained and reshaped by Covid- a pandemic which fundamentally altered our ability to be in, and understanding of public space, highlight the importance of public space to our identities and actions, and that these are free of conflict, or remains static places. To be physically together in a place for a conference itself has a certain publicness, the sharing of ideas and findings, is itself an act of remaking our understandings.
Some of the strategies I applied to planning, researching, and submitting my dissertation on time will doubtless be useful for future MSc Urban Planning students. Here I share my tips and reflections:
Build your understanding of the issues
When I started the course, I signed up for a few planning mailing lists, joined the RTPI and Urban Design Group, and followed a bunch of people on Twitter. I kept abreast of issues between our lecturers, Twitter, and reading a lot of Executive Summaries.
By the time I was mulling over my dissertation topic, I had a few issues in planning that I was interested in researching.
Decide what you’re aiming for, even if you know it might change.
I knew I wanted my dissertation findings to be directly useful to officers in Local Planning Authorities (LPAs). Having that aim shaped my research in terms of how I settled on a topic, chose its scope, and how hard I worked to get a high response rate. Once I’d handed it in, that aim influenced my decision to find an organisation to publish it as a report rather than as an academic paper.
I also knew I wanted to hand in by September, as my hours were going back to full time at that point. So all my project planning (yes, I had a Gantt chart) was working backwards from that date.
Grow and use your network
To narrow down my dissertation topic, I wanted to speak to people in the planning profession about what research they felt would be most useful.
I was really surprised by how many people responded to a cold introduction on Twitter or by email that introduced my broad area of interest and asked “can I pick your brain for 20 minutes?” I think the amount of Zoom and Teams calls has helped. I made sure to keep the calls to under 20 minutes, but those brief chats helped me refine my topic and get important feedback.
If the idea of reaching out to complete strangers gives you cold sweats, start with your existing network. If fellow students work for LPAs, ask if they can share your survey or help you identify someone to interview. If you know someone who works in a consultancy and want their thoughts on a topic, drop them a message and offer to buy them a coffee.
Narrow your scope far more than you think you need to.
If you want to say something interesting and meaty about a topic, you need to pick a narrow topic. Too broad and you’ll spend most of your time trying to bring it all together, and most of your word count just explaining things.
I thought I had a narrow topic around walkability in new developments, but I needed to narrow it further to talk about site allocations rather than site layouts in masterplanning. It was hard because I felt like I was leaving really interesting topics out, but I was able to say more of substance as a result.
Know that there will be a lot of ‘grunt work’ and plan for it
I watched all of Bridgerton and a season of Drag Race AllStars while collecting email addresses for planning policy teams to send my survey out. It was unbelievably tedious, but I’d planned my time to allow for that. (I’ve now shared that list publicly so you don’t have to do the same!) That prep work plus a tailoring my emails (competition between regions for response rate was very effective) paid off. I had responses from ⅓ of LPAs in England outside London.
In contrast, I didn’t allow for enough time to process my survey results–my estimate was about one-quarter of what it actually took me. That meant writing up my results and final editing was compressed into painful final months. Learn from my mistake and don’t underestimate the time grunt work takes.
Edit, edit, and then edit some more.
Whether writing for an academic audience, or with civil servants in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) in mind, editing is such a crucial part of your dissertation. To help me with editing, I had a separate document called “what I’m trying to say” which outlined the “story” of my research to help me stick to a structure. Give yourself time to edit based on that narrative separate to proofreading.
When writing the report based on my dissertation, a lot of time was spent deciding what to cut to make sure the report was concise and to the point.
Doing an MSc gives you the space and opportunity to really explore a topic. Take full advantage of that, whether you want to further your career, make an impact in the sector, or dig into a fascinating academic debate.
If you’re interested in reading my dissertation If you treasure it, measure it: examining the use of walkable distances to amenities in the site allocation process, it’s available here.
The ambition to achieve high quality design outcomes in the delivery of new homes is undisputed and currently prominent on the political agenda. Most recently, we have seen amendments to the National Planning Policy Framework to strengthen its design focus, a new National Model Design Code, the creation of a new Office for Place to “drive up design standards” and the appointment of a Head of Architecture within the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. These initiatives have been heralded by some commentators as signalling “a moment of potential national change in the relationship between design, planning and development in England”.
One aspect of the planning and development process that has hitherto received little attention in relation to ensuring high quality design outcomes has been post-consent: the journey of a development from the point of receiving planning permission (either through outline permission or full planning permission) through to on-site construction, occupation and on-going management. This was the subject explored by SPE’s Hannah Hickman, Dr Katie McClymont, Dr Hooman Foroughmand-Araabi, Nick Croft and Adam Sheppard (now at the University of Gloucestershire) in recent research commissioned by the West of England Combined Authority.
This study explored all post-consent stages including the discharge/variation of planning conditions; reserved matters; non-material and minor-material amendments; subsequent planning applications; monitoring; compliance; and, if necessary, enforcement, to assess the extent to which these stages may result in reductions in design quality and why.
Whilst the team concluded that what happens post-consent is not the main determinant of design quality, it was clear that post-consent processes can result in a significant drop in the quality of a scheme. They found a range of design elements being regularly impacted post-consent, from key details such as brick choice, materials, and window detailing, to green infrastructure and landscaping, and, on occasions, substantial scheme re-configuration and density alterations. The challenges associated with managing the cumulative impact of multiple changes were particularly problematic for guarding against reductions in design quality.
Some planning officers involved in the study were concerned that developers use post-consent rather unscrupulously and described post-consent change as being frustratingly routine and occurring in nearly all schemes, whatever the scale. They described schemes as being ‘watered down’ andreferredto conversations with developers’ post-consent that started with phrases such as ‘this wasn’t what we agreed guys’. Developers, on the other hand, saw the need for post-consent change as not only inevitable but necessary: the need to respond to the circumstances of a site once at the delivery stage, and development viability were the most common justifications for post-consent change.
The research highlights five areas for action to improve practice as follows:
The first is about ensuring that post-consent is viewed as an integral part of the development process from project inception to on-site delivery, occupation and ongoing management. This is to address the fact that post-consent often falls below the radar.
Part of this is about the second set of actions focussed on resourcing and empowering officers so that they the capacity to best support a development’s journey at post-consent and the confidence to advocate for the need to maintain particular design aspects of a scheme to achieve quality outcomes.
The third set of actions is about implementing specific improvements to post consent processes: a more careful consideration of their effective operation in practical terms to enable officers and developers to see how processes can be altered to lead to better maintenance of quality.
Beyond these more practical and system/resource-related suggestions, there is also a need to widen the conversation about development mechanisms and design quality. The research focused predominantly on local authority practice, but bringing forward successful, high quality – development is clearly enhanced by successful collaboration between local authorities, communities and developers. Greater understanding of the post-consent journey from the perspective of all players is needed, and moreover, needed to address wider issues of trust between players best manifested in concerns about whether post-consent change is sought is for legitimate and justifiable reasons.
The team were delighted and honoured to win this year’s Royal Town Planning Institute’s Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence for this piece of research, praising it for its strong practice relevance. The team is also currently exploring further research to look at practice and outcomes across the four nations of the UK.
Across Europe there is a vast legacy of contaminated sites from past industrial, commercial and military activity, waste disposal, mineral extraction and other uses. WHO Europe published a report examining the Urban redevelopment of contaminated sites, which summarises the findings from an expert discussion which considered a review of the evidence on environmental and health impacts of remediation, a suite of European redevelopment case studies and a reflection on the applicability of impact assessment tools during remediation and redevelopment processes.
This blog focuses on the findings from our evidence review commissioned by WHO Europe. The review sought to answer the question: to what extent does the remediation and subsequent redevelopment of contaminated sites reduce environmental and health risks to new and existing populations and ecological systems, and are there any effects on equity in terms of the distribution of risks and outcomes or the identification of disadvantaged groups either pre- or post-remediation?
A search strategy was developed that brought together three sets of terms related to: the contaminants (e.g. lead, polyaromatic hydrocarbons) and land uses (e.g. mining, industrial); remediation and redevelopment; and the outcomes related to health (e.g. mortality, cancer). A search of standard academic databases resulted in 6903 papers. The titles and abstracts of these were then screened based on whether they reported changes in outcomes related to the environment or human health, in either new or existing populations, as a result of the remediation and, where possible, subsequent redevelopment of contaminated sites.
The vast majority of studies report soil and water concentrations, outcomes related to ecotoxicological or human health, or risk assessments pre-remediation, the findings from laboratory or field-scale experiments testing the efficacy of remediation technologies, the results of studies that model exposure or provide commentaries or reviews of remediation technologies. This meant that only 50 papers met the criteria for full-text screening.
In total sixteen papers based on outcomes related to health were taken forward to evidence synthesis:
Three studies that examine the outcomes related to the health of new residents following remediation and redevelopment of contaminated sites;
Nine studies that examine the outcomes related to the health of children in existing neighbourhoods previously exposed to lead (n=8) and chromium (n=1) following remediation and public health campaigns to reduce exposure (e.g. by removing hand to mouth behaviour in children, improved hygiene and home cleaning);
Four studies that examine the outcomes related to the health in existing populations following remediation of contaminated sites.
Most of these studies were set in the United Sites and focused on reductions in blood lead concentrations in children, following a combination of soil remediation and/or public health campaigns to reduce exposure. Two further studies examined the impacts of remediation on soil contaminated with chromium and sediments contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Some studies suggest that soil cover alone is not sufficient without an excavation of contaminated surface soils to prevent upward migration, and area-wide remediation is required to prevent recontamination of residential gardens. Although it appears that soil remediation is largely responsible for the declines in soil, water, dust and blood concentrations, there is also consistent evidence that public health campaigns are effective at reducing exposure pathways where existing populations are present.
The evidence suggests that remediation via removal, capping, and replacing soil, with planting vegetation on bare soils is effective at reducing concentrations of lead and chromium in blood and urine in children, although this approach to remediation is not considered sustainable. Very few of the studies explicitly considered equity in their study design or reporting of outcomes, despite it being widely reported in the environmental justice literature that disadvantaged groups are more likely to live near contaminated sites.
The review considered a further 31 studies related to environmental outcomes following full-scale remediation and/or redevelopment of contaminated sites. Eighteen studies examined various environmental outcomes following remediation of inorganic contaminants, including metals and metalloids, and asbestos, mainly through removal and/or capping of soil and thirteen studies examined the environmental outcomes following remediation of organic contaminants including pesticides, PCBs, total petroleum hydrocarbons and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.
The nature of research and development of remediation methods for contaminated land mean that there are very few studies in the academic literature that report on the outcomes related to human and environmental health following full scale remediation. Instead, the literature focuses on laboratory and pilot studies, with the results of long-term monitoring programmes tending to not be available in the public domain. In addition, the report summarises other limitations in the evidence and provides recommendations to improve the quality of evidence.
Overall, the review found that there is consistent evidence that, when best practice is employed, remediation of contaminated soils is effective at reducing both direct and indirect exposure to pollution in nearby populations and for reducing environmental risk.
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’.
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?
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’ of work on young planners and their perspectives. 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.
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.
 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
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.
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.
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.
By Stephen Hall with Steven Griggs and Martin Jones…
Austerity, welfare reforms, devolution deals and varieties of localism have hit the poorest authorities the hardest, creating an economy of peaks and troughs across the country. In Stoke-on-Trent, local authority spending fell by 24 per cent in the eight years following the introduction of austerity in 2010. Benefit reform has impacted severely across the city, with the abolition of Council Tax Benefit being the single biggest cause of debt locally in a city of over indebtedness. Indeed, Stoke-on-Trent, with its historical dependency on ceramics and traditional manufacturing industries, now suffers from a cocktail of interlocking social and economic disadvantages, featuring in the bottom 10 UK cities for business start-up rates; number of businesses; gross valued added per worker; residents with high qualifications; weekly earnings; and low property values and housing affordability.
Now, the COVID pandemic threatens to accelerate this uneven geography, with Boris Johnson’s commitment to ‘levelling up’ remaining little more than a timely electoral slogan, unless his government recognises the persistent failure of his predecessors and the marketisation model of regional economic development. The ‘metropolitanisation’ of regional economic development has offered cities and towns like Stoke-on-Trent little more than the promise of conditional support and economic development if they could only become more ‘entrepreneurial’. At worse, the logic of metropolitanisation has risked cutting so-called ‘growth laggards’ off, leaving them as ‘economically isolated’ and ‘overshadowed’ satellites of regional powers.
To understand the challenges facing Stoke-on-Trent, the focus of attention has therefore to shift beyond the geography of the city to capture its ‘bigger’ regional interrelationships, especially the proximity of Manchester to the north and Birmingham to the south. Both conurbations have powerful new Combined Authorities with directly elected mayors such that ‘what little money there is under austerity is getting sucked into the Combined Authority like an agglomerative super vortex!’ Local leaders in the city may well ‘talk optimistically about being the pathway between the Midlands Engine and the Northern Powerhouse’, but for some the other more powerful analogy is that of being caught ‘between the sledge hammer and the anvil’, with the risk that the city ‘disappears off the radar in any real priority terms because it just ain’t big enough.’
Given such policy dynamics, how do we begin to ‘level up’? One quick policy response is further devolution or a ‘real localism’. It is easy to see the ‘grip’ of such policies. On the one hand, the ‘management’ of the COVID pandemic has exposed further the knee-jerk centralisation embedded in the institutions of the British state. And, on the other hand, new forms of progressive localism, associated with community wealth generation and the foundational economy, have emerged as authorities have tried to mitigate the impacts of austerity on local communities. Further releasing such local experiments offers much promise.
Stoke-on-Trent has not stood outside such municipal initiatives. The Northern Gateway (now the Constellation Partnership) Development Zone is focused on delivering 100,000 new homes and 120,000 new jobs by 2040 on the back of HS2. The Council has also led the development of a new local housing company, which utilises council land as a catalyst for the building of new homes. It has successfully bid for resources through government programmes such as Housing Zones, Estates Renewal, and Starter Homes, while gaining national recognition as an exemplar of good practice in facilitating housing supply. The new investment in partnership working has enabled successful outcomes in terms of competitive bidding for government investment such as the Ceramics Valley Enterprise Zone and has raised the profile of the city through bids to become the City of Culture and the headquarters for Channel 4. The depoliticised regime of cooperation has arguably stimulated local stakeholders to establish new working relationships with private sector interests.
However, can localism or municipalism deliver alone for the citizens of Stoke-on-Trent or any other town for that matter? Another round of localism, if the past is anything to go by, risks further shifting of the blame for cuts onto councils and communities, while advancing the clientelistic relationships engendered by competitive funding mechanisms and behind closed door deals. More importantly, how far can councils address the historical legacies impacting upon their communities? Stoke-on-Trent remains affected by the profound socio-economic challenges of a ‘low skills equilibrium, low income economy’. Job creation remains concentrated in low skill sectors such as logistics and warehousing, though there are exciting developments around digital skills and the creative economy, which need to be connected and scaled to create sustainable innovation ecosystems.
The city cannot escape the accumulated historical legacies and failures of regional economic development over the last 50 years. Its culture of low skilled work cannot be divorced from low levels of aspiration engendered by generational unemployment and the failure by national government to invest in skills and training. Moreover, local institutional capacity remains hindered by the legacies of local government reorganisation in the 1970s, experimentation with the model of the directly elected mayor and council manager, the collapse of the traditional working class Labour vote, and the rise of far right populism. In fact, leadership and collaboration are often dependent on the external imposition of formal requirements of partnership working by central government or, in the past, the European Union. Where external frameworks are absent, a parochial localism, due in part to the polycentric nature of the urban morphology, tends to prevail, hampering partnership working across the city: ‘it’s a microcosm world that’s very self-contained. It’s actually 54 villages within this city region and there is rivalry between the 54 villages.’
In addition, the local business sector is ‘incredibly weak’. Larger firms tend to be owned by investors and interests outside the region, while medium-sized firms, the so-called ‘aspirational middle’ are in limited supply. Locally-controlled companies, the interlocuteurs of the council, are consequently small scale with little engagement in any sectoral alliances, dominated by the demands of ‘doing the day job […] too busy trying to survive.’Business engagement in the Local Enterprise Partnership is very low compared to other parts of England. Land is cheap but subject to high remediation costs while much of it, including the old mining areas and the Victoria Ground, the former home of Stoke City FC, is owned by private sector developers, especially St Modwen. Authorities are then beholden to St Modwen’s priorities for land release and development.
Faced with these embedded local challenges, the economic regeneration of a city like Stoke-on-Trent cannot ignore the crucial role of central government in supporting local leadership and redistribution across authorities. But, unfortunately, the strategic focus on spatial planning and institutional capacity has been effectively lost under austerity. The earlier regime of city-regional collaboration built on housing market renewal arguably offered local leaders the horizontal linkages of peer learning, best practice, and mutual support. This sat alongside the vertical linkages of matched funding and policy input from the Regional Development Agency, the Housing Corporation, English Partnerships, and the Audit Commission, as well as access to key decision-makers in Westminster and Whitehall. However, housing market renewal was seen as ‘a highly divisive’ policy locally, with its traditional modes of regeneration and large-scale clearance and rebuilding being seen as disempowering local people. Indeed, for some, there is a new recognition across the city that ‘the answer lies in community development, local democracy, speaking to disempowered people, re-empowering people … we might not have the money but we’ve certainly got the ideas and the answers.’
But local community-led collaboration requires different forms of partnership and participation across the multiple tiers of government. And if the signals of the devolution white paper are correct, with further austerity city-regionalism enacted through ‘simplified’ local government reorganisation and ‘leadership’ metro-Mayors, something radical needs to happen to counter balance a growth model that fuels local patriotism and exacerbates uneven development by pitching cities against each other. The alternative starting point for cities like Stoke-on-Trent is to nurture local institutional capacities, reinstate a spatially-targeted national regeneration policy with people and place mobilised in tandem, working hand-in-hand with local authorities and communities. High value jobs are key, challenging local leaders to ensure the upskilling of local employment opportunities while providing the skills development and training to match. As such, there is much to learn from infrastructural growth models predicated on the ‘foundational economy’ and the socially responsible supply of basic goods and services for citizens. This reconsiders the socioeconomic foundation of the city-regional economy and offers a more ‘constitutional’ model of economic development based on promoting place-based social innovation. It reformulates the local state’s every day (goods and services consumed by all) and future assets (such as 5G-era digital infrastructures) into circuits to capture community wealth and build local strategic capacity. This is not about ‘levelling up’ but rethinking how we approach the wellbeing of our citizens and our cities and shift to patterns of sustainable consumption, while refashioning centre-local relations and reversing the direction of travel of some 40 years of failed regional economic development.
This article draws, in part, on research conducted for the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 project ‘Inequality, urbanization and territorial cohesion’. The authors would like to thank interview participants in Stoke-on-Trent and other members of the research team, especially Dr Ian Smith of the Bristol Business School. It was published in the Municipal Journal on 20.10.20.
Stephen Hall is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at the University of the West of England. @hallsg @UWEBristol @UWE_SPE @UWE_GEM
Steven Griggs is Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Local Governance Research Centre at De Montfort University. @DMULGRC @DMUpolitics @DMUleicester
Martin Jones is Professor of Human Geography and Deputy Vice Chancellor at Staffordshire University. @SpatialityJones @StaffsUni
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The Covid-19 pandemic has heightened our awareness of the mental and physical wellbeing benefits of access to ‘urban nature’ in parks, gardens, green and blue spaces. The monetary value of these benefits is increasingly reported, for example, recent UK research estimated the human wellbeing value of frequent use of local parks and green spaces at £34.2bn/yr1, with the NHS saving £111m/yr1 based solely on reduction in GP visits. Earlier research found the total annual financial value of active visits to England’s parks, woodlands and beaches to be £2.18 bn2.
Yet to optimise the benefits of ‘urban nature’ for people, policymakers and practitioners must be mindful that variability in nature itself matters; variability in flowering and colour, biodiversity and tidiness all have specific impacts on human wellbeing, whilst at the same time socio-cultural diversity –differences in age, sex, professional background and whether people have a background of migration from another country, and how nature-connected people are, all have a bearing on how they relate to or value ‘urban nature’.
My own research3 has revealed a critical threshold flower cover of 27% as key to provoking the ‘wow factor’ amongst people spending time in parks and gardens. Most people find colourful flowering plants stimulating and exciting, boosting their mood and short-term happiness, whereas leafy green planting supports calm relaxation. This is extremely important for planting designers, because focal displays of vibrant, flowering plants can be strategically positioned to provoke human delight, yet green background planting must be prioritised elsewhere to support mental restoration.
Recent research across Europe has also confirmed appreciation of wilder grasslands and meadows in our urban parks and gardens. This may seem like good news at a time when austerity makes any alternative impossible in many urban green spaces, yet a more nuanced consideration4 of this appreciation shows that i) context matters: although people are appreciative of grasslands and meadows, some prefer neater, short-cut grass immediately outside their homes; ii) once people are aware of the habitat-value of taller meadows to urban invertebrates they are more prepared to accept them, even when they may appear brown and unkempt, beyond the flowering season; iii) ‘Cues to care’ matter: people like to see neat mown edges ‘framing’ an area of longer meadow or grassland, showing the area is being managed deliberately, and allowing access at the edge of footways. Although most people are not good at recognising biodiversity at the species level, they gain considerable wellbeing benefits from experiencing it. My recent interviews with parkrun participants confirm this, with one commenting on his own eagerness to see if there were birds on a lake as he ran or walked through a park, although he didn’t know any more than that if they were swans or ducks.
Research has also shown differences in the response to ‘urban nature’ between women and men. My own research in woodlands, shrubs and herbaceous planting of varying structural naturalness indicated that women found all types of planting more mentally restorative than men3 and perceived higher levels of ‘naturalness’5, regardless of the style of planting they walked through. In our work on urban meadow introduction with local authority land managers in Bedfordshire, we found that there was a preference for meadow style planting over traditional herbaceous and formal bedding styles, but the effect was stronger for women. People working in landscape, environmental and horticultural professionals also demonstrate contrasting perceptions and preferences to those of non-professionals, with professionals usually preferring wilder more naturalistic styles than other members of the public. They need to be mindful of this when planning and designing green spaces for other people.
Supporters of the ‘Biophilia hypothesis’ advocate that humans are hard-wired to bond closely with the natural world. Yet for some first-generation migrants with BAME backgrounds, ‘nature’ may appear too wild, dirty and inhospitable and they may be less supportive of urban grasslands than others, preferring tidier, manicured green spaces. This applies to some communities in Luton, Bedfordshire, where I have recently worked on the Futureproofing Luton project, co-producing an arboretum-meadow on a former minigolf site in Wardown Park, with the Parks Service and children from Riverbank Primary School. Parks and greenspaces are often designed with a white wilderness view of the world, and scant consideration for local needs and priorities. Engaging local people to co-create and co-produce the form of urban nature which best supports their wellbeing is an urgent priority. Nature-connection is developed through individual or community experiences over the life-course, often with roots in childhood experiences of nature within urban woodlands and greenspaces. Working with children to explore and highlight the benefits of urban nature for climate change adaptation and mitigation, biodiversity and human wellbeing, as in the Futureproofing Luton project, provides a positive approach to futureproofing our greenspaces.
1Fields in Trust, (2018). Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces.