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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… 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



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 and also see


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 (, 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”.  

Sharing a vision for high quality green infrastructure..

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By Helen Hoyle….

Organised by our own Hannah Hickman and Sarah O’Driscoll (Bristol City Council), the inaugural joint Bristol City Council – UWE Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments (SPE) Symposium on Green and Blue Infrastructure took place at Bristol City Council’s Cash Hall on Monday 11th February. This provided an excellent opportunity for planners and researchers to come together to share policy and practice experience relating to the delivery of high-quality green infrastructure (GI).

First up was Bristol City Council’s Richard Goldthorpe, from the City Design Team. Richard focused on “Policy towards delivery” and highlighted some of the gaps and new developments in place-shaping policy. Richard introduced the need for a West of England Green Infrastructure Plan to bridge between the West of England Joint Spatial Plan (JSP) and the Bristol Local Plan. The JSP will set out a prospectus for sustainable growth to help the combined authority meet its housing and transport needs for the next 20 years, to 2036. He also emphasised the need for the Local Plan to link to the provision and design of specific parks and green spaces. Richard closed by emphasising the need for good research data to inform GI policy and delivery.

Richard Goldthorpe (BCC) presenting on “Policy towards delivery”

Next on the floor were Liz Kinsey (South Gloucestershire Council) and Kathy Derrick (Bristol City Council) who introduced “The Frome Reconnected” a collaborative project focusing on future-proofing the river Frome, involving Wessex Water, the Environment Agency, South Gloucestershire Council and Bristol City Council. They described the specific challenges facing the Frome and its catchment: urbanisation and an increase in impermeable surfaces increasing flood risk; diffuse pollution; heavily modified sections involving culverts and restrictive fish barriers and fragmented habitats. Possible positive strategies to address these challenges included river restoration to facilitate fish passage, with an increasing focus on health, recreation and the possibility of introducing green prescribing activities on the Frome.

Introducing “The Frome Reconnected”

Our own Associate Professor Danni Sinnett was the next to present the framework that underpins the RTPI award-winning “Building with Nature: a national benchmark for green infrastructure”. This was developed through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust funded by Innovate UK and the Natural Environment Research Council. Danni explained how developers’ and policymakers’ lack of understanding of the characteristics of high-quality GI had driven the development of the benchmark. She went forward to explain how the framework can be used to deliver high quality GI, setting out the core principles, (distinguishing a GI approach from a more conventional green space approach), and those focused on achieving benefits for health and well-being, water management and nature conservation. Danni highlighted specific case study projects including Elderberry Walk, awarded a Building with Nature Design Award for the entire Masterplan for 161 new homes on a brownfield site in Bristol, and Gloucester Services on the M5 motorway. The services (both N and S-bound) incorporate an outdoor picnic area, play facilities and habitat provision.

Danni Sinnett presents the framework underpinning “Building with Nature” the national benchmark for green infrastructure

The final presentation by Dr Helen Hoyle (SPE) focused on co-producing urban meadows in green spaces with local authority land-managers in Bedfordshire. This was part of a larger Natural Environment Research Council-funded research project, Urban BESS (Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service Sustainability). Researchers from the University of Sheffield and Cranfield University introduced native perennial meadows of different floral content and heights to areas of amenity mown grassland in contrasting urban contexts in Luton and Bedford. This was done to gauge public reaction and invertebrate response to increasing biodiversity on the sites. Helen worked in the bridging role between researchers and practitioners on the ground and reported on research focusing on the land-manager perceptions of the challenges and opportunities of making such changes. Findings highlighted the key factors as: Economic resources; Aesthetics, or the appearance of the meadows, and specific Locational context. Land-managers were aware that introducing floral meadows could make some areas of green space much more attractive for the public. Nevertheless, disposing of meadow cuttings at the end of the growing season was expensive, currently ruling out the possibility of introducing meadows as a cheaper management approach than mown grass. They were also aware that although many people now accept messier urban planting, there were still those who prioritised tidiness directly outside the front of their homes.

Helen Hoyle highlights land manager perspectives on introducing urban meadows

Watch this space for news on the next joint Bristol City Council – UWE Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments Symposium.

WHO Collaborating Centre for Healthy Urban Environments welcomes new visiting fellows and professors

Posted on Laurence Carmichael

First meeting of the partnership at UWE, Bristol 29 January 2019 with from left:
Laurence Carmichael (Head, WHOCC), Carl Petrokofsky (PHE), Elena Marco (Head, Department of Architecture and Built Environment), Michael Chang (TCPA/PHE), Helen Hoyle (Senior Lecturer in Healthy Built Environments), Rachael Marsh (Public Health Registrar), Liz Green (PHW), Paul Olomolaiye (Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean, Faculty of Environment and Technology), Louis Rice (Senior Lecturer in Architecture), Aude Bicquelet-Lock (RTPI) and Mark Drane (PhD student and architect).

At the end of January the WHO Collaborating Centre for Healthy Urban Environments (WHOCC) at UWE Bristol welcomed four new four visiting fellows and professors:

Dr Aude Bicquelet-Lock (Deputy Head of Policy and Research, Royal Town Planning Institute);

Liz Green FFPH, ACIEH (Principal Health Impact Assessment Development Officer, Research and International Development Directorate, Public Health Wales and also HIA Lead in the new WHOCC on investment for health and well-being);

Carl Petrokofsky FFPH (Public Health Specialist, Healthy Places team, Public Health England);

Michael Chang HMFPH, CMRTPI, MCMI (Lead on healthy Places at Town and Country Planning Association, recently appointed project manager to the Healthy Places team, Public Health England).

In addition, the WHOCC has recently welcomed Public Health Specialty Registrar Dr Rachael Marsh MFPH as a Public Health Practitioner in residence, who will contribute to WHOCC projects in collaboration with South Gloucestershire Council in 2019.

At the core of the next phase of work is cross fertilisation with these key organisations in the field.

Synergy between the new partners and creation of a shared knowledge base is an important aspect of future WHOCC activities to support the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular SDG11 and support phase VII (2019-2024) of the WHO Healthy Cities programme. A meeting took place recently at UWE, Bristol to consider opportunities in joint research and capacity building. Projects are now under way for instance Health Impact Assessment guidance for planners, contribution to modules and joint publications but other plans considered too on how to best  support capacity building in the WHO healthy Cities.

The WHO Collaborating Centre for Healthy Urban Environments (WHOCC) at UWE Bristol is part of a network of 800 institutions spread in 80 countries and collaborating with various WHO programmes. In the UK, it is the only WHOCC out of 58 and embedded in a Department of Architecture and Built Environment with strong links with public health academics and practitioners.

As a leading centre of expertise on healthy urban environments, the WHOCC champions health as a fundamental human right and offers an interdisciplinary hub of practice and research. Activities are practically oriented, from interdisciplinary research projects to capacity building of the future generation of practitioners with a focus on environment where people live, work, learn or play, be it at building, street, neighbourhood or city scale. Topics covered by academics associated with the WHOCC range from shaping sustainable neighbourhoods, improving air quality in urban centres, promoting active travel and sustainable local food systems, policy formulation to mainstream health within urban and transport planning. The synergy between environmental and human health and of social and cultural conditions needed for populations to thrive has also emerged as a core thinking in recent years.

Over the past four years, our international work has included supporting the WHO/UNECE Environment and Health Process: (

Nationally, the WHOCC briefed the House of Lords Select Committee before its enquiry resulting in the Building Better Places report: ( ).

Members of our team have given oral evidence to parliamentary enquiries and supported the NHS England Healthy New Towns programme since its inception. UWE WHOCC academics have also developed practice-friendly tools assisting the development process, for instance a spatial planning tool identifying healthy planning features commissioned by Public Health England ( ) and a green infrastructure benchmark ( ) in collaboration with  Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. WHOCC Academics are also regularly asked to take part in project and conference steering and scientific committees and have develop strong regional and local networks, for instance working group on the development of a HIA guidance for planners, community engagement exercises and capacity building supporting  local authorities.

In the future, the WHOCC will carry on supporting WHO Healthy Cities programme in

1. promoting the scientific underpinning of the built environment as a determinant of health, wellbeing and equity in the WHO Healthy Cities and

2. developing capacity building activities supporting mainstreaming of health in local urban planning and design policies.

The WHOCC has also entered a partnership agreement with the Cities and Health Journal to disseminate research findings and good practice in healthy built environment from around the WHO Europe region. Last but not least, WHOCC will play a major steering role in the 2020 AESOP Congress ( hosted by the University of the West of England, Bristol, a key event to place health and wellbeing  at the core of planners’ agenda and share innovative practice from around the world.

For enquiries on the work of the WHOCC. Please contact Laurence Carmichael, @laurencecarmich @UWE_WHOCC

Bristol’s Spires and Spaces: churches, former churches and (municipal) spirituality in the city.

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By Katie McClymont…

Viewed from any of the many excellent vista-points, the skyline city of Bristol, in common with several other UK cities, remains clearly punctuated by the towers, spires and steeples of many buildings which are or have been churches.  Here I will document a short journey, using this to reflect on the issues which emerge from the blurring of spatial and conceptual boundaries of ‘public/private’ and ‘secular/sacred’  made apparent by this travelogue.

St Werburgh’s

First stop ‘Undercover Rock’- formerly the church of St Werburgh, built 1879. The original church building was moved from a city centre location, when the church there closed, and the area was then named after it. It was closed in 1988, becoming a climbing centre in 1992.

Looking across at the city centre from the bridge over the M32 between junctions 2 and 3, I could see the distinctive tower of St Paul, Portland Square (as well as the spire of the parish church of St Agnes). Also closed in 1988, this remained boarded up and unused until reopening as Circomedia (a circus school and performance space) in 2005.

View of St Pauls and St Agnes

Next stop; St Marks, Easton.  The church was closed in 1984 when repairs became too costly, and the parish was merged with a neighbouring one. It is now supported housing run by Supported Independence.

St Marks Easton

Very different from all of the previous three, but somehow especially different from the now private dwellings of St Mark’s, is St Peter’s, Castle Park.  The ruined church sits within this city centre greenspace as both a tourist attraction and site for lingering.  Historic England now suggest that this was Bristol’s first church.

Across the other side of the city centre is St James Priory. This should not strictly be included as part of this tour, as it is not a former church, rather an existing church which as adapted part of its built form into a café; busy and popular in part because of its proximity to Bristol bus station.  Two other such spaces could have easily been listed on this tour which fulfil the same role: St Stephen’s Church and cafe and Bishopston Baptist Church.

St James Priory

The final two former churches are back out of the city centre. The David Thomas memorial church (closed 1981) is now sheltered social housing and the original chapel of Bishopston Methodist Church is now the Theatre and base of the amateur dramatic group the Kelvin Players.

David Thomas Memorial Church

What does the documenting of this journey provide other than a suggested outing in East/Central Bristol? Redundant and reused churches are ubiquitous yet overlooked aspects of the everyday urban landscape, arguably part of symbolic architecture of post-secular urbanism.  They raise a series of important issues for thinking about both heritage and public, civic or community space within cities.

St Mark’s Easton and the David Thomas Memorial Church are now very much private places- residential dwellings (albeit with social purpose as both serve vulnerable communities rather than the mainstream market).  Undercover Rock/St Werburgh, Kelvin Players and Circomedia/St Pauls retain partially public presences- anyone wishing to climb or partake in acting or circus activities as spectators or participants can do; for a price. St Peter’s and St James priory are different again, and different from each other.  The former is a landscape and visitor feature, city heritage both of ancient origins and the more recent past of the Bristol Blitz.    As part of the cityscape, these churches are part of the material presence of the city’s heritage: they are public features.  As individual buildings, they place a diverse range of public and private roles. This dual (or multiple) quality blurs simple divides between public and private, sacred and secular. 

Bishopston Methodist Church

Which conversions or redevelopment are acceptable? To whom? Public opinion, heritage interests and church sensibilities seem largely set against demolition, and strong arguments can be made for promoting their ongoing communal value and use (Jenkins, 2015). Moreover, open churches now host myriad functions: foodbanks, toddler groups, community cafes; Bristol Cathedral is the (grand) setting for UWE’s graduation ceremonies.  This mix of use is not necessarily something new, but it goes against conventional understandings of ‘places of worship’ and what activities are contained within the definitions and designations of religion, maybe chiming with the idea of ‘Municipal Spirituality’ (McClymont, 2015).

In a context of ongoing austerity leading to the closure of public buildings and assets, and one in which social, religious, class, ethnic and lifestyle differences appear to present an increasingly ruptured society, questions of shared public space become ever more pertinent.  The preservation of the built aspects of churches within a cityscape remains largely unquestioned, but the preservation of their social or community function remains largely unasked.

The Power of Flowers….designing urban meadows for people and wildlife

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By Helen Hoyle

The power of flowers isn’t difficult to appreciate on a cold, grey November afternoon. Vibrant, colourful flowers lift the spirit at any time of year, but probably more so in winter. Research has shown that a gift of flowers can produce a strong emotional response, a true or ‘duchenne’ smile in the recipient (Haviland-Jones et al., 2005). Positive reactions to flowers cross cultures, and my own research in the UK has highlighted a threshold of 27% flower cover, the critical percentage cover needed to produce the ‘wow factor’ (Hoyle et al., 2017).

Introducing meadows is one way to introduce the ‘wow factor’ to urban greenspaces. In the UK the obsession with meadows started in the wake of the London 2012 Olympics, when media coverage of the exotic Californian poppies and cornflowers around the stadium produced an adulatory response. I worked on the Olympic meadows leading up to the games. The day before the opening ceremony the park was open to gamesmaker volunteers. As people swarmed to photograph the meadows we knew something special was happening. At the same time, the role of meadow flowers in supporting urban pollinators was broadcast by Sarah Raven on the BBC. As local authorities saw the potential to make greenspaces more appealing to the public, support biodiversity and possibly save labour costs on mowing, meadows went mainstream…

Vibrant annual meadows in the London 2012 Olympic Park

Yet urban meadows are not really meadows. Traditional hay meadows consist of forb (flower) and grass species. They are perennials, flowering every year, and are maintained by animal grazing or an annual hay cut at the end of the growing season. In contrast, urban meadows are deliberately designed. Designed annual meadows flower just once before needing reseeding and don’t contain any grasses.

Should we be sowing designed annual or perennial meadows in our urban spaces?

Annual meadows have proved popular with the public because the mixes have included vibrant flowers, usually produced by non-native species: Californian poppies or plains coreopsis, for example. These have the advantage that they provide pollen and nectar at the end of the growing season when our UK species have finished flowering, but because they need annual reseeding, they are far less sustainable than perennials. Once perennials have been sown they flower again year after year if maintained by one or two cuts a year.

Signage can be introduced to manage public expectation about the appearance and biodiversity benefits of meadows after flowering

If the stems are left at the end of the growing season they also have the advantage of providing overwintering habitats for insects. People sometimes object to brown, messy vegetation in public spaces, but our work in Luton and Bedford showed that if people were informed of the biodiversity benefits of leaving the meadows long after flowering, they were much readier to accept them

A Luton site before meadow seeding

The same site in summer the following year: native perennials in full flower

But what sort of meadows do people and invertebrates prefer?

Viper’s bugloss was popular with both people and pollinators

Our research showed that in the case of perennial meadows people reacted most positively to moderately tall meadows with high species (and floral) diversity. Insects also preferred the taller highly floral meadows which provided resources such as pollen and nectar and habitat. Both people and pollinators reacted particularly positively to the blue Vipers Bugloss (Echium Vulgare) in our perennial mixes.

But were these positive reactions to the biodiversity or the colourful aesthetics of the flowers? We conducted a follow-on experiment with annual meadows on a former minigolf site in Wardown Park, Luton. The evidence was conclusive for both people and visible pollinators: colour, rather than species diversity was the driver of preference. But it’s never quite so simple…other, equally important non-pollinating insects responded to species diversity, and were found to be more prolific in the LOW species diversity meadows.

Where should we sow meadows?

Sowing meadows in residential spaces produced a mixed reaction

Our research showed that although some people like to see meadows immediately outside their homes, others don’t. The majority of people we spoke to in Bedford and Luton appreciated seeing perennial meadows in residential areas, yet one described their introduction as ‘a wanton act of vandalism’. The public is really many publics. Our local authority partners thought that many established residents valued ‘tidy’ urban spaces. They observed that the introduction of wilder meadows into new developments had been successful, and had gained support from new residents .

Are meadows cheaper to maintain than amenity mown grass?

The short answer is – unfortunately not. One argument often put forward in favour of urban meadows is the perceived cost saving in regular mowing of short amenity grass. However, regular mowing might be labour intensive, but the small volume of cuttings generated each time can be left to rot on the surface. In contrast, the annual ‘hay cut’ of a perennial meadow generates a large volume of cuttings. Because this is likely to contain litter, dog excrement and other urban hazards, it is not viable as compost, so local authorities must pay to remove and incinerate it. More research is still needed on the potential to use these cuttings in biogas production….

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