“The idea of citizen participation is a little like eating spinach…”

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Katie McClymont, co-author of a recent comprehensive review of the evidence between community-led housing (CLH) and health, describes a stimulating stakeholder workshop session…

In her famous and oft-quoted article, Sherry Arnstein describes community involvement thus: ‘The idea of citizen participation is a little like eating spinach: no one is against it in principle because it is good for you’.

 A similar comment could be made about community-led housing (CLH).  Both its proponents, and government sources and commentators, view it as a solution to many of the problems associated with the contemporary UK housing market and unhealthy and unhappy urban lifestyles more widely.  However, there is surprisingly little robust evidence used to back up many of these claims. Little is known definitively about the benefits of community-led housing, despite the assertions made for it as a mode of development and living.  The review which we have just undertaken, and the seminar on which this blog reports, aims to take the first steps in remedying this lack of evidence, as well as outlining the directions in which we think future research agendas need to go.

Before proceeding, however, a few steps of clarification are needed. Most readers may well be familiar with what is meant by the term ‘community-led housing’ but for those who are not, a useful definition is provided in the CLH Toolkit.  It stresses three aspects which are necessary for any development to be defined as CLH: first – for there to be meaningful engagement throughout the process; second – for a local group to own/manage/steward the development; and third – that the benefits of development are asset-locked to that area.

We were commissioned by Power to Change to undertake a comprehensive review of CLH and Health;  to investigate what evidence there is that CLH influences both the health of those involved in it and people in the wider neighbourhood.  The idea of linking planning, development and built environment factors to health outcomes is not a new one. Substantial research has demonstrated that the built environment has an important effect on people’s wellbeing (see RTPI, 2014, PHE, 2017), and specifically that housing plays a major role in this, with poor quality housing being linked to both mental and physical health problems (Toms, 2019). The aim of our review, expressed in the seminar and report, was to explore the specific role that CLH does or could play in this agenda.

We outlined four key strands from the literature where a link between CLH and health outcomes can be found.  These are each addressed as statements: CLH supports healthy aging, CLH promotes social inclusion, CLH may lead to improved physical health and CLH can support people who are disadvantaged or in need of additional support.

During our seminar, each statement was discussed in a ‘world café’-style workshop, as described below. The aim of the event was to ensure that the review was open to scrutiny and feedback from other experts, but also to begin dialogue about the gaps in existing evidence and ways of improving communication to enhance both practice and understanding. The 22 participants divided into four small groups, and each group discussed the findings from a strand for ten minutes with the help of a facilitator.  The facilitators then rotated around the groups so that all participants had the opportunity to provide input on each statement.  The participants came from a wide range of backgrounds: academics, community activists, those involved already in CLH in various forms, planners and policy-makers. 

Participants took the debate further by raising the question of how to involve the widest range of people in CLH, but how also to make this equitable and inclusive, rather than intrusive or assuming that all have the same aspirations about where and how they live. They considered how the process of being involved in establishing, developing and building a CLH settlement could change the self-image of a community from being ‘vulnerable’ to ‘empowered’. However caution was raised that CLH may further segregate marginalised groups if the housing is not integrated within a wider neighbourhood too. Health was viewed as a useful lens by participants who were advocates for CLH – it was seen as offering the potential to quantify some of the positive outcomes of CLH in a way which would be understood in ‘cost-benefit’ analysis. The feeling was that this event marked the start of a conversation – a very lively and engaging one which as chair and timekeeper I had to work hard to keep under control!

The final report has now been published, and we hope it is useful to practitioners, funders and researchers.  We also hope it will be a first step in developing new research projects which begin to address the gaps which we have identified. Most of all, we hope that this work plays a small yet important part in changing policy and practice to bring about healthier, happy, more inclusive and more empowered communities through increased control of housing choices and benefits.

To access the published report please see https://www.powertochange.org.uk/research/community-led-housing-health-comprehensive-literature-review/

At the heart of the housing discussion

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….by Adam Sheppard

On the 14th November UWE Bristol proudly co-hosted the 20th Bristol Planning Law and Policy Conference.  This annual event was designed, as many good ideas are, over a pint of beer in a pub.  The thinking was that many notable events around planning and planning law were focused around London plus locations including Oxford and Birmingham, whilst Bristol, a regional centre and base for much planning and law activity, had little of comparable scale and resonance. The conference is a partnership between UWE Bristol, Clarke Willmott, JLL, and Jan Molyneux (a retired but still very active planning consultant) and has included other notable persons, most recently Bryan Smith (another retired but still very active planning consultant). Always with the intention of ensuring balance and perspective; the conference aims to ensure insights are diverse and embrace contested spaces to create dialogue, debate, and progress.

This year’s event took place in The Passenger Shed in Brunel’s Old Station at Bristol Temple Meads Railway Station. The list of famous people associated with Bristol is as long as it is diverse including, to name just a few, such greats as Sir Bernard Lovell, the bands Portishead and Massive Attack, actors Cary Grant, John Challis, and David Prowse, Damien Hurst, the comedians Russell Howard, Lee Evans, John Cleese (is he still a comedian?), and Stephen Merchant, three(!) actors in a show I have never seen but gather is a big deal called ‘Game of Thrones’ (Maise Williams, Jacob Anderson, and Hannah Murray), medical pioneer Elizabeth Blackwell, James May, Banksy, stars of sport Ian Holloway, Jo Durie and Gary Mabbutt, and not forgetting Laura Crane who, according to my wife, has been on something called ‘Love Island’. Brunel was actually born in Portsmouth but has been adopted by Bristol.  This magnificent venue was built between 1839–41 for the Great Western Railway (GWR) and was designed to accommodate Brunel’s 7 ft broad gauge railway design, typifying both Brunel and Bristol in being innovative, creative, progressive, and different to what is otherwise seen as the norm.

Final preparations for a day of insight and discussion

The 2019 conference was proud to host as speaker Adam Challis (JLL), Kevin Parker (Redrow Homes), Cllr Paul Smith (Bristol City Council), James Maurici QC (Landmark Chambers), Mark Southgate (MOBIE), Mike Grist (Curo), Emma Webster (Lifestory Group), Theo Backhouse (Backhouse Housing), Tom Brewerton (Unite Students), and Lin Cousins (Three Dragons).  The calibre of these speakers is notable of course, but so too was the theme – housing delivery. 

In the UK the housing topic has come to dominate planning in many respects.  The affordability challenge is perhaps most notable for many areas of the UK, and particularly the south.  The delivery of affordable housing, not affordable housing as now defined by Government via a definition as broad as Brunel’s tracks but genuinely affordable housing, is one of the key issues of our time. The challenge arguably still revolves around Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy from 1980 and, in particular, the inability to effectively replace genuine social housing stock ever since.  How we now respond to this challenge is a matter of some debate, but a comprehensive response is certainly needed and hopefully after the next General Election progress can be made on this matter, assuming our nation can otherwise stop imploding and start moving forward again.

Content with currency and pertinence

Affordability is only one issue though. The supply challenge is almost universal. Homeless is unacceptable yet commonplace. Meeting the needs of the elderly and those with particular housing requirements is complex and have their own affordability challenges.  And the market itself presents challenges to all house builders, but particularly the small and medium sized companies.  Our speakers spoke to all these challenges, and more, in a conference with too many highlights to mention. 

After the conference a black tie dinner is held.  This part of the event has become infamous for selling out quicker than Glastonbury as our dinner host, Professor Martin Boddy from UWE Bristol, noted in his address*.  The after dinner speaker this year was the excellent Dr Phil Hammond who managed to be as funny as he was poignant and challenging.

Preparing for an evening of networking in the grandeur of Brunel’s architecture

Having an event in Bristol of this scale and importance only really matters because of what it can achieve; it has no value in being self-serving, the conference must exist to raise challenging subjects and stimulate debate.  In doing this, in some small way, it can help move matters forward in a positive way.  UWE Bristol is proud to be part of this event, and I am personally proud to have represented UWE Bristol on the organising committee these last half dozen years.  As we move forward I am now handing the UWE Bristol baton over to my colleague Nick Smith, meaning we can all rest assured the event will only get bigger and better. Look out for tickets for next year – excitingly involving a new location at Ashton Gate Stadium!

*I am contractually obliged to note that the dinner only exists to further the opportunities for conference discussion and debate…

How do the residents of former metal mining areas value this heritage?

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By Danni Sinnett (SPE) and Margarida Sardo (Science Communication Unit)….

There are around 5,000 former metal mines in England and Wales, and many hundreds of thousands globally. Many of these mines have a legacy of highly polluted wastes, which can pose a risk to water quality and human health. As metal supplies diminish and new sources of metals are needed, especially for use in smart technologies, the potential to extract metals from these mine wastes is being examined. However, they often support important habitats and species assemblages, or are important for their historical significance. For example, around 20% of former metal mines are associated with Sites of Special Scientific Interest, around 14% are protected by European designations including in the lead mining areas in the Pennines and North Wales, and the tin-copper mines of Cornwall. Around 15% of former metal mines in England are in a World Heritage Site including the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape (Sinnett, 2018).

Wheal Maid mine Cornwall

Much of the research and policy concerned with the management of abandoned mine wastes is focussed on environmental protection, landscape quality and the need to balance this with the conservation of nature and, to a lesser extent, heritage. In recent years there have also be a number of studies examining the motivation and preferences of those visiting restored mineral extraction sites.

However, there has been very little research on how local residents value their mining heritage and their preferences for its long-term management. This is important as it is ultimately local people who are affected by both the positive and negative impacts of this legacy, as well as any changes to the status quo. It is also essential to ensure that local people are supportive of any plans for the management of the sites. Understanding their preferences and concerns can inform this process.

We undertook some research with residents of former mining areas to address this gap in our understanding. Specifically, we explored the following questions: how do those living in former metal mining landscapes value them in terms of aesthetic appearance, role in preserving cultural heritage, nature conservation and tourism? What are the preferred options for managing abandoned metal mines?

We used the Q Method to examine the preferences of those living in six areas of metal mining in England and Wales. Q Method allows participants to ‘sort’ a series of statements based on the degree to which the statement represents their perspective on a subject. We selected a set of statements from the academic literature, policy and articles in local press. They covered a range of opinions and options on the mining legacy and its management.

Our analysis revealed five perspectives:

  • Preservationists want to maintain the status quo, and recognise the value of the mining landscape for its industrial heritage and nature conservation. They want former mine sites to be left alone, and protected, primarily for their heritage value.
  • Environmentalists are more motivated by water quality and pollution mitigation. They feel that that mine wastes would benefit from vegetation establishment and recognise their contribution to nature conservation. They value the role of experts.
  • Industry supporters prioritise the local economy and are the most supportive of mineral extraction in general and the reworking of mine wastes, feeling that it would create jobs and bring in new people.
  • Nature enthusiasts prioritise vegetation establishment on mine sites. They recognise the contribution mine sites make, or could make, to nature conservation. They want to see the sites restored, feeling they should not be left as they are.
  • Landscape lovers are focussed on improving the aesthetic appearance of the mine wastes. They are most concerned with the impact of mines on the landscape, but are open to the idea of reworking the mines to aid the local economy.

There were also several areas of agreement:

  • All residents prioritised water quality to some degree, with environmentalists and landscape lovers in particular feeling very strongly that this should take precedence over heritage features and nature conservation.
  • They also felt that the preference of the people living locally should take be a priority in deciding the future of the post-mining landscape, with most disagreeing that the future management of mine waste should be expert-led.

In summary, we found that most residents view their mining heritage positively for the cultural and ecological benefits that it provides, but they are concerned about the adverse impact on water quality and the lack of vegetation on many sites. There may be some support for metal recovery from abandoned mines if it is combined with high quality restoration that mitigates water pollution and revegetates the sites, whilst preserving their cultural heritage. Residents must be part of the process – too many feel that landscape decisions are taken out of the hands of local communities and do not benefit them.

This work was funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council and Economic and Social Research Council through INSPIRE: IN Situ Processes In Resource Extraction from waste repositories; Grant number: NE/L013908/1.

You can read the papers from this research here:

Sinnett, D. (2019) Going to waste? The potential impacts on nature conservation and cultural heritage from resource recovery on former mineral extraction sites in England and Wales. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 62(7), 1227-1248. Available from https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/852458.

Sinnett, D. E., & Sardo, A. M. (2020) Former metal mining landscapes in England and Wales: Five perspectives from local residents. Landscape and Urban Planning, 193. Available from https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/3851958.

A Smarter Approach to Infrastructure Planning

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….by Hannah Hickman

In December 2018, Stephen Hall, Nick Croft and I were successful in winning a tender for some exciting work on infrastructure planning and governance. Commissioned by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), this was to be carried out in partnership with Peter Brett Associates (PBA).

We were set some challenging tasks:

  1. To assist in understanding better the practical barriers to the co-ordination of infrastructure and growth, and how approaches to infrastructure planning vary under different governance arrangements;
  2. To test the effectiveness of current approaches and explore how they might be improved to achieved greater integration;
  3. To create visual tools to demonstrate the range of players involved in the governance and delivery of infrastructure; and
  4. To provide a framework for discussing and addressing the issues that emerged.

We quickly found ourselves buried in local plans, infrastructure delivery frameworks and infrastructure provider investment frameworks, scratching our heads trying to fathom the inter-relationships between the myriad of players involved in the governance, delivery and funding of infrastructure, but as with all research, this material came alive, on talking to those on the ground. This we did by interviewing over 40 planning professionals and infrastructure providers in three in-depth case studies of Staffordshire County Council, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority and Glasgow City Council, chosen to reflect highly divergent governance contexts. This material was then supplemented by a national survey of all local planning authorities.

In some respects, readers of the report might feel rather dispirited by the findings. We identified five principles of good infrastructure planning:

  1. A shared vision of place, with clear objectives
  2. Specific infrastructure priorities identified to achieve that vision, aligned to funding sources
  3. Effective and early engagement to align planning and delivery
  4. Capacity, knowledge and resources
  5. Continuous learning and dissemination.

Yet we found relatively little evidence of these principles being realised in practice. Effective infrastructure planning is undoubtedly being hindered by complex multi-level governance arrangements, the demise of strategic planning, the lack of a stable funding environment for local authorities and an over-emphasis on competitive bidding, the absence of place narrative from regulatory frameworks, and lack of alignment between both the funding cycles and geographies of providers, with those used for local authority growth plans. In response to our findings, the RTPI has warned:

“that a failure to adopt a more joined-up approach to planning the UK’s towns and cities will make it impossible to meet the challenges of climate change, population growth and environmental risks over the coming decades” (RTPI 2019).

However, we did find pockets of innovation and good practice (driven largely by enthusiastic individuals and partnership built over long periods of time) and, importantly, a real commitment from both providers and planners to seek to work more closely together to drive improvements in practice. Striking, nevertheless, was the overwhelming desire from all players to see greater leadership from Central Government on infrastructure planning, both in terms of setting a strategic direction for infrastructure, tasking their own departments (health, education and transport in particular) to engage in a place based approach, and in addressing the negative impacts of a ‘deal’ based approach to infrastructure planning.

Striking also was the perception of infrastructure planning as a sub-set niche planning activity, involving the hidden world of undergound pipes and wires (did you know that ‘infra’ derives from the Latin word meaning ‘under’?), but as a research team we concluded the project by unanimously believing that infrastructure planning should be seen as a core-planning activity, deserved of more attention, and critical to the effective functioning of our society and effective place making.

If you want to read more about our recommendations for improving practice, then do read our report (or at least the summary!)


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

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by Hooman Foroughmand Araabi

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

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

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

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

The ABE reading group meets in the heart of Bristol

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

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

Planning for the Future…..

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Strategic spatial planning and governance at the city and city-region level.

By Hannah Hickman….

On Monday 17th June, staff from Bristol City Council and the University of West of England joined together for the second in a series of seminars aimed at drawing professional town planners and academics together – practice informed research and research informed practice in action!

Sarah O’Driscoll, Strategic City Planning Manager at Bristol City Council was first up. She gave an update on progress on the West of England Joint Spatial Plan (JSP) and the challenging economic and housing aspirations contained within the draft.

Sarah O’Driscoll (BCC) outlined the key challenges addressed by the draft Joint Spatial Plan (JSP)

As the first ‘new style’ sub-regional spatial plan to be subject to examination and produced under joint arrangements (including a shared staff resource across the four West of England authorities: Bristol, South Gloucestershire, Bath and NE Somerset and N Somerset), this was both fascinating and timely, as examination of the JSP starts shortly. UWE colleagues were particularly keen to understand the role of the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) in the preparation of the JSP and how this might change in the future once the planning powers of WECA – including the preparation of a joint plan – are operationalised. UWE staff also asked whether students might be able to observe the examination. Yes was the answer. Students must be encouraged to attend as this will no doubt comprise some very interesting debate!

Sarah O’Driscoll presents issues and opportunities along the journey to delivering the Joint Spatial Plan

Next up was Colin Chapman, Local Plan Team Manager at Bristol City Council. His subject was the content of Bristol’s draft local plan recently out for consultation. He shared a compelling narrative around the continued need for densification within the city’s green belt constrained boundary. He highlighted several exciting – as well as challenging – opportunities for substantial development. Particularly striking was the proposed diversification of St Philip’s Marsh. Currently an industrial area of the city, but with a long canal frontage and proximity to the city centre, Colin made a convincing case for achieving a greater mix of uses here. The opportunity for 2,500 homes at the Cumberland Basin – again an exciting waterfront location – raised some eyebrows: not because of the number of homes proposed necessarily but because of the re-configuration of a key arterial road network into and out of the city that this might entail! Colin ended by highlighting a frequently cited response to recent consultation: “we understand the need for all these homes but where’s the infrastructure?”

Colin Chapman (BCC) outlined aspirations for regeneration around the Frome Gateway (draft Local Plan)

This was the perfect segway into the first of UWE’s contribution, which was on research commissioned by the Royal Town Planning Institute on infrastructure governance in towns, cities and regions. Hannah Hickman and Stephen Hall shared some key emerging findings, highlighting both the systemic and practical challenges to achieving effective integrated infrastructure planning.

Hannah Hickman and Stephen Hall (UWE) explained the focus of their RTPI commissioned research

Bristol City Council colleagues were particularly interested in the varied findings around the challenges of achieving effective engagement between the planning community and providers (a very variable experience depending on sector) and highlighted their own experiences – both positive and negative – of engaging with statutory providers in particular. The culture of infrastructure funding ‘by bidding’ was a prominent theme of discussion, with the effort required to bid for pots of money without any certainty that funding would be forthcoming highlighted as a frustration. Watch this space for news of the final report and subsequent more detailed presentation of findings – including at the forthcoming AESOP conference in early July in Venice (lucky us!).

Hannah Hickman and Stephen Hall (UWE) outline their research method

Finally, Hannah Hickman introduced some research being led by Dr Katie McClymont and Adam Sheppard at UWE on ‘re-thinking regulation’ which will explore questions around the relationship between policy aspirations in place visions and plans, and the effectiveness of tools of regulation (such as development control, prior approvals, permitted development and permission in principle) in achieving them. There was much enthusiasm for exploring these questions jointly.

The overall outcome? Much shared learning, a positive appetite for continued ongoing dialogue, and the eager consumption of a few custard creams and chocolate digestives (dark!).

Rethinking the Green City in Brasilia…

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…..by Helen Hoyle

“Built for automobiles and air-conditioners, not people…it’s a lousy place to visit and no-one wanted to live there”, so my 1996 Lonely Planet Guide describes “the great planned city” of Brasilia. Danni Sinnett and I were on our way to find out if and how the city had changed since then.  We were taking part in a collaborative Newton-funded workshop, “Rethinking the Green and Planned City”, masterminded by Ian Mell (School of Environment, Education and Development (SEEDS), University of Manchester) with Maria do Carmen Lima and Camila Sant’ Anna from the University of Brasilia. The objectives were to bring early career Urban Green Infrastructure (UGI) researchers together from throughout the UK and Brazil to network and to identify challenges and opportunities for future international research collaborations around the planning, design and management of UGI. I was invited to present my research on stakeholder perceptions of introducing urban meadows1, whilst Danni and Maggie Roe were invited mentors. Danni presented her work on the development of the Building with Nature benchmark2 and perspectives of residents of former metal mining areas on their mining heritage.

Ian Mell (left) opens the workshop with colleagues from the University of Brasilia

The workshop structure was an exciting mix of short, focused presentations by participants with different international research perspectives, longer sessions where mentors presented their ‘good, bad and ugly’ experiences of collaborations on research projects, participant-oriented problem-solving exercises, and a walking field visit where we experienced some of the challenges of living in Brasilia first hand. This was inspired in its approach, because by walking through the city, we gained some understanding of the challenges of moving about the city on foot…life at the human scale in a city built for cars.

Brasilia…road transport still dominates in 2019

First conceived by President Juscelino Kubitschek to bring economic growth to the Brazilian interior, whilst relieving high population densities and land values in the coastal cities of Rio and Sao Paulo, Brasilia was inaugurated as the new capital of Brazil in 1960. Planned by Lucio Costa and designed by architect Oscar Niemayer and landscape architect Burle Marx, the city was built rapidly in three years and politicians and bureaucrats were lured there from the east coast by the promise of high wages. An almost unbelieveable photograph from 1957 reveals the original blank canvas of ‘cerrado’ or savannah landscape, with a cross on the ground across which the two main axes of the city were developed.

The crossing of the axis. Image by Mario Fontenelle in 1957 showing the crossing in the native cerrado vegetation.

Lucio Costa devised ‘The Pilot Plan’. The city was laid out in the form of an aeroplane, with the fuselage declared as ‘the monumental axis’ along which  significant government, civic and religious functions were located: the iconic towers of the Ministerial Buildings, Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aperecida (Metropolitan Cathedral), Teatro Nacional Claudio Santoro (National Theatre) and dome-shaped Museum of the Republic. The city was and still is an exemplar in functional zoning, with residential neighbourhoods, retail and hotel functions laid out along the ‘wings’ of the aeroplane.

Lucio Costa’s ‘Pilot Plan’.

The field visit started at our hotel, just off the ‘monumental axis’ (in the hotel district, of course). The day before I had been for a morning run along some of the retrofitted foot and cycleways in the middle of the axis, where the city looks its most ‘green’. I had been told it was perfectly safe to run there (in terms of both personal safety issues and traffic) and indeed, at 6.34am there was actually little traffic to cross as I made my way across one of the major freeways towards the green. The view of the city and surrounding landscape from the central axis was vast – I almost felt as if I was flying, but I also began to understand how the topography might contribute to one of the city’s greatest challenges, flooding. The city is built on a slope, and with a high percentage of impermeable surfaces and compacted soils, it was easy to see how rainfall would flow rapidly overground towards the artificial Lake Paranoa to the east of the city. As highlighted later by Mariana Siqueira, a landscape architect practising in the city, most of the native cerrado vegetation has been removed from the city, in favour of short grass, limiting infiltration and contributing to flooding and the sedimentation of Lake Paranoa.

The view towards the monumental axis from our hotel

As we all walked through the retail quarter towards the main bus station on our tour, I was aware that at 8.30am there were many more vehicles on the road than there had been at 6.34 am the day before.  We had learned from Gabriela Tenorio, one of our hosts, that the population of the city has now grown to 3M, with most people driving to work daily from surrounding satellite settlements. We were also aware of street vendors selling everything from fruit to clothing and bags, but it didn’t seem too difficult to navigate on foot, at least within the central area. We continued our walk to the Metropolitan Cathedral. Here, as later in the Three Powers Square, I was struck by how stark the buildings looked against the skyline. The white concrete structures of Niemayer’s architecture catch the sun, but there is no softening green vegetation or human-scale street furniture. A UNESCO world heritage site since 1987, the city defies any addition to or alteration of Niemayer’s minimalistic designs. Although he aimed for sensual curves, there is little to soften the landscape in the harsh light. Inside the cathedral, the curved wall made for a ‘whispering wall’.

The Metropolitan Cathedral…
The cathedral and city under construction
Walking the walk…Danni and Ian
Niemayer’s Museum of the Republic, with the towers of the Ministerial Buildings in the background

Later, a visit to the residential units provided some contrast. Located along the southern ‘wing’ of the ‘aeroplane’, each unit comprised four ‘superblocks’ made to house 3000 inhabitants in six-storey buildings. Planted walkways and in some cases ponds and other water features were incorporated (designed by landscape architect Burle Marx), interspersed with commercial streets. A church, school, social club, health centre, kindergarten, library and cinema were included within each unit, indication that social infrastructure was well-integrated and provided.

Plan of a residential unit with its four superblocks

Here we learned from Gabriela that the superblocks are now much sought-after. There is also controversy about the high cost of maintaining the planting here, with accusations that wealthier residents are not footing the bill, now subsidised by other areas of the city budget. These are some of the few residential areas in Brasilia (and in Brazil) where middle class people live in open, un-gated neighbourhoods. Brasilia is considered the safest city in the country, yet social and economic polarisation are stark throughout the country. Workshop participants (architects living in Sao Paulo) described to me their own gated neighbourhoods, explaining that they would not ride their bikes from home, but would drive somewhere first to cycle in a designated recreational zone.

Inside the superblock. Planting integrated with six-storey residential buildings

The final part of our tour took us (by bus this time) to the Botanical Gardens to the south of the city. Home to a mosaic of native cerrado, here the city’s residents can take picnics in a designated area of pine planting outside the gardens, or access wilder nature on a walking trail through the cerrado. We took part in a number of team building activities before taking the trail.

Walking through the native cerrado inside the Botanical Garden

The workshop was a refreshing, eye-opening opportunity to share experiences and develop collaborations with people working in very different international contexts. Although we share the need to address the overarching challenge of planning and designing future UGI in a context of climate crisis, with common issues such as the need to mitigate flooding and reduce car-dependence, more specific challenges and opportunities are localised. Personal highlights of the workshop included meeting and hearing the inspirational Ana Carolina Carmona, a landscape architect at the University of Sao Paulo, who talked about raising awareness of vegetation amongst her students in her presentation ‘See the green’. Students had spent time drawing in Nature, creating a drawing resource for the future. Ana Carolina introduced me to fellow landscape architect Mariana Siqueira. Mariana is working in Brasilia to raise awareness of the value of the native cerrado ‘campo’ (meadows) for flood mitigation, biodiversity enhancement and human enjoyment, and we are now developing future research possibilities in the UK, Brazil and more widely.

The UK-Brazil group outside the University of Brasilia

1 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1618866716305489

2 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S161886671730780X

Planning for convenience: Public toilets

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British public toilets are increasingly in decline because of government cutbacks and lack of political will to provide facilities

By Emerita Professor Clara Greed…

As an Emerita Professor I am still very busy and for example, I continue to be involved in public toilet issues, both in relation to UK Toilets and globally.  To explain, ‘public toilets’ may be defined as comprising both traditional ‘on-street’, local authority public toilets and ‘off-street’ toilets to which the public has right of access, for example in restaurants, shopping malls, and department stores, which, together, are may be defined as ‘away from home toilets’ (Greed, 2003). There is also a vast range of ‘private toilets’ including work place toilets, in shops, offices, and factories; toilets in educational establishments for pupils and students; facilities in leisure, sport, entertainment and leisure facilities; and toilets associated with the transport system, in train stations, bus termini, coach stations and airports.

I continue to argue in my ongoing research and publications that public toilets should be seen as a key component of planning policy and practice. But most local planning authorities do not include toilet provision within their urban policies or development plans, and there is no legal requirement to do so, indeed toilet provision is often deemed to be ‘ultra vires’ not a land-use planning matter. But, lack of provision undermines health policies, economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability. If the government wants to create sustainable cities, and to get people back to public transport, cycling and walking, then adequate public toilets are essential: they are ‘the missing link’.  Inadequate toilet provision, undermines people’s  mobility and chances of freely accessing and moving around in the city.  

Privatised ‘franchised’ alternatives include the ‘Unisex’ automatic public toilet but many users are scared of such contraptions, and many women see them as being just fancy male urinals

But public toilets are in decline, and some local authorities have closed them all, such as Bristol in 2018. Not only is there lack of provision but historically women have less provision. Unequal toilet provision for women persists, resulting in continuing queues for the Ladies, in spite of improved levels of provision being recommended in the British Standards Guidance on Sanitary Installations (BSI, 2010) , because so few new toilets are being built. Typically women are provided with less than half the provision for men.  Even if equal floor space is provided for the women’s and men’s side of the average public toilet block, men are likely to have twice the number of ‘places to pee’ because a whole row of urinals can be provided in the same space where only a few cubicles can be fitted in.  Furthermore, women need public toilets more than men, because they have more reasons to use the toilet because of menstruation, menopause and pregnancy in addition to simple urination and defecation (Greed, 2016). 

Toilet provision is a major issue in many countries, and sanitation is a key priority in the UN SDGs and an important component of our NERC research programme. Here in this hutong (neighbourhood) of Shanghai there are local toilets but poor sanitation within homes.

Whilst the toilet situation in the UK is dire, the situation is much worse in the wider world with Globally out of 7 billion total world population, over 2 billion lack basic access to water, sanitation, electricity and of course toilets. There are more mobile phones in the world than there are toilets.  50% of the world’s people is urban now but a third of them live in shanty towns. Again girls and women are particularly disadvantaged in spite of SDG 6 which links sanitation and gender issues. Subsection 6.2 states that by 2030 the aim is ‘to achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and to end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations’

New toilet challenges are arising, particularly the need to include a wide range of types of toilet users, and the introduction of Gender Neutral Toilet facilities, or indeed the desegregation and mixing of existing facilities. Whilst everyone needs a toilet we have argued in recent research that, such changes must not be at the expense of provision for women, who already have fewer facilities, as ‘inclusion can exclude’ (Ramster et al, 2018) .

Everybody needs toilets, but it is important to make sure that this is done in a reasonable proportionate manner

I continue to do write, speak at toilet conferences (such as in Xi’an in 2018), and do toilet research. For example, I am part of the NERC research SASSI team, as a member of the Advisory Board, on ‘A systems view of Sustainable Sanitation in China’ see http://www.complexurban.com/project/sassi/ and also see https://nerc.ukri.org/press/releases/2019/07-tase/


BSI (2010) BS 6465-4:2010Sanitary Installations. Code of practice for the provision of public toilets, London: BSI.

Greed, C. (2003) Inclusive Urban Design: Public Toilets, Oxford: Architectural Press

Greed, C. (2016) ‘Taking Women’s Bodily Functions into Account in Urban Planning Policy: Public Toilets and Menstruation’, Town Planning Review, Vol 87, No.5, pp. 505-523

Ramster, Gail, Greed, Clara, & Bichard, Jo-Anne (2018).  How inclusion can exclude: the case of Public Toilet Provision for women.  Built Environment, 44 (1), 52-77

Reflecting on the MSc Urban Planning fieldtrip to Nantes…

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Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse

By MSc Transport Planning student Marcus Merry….

On the Monday we met outside the castle in Nantes at 10.  We milled about the l’office du tourisme, picking up maps, discussing our various experiences of travel and accommodation.  I had journeyed to Nantes over four days by train to Plymouth, ferry to Roscoff, and bicycle via the Brest-Nantes Canal, arriving the previous evening at 10pm soaked to the skin.  Most others had come by plane.

We had a brief look inside the castle grounds.  Stephen reminded me that the Plantagenet kings of England hailed from nearby Angers, and I began to regard the fortification with a proprietorial eye.  The keep, however, was closed on Mondays.  Through the spitting rain we made our way to a monument to slavery, a practice in which Nantes was historically involved.  This was actually very interesting: we wandered along a cavernous underground exhibition which visually displayed the origins and destinations of the many millions of slaves transported in the slave trade, the appalling conditions they experienced, and a timeline of laws passed across the world to abolish it.  I was shocked to learn that some countries had not abolished slavery until late in the 20th century, and indeed we discussed the extent to which modern slavery continues still.

The monument to slavery

Coming back into the light, we went on to visit the resplendent cathedral then to Vincent Gache on the Ile de Nantes (a large island in the Loire River in the middle of the city).  Biblical rain and hail descended as we sheltered in an alcove of a random building.  Eventually judging the worst had passed, we walked to the nearby School of Architecture.  Here Laurent Devisme gave us an engaging talk.  I remember him saying that instead of only focusing on best practice, we should also study failures.  As a case in point he referred to a 50-year debate about a new Nantes airport, which had been recently ended in rejection.  We went onto the roof, and looked out at the city from the smooth, block-like concrete structure.  The adjacent quirky buildings and arty local students gave the Ile de Nantes a trendy feel, almost like East London or Berlin.

Ile de Nantes

On Tuesday afternoon we took a train to Angers, another city with a decent tram system, where we disaggregated to variously enjoy the local castle, art galleries and cafes.  We all met up again by the main theatre, and went for a drink together at a nearby bar.  I sampled a glass of a local vin rouge recommended by Stephen, and we headed back to Nantes.

The castle at Angers

I missed the Wednesday morning tour of U-boat pens in St Nazaire (in the rain), instead spending the time searching for a copy of an important cycling map I had managed to drop in the canal on the way from Roscoff.  Having successfully procured this at a useful bookshop, I rendezvoused with them in the afternoon at a refurbished warehouse on the Ile de Nantes.  Malo Bottani, a local student, gave us a very interesting talk about the area’s post-industrial development, referring to the different strategies and plans presented in the exhibition.  I liked the way that the plan for the area was intended to be continually evolving (avoiding a static plan which would become out of date), and that the designers in charge were changed every few years to encourage new influences and perspectives (the current design team was led by landscape architects).  That evening I watched Man United beat Paris Saint Germain with a controversial injury-time penalty, in a bar packed with locals.

On Thursday we met early to catch a ferry across to Trentmoult, a former fishing village on the south bank of the Loire.  We then walked to Cité Radieuse, one of Le Corbusier’s modernist buildings, dating from the 1950s.  We crowded into a lift and went to the roof, which was quite a height – the building is still one of the tallest in Nantes.  There was a nursery at one end with oddly shaped windows, and a narrow running track (never much used, admitted our guide) sunk into the concrete around the perimeter.  From one side there was a view over winding cul-de-sacs of detached houses, contrasting sharply with the high-density block.  Given Le Corbusier’s emphasis on light, the puzzle was how apartments looking east or west got light throughout the day; as we stood in the (deliberately) dark corridors, our guide revealed all: the apartments looked out both sides, with one floor running above or below the central ‘street’ corridor; it was very clever.  Inside the show flat, the quaint 1950s furniture was preserved.  There were rounded portholes for doors, which made one feel faintly sea-sick; most room and fixture dimensions were derived from the 182cm height of an idealised man. 

In the afternoon Patricia Saraux spoke to us about the WHO Healthy City.  In expressive French (translated by our learned professeurs) she described how both physical and mental health is important to enable people to take opportunities in life.  Patricia lamented the smoking of local young women in Nantes, which she blamed for their poor ranking on cancer league tables.  Beaming, however, she spoke about how horrible it had been made for cars to be driven into the centre of the city.  I reflected that their plans for shared spaces for cyclists and pedestrians could become problematic as they strove to increase cycling levels; echoing in my head I could hear John Parkin’s pronouncement, that cycle routes must be designed for speed.

In the evening we met in a bar at the top of the tallest building in Nantes, which offered stunning views, cocktails, and, arranged about the floor, giant lounging soft-toy birds (with children clambering over them) and broken-eggshell seating.  After some refreshment we repaired to a crepe restaurant, where I had a pomme gallette and shared a large flagon of cidre with my neighbouring diners.  Thence to a nightclub opposite, where I demonstrated my prowess at table football, had some excellent conversations about Bristol’s urban sustainability, and attempted some dancing, before quietly making my exit.

Bar at le Nid

On the final day, Friday, we met at a tram stop near the castle. We went west to the Grande Bellevue estate, where Pauline Cottier and colleague gave us an open-air talk about urban renewal.  Many of the modernist, inward-facing 1950s blocks were boarded up and due for demolition, to make way for improved units, and they spoke of the importance of concentrating retail to ensure viable places were created.  The original design of the estate contributed to the area’s social problems, and Le Corbusier’s work (which we had viewed on Thursday) could be seen as influencing this somewhat inhuman design.  Stephen, however, noted that Le Corbusier cannot be completely blamed, as such estates were constructed at low-spec compared with what he would have prescribed.

Then we went our separate ways.  I retrieved my bike from the hotel car park, hitched up my bags, tightened my brakes, and began my 3-day journey – via Rennes and St. Malo – back to England.

“Once upon a time I was falling in love….. but now I’m only falling apart” (James Steinman / Bonnie Tyler)

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Planning and the abyss…by Adam Sheppard

In the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) Journal this month (February 2019, Vol.88, No.2) there are two articles concerning planning education and the profession.  The first, by Gavin Parker and Emma Street, asks searching questions concerning planning competencies and the future implications for skills, professional bodies, planning education, training, and lifelong learning.  The second, by Hannah Hickman, Katie McClymont, and Adam Sheppard, considers the challenge of translating the motivations and aspirations of planning students into current practice realities today.  Both articles, alongside the outputs of other authors, practitioners, and academics in recent years, point to a wider narrative of challenge for planning today, and planning in the future. The current challenges facing an evolving profession and industry are far reaching and pose interesting questions; in the extreme, is planning staring into an abyss?

The city is a work of art…

A colleague recently emailed me during an exchange on this subject and simply said ‘planning is dead’. On a personal level it is interesting to reflect on how friends and colleagues, many of whom have devoted much of their life to positively and passionately furthering planning thought and the aims and ambitions of the profession, could hold such a view. I will also admit to feeling, at the very least, ‘frustration’ concerning the state of the industry and the lack of effective action to address ongoing challenges. It is easy to slip into the mire with only a few selected examples in relation to the system itself:

  • Localism, a noble venture with enormous potential, finds itself frequently under-resourced and creating a stark new reality of planning; how does one operate effectively in a local authority area with 50 or 100 Neighbourhood Plans?  And how will that picture look in 10 or 20 years’ time?
  • The use of Prior Approval, particularly in relation to residential conversions, creates a scenario where developments with significant issues such that they would otherwise struggle to achieve permission by virtue of everything from design quality to locational factors, are able to bypass due process in the interests of the ‘greater goal’ of housing numbers delivery.  I for one struggle greatly, not only with the high cost that is accepted here, but also with the worrying signals for the future of the regulatory construct.
  • The 5 year housing land supply requirement is easy to rationalise too, but the challenge of meeting it, and the stark reality for local authority areas without it, creates a further environment of challenge.

The list goes on.  And with it comes frustration, despair, and sadness for all of us who believe so strongly in a profession with such potential to be constructive, positive, creative, innovative, impactful, just, equitable, progressive, and inclusive.  How can planning address the current local, national, and global challenges in such a context? Particularly with the added dimension of ongoing austerity. It is easy to regress into process, into conflict, and indeed into despair and perhaps even apathy. The current discussions concerning the future of planning, including notably the TCPA Raynsford Review (https://www.tcpa.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=30864427-d8dc-4b0b-88ed-c6e0f08c0edd), are therefore critical. These are zeitgeist discussions of great importance. Now is the time to shout loudly, to challenge the status quo, to question, to push back. To quote the late Bull Pullman in the blockbuster ‘Independence Day’, presumably referencing Dylan Thomas, “We will not go quietly into the night”.