Cross-border handshakes: what’s next for digital contact tracing?

As we enter a new year, and a new phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are reminded of the need to follow public health advice to stop the spread of the virus. The emergence of new variants of Covid-19, which appear to be more transmissible, has resulted in tougher restrictions across the world. Although the emergence of new variants of Covid-19 can seem frightening, we are not powerless in preventing the spread of the virus; face coverings, social distancing, regular handwashing and self-isolating remain effective.

Additionally, the development and subsequent roll-out of numerous vaccines should provide us all with hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. However, although vaccines appear to protect people from becoming seriously ill with the virus, there is still uncertainty regarding the impact vaccines will have on viral transmission of Covid-19.

Therefore, the need for those with symptoms to self-isolate, get tested and undergo contact tracing when a positive case is detected is likely to remain. This will become even more important in the months ahead, as we see the gradual re-opening of hospitality, leisure and tourism sectors.

Effectiveness of contact tracing

Contact tracing is a tried-and-tested public health intervention intended to identify individuals who may have been in contact with an infected person and advise them to take action that will disrupt chains of transmission. Prior to Covid-19, contact tracing was often used to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections, and has been heralded as vital to the eradication of smallpox in the UK.

According to modelling, published by the Lancet Infectious Diseases, a combination of self-isolation, effective contact tracing and social distancing measures, may be the most effective and efficient way to control the spread of Covid-19.

However, for contact tracing to be at its most effective, the modelling estimates that for every 1,000 new symptomatic cases, 15,000 to 41,000 contacts would have to be asked to self-isolate. Clearly, the logistical burden of operating a manual contract tracing system is high. As a result, governments have chosen to augment existing systems through the deployment of digital contract tracing apps, which are predominantly built using software developed by Apple and Google.

Digital contact tracing

As we go about our day-to-day lives, especially as restrictions are eased, it may not be possible to name everyone you have encountered over the previous 14 days if you later contract Covid-19. Digital contact tracing provides a solution to this issue by harnessing the Bluetooth technology within our phones to help identify and remember potential close contacts. Research by the University of Glasgow has found that contact tracing apps can contribute substantially to reducing infection rates when accompanied by a sufficient testing capability.

Most countries have opted to utilise a system developed by Apple and Google, known as Exposure Notifications, as the basis for digital contact tracing. Public health authorities have the option to either provide Apple and Google with the criteria which defines when an alert should be generated or develop their own app, such as the Scottish Government’s Protect Scotland.

Exposure notification system

In order to protect privacy, the exposure notification system can only be activated by a user after they have agreed to the terms; the system cannot be unilaterally activated by public health authorities or Apple and Google. 

Once activated, the system utilises Bluetooth technology to swap anonymised IDs with other users’ devices when they come into close contact. This has been described as an anonymous handshake. Public health authorities set what is considered as a close contact (usually contact at less than a 2-metre distance for over 15 minutes), and the app calculates proximity measurements over a 24-hour period.

Anonymised IDs are not associated with a user’s identity, change every 10-20 minutes and collected anonymised IDs are securely stored locally on user devices for a 14-day period (incubation period of Covid-19) before being deleted.

If a user tests positive for Covid-19, the public health authority will provide them with a code that confirms their positive diagnosis. This will then provide users with an option to upload collected anonymous IDs to a secure public health authority server. At least once a day, the user’s phone will check-in with this server to check if any of the anonymised IDs collected in the previous 14-days match up with a positive case. If there is a match, and the proximity criteria has been met, a user may receive a notification informing them of the need to self-isolate.

Analysis conducted by the National Institute for Health Research highlights that the use of contact tracing apps, in combination with manual contact tracing, could lead to a reduction in the number of secondary Covid-19 infections. Additionally, the analysis revealed that contact tracing apps identified more possible close contacts and reduced the amount of time it took to complete contact tracing. The analysis concluded that the benefits of digital contact tracing include the ability to trace contacts who may not be known to the infected individual and the overall reliability and security of digitally stored data, rather than an individual’s memory or diary.

Therefore, it could be said that digital contract tracing apps will be most effective when restrictions ease and we are more likely to be in settings where we may be in close contact with people we may not know, for example, when we’re on holiday or in a restaurant.

Cross-border handshakes

Covid-19 naturally does not respect any form of border, and as restrictions on domestic and international travel are relaxed, opportunities will arise for Coivd-19 to spread. In order to facilitate the reopening of the tourism sector, there have been calls for countries which have utilised the Exposure Notification system to enable these systems to interact.

Examples of interoperability already exist internally within the UK, as an agreement exists between Scotland, England and Wales, Northern Ireland, (plus Jersey, Guernsey and Gibraltar), that enables users to continue to receive exposure notifications when they visit an area they do not live in, without the need to download the local public health authority app.

EU Exposure Notification system interoperability, European Commission, 2020

Additionally, the European Union has also developed interoperability of the Exposure Notification system between member states, with a commitment to link 18 national contact tracing apps, establishing the world’s largest bloc of digital contact tracing. The EU views the deployment of linked apps as vital to re-establishing safe free movement of people between member states, for work as well as tourism.

Over the next few months, it is likely that links will be created across jurisdictions. For example, the Scottish Government has committed to investigating how interoperability can be achieved between the Scottish and EU systems. The interoperability of Northern Ireland and Ireland’s contact tracing app highlights that on a technical level there appears to be no barrier for this form of cross-jurisdiction interaction.  

Therefore, as restrictions ease, the interoperability of digital contact tracing apps may become a vital way in which to ensure safe travel, as we learn to live with the ongoing threat of Covid-19.

Final thoughts

Covid-19 has proven itself to be a persistent threat to our everyday lives. However, the deployment of effective vaccines provides us with hope that the threat will be minimized soon. Until then, the need to utilise contact tracing is likely to remain.

As the roll-out of mass-vaccination programmes accelerates, and restrictions are relaxed, we are likely to be in more situations where we will be in contact with more people, not all of whom we may necessarily know. This will be especially true as domestic and international tourism begins to re-open. In these scenarios, the Exposure Notification system, and interoperability between public health authority apps, will become increasingly vital to the operation of an effective contact tracing system.

In short, digital contact tracing may prove to be key to the safe re-opening of the tourism sector and enable users to easily and securely be contact traced across borders.


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Further reading: articles on COVID-19 and digital from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Why are we still talking about healthy places?

In recent years, there has been a wide ranging debate across the housing, planning, health and infrastructure sectors about the development of healthy places in both regeneration and newly approved projects.

In 2016, Town and Country Planning Journal published an article on building health and wellbeing into the built environment (Town and Country Planning, Vol 85 No 11 Nov 2016, Knowledge Exchange customers can login to view the article here) In 2017 and 2018 the talk was all about healthy towns initiatives, and a Design Council report in 2018 looked at the relationship between healthy placemaking and the impact on our communities. In 2019 the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA) called on members to “reunite” health and planning

It is clear that everyone involved in placemaking agrees building places that promote health and wellbeing for all is of vital importance to our communities, The Covid-19 pandemic brought this into sharp focus, and the idea remains at the forefront of design policy, particularly in urban city contexts. But, over four years after the initial conversations and thought pieces, why are we still talking about it, and what actions still need to be taken to integrate the idea of a healthy place into planning to the extent that it just becomes the norm in the planning and design of our places?

Preventing avoidable disease

The phrase ‘healthy placemaking’ has been defined by Design Council as: “Tackling preventable disease by shaping the built environment so that healthy activities and experiences are integral to people’s everyday lives”.

Public Health England defined healthy placemaking as: “Placemaking that takes into consideration neighbourhood design (such as increasing walking and cycling), improved quality of housing, access to healthier food, conservation of, and access to natural and sustainable environments, and improved transport and connectivity”

Research has shown preventable diseases linked to lifestyle and environment are among the most significant threats to public health. Lifestyle-related conditions like heart disease and cancer, as well as being health problems in their own right, can also contribute to the development of other chronic conditions, exacerbate symptoms and create complications with care which are costly to the NHS.

Creating healthy spaces is not just about encouraging people to live more active lifestyles by facilitating active travel and improving the environment around buildings, although this is a significant part of it. “Healthy places” include approaches to improve air quality, reduce loneliness, allow people to age well in place, promote mental as well as physical wellbeing, reduce deprivation and inequality through projects like housing, infrastructure development, and high street regeneration.

Healthy places also have a preventative role to play in public health management, not just a health improvement role; such interventions are essential to help avert the onset of disease, improve people’s quality of life and reduce health inequalities. And evidence shows the return on investment from public health interventions is high and creates value of different kinds – economic, social and personal.

In short people who live in healthy places, tend to live healthier lives, place less strain on services and “contribute” more to society, both economically through work or spending and socially through community engagement.

Victoria Park, Belfast. Image: Fiona Ann Paterson

Enabling planning practitioners to think about creating healthy places

Research published in 2020 by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) explored local, national and international planning practices that enable the creation and delivery of healthy places. While a lot of research draws attention to the barriers to building healthy places – including a lack of funding, different requirements from developers and conflicting policy priorities – the RTPI report instead sought to identify important challenges faced by planners who try to integrate healthy placemaking principles in their decisions and then offer potential solutions to these in practice. Key themes emerging from the report include a need to improve collaboration, knowledge sharing and the skills of planners.

The report provides case studies looking at: the place standard tool; the livewell development accreditation; connecting communities in Tower Hamlets; health planning in South Worcestershire; and train station district rejuvenation in Grasse, France. It also identifies seven steps to plan for healthier environments

Across the sector there have been calls for planners to be allowed to be innovative, creative and take a “visionary” approach to planning to help make places healthier in order to address the convergence of challenges around public health, the climate emergency, and economic recovery from Covid-19.

How has the coronavirus pandemic changed how we think about healthy spaces?

The lockdowns  imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic have thrown the importance of quality space into sharp focus. Places that facilitate health and wellbeing among the people who live there, and places where the indoor living quality is as important as the outdoor space have become incredibly important.

The pandemic has highlighted what it really means to have a healthy space. It has also demonstrated how wider socioeconomic deprivation and inequality – linked to living conditions as well as other factors – is having an impact on infection and hospital admission rates, with those groups who live in more deprived areas being found to be at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill or being admitted to hospital with Covid-19. 

The 2018 Design council report found in its survey of practitioners that focus was given far more to outdoor space than to indoors, as it was easier and more cost effective to make changes that could produce demonstrable impacts (an increase in cycling, for example). But the pandemic and the increased time we have been forced to spend indoors has encouraged designers and urban planners to think even more creatively about quality space in their developments.

Where now?

Public Health England (PHE) which for many years was a strong voice in the conversations around healthy placemaking has been disbanded and will be replaced by a National Institute of Health Protection. It remains to be seen how, or if this new organisation will fit into the conversation going forward. But reflecting on recent reports on the significant public health crisis facing the UK in the long term, it is clear that the work must continue, driven collectively by those in planning, urban design and public health.


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Guest post: Sustainable cities after COVID-19: are Barcelona-style green zones the answer?

Photo by Kaspars Upmanis on Unsplash

Guest post by Anupam Nanda, University of Manchester

The lockdowns and restrictions introduced to control the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in huge changes to urban life. Previously bustling city centres remain empty, shunned in favour of suburban or rural areas where social distancing is easier and connections to the outdoors are abundant.

The roll out of vaccines provides hope for a partial restoration of normality in cities. However, the impact of COVID-19 could last much longer.

In particular, the pandemic has shown how damaging congestion, pollution and lack of green space can be – including how these factors have contributed to the severity of suffering for city dwellers. We have an opportunity to change city living for the better.

Barcelona offers an example of how city areas can be transformed to reduce pollution and increase access to green space.

The city pioneered the concept of superblocks, first introduced in 2016, as part of green urban planning. Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks. Traffic is restricted to major roads around the superblocks, leaving the streets inside for pedestrians and cyclists.

Recently, further plans have been announced to expand green zones in the city’s central district, Eixample. This is a major expansion of low-traffic zones, giving priority to pedestrians and cyclists to reduce pollution and provide green spaces.

The new plan will cover 21 streets and have space for 21 new pedestrian plazas at intersections. At least 80% of each street is to be shaded by trees in summer and 20% unpaved. A public competition in May 2021 will decide the final design.

The purpose of the plan is to ensure that no resident will be more than 200 metres from a green space.

There are many benefits to creating urban green spaces like these. They include an improvement in air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets, and a reduction in levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) from road traffic. Exposure to high level of NO₂ can lead to a range of respiratory problems.

Green spaces have been shown to improve mental health, as well as lead to a reduction in risk of obesity and diabetes – conditions which significantly increase vulnerability to COVID-19.

COVID-19 has made the case for green urban planning even more compelling. However, these plans can come at a cost.

Barriers to green cities

A particular negative impact of green zones could be a high demand for housing, leading to subsequent rises in property prices. This can lead to gentrification and displacement of local residents and businesses. Care must be taken to make sure that homes remain affordable and urban green zones do not become rich enclaves.

The COVID-19 lockdowns highlighted the difference in living conditions faced by city dwellers. Green initiatives must work for all socio-economic groups, and must not exacerbate existing inequalities.

In addition, while city centres are the usual focus areas for greening initiatives, suburbs and other peripheral areas also need attention. The goal is to reduce carbon dependence in total – not shift it from one area to another, or one sector to another.

The plan should also include steps to make private and public transport completely green. This could include replacing carbon-producing transport system with zero-emission vehicles and providing ample infrastructure such as dedicated lanes and charging stations for electric vehicles.

Cities differ hugely in how they look, shape and operate. One size will not fit all. If other cities choose to follow Barcelona’s model, local issues must be carefully considered. Superblocks work really well in a neat grid system such as in central Barcelona. But many cities do not have a well-designed grid system.

However, the principles of green, environmentally friendly, car-free or restricted-traffic neighbourhoods can be adopted in any city. Examples of schemes include low-traffic neighbourhoods in London, the 15-minute city initiative in Paris, or Manchester’s plans for a zero-carbon city centre.

While adopting such interventions, it is important to keep citizens’ daily needs in mind to avoid adding extra burdens on them. If motor traffic is to be limited, the availability of public transport must be considered, safe infrastructure for walking and cycling as well as adequate road structure for essential services or deliveries.

Significant capital investment is needed to support these plans. The Barcelona plan is projected to cost €38 million (£34 million). Much more will be required if it is to roll out to more areas. Cities in the developing world and poorer countries cannot afford such huge sums. Moreover, COVID-19 has left several cities laden with a huge amount of debt.

Green city initiatives need to be long-term – and created with the support of local people. Recognition of the benefits of green living and informed support of developments will result in positive behaviour changes by the citizens.

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics & Real Estate, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Further reading: more from our blog on tackling air pollution in cities:

 

Season’s Greetings from The Knowledge Exchange

The Knowledge Exchange Information Service will be closed from 25 December, and will reopen on Monday 4 January. We wish all our readers a very happy Christmas, and best wishes for 2021.

The year of living differently: reviewing The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2020

2020 has been a year like no other. A microscopic virus – 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair – has dominated, disrupted and redefined the way we live and work.

Although the pandemic is primarily a public health emergency, its effects have been felt in all areas of public and social policy, from economic development and employment to transport and the environment. Throughout this year, our blog has reflected on the impacts of the coronavirus and the restrictions introduced to prevent its spread.

The COVID-19 knock-on

While the coronavirus pandemic has dominated the news headlines, it has also obscured the knock-on effects on the NHS. In October, we reported on the impacts of delays to preventative healthcare measures, such as screening and routine medical care in the form of pre-planned operations for long-term chronic and non-urgent conditions.

As the blog post noted, the impacts have been wide-ranging, including not only delays in care for case of physical ill health, but also for those seeking treatment for mental health conditions:

“Research suggests that incidence of mental illness during the coronavirus pandemic increased. However, the numbers of people accessing services and being referred for treatment have not increased proportionate to this.”

The ‘hidden epidemic’

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, domestic violence had become known as a ‘hidden epidemic’ in the UK. In September, our blog highlighted the unintended consequences of quarantine for domestic abuse victims.

After the UK entered lockdown in March, calls and online enquiries to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse line increased by 25%. Three-quarters of victims told a BBC investigation that lockdown had made it harder for them to escape their abusers and in many cases had intensified the abuse they received.

Despite additional government funding, the local authorities and charities which support victims of domestic violence have been struggling with the financial fallout from the pandemic. Even so,  important partnerships have been formed between local government, educational institutions and third sector bodies to provide safe spaces for women and their children fleeing violence. Among these was an initiative at the University of Cambridge:

St Catherine’s College formed a partnership with Cambridge Women’s Aid to provide over 1000 nights of secure supported accommodation during the lockdown period.

‘Same storm, different boats’

As the recent Marmot review has stressed, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed and deepened many of the deep-rooted inequalities in our society, including gender, ethnicity and income.  It has also shone a light on more recent inequalities, such as the growth of precarious employment among sections of the population.

In July, we looked at the uneven economic impact of the pandemic, focusing on the heavy price being paid by young people, women, disabled people and Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.

Women often work in the frontline of care services and have had to juggle childcare during lockdown. BAME communities are over-represented in key-worker jobs, and so were particularly vulnerable to coronavirus.

And although there has been much talk about ‘building back better’, our blog post drew attention to the observations of Dr Sally Witcher, CEO of Inclusion Scotland during a Poverty Alliance webinar:

“She asks whether indeed we should want to build back, when the old normal didn’t work for a large proportion of people, particularly those with disabilities. Dr Witcher also questions ‘who’ is doing the building, and whether the people designing this new future will have the knowledge and lived experience of what really needs to change.”

The impacts of a pandemic

Many other aspects of the impact of COVID-19 have been covered in our blog:

  • How housing providers have embraced the fluidity of an emergency situation, including tackling homelessness, engaging effectively with tenants and addressing mental ill health.
  • Digital healthcare solutions for those with coronavirus and for the continuity of care and day-to-day running of the NHS.
  • Creating and managing a COVID-secure workplace.
  • How COVID-19 is changing public transport, including an acceleration towards contactless payment and mobile ticketing.
  • The additional challenges of the pandemic facing autistic children and young people.
  • The impact of the coronavirus restrictions on the arts.
  • The role of green new deals in tackling climate change and economic inequality as part of the post-Covid recovery.

Beyond the virus

Although the pandemic has been at the forefront of all our minds this year, The Knowledge Exchange blog has also taken the time to focus on other important issues in public and social policy:

We’ve also taken advantage of the ‘new normal’ experience of remote working to join a number of webinars, and to report back on the observations and ideas emerging from them. Most recently, our blogs have focused on a series of webinars organised by Partners in Planning, which included contributions on how the planning system can help address climate change.

Final thoughts

The health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic are likely to be long-lasting – restrictions on travel, work and socialising will continue into the spring, and insolvencies and unemployment numbers are likely to rise. And the continuing uncertainty over the UK’s new trading relationship with the European Union will generate additional challenges.   

But, as a frequently difficult, often challenging and sometimes distressing year draws to a close, there is cause for optimism about 2021. Vaccines to prevent the spread of the virus have been developed with lightning speed. Across the UK people are already being vaccinated, with greater numbers set to receive the jab in the coming months.

Here at The Knowledge Exchange, we’ll continue to highlight the key issues facing public and social policy and practice as we move towards the post-Covid era.

Season’s greetings

It’s with even greater meaning than ever before that we wish all our readers a happy Christmas, and a healthy, prosperous and happy new year.

Best wishes from everyone at The Knowledge Exchange: Morwen, Christine, Heather, Donna, Rebecca, Scott, Hannah and James.


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Creating carbon conscious places

Last week, we reported on a series of webinars organised by Partners in Planning, a partnership of key organisations and sectors to support Scotland’s planners in delivering successful places.

This week, we’re looking at a further webinar in this series, which focused on the creation of low carbon places.

Planning for carbon conscious places

Steve Malone and Heather Claridge from Architecture & Design Scotland  (A&DS) opened the webinar by describing how A&DS have been exploring how the challenge of climate change can act as a driver towards the creation of low carbon places.

A&DS has been supporting the Scottish Government in implementing its climate change plan at a local level. This recognises that the planning system plays a key role in tackling climate change, and helping Scotland achieve its carbon emission targets.

Over the course of a year, A&DS worked with four local authorities to develop and deliver plans that prioritised climate action. As a result, a number of key principles of a carbon conscious place were identified.

  • A place-led approach
  • A place of small distances
  • A place designed for and with local people
  • A place with whole and circular systems
  • A place that supports sharing (of assets and services)

These principles are closely connected with ideas identified in earlier work by A&DS which explored how placemaking can tackle the challenges of an ageing population.

A&DS further developed this work to imagine the changes that might need to happen to support more carbon and caring conscious places by 2050. Earlier this year, its report Designing for a Changing Climate shared the learning from the year-long exploration into a whole place approach to the net-zero carbon challenge.

The report provided examples of each of the principles in action, and considered what Scotland would look like in 2050 if these principles were adopted for urban neighbourhoods, city centres, towns and rural areas.

Among the ideas highlighted were:

  • rooftops repurposed as usable areas with green space and room for urban growing
  • accessible zero emission public transport connecting city centres
  • local food growing and agroforestry helping support food self-sufficiency and security
  • natural flood defence schemes
  • peatland and woodland restoration to help a rural area absorb carbon and balance emissions

A&DS is now working with local authorities to apply these principles in real places. For example, in Clackmannanshire, the principles are being used to guide development of a mixed use housing site in Alva.

Planning as a circular economy enabler

Later in the webinar, Angela Burke and Ailie Callan from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) considered how the design of places that are conducive to the circular economy can help to tackle climate change.

Since the industrial revolution, the world’s economies have used a linear “take-make-consume-dispose” pattern of growth, a model which assumes that resources are abundant, available and cheaply disposable.

In contrast, a circular economy changes that mindset by designing-out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems. These principles not only apply to resources such as consumer goods and product packaging, but also to land, water, buildings, infrastructure and energy.

Angela and Ailie went on to describe how planning can be an enabler of the circular economy. In Scotland, the planning system is set to change, with the publication of a new National Planning Framework (NPF4), which sets out where development and infrastructure is needed to support sustainable and inclusive growth.

NPF4 will address a number of high level outcomes, such as meeting the housing and wellbeing needs of the people of Scotland and meeting targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Integrating circular economy principles early in the planning process will help to deliver a number of these outcomes, and NPF4 policy will provide the framework to ensure that these principles are integrated into new developments.

Ailie provided some examples of how circular economy principles can be embedded into planning:

  • Brownfield sites can be redeveloped instead of developing new sites and generating higher carbon emissions.
  • Distribution nodes on key transport corridors can enable electric vehicles to carry out last stage of delivery, minimising emissions and reducing traffic.
  • Developing re-use hubs at these distribution nodes can drive down waste.
  • Mobility hubs can ensure that everyone is well connected, not just for public transport, but also cycle paths, routes for mobility vehicles and charging points for electric vehicles.
  • Planning for shops and services locally (perhaps sharing the same premises) will reduce the need to travel outside the local area.

Angela and Ailie concluded with an invitation to anyone interested in partnering with SEPA on developing the circular economy in Scotland.

20 minute neighbourhoods

In the final section of the webinar, the Scottish Government’s Chief Architect, Ian Gilzean looked at 20 minute neighbourhoods. This is not a new concept, but has gained added significance due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

20 minute neighbourhoods are all about living more locally by ensuring people have most of their daily needs met within a 20 minute walk from home. This in turn improves quality of life and reduces carbon emissions.

20 minute neighbourhoods bring together a range of characteristics, including transport, housing, schools, recreation, shopping and local employment. Recent limitations on travel due to the coronavirus have given many of us a lived experience of 20 minute neighbourhoods. But they have also brought into sharp focus the barriers preventing people from accessing work, shops and services close to where they live.

Ian went on to describe the implementation of the 20 minute neighbourhoods concept in Melbourne, Australia. Since 2017 Plan Melbourne has embraced this concept, feeding into the ambition of Melbourne to become a more liveable, connected, sustainable city. While some parts of Melbourne, such as the inner suburb of Fitzroy, already enjoy the facilities that make up a 20 minute neighbourhood, some of the outlying suburbs do not, and Plan Melbourne has been aiming to tackle some of the problems that prevent these places from delivering on the concept.

20 minute neighbourhoods appear to be an idea whose time has come. The pandemic has triggered a rise in remote working, and especially working from home. At the same time, cities have seen significant rises in cycling numbers. The economic impact of COVID-19 is still playing out, but it’s already clear that the recovery of small businesses and local services will be a priority, along with the need to reimagine urban centres.

Ian explained that these factors have all fed into the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government, which has a strong focus on localism. This in turn has generated commitments and policies on town centre and community regeneration, local working hubs and active travel infrastructure, all underpinned by the new National Planning Framework.

Ian concluded with an example of a project in the Wester Hailes district of Edinburgh, where the city council has been developing a local place plan. The plan is making the most of existing assets, such as local canal and rail connections, as well as identifying new opportunities, such as cycle routes, food growing and green spaces.

Final thoughts

This webinar, along with others in the series, provided plenty of useful information about how Scotland is trying address climate change through the planning system, while also taking account of local communities’ needs.

Much more remains to be done if Scotland is to meet its net-zero ambitions, but it’s clear from the initiatives highlighted in these webinars that communities in partnership with local and national government and other stakeholders are working hard to create carbon conscious places.


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How the planning system can help address climate change

The Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan Update is due to be published this month (December 2020), after being postponed from April due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.  The plan will provide an update on the Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan, reflecting the new targets set out in the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019, with the overall aim of reducing Scotland’s emissions of all greenhouse gases to net-zero by 2045. 

In the face of the climate emergency, the target is both admirable and ambitious.  Achieving it will require input from all sectors of the economy and society – from energy, transport, infrastructure to skills, training and innovation. 

A recent series of webinars held by Partners in Planning looked at the ways in which town planning could help play its part by embedding nature-based solutions and green infrastructure planning into the planning process.

In this blog we look at three innovative projects that were highlighted.  They illustrate some of the varied ways in which planning can contribute towards the Scottish Government’s net zero targets and address the wider climate emergency.

Building with Nature: green infrastructure benchmark

Encouraging developers to incorporate green infrastructure and nature-based solutions into new developments is a key challenge, particularly if there is a perception that it may be more time consuming and/or costly to do so.

Building with Nature is a set of wellbeing standards built around the ‘3 Ws’ – water, wildlife and wellbeing.  The standards go beyond statutory requirements, bringing together evidence, guidance and good practice to provide something akin to a ‘how to’ guide for creating places that benefit both people and nature.  The standards are free to access and use, and there is also a paid-for accreditation scheme, with three levels of achievement – design, good, and excellent.

As well as reducing carbon emissions, the standards aim to help support biodiversity, promote flood resilience and support wellbeing through the provision of green space that is both inclusive and accessible to everyone, regardless of age or disability.

The standards are entirely voluntary but many local authorities are now beginning to either refer developers to Building with Nature or incorporate them as requirements in their own plans.

Plans themselves can also become accredited.  Indeed, West Dunbartonshire Council’s Local Development Plan 2, published in August 2020, is the first Building with Nature accredited policy document, achieving the ‘excellent’ rating.

Building with Nature have also recently launched a new national award scheme, with the first winners being Forth Valley Royal Hospital and Larbert Woods.

Green-blue roofs – Meadowbank, Edinburgh

One way that developers can incorporate nature-based solutions into their developments is through the use of green-blue roofs. Green-blue roofs can provide a range of benefits for both people and nature – including surface water management, urban cooling, as well as providing habitats for wildlife and opportunities for people to access nature in the urban environment.  

At present, there is no mandatory policy for green roof infrastructure in Scotland, thus while developers may be aware of the benefits that they have, many do not incorporate them into their plans due concerns about their impact on scheme costs and viability.

These concerns have been addressed in a study of the viability of incorporating green-blue roofs into a mixed-used development at the former Meadowbank Stadium site in Edinburgh, conducted by Collective Architecture on behalf of NatureScot (previously called Scottish Natural Heritage). 

The study highlights the varied range of green-blue roof options available to developers – all with different costs, levels of maintenance, building requirements etc.  Some are suitable for public access whereas others are not.  Blue-green roofs are a combination of both green roofs and blue roofs – where rainwater is retained rather than drained (as with a typical green roof) and released in a controlled manner.

Overall, green-blue roofs were found to be a viable option for the Meadowbank development, freeing up space that might otherwise be used for ground-based SUDS (sustainable drainage systems), and offering a range of potential wellbeing and community benefits.  Blue-green roofs did cause a small uplift in roofing costs. However, as a proportion of the overall construction costs, these were minimal, coming in at around £350 per dwelling.

Retrofitting green infrastructure – Queensland Gardens, Cardonald, Glasgow

If our towns and cities are to become truly carbon neutral, then there will also be a need to retrofit green infrastructure into existing developments.  One such example of retrofitting is Queensland Court and Gardens – a partnership between Southside Housing Association and Glasgow City Council to retrofit green infrastructure designs into two multi-storey tower blocks and the surrounding land in Cardonald, Glasgow. 

The project is part of the wider Green Infrastructure Strategic Intervention (GISI) programme, which as well as contributing to the ultimate goal of achieving a net zero carbon society, seeks to demonstrate how green infrastructure can be used to address some of the key issues faced in urban areas – from declining economic growth, social inequalities, pollution, flooding, noise, multiple deprivation, health problems and limited biodiversity. 

One of the key issues facing the outdoor space at Queensland Gardens is excess surface water, which renders much of the space unusable.  As such, the project has also received funding from 10,000 Raingardens for Scotland.  It plans to turn the rainwater run-off from the tower blocks into a feature that is incorporated into the gardens.  It also plans to expand the current parking facilities, create a shared community green space, and enhance the currently very limited play space for children and young people.

Both the Queensland Gardens and the Meadowbank site developments will be assessed against the Building with Nature standards.

Green infrastructure as part of the green recovery

The coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp focus the importance of having local green spaces that are both easily accessible and inclusive of all ages and disabilities.  It highlighted the importance of nature to the health of society and the world more broadly, along with the urgent need to address climate change.

It also demonstrated that it is possible to create and implement innovative solutions to global crises on a tight timescale, when both the need and will exist.  There are strong calls now for a ‘green recovery’, and it is expected that the imminent Climate Change Plan Update will feature this concept heavily.  Indeed Scotland has already made a number of commitments for a green recovery as part of their 2020/21 Programme for Government, and the findings of the recent Green Recovery Inquiry reinforce its importance.

As the above examples show, embedding green infrastructure and nature-based solutions into the planning system is one way to help achieve Scotland’s goal of becoming net zero by 2045.  By doing so, we can create places and spaces that benefit not only ourselves, but also society and the planet.


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Virtual reality: a game changer for mental health treatment?

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

Demand for mental health treatment in the UK far outstrips supply. And the outbreak of COVID-19 has forced many primary care services to think creatively not only about demand and supply, which has increased further during the pandemic, but also about delivery. GPs and community mental health teams in particular are thinking about more innovative ways to deliver remote support to people with mental health conditions, including the use of Telehealth and virtual reality (VR) platforms.

People are probably most familiar with VR in a digital gaming context, with devices like Oculus headsets offering immersive gaming experiences where players can place themselves “in the game”, but it has been suggested that integrating VR, alongside other telehealth options like apps and videoconferencing into mental health consultation and treatment could make counselling and alternative treatment options more accessible to those living and working remotely. Early research suggests that while discussions about investigating the benefits of this type of delivery of care have been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, researchers and practitioners were already beginning to explore how VR and Telehealth could be a tool that could be utilised more regularly in the treatment and engagement of people with mental health conditions, not just during periods where face to face contact is a challenge.

Blended treatments to help improve outcomes

Telehealth encompasses a number of different approaches and techniques, including using platforms like skype for mobile conferencing, or mobile apps to help people manage conditions and to help deliver some treatment options. It has previously been used in other areas of medicine, for example to help those with chronic conditions self-manage, with various levels of success and uptake.

One foundation embracing remote mental health support, even before the arrival of coronavirus, is Greater Manchester mental health foundation trust who use a mobile app called ClinTouch, to support people recovering from psychosis, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Although patients will typically see a care co-ordinator monthly, symptoms of a relapse can appear within days; with the app, users are asked how they feel a few times a day, and an alert is generated if a relapse looks likely.  Some NHS organisations have also adopted telepsychiatry – videoconferencing therapy sessions. 

Using VR for remote therapy almost takes telehealth a step further, and involves using a complete virtual environment, with the potential for this to be integrated into treatment plans, so clinicians can, for example, create a setting which looks like the inside of their office, or use virtual environments to model external scenarios that may cause anxiety to help patients practice coping techniques like breathing exercises.

One of the potential extended uses for VR and telehealth in a clinical mental health treatment setting which has emerged is its application for rural populations, or for people who are isolating because of exposure to coronavirus. However, this has raised some additional questions about the potential barriers to uptake exacerbated by digital illiteracy and poor access to digital devices, as well as the problem of poor or slow internet connections, something which will need to be considered by health boards if they decide to offer these treatment options.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

More research is needed, and is being done

While recent research has shown face-to-face therapy remains the optimal treatment method in mental health care, VR-based therapy has been found to be more effective than Skype-based or phone only counselling. The research also suggests VR-based Telehealth sessions could improve engagement, compared to phone only sessions and greatly reduce dropout rates for clients which in turn can support positive clinical outcomes. It appears the general consensus is that self-service, VR and automated technology, in the form of apps and notifications could support and augment healthcare professionals and help support the delivery of more traditional approaches.

The virtual reality lab at the NIHR-Wellcome Trust-King’s Clinical Research facility aims to improve the understanding of the mechanisms that play a role in the onset and maintenance of mental health problems. They use virtual reality environments to assess and develop treatments to improve the well-being of people with mental health problems.

Research is also being done on the specific reaction to young people of engaging with digitally driven treatment options. There are some suggestions that the delivery of digital interventions to support young people with mental health problems may help them to engage more, in part because they are more familiar with digital platforms and may feel more comfortable using them day-to-day, however there is also a suggestion that young people also prefer the feeling of “distance” and “impersonality” that a digital platform provides which can lead to some feeling more able to express how they are really feeling, compared to a face to face meeting with a clinician which can sometimes be a stressful and intimidating experience.

Where next?

So far in clinical psychology and psychiatry, the primary focus of VR has been its role in treating anxiety and stress-related disordersspecific phobiaspanic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. However the disruption to face to face mental health treatments caused by the coronavirus pandemic has led to clinicians thinking even more creatively about the applications of VR and telehealth options to help support the treatment of people with a wider range of mental health conditions.

While it is clear that virtual treatments should not replace the face to face consultation in mental health treatment entirely, research suggests there is a growing role for VR and Telehealth options in augmenting face to face treatment options and that they could be offered as an option for those who are unable to attend face to face sessions. Telehealth and remote treatments are something which will continue to be explored beyond the coronavirus pandemic and could soon be integrated into practice as part of the standard delivery of mental health care and treatment.


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‘Bending the Curve’ of biodiversity loss – could Covid-19 be the catalyst for change?

dead forest pic

“The evidence is unequivocal – nature is being changed and destroyed by us at a rate unprecedented in history” (WWF)

The latest Living Planet report from the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) finds that 68% of the world’s wildlife populations have been lost since 1970 – more than two thirds in less than 50 years – with the most striking result a 94% decline in tropical subregions of the Americas. The report says this ‘catastrophic’ decline shows no signs of slowing. The cause – human activity.

Until 1970, the ecological footprint of the human population was less than the rate of the Earth’s regeneration. Explosive growth in global trade, consumption, population growth and urbanisation means we are now using more of the world’s resources than can be replenished:

“To feed and fuel our 21st century lifestyles, we are overusing the Earth’s biocapacity by at least 56%.” (WWF)

The environmental impact of human activity is hardly a new topic but the numerous warnings over the years haven’t had the desired effect of changing society’s trajectory. The stark warnings from recent reports including the 2018 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) special report on the impacts of global warming, and popular programmes such as the Blue Planet II series which highlighted the devastating impact of pollution on the world’s oceans, have certainly helped heighten awareness and action has been taken across the world to address the climate emergency. Unfortunately, the progress made so far is not enough to reverse the current declining trends.

But the new report raises hope in that times of crisis new ideas and opportunities for transformation can arise and that the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic could perhaps be the catalyst for such change.

‘People and nature are intertwined’

COVID-19 has undoubtedly injected a new sense of urgency, emphasising again the interconnectedness of humans and nature. It has provided a stark reminder how unparalleled biodiversity loss threatens the health of both people and the planet.

Factors believed to lead to the emergence of pandemics – including global travel, urbanisation, changes in land use and greater exploitation of the natural environment – are also some of the drivers behind the decline in wildlife.

The report emphasises that biodiversity loss is not just an environmental issue, but also a development, economic, global security, ethical and moral one. And it is also about self-preservation as “biodiversity plays a critical role in providing food, fibre, water, energy, medicines and other genetic materials; and is key to the regulation of our climate, water quality, pollution, pollination services, flood control and storm surges.”

As well the pandemic, a series of recent catastrophic events are used to underline the intrinsic links between human health and environmental health, including: Africa’s plague of locusts in 2019 which threatened food supplies, caused by the unusually high number of cyclones; extreme droughts in India and Pakistan in 2019, leading to an unknown death toll; and Australia’s most intense bushfire season ever recorded, made worse by unusually low rainfall and record high temperatures, as well as excessive logging.

Alongside this, the “extraordinary gains in human health and wellbeing” over the past century, including reduced child mortality and increased life expectancy, are highlighted as a cause for celebration but the study warns that the exploitation and alteration of the natural environment that has occurred in tandem threatens to undo these successes.

Biggest threats to biodiversity

Clearly, biodiversity is fundamental to human life and it is vital that the drivers of its destruction are addressed; and quickly.

Drawing on the Living Planet Index (LPI), which tracks the abundance of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians across the globe, using data from over 4,000 different species, the report identifies the major threat categories to biodiversity:

  • Changes in land and sea use
  • Invasive species and disease
  • Species overexploitation
  • Pollution
  • Climate change

It may be surprising to learn that climate change has not yet been the main driver of biodiversity loss. In fact, globally, climate change features lower on the scale of threats than the other drivers in almost all regions. Changes in land and sea use is the biggest proportional threat, averaged across all regions, at 50%. This is followed by species exploitation at 24% with invasive species taking third place at 13%. Climate change accounts for 6% on average.

However, the report warns projections suggest the tables are set to turn with climate change overtaking all other drivers in the coming years.

But all is not lost yet. The report argues that it is possible to reverse these trends and calls for action to do so by 2030.

Bending the Curve’

This year’s report highlights findings from significant new research, the Bending the Curve initiative, which uses pioneering modelling of different human behaviour scenarios aimed at restoring biodiversity. It argues that this has provided ‘proof of concept’ for the first time that we can halt, and reverse, the loss of nature while feeding a growing population:

“Bending the curve of biodiversity loss is technologically and economically possible, but it will require truly transformational change in the way we produce and consume food and in how we sustainably manage and conserve nature.”

2020 has certainly made the whole world stop and think. And it has provided an opportunity to reset humanity’s relationship with nature. Encouragingly, there has been widespread talk of a ‘green recovery’ from the pandemic and the British public have recently backed a “fairer, greener Britain” amid concerns the government might be rushing the country back to a ‘business-as-usual’ model.

Achieving a balance with nature will clearly require systemic change, as the Living Planet report shows. In the words of Sir David Attenborough, above all it will require a change in perspective”.


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Guest post: How working from home could revitalise rust belt cities

RMC42

Michel Serafinelli, University of Essex

For years, we have been promised a work-from-home revolution, and it seems that the pandemic has finally brought it to pass. In April this year, at the height of the first wave of coronavirus, 47% of people in the UK were working from home, the vast majority of them doing so because of the pandemic. In a sense this is overdue: the work-from-home potential for UK employees is 32%; in France, Germany and Italy between 24% and 28%.

This structural transformation has the potential to at least partially undo another transformation from the previous century. With the decline of manufacturing in the United Kingdom after the 1970s, some cities – incuding Hull, Sheffield, Bradford and Stoke-on-Trent – entered a spiral of high unemployment and out-migration that has lasted to this day. This trend is echoed in other “rust belt” cities such as Saint-Etienne in France, Wuppertal in Germany and the American city of Detroit.

The rise of teleworking could end that spiral – if the right conditions are met.

The changing workplace

It’s unlikely that telework will end when the pandemic does – we will instead probably see workplaces encouraging a mix of in-office and home working. Some organisations may start asking workers to be in the office for only two to three days per week, while others may opt for a “conference model” (that is, a few consecutive days or a week per month for all employees).

This does not mean the death of big cities. London will probably stay attractive and innovative thanks to its very strong initial advantage. San Francisco and Seattle in US, Munich in Germany and Amsterdam in the Netherlands will all remain hubs for knowledge workers. Scholars believe face-to-face still rules when it comes to creativity, and such cities provide an environment that is conducive to innovation.

But rust belt areas are cheaper and can attract skilled workers to regularly spend more time there once the pandemic is over.

A busy street in Soho, London.
London will not lose its appeal. christo mitkov christov/Shutterstock

The job multiplier effect

How can formerly deprived cities thrive after the pandemic? To understand the potential for revitalisation of rust belt cities, we can invoke the job multiplier effect. This is where the presence of skilled workers helps create other jobs through increased demand for local goods and services. For example, after their day on Zoom (at home or in a local co-working space), skilled workers will want to go out. In this way they support a barista, a waiter, a chef and perhaps a taxi driver. Some will decide to renovate the house they live in, and ask a local architect. Once or twice a week they go for yoga. They may need a dogsitter when they travel.

This is not the only mechanism that could help with local revitalisation. Some of the people regularly spending more time in rust belt areas would be entrepreneurs, and we may see new business creation, as they seize new opportunities in industries such as culture, renewable energies, tourism, quality agro-food or handicraft.

In principle, therefore, our increased ability to work from home could lead to new growth opportunities.

Will it work?

But there are important caveats. Not all rust belt cities will be able take advantage of the post-pandemic world. After all, there were large differences in labour market performance after the 1970s, when the aggregate number of manufacturing jobs started to decline.

In the UK, both Middlesborough and Slough had 44% manufacturing employment in 1970. But their experience was vastly different in the three following decades, with Middlesborough employment declining by 13% per decade and Slough employment growing by 12% per decade. Places such as Norwich and Preston in the UK, Bergamo in Italy, and San Jose in the US were traditional manufacturing hubs that nonetheless performed well in the decades that followed the start of manufacturing decline in their countries.

To understand why we may see large differences across different cities again with the rise of working from home, we first have to think about differences in what economists call human capital endowments – this relates to the skills of the workforce in a particular place. For example, if locality A has a greater share of the workforce with a university degree than locality B, it has a higher human capital endowment and is more likely to recover from industrial decline.

The skill level of the workforce is important for the task of local reinvention – in our research team’s analysis of the reinvention potential for cities, we used the share of the workforce with a university degree as a proxy for this. To distribute these advantages across the board, scholars studying declining areas have called for measures aimed at boosting training and facilitating the assimilation of knowledge and innovation.

Another important challenge is the digital divide – the gap in speeds between areas with privileged access to the internet and the rest of the country. In the UK this is more than just a gap between urban and rural parts of the country – inner-city areas in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham are also left behind. A large reduction of this gap was important for job creation before COVID-19 – it should be a top priority now.

An overhead shot of a woman typing on a laptop at a table.
The UK’s digital divide affects cities too. marvent/Shutterstock

Local amenities also play a role. For skilled workers with family ties in a specific area, once they decide to regularly spend more time outside London, the choice of location is often pretty clear. For skilled workers without such ties, factors such as the cultural and recreational activities on offer in a new city become important, especially since they are used to a vibrant selection in London.

Overall, rust belt areas in Western economies face some opportunities for regeneration with teleworking, but there are also several important challenges. To maximise the potential for success, governments should consider measures that boost training, investment in high-speed broadband and improve transportation links between these cities and London.

These kinds of investments would help smaller cities such as Middlesborough, Hull and Stoke-on-Trent take advantage of the new opportunities presented by telework. Otherwise Manchester and, to some extent, other larger cities such as Birmingham and Liverpool could be the winners, among the rust belt, in the post-coronavirus work-from-home economy.

Michel Serafinelli, Lecturer in Economics, University of Essex

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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