Futureproofing parks and green spaces beyond COVID-19: The need for climate-adapted planting

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By Helen Hoyle

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the value of private gardens, public parks and green spaces. At the beginning of lockdown, when outdoor exercising was the only outing from home ‘allowed’, we spent an increasing amount of time outdoors in these spaces. Those with their own gardens planted seeds and vegetables, eeking out any remaining compost when garden centres were still closed. Some even walked or jogged in their own gardens. But many households have no access to a garden, so the value of our public parks and green and blue spaces for both physical and mental wellbeing was at last realised.

Yet the temperatures were very warm, little rain fell, and many of our green spaces started to look brown and worn. Although we described the weather as ‘unseasonably warm’, longer term climate data confirm that temperatures are increasing. Parts of the UK are suffering increasing summer aridity, with a negative impact on the planting designed for a cooler, more temperate climate. It is time for us to ‘futureproof’ our valued parks and green spaces by looking to warmer climates to source our urban trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. This has been happening in the UK for some years. The London 2012 Olympic Park in Stratford incorporated South African planting with species such as Kniphofia used dramatically in a prime position near to the stadium. Whereas subtly-coloured perennial meadows were sown in the more naturalistic North Park, vibrant annuals dominated swathes of banking around the stadium. The bright oranges of Eschscholzia californica, (California poppy), gave way to the golden Coreopsis tinctoria (Plains coreopsis) in time for the Paralympics. Such ‘futureproofing’ should happen everywhere. It is happening now on a former minigolf site in Wardown Park, Luton1, where I am working closely with the Parks Service and Riverbank Primary School to introduce an ‘airquality arboretum-meadow’. Working with the support of the Landscape Institute and specialist meadows consultant Pictorial Meadows, we have introduced nine trees, particularly selected to be adapted to a warmer future climate. The annual meadow sown at the beginning of lockdown, including Coreopsis tinctoria, will provide welcome aesthetic delight to local park visitors throughout the summer.

North American Coreopsis tinctoria (Plains coreopsis) provides late season pollen and nectar after UK species have finished flowering, and a welcome burst of golden sunshine for park visitors.

Why don’t we plant more climate-adapted species in UK parks and gardens? This is probably due to a lack of understanding amongst some policy-makers and practitioners, assuming all non-natives to be like Japanese knotweed. To the contrary, many non-native species can make a significant positive contribution, for example, Coreopsis tinctoria, provides late season pollen and nectar to generalist invertebrates after native UK species have finished flowering in September. It also provides a welcome late season burst of sunshine for park visitors. People also like exotic, climate-adapted planting. My previous research2 has shown that 75% people would be happy for non-native climate-adapted planting to be introduced in UK parks and gardens if it were better-adapted to the changing climate than present-day species. A more recent study (article under review) in collaboration with Matthew Pottage at RHS Wisley has shown that awareness of climate change and its implications is directly related to educational qualifications. This highlights the need to raise awareness and widen access and understanding of climate change science beyond formal educational settings. As we appreciate the physical and mental wellbeing benefits of spending time in our gardens, parks, green and blue spaces, through the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, ‘futureproofing’ them should be a priority.

Dr Helen Hoyle will be facilitating a workshop on the Futureproofing Luton Project at the postponed Landscape Institute Health, Wellbeing and Place CPD event in London on 28th January 2021: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/health-wellbeing-and-place-how-landscape-delivers-positive-change-tickets-89671296261

1Futureproofing Luton: https://blogs.uwe.ac.uk/sustainable-planning-and-environments/futureproofing-luton-co-producing-an-arboretum-meadow-with-local-eco-warriors/

2Hoyle, et al. (2017). Attractive, climate-adapted and sustainable? Public perception of non-native planting in the designed urban landscape. Landscape and Urban Planning, 164, 49-63


Are we designing “concrete coffins”? Alternative approaches to urban tree pit design

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by Dean Bell…

It was once put to me by an ex colleague that urban tree professionals are designing “concrete coffins” in order to integrate trees into paved urban environments. They were in essence indicating that conventional approaches to urban tree pit design are driving high mortality rates across urban forests. There is some justifiable logic to this claim. However, the term ‘conventional’, and thus the approaches to tree pit design, vary considerably among those responsible for their delivery. This blog summarises some of the challenges of urban tree establishment in hard landscapes, and introduces technical solutions that may increase tree survival.

Urban forests, defined here as ‘all the trees in the urban realm’, play a pivotal role in maintaining healthy, sustainable communities and mitigating some of the negative impacts of urbanisation. The benefits of incorporating trees into the urban fabric have been the subject of considerable academic literature in recent years. Well-maintained urban forests provide an array of benefits to people and nature, commonly referred to as ‘ecosystem services’.

Infographic highlighting some of the many benefits of urban trees.
Source: Treeconomics

The recent recognition of the benefits of urban trees has sparked a number of new national and local planting schemes across the UK. Examples are the Northern Forest and the current Government’s commitment to plant one million urban trees. Similarly, recent declarations of climate emergencies by local authorities have in many cases come with pledges to plant a significant number of trees. Whilst these are well received, there are concerns among urban tree professionals that planting pledges may be favouring ‘fashion’ over ‘function’, as tree growth and survival are often compromised in the built environment – where conditions are much less favourable than for their rural counterparts.

Establishing trees in hard landscapes presents significant technical challenges. Trees experience a litany of physical stresses that can pose profound threats to their biology, especially if exposure is routine. To name but a few, these include soil compaction, water deficits and nutrient deficiency. Either singularly, or cumulatively (as is typical), the consequences of these harsh conditions are strongly correlated with high urban tree mortality rates.

High tree failure was first highlighted in the 1980s where 30% mortality was recurrently recorded. However, more recent indications suggest mortality rates of 30-50% are commonplace within the initial year after planting. Although there are several reasons for this, perhaps the most significant threat to urban tree survival is the scarcity of soil suitable for root growth. Soil volume is a critical element for the success, or failure, of urban trees – the provision of an adequate rooting environment is essential to achieving a good canopy cover.

The reality is that there are many inherent conflicts involved in establishing urban trees in hard landscapes. First, street and highway design results in significant competition for space. Securing adequate soil volumes for tree pits is a substantial and ongoing challenge. Second, highway construction standards require trees to navigate a landscape below ground constructed to a highly engineered specification. This is almost exclusively designed to restrict root growth.

In order for trees and infrastructure to coexist in modern urban conditions, tree pit design in hard landscapes must invariably serve a dual purpose: to provide both a soil environment that does not detrimentally limit root growth and a load bearing capacity conforming to engineering specifications. This balance is fundamental, as the soil environment to support urban tree growth is in direct contrast to the characteristics sought in highway/pavement design.

Fortunately, a suite of engineered tree pit solutions has been developed that enable root growth whilst supporting pedestrian and vehicular traffic. The leading solutions are structural growing media and crate systems. Structural growing media are load bearing substrates achieved through a skeleton of larger mineral particles such as sand or aggregate, whereas crate systems are high strength modular structural cells made from plastic or concrete that protect the root system and act as a vault to support a large volume of uncompacted soil.

Illustration of a plastic crate system tree pit accommodating substantial soil. volume and underground utility. Source: GreenBlue Urban

My PhD research investigates the impact of these solutions on urban tree survival, growth and physiological functioning, the delivery of a range of ecosystem services and examines whether the solutions can support the diversification of UK urban forests.

Simply put, trees are forest plants. They did not evolve in asphalt. Many cities have very ambitious targets to increase tree canopy cover, including our home city of Bristol, which hopes to double the cover by the end of 2045. If we are to achieve such a target, a sustainable, multidisciplinary approach to urban tree pit design is essential, to mitigate high levels of maintenance incurred from poor tree establishment and to promote tree survival in hard landscapes.

Realising the many benefits delivered by urban trees depends on their survival, and trees must reach their species potential at maturity to optimise delivery. The mantra of ‘right tree, right place’ is embedded in a tree professional’s practice. I would also add the need to focus on tree pit design, including use of engineered solutions where appropriate – to aid successful establishment and promote the delivery of the benefits for which urban trees are planted.

Connecting and Caring through Food and Facemasks

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By Jo Bushell

Researcher positionality is an intrinsic feature of research, especially qualitative research. Being reflexive and adaptive to the changing, iterative conditions of one’s research, and recognising where one is situated in the world and as a researcher when considering one’s participants, is crucial to researcher positionality. Covid-19 has resulted in researchers reflexive and adaptive skills coming to the fore. Existing insecure employment contracts are becoming even more so, and funding streams are being repurposed. Research projects are being put on hold or extended, and qualitative data collection methods are being rethought and going online to facilitate social distancing. However, it is my researcher positionality within my PhD – working with Somali immigrants living in Bristol, examining their food, energy and water values and practices for positive influences in the broader population – which I focus on here.

When I agreed to write this blogpost, before Covid-19, my thoughts around my researcher positionality related to my being a white, middle-class woman, researching with members of the Bristol BAME community. Theories of postcolonialism – which highlight entrenched and unequal power relations throughout all spheres of life – frame my research and so filled my mind. Specifically, the stark warning by Robbins (2006:415) that postcolonial research needs to be robust and extensive, mutually beneficial, and that “anything less is theft”. So, while vital to know, recognise and act on these inequalities, when thinking about undertaking my fieldwork, they unhelpfully served to create chasms and pitfalls into which I was bound to fall. To bridge these gaps, I found fortitude in theories of care. Care theory provided an academic framework which helped elucidate that central to my researcher positionality is a caring approach: towards my topic and its importance, for conducting good research, and towards my participants – rightly valuing them and their insights.

In these days of Covid-19 – where ‘take care’ has become a mantra, the societal contributions of key workers who care for society are revalued and as Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities (BAME) across the United Kingdom are disproportionally affected due to Covid-19 – I am revisiting care theory. In particular, the writings of Joan Tronto. In Moral Boundaries, Tronto (1993), argues that care takes place in public and is political as well as in private and being personal, and highlights that many forms of care work are undervalued in our society, as well as being racialised, classed and gendered. On my rereading of Moral Boundaries, I was also struck by Tronto’s (1993) theorising on the concept of social distance; explaining that as well as it being the physical distance between two people, it also describes the ways that people perceive and act towards each other, due to the political, economic, social or anthropological bonds that connect them. Considered thus, despite the tragic and uncertain conditions that Covid-19 has created, it has also provided a common bond between us and provided ways of reaching out, connecting and closing the gap of social distance to friends, family and many kinds of others. Which, for myself, includes across postcolonial divides.

The Malcolm X Community Centre, St. Paul’s, Bristol.
Source: Jo Bushell

Through the Somali community group, Talo,  working with me in my PhD research – and working to support families in St Paul’s and inner-city areas through activity-based projects or housing, employment or benefits support – I have started volunteering at a new Bristol foodbank: The Food Hub Consortium Project (FHCP). The FHCP was established in April 2020 as a response to the need for foodservice and delivery created by the Covid-19 pandemic within local BAME communities in Bristol. This consortium will operate for three months, funded by the Quartet Community Foundation, with Black South West Network (BSWN) as the grant holder and project managing organisation. All volunteers and individuals operate from the Malcolm X Community Centre. The FHCP is currently supported by Fareshare for food and Karshare who provide the van and driver to collect the food donated by Fareshare, and also receives ad-hoc donations from other local organisations, community groups and individuals. As such, the FHCP demonstrates the proactivity of BAME communities across Bristol and beyond for establishing initiatives that provide community support during Covid-19. However, it also illuminates the existing disparities for BAME communities which are further exacerbated by Covid-19.

Apples donated by Fareshare.
Source: Jo Bushell

Yet, despite these inequalities, I am deeply grateful for this volunteering opportunity.  At a time when personal connections have been reduced to the household and the virtual, my involvement enables me to reach out practically across communities and to close my positionality of social distance.

Dried beans and peas donated by Fareshare.
Source: Jo Bushell

In these ways, in addition to assisting with an invaluable volunteering service, I am hopeful that my time at the foodbank, will help close social distance gaps and create new bonds of friendship to demonstrate that I care about people as well as my research.

Mum’s foodbank facemasks.
Source: Jo Bushell

Thus far, during the pandemic, I have not been a facemask wearer. However, as lockdown restrictions are to loosened, and we venture out again into public spaces, it feels wise to follow protection advice on cloth facemask wearing which have also been recommended for their comfort and environmental credentials. So, during this time of stay-at-home creativity and repurposing, I have engaged the sewing services of my Mum to make facemasks from pre-loved fabrics for the food hub volunteers, as a small, gesture of caring and connectedness as we go about our duties.

FHCP volunteers with food boxes
Source: The FHCP

As is the way with qualitative research, writing this blogpost has been an iterative process. What began solely about my positionality as a researcher has broadened into being multipurpose. During my writing and while reflecting on the ethics of conducting postcolonial research, I recognised that I must share my writing with Talo and the FHCP to let them know of its existence and for them to have the opportunity to comment and contribute. I also recognised that, with their agreement, this blogpost could provide an opportunity to publicise the FHCP and Bristol’s BAME Covid-19 food situation to a wider audience.

FHCP volunteer
Source: The FHCP

Additionally, I reflected further on care theory and that it contains vulnerability: it is that by opening up and making oneself known to others that relationships can be enriched and become closer (Engster, 2019). Thus by sharing this writing with Talo and the FHCP, I revealed myself and my caring position. There were moments in the temporal gap between sharing and response when I wondered how Talo and the FHCP would react towards my writing. So I’m grateful that Talo and the FHCP’s response was positive. They both agreed that this blogpost would be an opportunity for exposure to a wider audience and so were happy to be mentioned and provided comments, text and photos.

Going forward, I recognise that in both my volunteering and researching, I am still likely to encounter postcolonial pitfalls into which I will stumble. But I hope that sharing my caring position has also reached out across postcolonial divides and helped to close the social distance gap.

Talo volunteers
Source: Talo

So here it is. A blogpost about my researcher positionality, which has been reflexive and adaptive. And which has evolved, I hope, to be mutually beneficial to Talo and the FHCP, as well as to myself. I like to think that Robbins (2006) would also approve.


Engster, D. (2019) ‘Care Ethics, Dependency, and Vulnerability’, Ethics and Social Welfare, 13:2, 100-114.

Robbins, P. (2006) ‘Environmental enquiry in a postcolonial world’ in S. Aitken and G. Valentine (eds) Approaches to Human Geography: Philosophies, Theories, People and Practices. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Tronto, J. (1993) Moral Boundaries. London: Routledge,

Thank you too, to my Mum for the facemasks and researcher friends Dr. Nathalie Hyacinth and Arif Jamal for their insights and comments.

Planning in a time of pandemics

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by Katie McClymont…..

Strange times we are in. Somewhere in the midst of transitioning to online teaching (or at least attempting to- I’ll leave it up to my students to be the judge of how successful this has been), home-schooling three children, standing in busy yet spacious queues for fruit, veg, bread, milk and other necessary elements of daily fuel – my mind has drifted to what all this means to us as planning researchers and educators. Aside from the practicalities of Zoom meetings, Skype for interviews and tutorials via blackboard, what things should we be offering comment on, and what things should we be reassessing ourselves?

The first is about housing and the idea of home. The message of ‘stay at home’ is loud and clear, but the implications of this vary vastly between households. The media has noted efforts to find accommodation for rough sleepers (BBC, 2020) and Arwa Mahdawi (2020) has eloquently written about the increasing risks of domestic violence, and for those for whom ‘home’ does not equate with safe space. It is right that these immediate concerns are at the forefront of policy responses, but there are longer-term, less-apparent issues for some ‘staying at home’. This includes those in overcrowded, unsatisfactory housing, with poor access to outdoor space, or even natural light. With public playgrounds now closed, those in social housing denied access to purportedly private gardens seem even more unfairly treated than before (Grant, 2019a and b). Moreover, research revealing the shockingly poor resident units developed under relaxations in change of use for offices showcases what ‘home’ will be for some people (Clifford et al, 2018). Units, some as small as 13 square metres (Park, 2019) and some without windows cannot be seen as fit places to be ‘locked-down’ within. This is only one part of the issues- including poor ventilation and exposure to excessive noise- with much contemporary housing as highlighted by the TCPA within their healthy homes campaign (Howie, 2019). Now, more than ever, (staying at) home should evoke safety, security and some comfort- for all of us as we all share the restrictions imposed for the national good. At its core, planning is premised in making decisions for collective interests- now is a time which acutely demonstrates how far from acceptable some of these decisions have been.

The message of ‘stay at home’ is loud and clear

This leads me to think further about public and community spaces, and their value. Aside from fears for health and fears of uncertainty, the current pandemic has provoked disquiet through the myriad impacts of ‘social distancing’. As much as missing the pub, the theatre, attending football matches and swimming in public pools, the removal of spaces for incidental ‘encounters’ with others- in libraries, cafes, the (school and public) playground changes the emotional pattern of daily life. It is too soon to know, personally or more widely, what the impact of these changes with be, but the removal of such ‘common’ places- or social infrastructure as Eric Klinsberg (2018) articulately defines- from everyday life, does offer a unique vantage point to reflect on their role. As planners, we do not often or readily articulate the value of such places: our language for the importance of community, public, semi-public spaces is under-developed. What is the difference between a church hall and community music venue? Does it matter who owns it? Who uses it? How does this vary between different setting- urban, rural, wealthy, mobile, declining, aging and all the other ways we are able to define an area?

Now, more than ever, (staying at) home should evoke safety, security and some comfort

Planning has a role in offering hope in the dark times: hope not for a return to business as usual, but hope for a better, shared future: one in which home can be a sanctuary supported by resilient and well-understood social infrastructure. Moreover, these quick comments are only a beginning. Can we emerge from this current crisis with renewed and refreshed ideas about the decline of the high street as a social space with increased online shopping, changes to our daily travel patterns which can minimise pollution and increase air quality (one silver lining of the current situation) as well as the key challenge of our generation: taking collective and state action to tackle climate change?


BBC (2020) Coronavirus: All rough sleepers in England ‘to be housed’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-52063939 27th March 2020

Clifford, B, Firm, J, Livingstone, N and Canelas, P (2018) Assessing the impacts of extending permitted development rights to office-to-residential change of use in England, RICS Research Trust, available at https://www.rics.org/globalassets/rics-website/media/knowledge/research/research-reports/assessing-the-impacts-of-extending-permitted-development-rights-to-office-to-residential-change-of-use-in-england-rics.pdf

Grant, H. (2019a) Disabled children among social tenants blocked from communal gardens, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/sep/27/disabled-children-among-social-tenants-blocked-from-communal-gardens 27th September 2019

Grant, H. (2019b) Too poor to play: children in social housing blocked from communal playground https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/mar/25/too-poor-to-play-children-in-social-housing-blocked-from-communal-playground 25 March 2019

Howie, F. (2019) Why we need a healthy homes act, Town and Country Planning, 88(7), pp266-267

Klinenberg, E. (2018) Palaces for the People: How to build a more equal and united society, London, The Bodley Head

Mahdawi, A (2020) For some people, social distancing means being trapped indoors with an abuser https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/21/coronavirus-domestic-violence-week-in-patriarchy 21st March 2020

Park, J (2019) Housing and the importance of liveable space, Town and Country Planning, 88(7), pp280-284

Bristol: An exemplar of ‘reflexive governance’ for sustainable urban development?

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Stephen Hall, Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments, UWE Bristol

Aksel Ersoy, Department of Management in the Built Environment, Delft University of Technology, Netherlands

As scholars living in Bristol, we are fascinated by this old port city and its on-going transformation. Prosperous Bristol has been named as the ‘Happiest city in the UK’ and often features in the ‘Best Place to Live in Britain’ lists. In addition to its high quality of life (for most, if not all, residents) Bristol is home to numerous environmental groups that advocate a stronger ecological approach – i.e. one that acknowledges and respects environmental limits to human development –to urban governance than the traditional economic growth oriented model. This makes Bristol an anomaly among the UK’s ‘Core Cities’. There is a broad spectrum of environmental activism in Bristol: green think tanks and pressure groups, energy co-operatives, waste recycling groups, a local currency (the Bristol Pound), local food networks, community self-build housing groups, and major national environmental actors such as the Centre for Sustainable Energy, Sustrans and the Soil Association. Bristol, thus, hosts a critical mass of green activism and expertise. We believe that the dissemination of such a wide range of ‘alternative’ voices locally is crucial to the debate on urban futures.

Bristol is home to numerous environmental groups: residents amass outside City Hall to welcome Greta Thunberg on 28th February 2020

Bristol was awarded the title European Green Capital 2015. Its bid as a ‘green, inclusionary and diverse’ city was framed in conjunction with a strong emphasis on community involvement. The policy discourse that had previously been based on economic development was reoriented towards environmentalism and collaboration. Bristol’s stated aspirations as European Green Capital shifted from the high profile events that might be expected of an orthodox urban entrepreneurialism to a set of ambitions oriented towards citizen engagement and inclusivity. This prompted us to write our paper[1] The Bristol Green Capital Partnership: an exemplar of reflexive governance for sustainable urban development, in which we argue that Bristol represents, perhaps, an atypical approach to the ‘urban sustainability fix’ (the balance sought between competing economic, social and environmental demands) in the UK.

There exist, in Bristol, genuine differences of substance between local partners, including recent polemical debates on resident parking zones, 20mph speed limits and the planning of the new Bristol Arena. However, in contrast to other UK Core Cities, there is less a sense that environmental interests are left to oppose an apparently antagonistic local authority from the political margins. In other words, Bristol represents a prima facie ideal incubator for the processes that characterise ‘reflexive governance’. The emerging literature on reflexive governance offers a normative framework for understanding a ‘learning-based approach to governance’. Reflexive governance prioritises organisational adaptation over technological advancement as a response to the complex challenges of climate change and resource scarcity. It focuses primarily on the process of governance, rather than outcome. It respects and exploits diverse forms of knowledge (scientific, political, everyday), and champions continuous institutional transformation to enable, and respond to, broader social dialogue.  

Walking along Bristol’s Harbourside

We argue that the governance of Bristol – embodied in the Bristol Green Capital Partnership (BGCP) which was formed by Bristol City Council to develop the concept of a ‘low carbon city with a high quality of life’ in 2007 – displays many ‘reflexive’ characteristics. Bristol stakeholders have created a space for dialogue, an interface for diverse voices and forms of knowledge that eschews the pursuit of simple consensus; in the words of one local official “if you’ve got something to say, join in … I do not know of another partnership in which a multinational German insurance company would sit down with a dreadlocked activist from St Pauls” It has exhibited considerable institutional adaptability, partly in response to the exhortations of the European Green Capital competition. BGCP, for example, has evolved from a core group of stakeholders, to a large and heterogeneous membership organisation, a grouping of over 800 organisations, ranging from transnational corporations to local community groups. Nonetheless, the discursive space within which it has achieved this transformation remains tightly bounded, defined primarily by actors that exhibit an a priori interest in the ‘green’ agenda; civil engineering companies, for whom the sustainable city discourse is framed as an infrastructure investment challenge, and grassroots environmental activists, rather than representative of mainstream business or public opinion, especially in more disadvantaged areas of the city. Moreover, there are multiple and contested visions within BGCP itself; as another local official noted “discussions about renewable energy in Bristol attract many suits and very few community activists, whereas meetings about local food attract very few suits”.

Our findings challenge Bristol’s self-image as a ‘green capital’, notwithstanding the very real achievements noted above, and highlight the limits of reflexive governance – a practical approach to inclusion, learning and adaptation – but one that, in focusing on dialogue and inclusion, underestimates the real political tensions, some of which we also highlight above, that define the actions required to realise the sustainability of cities, including Bristol.

[1] Ersoy, A and Hall, S (2020) The Bristol Green Capital Partnership: an exemplar of reflexive governance for sustainable urban development, Town Planning Review, Vol.91, No.4, forthcoming

“Futureproofing Luton”: Co-producing an arboretum-meadow with local Eco-warriors.

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……..by Helen Hoyle

On Monday this week MSc Urban Planning student William Cottrill and I had the privilege of spending the morning with 10 young Eco-warriors from Riverbank Primary School in Luton. The main objective of our morning was to plant nine significant climate-resilient trees of different species on a former minigolf site in Wardown Park, as part of our new Airquality arboretum-meadow project.

The morning dawned hopefully; a cold, dry, blue-sky day, the calm after storm Ciara, who had ripped a tree from its roots just outside Riverbank School. We started at Riverbank, with a workshop exploring the benefits of trees for pollution and climate change mitigation. You could feel the excitement radiating from the Eco-warriors as they entered the room; they had been looking forward to some hands-on tree planting in the park for weeks. First we distributed the #chooselandscape t-shirts which were de rigueur for the day. The Landscape Institute is one of our main project partners and President Adam White and CEO Dan Cook would later join us for the planting.

Discussing Climate change and the positive role of trees

The first activity was a masterclass in teamworking. Sarah Deacon, the Eco-warriors’ science teacher, had devised a cunning simulation of trees absorbing carbon and other pollutants using a bucket of water and sponges, so Will and I were left standing, holding dripping sponges whilst the Eco-warriors looked on. I was dumbstruck by the children’s curiosity, knowledge of climate change and the role of carbon dioxide, the value of trees as habitats as well as their confidence to express themselves. We moved to another activity involving placing creatures in their appropriate habitat within the tree (using a giant tree poster and model creatures), whilst trying to identify the random crustaceans Sarah had added to catch us out.

A focus on habitats

We then moved to some artwork, involving drawing the leaves of the nine very distinctive trees including Tilia platyphyllous (Broad-leaved lime), Tilia cordata (small-leaved lime), Pinus nigra Austriaca (Austrian Pine), Junglans regia (Walnut tree), Acer pseudoplatanus (Sycamore), Acer campestre (Field maple), Gleditsia tricanthos (Honey locust), Cedrus atlantica (Atlas cedar) and Liriodendron tulipfera (Tulip tree). We had selected these with the help of Stan Carter, Tree Officer at Luton Parks Service, who had chosen them to provide aesthetic interest whilst being adapted to local conditions, but also geared up to a future, warmer climate.

The artwork session begins

The intention is that once the trees are established, we will add signage to the individual trees in the arboretum, using the Eco-warriors drawings. As we worked on our drawings I noted the different approaches the children took to the task, and we chatted away about differences in the size of insects in the UK and parts of India.

Creative approaches to leaf drawing

It was now time to move outside and get our hands and feet dirty. Riverbank School is conveniently located just across the road from Wardown Park, so it was a short walk across to the arboretum site. Once there we met with other project partners including Jane Conway (Operations manager) and Steve Battlebury (Greenspace manager) from Luton Parks Service, Adam and Dan from the Landscape Institute, the Marshalls Group (the tree sponsor), the Rotary and the Friends of Wardown Museum. After a brief introduction to the project, discussion of the positive role of Landscape Architecture as a placemaking profession and some ‘thank yous’, we got down to the serious business of planting the nine trees. The Eco-warriors threw themselves into the task with considerable vigour and enthusiasm, only stopping periodically to examine and then name the many worms found in and around the tree pits.

The Eco-warriors approached tree planting with considerable enthusiasm!

Once the trees had been planted (I was amazed at how much soil the Eco-warriors shifted and at their speed) we posed for some celebratory photos, before the Eco-warriors returned to school for lunch. We are all looking forward to the next phase of the project; seeding the meadow, which will take place in April.

Investigating worms in the tree pits

During the planting event we reflected on the power of positive engagement and collaboration between diverse partners from different sectors. This collaboration started seven years ago, whilst I was at Sheffield University and worked closely with Luton Parks Service to co-produce an urban meadows experiment as part of the NERC-funded Urban BESS project. In 2015 we together delivered flowering meadows to this very same disused minigolf site, subsequently winning a Community Business Award. Our new “Futureproofing Luton” project began with a Community Engagement Award from the Faculty of Environment and Technology at the University of the West of England, to work on project with Riverbank Primary School and Luton Parks Service to return the flowering meadows to Wardown Park. This award was complemented by a generous donation of meadow seed from Sue France, CEO of Pictorial Meadows, the Sheffield-based specialist meadows consultancy. A chance (if persuasive) conversation with Andy Morris at the Landscape Institute Jellicoe Lecture in November then resulted in the generous donation of nine trees by Marshalls, a company with a strong sense of environmental responsibility, also serving as a carbon offset for the impact of the Landscape Institute awards in 2019, the 90th anniversary of the Landscape Institute. I knew of ambitions to introduce an arboretum to the minigolf site here, but no significant funding for this had yet been forthcoming – so I decided to ask! This was followed quickly by an additional pledge of two further trees from the Rotary, and then another two from the Regiment Gallery in commemoration of VJ Day.

This new Arboretum-meadow in Wardown Park will provide an educational resource for local people and wider visitors to the park and museum. It will focus on the benefits of urban trees and meadows for air pollution and climate change mitigation, biodiversity and human happiness and deeper wellbeing. It will be accessible to local children and adults, as well as visitors to the park and museum from outside Luton.  We hope the children here today will bring their parents and continue to visit the arboretum through spring, summer and autumn 2020 and into the future. We all believe it is a positive exemplar for future projects throughout the UK and beyond.

A fantastic morning’s work! Thank you Riverbank Primary!

I will be presenting on the “Futureproofing Luton” project at Multiple Values of Nature, the joint Valuing Nature and People and Nature BES Symposium in Bristol on 2nd March 2020. (https://valuing-nature.net/event/joint-symposium-multiple-values-nature) and delivering a session in the Health, Wellbeing and Place Landscape Institute CPD Event in London on 26th March 2020. (https://www.landscapeinstitute.org/events/events/)

“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!)


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