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
There will be anonline book launch of Naturally Challenged, 08 October 2020, 17.00 BST. Please join the discussionby booking a ticket on Eventbrite.
The Covid-19 pandemic has heightened our awareness of the mental and physical wellbeing benefits of access to ‘urban nature’ in parks, gardens, green and blue spaces. The monetary value of these benefits is increasingly reported, for example, recent UK research estimated the human wellbeing value of frequent use of local parks and green spaces at £34.2bn/yr1, with the NHS saving £111m/yr1 based solely on reduction in GP visits. Earlier research found the total annual financial value of active visits to England’s parks, woodlands and beaches to be £2.18 bn2.
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.
In my previous piece I discussed how the colour and degree of naturalness of planting in urban green spaces influence peoples’ perceptions and preferences. In addition, people with different socio-cultural backgrounds often experience the same type of planting differently, with some gaining greater wellbeing benefits from brightly coloured non-native meadows and others finding a more subtly coloured native perennial meadow more restorative.
‘Socio-cultural’ is a term used in research at the intersection of people and ‘nature’ to describe both socio-demographic characteristics, such as age, sex, and whether people have a background of migration from another country, and cultural factors including people’s deep underlying or held ‘values’ including ‘nature-connection’. There is strong evidence that peoples’ perceptions and preferences as expressed on a single day are strongly related to these underlying values.
My own research has generated some interesting learning in relation to gender differences in perceptions. Findings from 1400 participants who walked through woodlands, shrubs and herbaceous planting of different degrees of naturalness, indicate that women found the planting more mentally restorative than men1 and perceived higher levels of ‘naturalness’2 regardless of the style of planting they walked through. In our work on urban meadow introduction with local authority land managers in Bedfordshire3, we found that there was a preference for meadow style planting over traditional herbaceous and formal bedding styles, but the effect was stronger for women, concurring with earlier research conducted in the Netherlands showing that women were more appreciative of gardens than men, particularly wild and romantic ones, and that men were more likely to own a ‘manicured’ garden. Landscape, environmental and horticultural professionals also demonstrate contrasting perceptions and preferences to those of non-professionals. My own research has consistently shown that professionals find spending time in green spaces less restorative than other people, maybe because this is their usual ‘work’ environment. Professionals usually prefer a wilder more naturalistic style than other research participants, so need to be mindful of this when planning and designing green spaces for other people.
Researchers and practitioners supporting the ‘Biophilia hypothesis’ advocate that humans are hard-wired to bond closely with the natural world. Yet we all know people, particularly those living in urban areas, to which this does not apply. For some first-generation migrants with BAME backgrounds, ‘nature’ may appear too wild, dirty and inhospitable. This applies within some communities in Luton, Bedfordshire, where the I am now working with a local primary school to introduce an arboretum-meadow. My own research has shown that people who are more ‘nature-connected’ both appreciate the aesthetic qualities of different green spaces and feel more mentally restored than the less nature-connected. This raises important questions. Should we ‘educate’ urban communities to know more about nature, thereby making them more nature-connected, so they can experience heightened wellbeing benefits from ‘nature’? An alternative view is that ‘contact, emotion, compassion, meaning and beauty are pathways to nature-connection.’4 I strongly support this view that ‘nature connection’ / ’nature orientation’ / ‘ecocentricity’ is developed through individual or community experiences over the life-course, often with roots in childhood experiences of nature within urban woodlands and greenspaces. During my own research, participants expressing appreciation for woodlands in Fairlands Valley Park Stevenage, Hertfordshire, recounted visits to Monks Wood 50 years ago as children, or more recent visits with grandchildren to create imaginary woodland characters and stories.
During the COVID-19 pandemic more people have done physical activity and sought mental restoration in parks and greenspaces than ever before. In the months to come, as lockdown eases further, it will be interesting to see if people continue to use and value these spaces, and whether this impacts on their nature-connection.
1Hoyle et al. (2017). All about the ‘wow factor’? The relationships between aesthetics, restorative effect and perceived biodiversity in designed urban planting. Landscape and Urban Planning, 164, 109-123
2Hoyle et al. (2019). What determines how we see nature? Perceptions of naturalness in designed urban green spaces. People Nat.; 00:1–14.
3Southon et al. (2017). Biodiverse perennial meadows have aesthetic value and increase residents’ perceptions of site quality in urban green-space. Landscape and Urban Planning, 158, 105-118.
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.