Futureproofing parks and greenspaces beyond COVID-19: The role of colour and naturalness

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By Helen Hoyle

Last month I commented on how the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the value of private gardens, public parks, green and blue spaces. Many people now have a heightened awareness of how important access to ‘urban nature’ in these spaces is for their physical and mental wellbeing. To reinforce the significance of this to UK decision makers, the monetary value of these spaces is increasingly reported, for example, recent UK research estimating the human well-being value associated with frequent use of local parks and green spaces at £34.2bn/yr1, with the NHS saving £111m/yr1 based solely on reduction in GP visits.

Yet less attention is paid to the pathways between ‘nature’ in parks, gardens and green and blue spaces and human wellbeing. What type of nature is most supportive of human wellbeing, and do different types of urban planting invite or provoke different human reactions? Do people find the same sorts of environments both attractive and mentally restorative? A growing body of research, including my own, is now addressing these questions.

I previously conducted questionnaires with over 1400 members of the public who walked through woodlands, shrubs and herbaceous planting at 31 sites including public parks, green spaces and institutional gardens in England. This research2 revealed a critical threshold flower cover of 27% as key to provoking the ‘wow factor’ amongst the visiting public. Most people found colourful flowering plants stimulating and exciting, whereas green vegetation formed a background and was conducive to relaxation. This is extremely important for planting designers, because focal displays of vibrant, flowering plants can be strategically positioned to provoke human delight, yet green background planting must be prioritised elsewhere to support mental restoration.

Vibrant planting with a flower cover of 27% or above generates the ‘wow factor’
Subtle greens create a background for quiet reflection and relaxation

Considering the relative naturalness of urban planting, research from an extensive Europe-wide study3, has confirmed ‘broad support for biodiversity’, and an appreciation of a wilder, less managed form of urban nature in our parks and gardens. This is good news at a time when austerity makes any alternative impossible in many urban green spaces. UK research4 involving the introduction of perennial meadows in different urban contexts confirmed this. Conducted with stakeholder partners in Bedfordshire, our findings showed that the majority of site users thought that the introduction of perennial meadows to local green spaces had improved their wellbeing. Three key messages for practice were: i) context matters: although people were appreciative of meadows, some preferred neater, short-cut grass immediately outside their homes; ii) once people are aware of the habitat-value of taller meadows to urban invertebrates they are more prepared to accept them, even when they may appear brown and unkempt, beyond the flowering season; iii) ‘Cues to care’ matter: people like to see neat mown edges ‘framing’ an area of longer meadow or grassland, showing the area is being managed deliberately, and allowing access at the edge of footways. This is particularly important in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, when green space managers need to factor in the need for physical distancing within our valued parks and green spaces.

Meadow-style vegetation is more acceptable to the public if it is framed by mown edges and information on its biodiversity benefits is provided.

1Fields in Trust, (2018). Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces.


2Fischer et al. (2018). Beyond green: Broad support for biodiversity in multicultural European Cities. Global Environmental Change 49 35-45

3Hoyle et al. (2017). All about the ‘wow factor’? The relationships between aesthetics, restorative effect and perceived biodiversity in designed urban planting. Landscape and Urban Planning, 164, 109-123 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169204617300701

4Hoyle et al. (2017). “Not in their front yard” The opportunities and challenges of introducing perennial urban meadows: A local authority stakeholder perspective. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 25, 139-149. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1618866716305489

Talk of the Town

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by Nick Smith…

A lot has been written about Build, Build, Build[i] over the last couple of weeks and I share the same level of unease about some of the proposals. But we’ve been here before. Indeed, while you won’t have had the date marked in your calendar, last week marked the 5-year anniversary of when Fixing the Foundations[ii] was published. Back then, this plan for ‘creating a more prosperous’ nation, was penned by George Osbourne (as Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Sajid Javid (as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills). Chapter 9 ‘dealt’ with planning and some of the chapter’s sub-headings, including its promises for releasing land and increasing the urgency of planning, echo what has been said recently by Boris Johnson. Fortunately, the same level of derision was aired back in 2015, with the Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright[iii], for example, highlighting how the planned reform would give us the ‘slums of the future’. Oliver called for better public outcomes and it’s good that campaigning on this agenda has gained momentum since (with the TCPA’s pitch for a Healthy Homes Act being particularly noteworthy).

Chapter 15 of Fixing the Foundations also promised us a re-balancing of the UK’s economy. While some of the proposals in Build, Build, Build could be argued to support such a goal, the call for spreading prosperity was far stronger within the New Deal for Britain[iv] that Boris Johnson also launched a couple of weeks ago. Specifically, via a section on ‘investing in, and accelerating, infrastructure’, the New Deal provided an update on the Government’s Town Fund[v], a £3.6bn scheme that is intended to accelerate investment in town centres and high streets across England. The first tranche of money equates to an individual pot of about £500k-£1m per town but funding of up to £25m per town is ultimately expected from future waves of funding. At this time of gloominess this money cannot come quick enough. But what next? How will this money be spent and will projects be properly planned?

Before we focus on that, let’s remind ourselves on how the Towns Fund originated. Officially the fund emerged from a combination of two other initiatives that had been launched earlier in 2019, namely the Stronger Towns Fund and the Future High Streets Fund. The former had been introduced by Boris Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, with her launch speech targeting those towns with ‘glorious heritage, huge potential, and with bright futures ahead of them’. This same sentiment was pitched by Johnson himself when he launched the Towns Fund shortly after his election in July 2019. Whilst acknowledging that not everyone wanted to live in ‘our country’s great cities’, he promised to ‘start answering the pleas of some of our left behind towns’.

A formal prospectus for the Towns Fund was published in November 2019[vi]. The number of identified towns equate to a hundred, with Swindon, Bournemouth, Glastonbury, Bridgwater, Torquay, Truro, Camborne, St. Ives and Penzance representing the south west. Each of these towns has been funded to establish ‘Town Deal Boards’, authority-led partnerships that are intended to bring relevant stakeholders together. Once in place, each board is required to prepare their own ‘Town Investment Plan’ (TIP) which needs to present a vision for the town, and include action plans for delivering change over the short, medium and long term (although no specific timescales are defined).

A week before Build, Build, Build, the Government released further guidance on the Towns Fund and invited eligible towns to decide whether or not to submit their TIP by the end of July 2020 or in a later cohort, by either October 2020 or early 2021[vii]. Making such a submission will enable the towns to unlock funding. The funds continue to be justified on the basis of promoting local economic growth, but the latest document also acknowledges the impact of COVID-19 and the additional vulnerabilities and weaknesses that the pandemic has exposed across our towns. As for what the money can be spent upon, the guidance outlines six intervention themes. These include improvements to local transport, skills and enterprise infrastructure, as well as funding for the arts, culture and heritage. It will be interesting to see what comes forward given the breadth of possibilities. It is acknowledged that the fund can only go so far and the competitiveness of the programme feels somewhat wrong in these fragile times. It also remains unclear why certain towns were selected, while others were not, and I can’t help wondering what binds these places together. The guidance does talk about encouraging collaboration between the towns so I hope this joint learning is actioned. Although the further guidance mentions planning in a range of contexts, I hope planners are able to take a lead since in my view, the TIPS are essentially mini-local plans. But will they and how will the TIPs sync with plan-making and other local planning activities? By allowing planners to take a leading role, the Towns Fund can hopefully help to dispel recent narratives that have painted the planner as the ‘pantomime villain’ rather than as the un-locker of growth. I do hope the fund can fire-up some much-needed enthusiasm and creativity for pursuing a town-led ‘urban renaissance’ and I will certainly be interested in what is being planned to help bring our

[i] Prime Minister’s Office (2020) Build, Build, Build. Press Release. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-build-build-build. Last accessed 06/07/2020

[ii] Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and HM Treasury (2015) Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous Nation. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/fixing-the-foundations-creating-a-more-prosperous-nation. Last accessed 06/07/2020

[iii] Wainwright, O. (2015) ‘Osborne’s planning reforms risk creating slums of the future’. The Guardian. 10 July. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/architecture-design-blog/2015/jul/10/george-osborne-planning-reforms-risk-slums-house-building. Last accessed 06/07/2020

[iv] Prime Minister’s Office (2020) A New Deal for Britain. Press Release. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-a-new-deal-for-britain. Last accessed 06/07/2020

[v] Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government[MHCLG] (2019) Town Fund Prospectus. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/towns-fund-prospectus. Last accessed 06/07/2020

[vi] As above.

[vii] Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government[MHCLG] (2020) Town Fund: Further Guidance. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/towns-fund-prospectus. Last accessed 06/07/2020

Planning reform, de-regulation, and a place for design?

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By Hannah Hickman…

In SPE’s last blog, ‘More haste, less speed’, Adam Sheppard wrote compellingly about the perils of this Government’s drive to create a laissez-faire neo-liberal planning system. This piece follows on from that to offer further commentary on impending reform, this time to linked to some of our current research on planning and design quality.

The Financial Times[1], amongst other press reports, has intimated that Ministers are preparing for a ‘major overhaul of the planning system’ which would speed up the approval process for new developments in a bid to reboot the economy following the COVID-19 crisis.  Whilst the details are scant, the rumours are about the possible replacement of the discretionary system with a zoning system and the use of special development zones. With the Prime Minster having recently launched ‘Project Speed to scythe through red tape and get things done’[2], the narrative is about further de-regulation, aimed at addressing the ‘appalling planning system’[3] .

The phrases ‘major overhaul’ and ‘planning system’ now seem almost un-separable. There have been repeated attempts to reform the planning system, the most major of which was in 2010 with the complete abolition of the regional strategic tier within the English planning system. Successive governments of differing political colours have tended towards a market-led view which characterises planning as a regulatory function focused on managing the negative consequences of development, rather than a more positive, place shaping, enabling tool. As the RTPI has recently stated, “with this narrow perception, it becomes possible to see planning as a barrier to growth which can be temporarily scaled back during times of crisis” (2020, 4).

Here, at UWE a team is half-way through an important research study for the four West of England Authorities about achieving high quality design outcomes in major housing developments. This study is focused specifically on post-planning consent, and the mechanisms that local authorities have at their disposal to ensure no denigration in housing quality between consent and delivery.  In our research to date, we have found officers across all four authorities committed to providing housing to meet the ever-growing need and improving the quality of places for residents. Yet they find themselves operating in a system which has been so pruned of powers and resources that they feel increasingly unable to control the quality of development, focusing more on the immediate pressure to deliver ‘units’ rather than create places.

Of course it is right that as the impact of Covid-19 unfolds, innumerate and important questions should be raised about the way in which planning can and should contribute to response and recovery, and this includes its role in supporting the economy.

What is more questionable, however, is the extent to which Covid-19 may well become the justification for whatever reality in the form of concrete proposals emerges from the rumours, thereby inhibiting important debate about what planning is for, and how it should be best configured and resourced to achieve its purpose at this time.  One thing most people will have experienced much more over the last three months is time at home. Surely there should be scope to reflect on how emerging homes can be developed in ways which are more than fit for habitation- and done in a way which aims to mitigate climate change. To do so is to be collectively prepared for the next crisis, rather than wilfully naïve in the hope that simply, blindly, fuelling the economy will just make it all right.

One of the more promising things to emerge from this Government prior to lockdown had been to reinforce the role of the planning system in achieving high quality design outcomes, as reflected in its revisions to the National Planning Practice Guidance on design and a new National Design Guide, illustrating “how well-designed places that are beautiful, enduring and successful can be achieved in practice” (MHCLG, 1).

We are concerned that once again focusing debate on de-regulation to speed up the economy, this recent progress to re-energise planning’s role in supporting design may be denuded at a time when it is needed more not less. We already see the major housebuilders calling for greater freedoms and flexibilities, and ‘major policy changes’[4], and a shift in the narrative back to ‘build, build, build’, rather than homes and places[5]

Challender Court Henbury
Source: Bristol City Council (2018). Bristol City Council housing development wins two prestigious awards.
https://news.bristol.gov.uk/news/bristol-city-council-housing-development-wins-two-prestigious-awards-2 (last accessed 8th July 2020)

Whilst there is still much speculation, in any ensuing debate about further reforms, what must be avoided is the pursuit of high-quality design being seen as a regulatory burden that can be chipped away at, avoided even, rather than a reasonable expectation or fundamental necessity, that planning (in whatever form) must promote.  Fine words about ‘building beautiful’[6] or the values of good architecture are worse than useless if they are not backed up with the sorts of tools and policies which practising planners can use to ensure this level of quality is brought about. As our research is exploring, the powers planning authorities do or do not have, really affect what is delivered. And what is delivered will be the homes for our children and our grandchildren; places for lives to be lived, families to be forged not just units on a spreadsheet.

This role for planning is critical, starting with a vision for and expectations about the types of places and spaces we want to achieve, right through to collaborating with developers to ensure that high quality outcomes are achieved in practice. This is what recovery should look like: resilience and togetherness, working out how things can become better.

[1] https://www.ft.com/content/284b2533-fcf1-4d1a-9af3-5b0c347ad0f6

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-economy-speech-30-june-2020

[3] https://www.planningresource.co.uk/article/1687341/cummings-pledges-overhaul-appalling-planning-system

[4] https://www.planningresource.co.uk/article/1681454/covid-19-crisis-cause-housing-delivery-plunge-one-third-planning-consultancy-predicts

[5] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-build-build-build

[6]  https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/building-better-building-beautiful-commission

More haste, Less speed.

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…by Adam Sheppard.

Build, Build, Build[1].  A dramatic title for a Press Release.  Repeating the same word three times is a simple way of communicating that something is not only dramatic, but is going to happen at speed; think Murray Walker shouting Go! Go! Go! as the lights went out back when Formula 1 was exciting.  We all want instant satisfaction nowadays (apparently), and right now the current Conservative Government can’t get no satisfaction when it comes to planning and development. So, if we can find enough skilled labour, we’re going to build, build, build. But more than that, we’re going to build better.

The way we’re going to build better is via ‘the most radical reforms to the planning system since the Second World War’.  The 1947 Town and Country Planning Act was a pivotal moment in history.  Prior to this point planning in the UK was broadly evolving as a regulatory system. But a quest for greater flexibility resulted in a significant change of direction and the introduction of a radical new discretionary system. The implication is therefore that England might be about to do something equally dramatic; are we going back to the future?

There is much debate to be had over the respective merits of regulatory and discretionary planning systems. Ultimately both offer challenge and opportunity in equal measure.  Both can be effective, both can be undermined. And there’s the rub. We can’t say for sure what is intended for the long term, but early indications suggest there is reason for concern.

The initial stated changes in the Press Release are:

  • ‘More types of commercial premises having total flexibility to be repurposed through reform of the Use Classes Order.’
  • ‘A wider range of commercial buildings will be allowed to change to residential use without the need for a planning application.’
  • ‘Builders will no longer need a normal planning application to demolish and rebuild vacant and redundant residential and commercial buildings if they are rebuilt as homes.’
  • ‘Property owners will be able to build additional space above their properties via a fast track approval process, subject to neighbour consultation.’

We also know there are plans for wider usage of what the Government likes to call ‘zoning tools’, for example Local Development Orders. Do these initial suggestions give hope for the future? Do they heck. The weasel words of the Government in their press release are that the changes will be ‘making it easier to build better homes where people want to live’. The truth lies in just some of the words in the first half of this sentence; the proposed changes will simply make it easier to build homes.  This will be done by effectively circumventing planning. Compromising the current system even further by undermining it more. These new changes aren’t radical, they’re a sham; re-regulation within the current construct, creating new and exciting ways to avoid things like democratic accountability, quality control, social justice, and so forth.

Dystopian opportunities

Source: Precey, M and Cawley, L “Inside Harlow’s office block ‘human warehouse’ housing” BBC. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-essex-47720887. Last accessed: 02/07/2020

Will freedom give us better?  History suggests not. We can look at the Victorian period, with the slums of the under-regulated urban environment evidencing how some will behave in the absence of oversight.  But we can also look at recent history for examples too; one is the use of the Prior Approval mechanism to enable the conversion of offices into residential use with only limited opportunities for local authority management.  The latter has enabled the avoidance of planning gain (and the associated loss of revenue to provide public goods), the avoidance of space standards, the avoidance of the obligation to provide affordable housing, the inability to effectively consider the appropriateness of location, the inability to control design, and so on and so on.  Already we have seen these provisions result in windowless ‘studio flats’.  I’m going to write windowless again in case you’re skim reading this. Windowless.  More of this type of anti-planning appears to be planned. The question isn’t whether harm will occur, only the forms it will take and how extensive it is.

There has been much reflection recently on our urban environments as a result of Covid-19, including the provision of adequate internal space, access to open space, light, social and physical infrastructures etc, all mindful of both physical and mental health.  There is also continuing emphasis upon the need to build truly better places; more sustainable, healthier. The reason for the very existence of planning is to make things better.  Not easier, nor quicker, but better. The planning system in the England has issues, but properly resourced, designed, and supported it can be a genuinely constructive, positive, enabler of better.  Since the post-war reconstruction of Britain an effective planning system has never been more needed, and equally never has it been under more threat.

The latest step in the current Government’s drive to create a laissez-faire neo-liberal planning system will no doubt find support from some, but for others the risks of build, build, build, are very, very, very real. 

[1] ‘PM: Build, Build, Build’ Prime Minster’s Office. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-build-build-build. Last accessed 02/07/2020

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.

You’re not alone…overcoming isolation on the distance learning journey

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…By Nick Croft

“Cinders, you shall go to the ball…!”

The world has changed, significantly, since publishing our paper[1] a decade ago on student isolation in distance learning. At that time university distance learning programmes via the internet were still seen as something novel, innovative, unusual, maybe even a little odd – a venture viewed as largely residing in the domain of the Open University rather than more conventional physical campus-based establishments. Despite rhetoric around a desire to increase provision of this ‘flexible’ format it felt like a Cinderella approach amongst largely traditional face-to-face taught delivery.

With University education currently in a very different place, online study being the default approach, it seems opportune to reflect on what we’ve learnt about the ‘pumpkin to stagecoach’ transformation of distance learning.

Summary of the paper’s findings

  • Isolation and connectivity – although there’s no physical (geographical) connection this shouldn’t mean that the learning experience is a “solo mission”.
  • Tutor contact – students not knowing the extent to which tutors on different modules will engage and interact with them creates an uncertain learning environment and a mixed experience. Building a positive student/tutor relationship is key to overcome this.
  • Interaction with peers and colleagues – the ability to “bounce ideas off each other” helps to build a cohort, so facilitating the opportunity to do this is important. Linking study with practice (through workplace activities) can strengthen the purpose behind the learning experience.
  • Motivation and self-discipline – motivation to study can be difficult for those learning remotely from their peers. Setting targets, both embedded within the course and by the students themselves, is an important motivational factor, particularly where other external factors are present, such as work-home life balance.
  • Material and delivery – keeping material up to date and relevant is essential (for a vocational subject such as Planning this means providing a clear link to practice).
One of the findings boards from the 2010 research ‘sandpit’ event

Previously, back in the 1980s and 90s, distance learning involved paper copies of all reading material being posted to students, jokingly referred to as arriving on pallets – but it is true that entire store cupboards were devoted to reams of photocopied booklets. Then, with the arrival of the internet, paper was replaced by pages of online text requiring seemingly endless scrolling.  But effective distance learning, that meaningfully engages with its learners, requires more than this. And it goes beyond simply placing lecture capture online and providing resources for students to read asynchronously. Practical activities that engage the cohort and reinforce the learning need to be embedded within delivery.

This helps because students like to be reassured that their understanding of both the subject content as well as university processes are correct. Reassurance can take many forms, but the ability to speak to, and see, your tutor each week can play an important part – practical module-related tasks can contribute to this. The current use of Blackboard Collaborate software for meeting students in groups has helped significantly[2].

Redundant paper filing cabinets – a new world of desktop learning and teaching awaits.

Mutual reassurance between students also plays a crucial role. It can be difficult not having a friend/colleague sitting at the next desk, or across the table in the canteen, to bounce ideas off. What did the lecturer say about…? How did that theory the lecturer was talking about relate to your workplace? What format do we present the coursework in? I heard on the news that X happened, do you think this links with that lecture last week?

Since the paper’s publication we’ve tried numerous ways to create a defined ‘space’ in which discussion between students can occur to aid self-constructed learning. The most successful of these so far, judging by students’ comments, has been an interactive platform called Piazza[3]. This is aided by a keen, able and proactive Student Representative providing: a student-to-student link; a bridge connecting students and tutors; and a means of facilitating communication between the professional accrediting body[4] and the student cohort.

Additionally, we found that ensuring students feel the staff team are out there is essential – whether in a shared space or some other means of contact, knowing they can reach out and (within a reasonable timescale) will get something back. By adopting a memorandum of understanding that all module tutors are willing to follow it provides a baseline delivery standard to help create consistency and manage student (and tutor!) expectations. That said, commonality between modules is not necessarily the issue, it is more about students understanding how modules will work and having an equivalency in the quality of the experience. Taking the programme delivery team with you on the journey reduces the potential for a bumpy ride.

We’ve learnt a lot since the early days. Starting in September 2020 UWE launches a new online MSc in Planning and Urban Leadership[5]. Whilst the challenges identified back in 2010 still remain, and are potentially amplified by the current lockdown measures, taking students and tutors on the journey will be crucial to its success. Our delivery strategy incorporates understanding gained from interviewing alumni as well as feedback received in relation to current distance learning programme delivery.

Despite the passage of time our initial findings still hold resonance and, having recently passed the 100 citations milestone[6], combined with a necessary increase in remote learning, it seems Cinders shall go to the ball…

[1] Croft N., Dalton A. and Grant M. (2010) Overcoming Isolation in Distance Learning: Building a Learning Community through Time and Space, Journal for Education in the Built Environment, 5:1, 27-64

[2] It can also help to contribute towards the audit trail for student engagement in Degree Apprenticeship programmes. Other similar software is used for tutor meetings and more informal interaction such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook Messenger.

[3] Concerns about data protection precluded the use of Piazza for our 2019 cohort.

[4] For the programmes referred to here the Royal Town Planning Institute’s Partnership Board is responsible for accrediting the programme and ensuring an effective and functional Planning School.

[5] https://courses.uwe.ac.uk/K4062/planning-and-urban-leadership-distance-learning [accessed 22/5/20]

[6] Google Scholar identifies 101 citation references of the paper [accessed 23/5/20]

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