Feel better with a book … why bibliotherapy may be just the medicine we’re looking for

By Morwen Johnson

It’s not just dedicated bookworms or librarians who get excited that Christmas means piles of book-shaped parcels under the Christmas tree (and time to read them too!). Books are the second most popular Christmas gift for adults in the UK, behind chocolate. But now we’re into the New Year it’s worth remembering that books are for life, not just for Christmas. And the benefits of books go much further than keeping your brain active and passing the time.

Reading involves ‘emotional thinking’ and in the words of The Reader, books “are full of the stuff that makes us human”. That means that they can be a powerful resource for improving mental health.

“I felt better than before … I felt understood”

We’ve written a couple of times on our blog about social prescribing – and how the NHS is recognising that non-medical treatments such as arts activities or gardening can improve mental and physical health. The use of bibliotherapy and self-help reading is part of this focus on holistic health and self-management of long-term or chronic health conditions. And a recent systematic review has added to the evidence base, finding that bibliotherapy is effective in reducing adults’ depressive symptoms in the long-term, “providing an affordable prompt treatment that could reduce further medications”.

The Reading Agency’s Books on Prescription scheme has been running nationally in England since 2013 and since it started has been expanded to cover Books on Prescription for common mental health conditions, Books on Prescription for dementia, Reading Well for young people and Reading Well for long term conditions. 635,000 people are estimated to have benefited from the schemes.

Books can be recommended by GPs or other health professionals but are also available on self-referral for anyone to borrow, as part of public libraries’ health offer. Similar schemes can be accessed in other parts of the UK.

And the social enterprise The Reader has many years’ experience of how shared reading groups and reading aloud projects can be used to increase health and wellbeing.

The healing power of imagination and creativity

It’s not just self-help books which can help improve health – reading fiction and poetry can also help. The author Philip Pullman recently said that comfort can be found in books, and the familiar act of reading, in an uncertain world. And Blake Morrison, writing back in 2008 on fledgling bibliotherapy initiatives, quoted Hector, in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, as saying how, in the presence of great literature, “it’s as if a hand has reached out and taken our own”.

The unique value of fiction is that we can recognise aspects of our own lives in the characters and imaginary worlds of books and in many cases, narratives of change, of transformation, of recovery, can provide comfort or hope. In other situations, books can literally put into words, difficult experiences which people struggle to admit or talk about. They can also promote understanding of other people’s situations, very different to our own.

This is true not just in literary works –acclaimed graphic novels and memoirs have shone a light on topics such as the experience of psychosis (Look Straight Ahead), cancer (When David Lost His Voice; and Probably Nothing); eating disorders (Lighter Than My Shadow); OCD (The Bad Doctor); childhood anxiety (Everything is Teeth) and grief (The End).

And children’s publishing is also a medium for helping children process difficult emotions or experiences –for example Duck, Death and the Tulip is visually beautiful and heartfelt. For anyone interested in how books can help children’s mental health, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has a useful online resource list of books for children and also for teenagers.

A lifeline and a consolation

It’s worth remembering the important role that libraries play in supporting wellbeing. As well as supporting bibliotherapy initiatives, public libraries are safe spaces which people who are isolated, lonely or ill can come to for support and to make connections. Research for the Arts Council estimated that these improvements to health save the NHS around £27.5million a year.

Reading is not just a leisure activity. For many people, the information and stories found in books – whether bought, borrowed from libraries, or shared between friends – can provide a lifeline.

In the words of Daisy Goodwin, introducing her book 101 Poems That Could Save Your Life, “there may not be a cure, but there is always a consolation”.


The Knowledge Exchange are a team of researchers and librarians based in Glasgow, who comment on and curate information on social policy.

You can follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. There may also be a few book-related quotes occasionally!

Throwaway lines: poets celebrate the “hideous beauty” of landfill and the unsung heroes of waste management


If you think poetry is a load of old rubbish, you might find some agreement in the unlikeliest quarters. Poets themselves have been finding inspiration from the items we discard, and from the people who make a living clearing up our trash.

In October, John Wedgewood Clarke published a book of poetry called Landfill, the result of a year-long residency at two Yorkshire rubbish sites. The collection explores what John calls the “hideous beauty” of places that most of us would rarely describe as poetic.

The residency had a profound experience on the poet. Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, John described the experience of making his way through the landscape of trash as akin to walking on the moon. And he found that landfill sites have their own seasons, with a blossoming of fairy lights just after Christmas and an upsurge in lawnmowers in the spring. In autumn the dump was littered with pumpkins and glow-sticks.

The collection features poems both about rubbish itself and its effects. Newsprint turns the writer’s skin grey, and he finds himself wandering through a “palace of glistering cans”.

A rubbish dump is also a repository for stories. One of the site workers told John about poignant finds such as discarded war medals and photograph albums.

In recent years, there have been greater efforts to divert more and more of our waste away from landfill. Many of us are recycling waste products, and the idea of a circular economy is becoming a reality.

In spite of these efforts, John’s rubbish residency is a reminder of the sheer scale of landfill, and of its enduring nature. As he told the Yorkshire Post: “our waste doesn’t disappear, it is simply on its way to becoming geology.”

Unsung heroes

In Edinburgh, the city’s Makar, Christine de Luca, has also found poetic inspiration from an unlikely source. A visit to the Seafield Waste Water Treatment Works resulted in a poem called Gardyloo which describes a space-station of engines, pipework and pumps that transform effluent into a purified stream which flows with “the speed and sparkle of a Highland burn in spate.”

Later, Christine persuaded a selection of poets to celebrate other Edinburgh workers whose service for the city largely goes unnoticed or unappreciated. The result was a collection of poems called Edinburgh Unsung, now freely available on Edinburgh City Council’s website.

The subjects are varied, from chimney sweeps and environmental wardens to facilities managers at the Scottish Parliament and book dusters at the National Library of Scotland. Christine herself, more used to writing in praise of the great and the good, such as Robert Louis Stevenson and James Clerk Maxwell, contributed a poem celebrating Edinburgh’s refuse collectors. It describes their daily routine of waste collection and disposal as a kind of dance, with its own repertoire, rhythm and precision.

A strange beauty

Percy Shelley described poetry as “a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted”. Many would have thought it impossible to equate the workings of a waste water treatment plant with something beautiful. But, as Christine de Luca, John Wedgewood Clarke and many other poets have demonstrated, there is a strange beauty in the features and functions of the everyday. And if these poets can – even for a moment – shine a light on the people working to make our lives better, then that’s kind of beautiful too.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also find another poetry-related blog post of interest:

Moving stories: how poetry is carrying the message about mobility challenges facing older people

Drones in the city: should we ban drone hobbyists?

A young boy flying a drone

By Steven McGinty

Drones are becoming an increasingly observable feature of modern cities, from tech enthusiasts flying drones in local parks to engineers using them to monitor air pollution. And there have also been some high profile commercial trials such as Amazon Prime Air, an ambitious 30-minute delivery service.

However, introducing drones into the public realm has been something of a bumpy ride. Although the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) produces guidance to ensure drones are flown safely and legally, there has been a number of hazardous incidents.

For example, in April, the first near-miss involving a passenger jet and more than one drone was recorded. The incident at Gatwick Airport saw two drones flying within 500m of an Airbus A320, with one pilot reporting a “significant risk of collision” had they been on a different approach path. In addition – and just 30 minutes later – one of these drones flew within 50m of another passenger jet, a Boeing 777.

Videos have also been uploaded to websites such as YouTube, which have clearly been taken from drones – a clear breach of the CAA’s rules prohibiting the flying of drones over or within 150m of built-up areas. This includes events such as the Cambridge Folk Festival, a match at Liverpool FC’s Anfield Stadium, and Nottingham’s Goose Fair. Jordan Brooks, who works for Upper Cut Productions – a company which specialises in using drones for aerial photography and filming – explains that:

They look like toys. For anyone buying one you feel like you’re flying a toy ‘copter when actually you’ve got a hazardous helicopter that can come down and injure somebody.

Privacy concerns have also started to emerge. Sally Annereau, data protection analyst at law firm Taylor Wessing, highlights a recent European case which held that a suspect’s rights had been infringed by a homeowner’s CCTV recording him whilst he was in a public place. Although not specifically about drones, Sally Annereau suggests this decision will have far reaching consequences, with potential implications for drone users recording in public and sharing their footage on social media sites. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has already issued guidance for drones.

The CAA report that there were more than 3,456 incidents involving drones in 2016. This is a significant increase on the 1,237 incidents in 2015.

The response

Cities have often taken contradictory approaches to drones. Bristol City Council has banned their use in the majority of its parks and open spaces. Similarly, several London boroughs have introduced ‘no drone zones’, although the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames has a relatively open policy, only banning drones over Richmond Park. Further, Lambeth Council requires hobbyists to complete an application form “to ensure suitability”, a standard similar to commercial drone pilots.

There have also been several accusations of double standards as large commercial operators such as Amazon receive exemptions to CAA rules, in front of photographers recording events, hospitals delivering blood, and researchers collecting data.

Although cities have a responsibility to protect the public, they also have to ensure citizens are able to exercise their rights. The air is a common space, and as such cities must ensure that hobbyists – as well as multinational firms – can enjoy the airspace. Thus, it might be interesting to see cities take a more positive approach and designate ‘drone zones’, where hobbyists can get together and fly their drones away from potential hazards.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

A moving story: how Idox’s new office in Glasgow became a piece of history

In September, the Idox Information Service moved into our new home. Along with our colleagues in the wider Idox Group, we relocated from the Scottish Legal Life Assurance Building in Glasgow’s Bothwell Street to the Grosvenor Building in Gordon Street, just a few blocks away.

If our previous office could be described in terms of “Grand Designs”, our new workplace is definitely about “location, location, location”. Situated directly opposite Glasgow Central Station, the Grosvenor Building really is in the middle of things.

And, just like our previous home, our new Glasgow office has an interesting and distinguished history. It was designed by one of Britain’s greatest architects – Alexander Thomson (often referred to as “Greek” Thomson because of his signature Graeco-Egyptian style).


From ecclesiastical site to commercial centre

The site was originally occupied by the Gordon Street United Presbyterian Church. In 1859, Alexander Thomson and his brother George persuaded the congregation to sell the church, and in its place they built a commercial property, with street-level shops and a warehouse on the upper floor.

The building’s façade bears the hallmarks of a “Greek” Thomson original, with his familiar ornate columns on the lower storeys. It was completed in 1861, but three years later, the warehouse caught fire and had to be rebuilt. After another fire, in 1901, the building was restored, but this time with a new superstructure on top of the existing warehouse.

 

This extension, designed by James Craigie, continued the classical theme, with elongated columns and twin baroque domes. But while some regard the additional layer as complementing Thomson’s theme, more critical observers believe that it detracts from his original vision.

Style and substance

The extension, however, was to become one of the most sophisticated meeting places in Glasgow. With a magnificent marble staircase sweeping up to a stylish restaurant, and function rooms containing stained glass windows and crystal chandeliers, The Grosvenor (which gave the building its present name) was a place to see and be seen. Later, when the staircase was removed, many couples who had celebrated their wedding receptions at The Grosvenor, bought up pieces of the marble as souvenirs.

Yet another fire, in 1967, put an end to fine dining at The Grosvenor, and for many years the building lay empty. Today, after an extensive refurbishment, The Grosvenor building is home to a suite of modern offices, although it retains its classical façade.

An architectural legacy

A fine building in its own right, The Grosvenor also has some elegant architectural neighbours, including the Grand Central Hotel, the Ca’D’Oro and another of Alexander Thomson’s masterpieces – the Egyptian Halls.

For a long time after his death in 1875, Thomson’s work was neglected, and even today the future of the Egyptian Halls remains in doubt. Elsewhere, both in Glasgow and beyond, “Greek” Thomson is becoming almost as well-known as that other celebrated Glaswegian architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. And it’s worth noting that the money raised from the sale of the Gordon Street site in 1859 went on to fund one of Alexander Thomson’s greatest buildings – the St Vincent Street Church.

It’s good to know that Alexander Thomson’s legacy is being preserved in The Grosvenor Building, and that the latest chapter in the story of Idox will be written into Glasgow’s architectural and social history.

Tourism – is it “killing neighbourhoods”?

deck chairs at the seaside

By Heather Cameron

Today is World Tourism Day (WTD), the aim of which is “to foster awareness among the international community of the importance of tourism and its social, cultural, political and economic value.”  (United Nations)

Commencing on 27 September 1980, WTD is celebrated each year with fitting events based on themes selected by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) General Assembly. The theme for 2017 is the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. The UNWTO says tourism can contribute to all three dimensions of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental – as well as the 17 UN sustainable development goals. It argues that in addition to driving growth, the tourism sector also improves the quality of people’s lives.

However, a recent wave of anti-tourism protests across Europe suggests some disagree.

Anti-tourism sentiment

Much of the focus of anti-tourist sentiment during the summer has been in Spain, where a record 75 million foreign tourists visited last year – up 10 million on 2015. Catalonia hosted more visitors than any other. Estimates suggest an extra 30 million people descended on Barcelona, where radical groups have been reported slashing tyres of rental bikes and a tour bus. The tour bus was also reportedly adorned with the slogan “tourism is killing neighbourhoods.

As the number of tourists has been growing exponentially, so too have the tensions over this surge, coupled with the impact of holiday lets on the local housing market and thus local communities.

Majorca has also experienced protests from citizens against mass tourism. Here concerns have been raised over the number of drunken visitors and the rental of apartments to non-locals, reducing the number of places for locals to live and driving up house prices.

Rising rents and the impact on the environment have been cited as of particular concern among local communities.

Social and environmental impacts

Such concern is by no means a new phenomenon.

A 2012 report on the impacts of tourism on society found that while tourism generates both wealth and jobs, it has also been seen to have negative impacts on socio-cultural values and environmental assets of host communities.

At the same time as bringing people from different backgrounds, cultures and traditions together, due to globalisation, it is argued, tourism has led to many communities losing their cultural identity and giving way to a ‘Disneyfication’ of their town or village.

And while tourism has contributed to the creation of national parks and protected areas, it has also been blamed for increased pollution. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the three main environmental issues of tourism are the depletion of natural resources, pollution and physical degradation.

It is suggested that the main problem emanating from these impacts is that the host community picks up the tab for any damages to the environment and local culture.

Tourism clearly generates a variety of consequences, both positive and negative. It is therefore something that requires careful management.  As the 2012 report concludes, “Tourism development should be part of an economic development and must be done in a manner that is sustainable.”

Sustainable tourism

The focus of this year’s World Tourism Day therefore seems particularly apt. As the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) has highlighted, this provides a unique opportunity for travel and tourism to come together to address the challenges set out in the UN’s sustainable development goals, and for the sector to address the issues of climate change, physical degradation and disruption that leaders from both inside and outside of tourism consider to be of the highest priority.

Progress has certainly been made, as the WTTC has reported:

  • travel and tourism companies were 20% more carbon efficient in 2015 than they were in 2005;
  • the sector is on course to reach a target of cutting CO2 emissions by 50% by 2035; and
  • the sector is on course to reach the target of 25% reduction by 2020.

However, as the recent anti-tourism sentiment indicates, more needs to be done to manage growth in a sustainable manner.

Final thoughts

Sustainable planning and management is clearly important to ensure the long-term viability of the tourism industry. And as the sector represents 10.2% of global GDP and supports 1 in 10 jobs globally, it is too important not to get right.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like to read some of our other tourism-related articles.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments are interesting our research team.

It’s a kind of magic: how green infrastructure is changing landscapes and lives

Daisies in Victoria Park sent in by Fiona Ann Patterson

Victoria Park, Belfast. Image: Fiona Ann Paterson

The greatest change happening to the face of our planet is the rapid growth of urban areas. Every ten years, an area the size of Britain is colonised by urban development, and by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in urban areas. This urban growth is already having a profound impact: while cities occupy 2% of the world’s surface, they consume 75% of the Earth’s natural resources and produce 75% of global CO2 emissions.

Last month’s Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN) forum in Edinburgh explored how green infrastructure projects can help cities and towns repair the damage of urbanisation, while making urban areas more healthy and prosperous places for the people who live there.

The importance of green infrastructure

Green infrastructure includes elements such as parks and gardens, woodland and wetlands, canals and cycle paths. It’s a natural life support system that can play a key role in helping urban areas adapt to and mitigate climate change.

Three projects showcased at the CSGN forum admirably demonstrated how green infrastructure can benefit the environment, the economy, large cities and local communities.

Milan: building forests in the sky
Francesca Cesa Bianci, senior architect at Stefano Boeri Architects in Milan described a ground-breaking project in her city, called Bosco Verticale – the Vertical Forest.

She explained that, while urban growth cannot be stopped, it is possible to build cities more in harmony with nature. The Vertical Forest project is a response to this challenge.

Almost 800 trees and 5000 shrubs have been planted on the balconies of two residential towers built on a brownfield site in central Milan. The result is visually striking, but even more outstanding is the greenery’s environmental impact. The two towers absorb 30 tons of CO2 per year and produce 19 tons of oxygen a day. Noise and heat are also reduced and the buildings now provide habitat for more than 20 species of birds.

The Bosco Verticale idea is now spreading beyond Italy, with similar projects in Albania, Switzerland and China. Some municipalities in China are also exploring the idea of entire cities composed of vertical forests – which could bring significant benefits to urban areas where air pollution is a hidden killer.

Belfast: telling a different story

East Belfast is an area of multiple deprivation, with some of the worst levels of physical and mental health in Europe, low educational attainment and a deprived physical environment. The 2014 edition of the Rough Guide to Ireland warned readers that it was “inadvisable” to visit the area.

That scenario is now changing, thanks largely to a green infrastructure project. Wendy Langham, Programme Manager for the EastSide Partnership, outlined to the CSGN forum how the Connswater Community Greenway  (CCG) is changing lives and changing the way people think about the area.

Wiggle-8713

Connswater Community Greenway Image: EastSide Partnership, Belfast

Funded by the Big Lottery Fund, Belfast City Council and the Northern Ireland Executive, two major phases of development have created a 9km linear park with 16km of walking and cycling routes, 30 new or improved bridges crossing over three rivers, and works to deliver elements of Belfast’s Flood Alleviation scheme and improve water quality.

An ongoing assessment of the project has estimated the potential economic return of the CCG to be up to 14 times the investment. The flood alleviation investment of £11.7m has saved an estimated £54.7m.

The study also highlighted the wider benefits of the project:

“We have shown that environmental interventions, such as the Connswater Community Greenway, could be a cost-effective way to increase physical activity levels, prevent major chronic diseases and decrease healthcare expenditure. In addition, the Greenway may have benefits beyond health such as reductions in traffic and carbon emissions, crime and improvements in safety.”

The project has been keen to tell a different story about East Belfast from the negative narrative so long associated with the area. Celebrating local heroes, the project has developed a public square named in honour of author C.S. Lewis, while a Van Morrison music trail has attracted locals and tourists to the area.

Wendy explained that the project is far from finished, and has ambitious plans for the future. She concluded with a quotation from Michelangelo that captures the spirit of the project:

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

Copenhagen: connecting people with nature

For many years, the Danish capital has been the envy of cyclists the world over. But now, the city’s well-developed network of on-road cycling routes is being supplemented by a new set of ‘green cycle routes’. Winding through parks, open spaces, woodlands and other habitats, the new paths will give cyclists and pedestrians safe and enjoyable access to nature.

Niels Jensen, traffic planner with the City of Copenhagen, explained that the first of these green cycle routes opened in 2012, and a further 23 routes are planned, covering an area of over 100km. One of the routes connects central Copenhagen with the suburban town of Albertslund, 22 km outside the city, while another follows the course of an abandoned railway line.

Albertslund Bikeway

Albertslund Green Cycleway. Image: Soren Rud/LifeExhibitions. Further information – Copenhagen Green

Niels acknowledged that the investment in the project is significant – €20.7 million, But Copenhagen believes the benefits are worth the money,with more non-cyclists – including children – taking to bikes, using safe, direct and unpolluted connections. Since 2012, the first two routes have experienced a growth in the number of bicycle users of 61% and 34% respectively. The project expects to see a 25% increase in cycling traffic by 2025, advancing Copenhagen’s ambition to be the best cycling city in the world.

Conclusion

In her keynote speech to the CSGN forum, Scottish Government minister Roseanna Cunningham described the transformation achieved by green infrastructure as “magical”. She highlighted the examples of a project that will transform a landfill site in Glasgow into a community woodland, and another programme to improve mental health by bringing people into contact with woodlands and forests.

These projects, and those showcased during the CSGN forum demonstrate that our urbanising world need not be a concrete jungle, and that the benefits of green infrastructure go far beyond its face value.

Orangefield Park Celebrations

Orangefield Park, Belfast Image: EastSide Partnership, Belfast


Further reading on green spaces in our blog

Moving stories: how poetry is carrying the message about mobility challenges facing older people

All too often, valuable results from research reports receive an initial burst of publicity before being shelved and then largely forgotten.  But one project has been keeping its research in the public eye by taking its findings onto the streets.

A three-year study led by researchers at the University of York’s Centre for Housing Policy has been investigating the links between mobility and well-being among older people. The “Co-motion” project has been working with older people in York, Leeds and Hexham to explore how changes in their lives, such as losing sight, becoming a carer and starting to use a mobility scooter, have affected their mobility.

Poetry in Motion

One innovative strand of the project involved a six-month collaboration between the researchers and the award-winning poet, Anna Woodford. Anna has written a series of poems that reflect on the travel challenges of older and disabled people. In keeping with the spirit of the Co-Motion project, the poems have themselves become mobile. Earlier this year, buses serving passengers in and around the city of York began displaying Anna’s poems.

The Co-Motion project leader, Dr Mark Bevan, from the Centre for Housing Policy, explained that one of the key messages emerging from the research was the need to raise awareness among service providers and the wider public about the diverse travel needs of people later in life.

“The aim of Poetry in Motion is to encourage people to think differently about how they travel and the needs of others.”

The research findings provided inspiration for Anna Woodford: “Many of the things that older and disabled people find difficult are often very simple daily travel actions that most of us don’t even think twice about. Parking your car on the pavement instead of fully on the road or using priority seating on public transport, are just some of the things study participants cited as being a challenge.”

Future plans, future poems

First York, which provides public transport services in York, was happy to showcase Anna’s poetry as part of the project. Rachel Benn, Business Delivery Manager at First York, said: “We are proud to support our local communities, and when we heard about this project, we were keen to help raise awareness of this important research.”

The Co-Motion project is one of seven Design for Well-being projects looking at ageing and mobility in the built environment, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

There are now plans for an exhibition of the Co-Motion poems at York Explore library and at Newcastle City library in autumn 2017, and it’s also hoped that the project will expand to look at people living with mental health issues.

Transport and art collaborations

Poetry in Motion is in keeping with a strong tradition of the arts and public transport working hand-in-hand.  For over thirty years, passengers on the London Underground have been able to enjoy a range of poems showcased in Tube train carriages across London. The success of the programme has inspired similar initiatives across the world.

Meanwhile, in China, a London-based artist has taken the art and transport theme even further. Mira Calix created a moving museum on a bus, enabling passengers to take in sonic and visual art installations as part of their journey.

And in New York City, photographs by the American artist Andres Serrano have appeared in subway stations to highlight the existence of homeless people on the streets. Although Andres doesn’t see himself as a crusader, he hopes that his images will make people stop and think.

I feel like it’s enough for me to just bring it to your attention, and then after that it’s up to you to decide what to do with it.”

Final thoughts

Public art can be appreciated on different levels – for its own sake, and to provoke reflections about its deeper meanings.  The work of Anna Woodford, Andres Serrano and many other artists enables the travelling public to look with new eyes on the challenges facing vulnerable people, such as the elderly, the disabled and the homeless.

A poem or a photograph, a painting or a story might not change the world, or even an individual. But if it causes people to pay attention, and to reflect on how it makes them feel, the artwork will have done its job.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in transport, mobility, the arts and wellbeing are interesting our research team.

Managing growth in historic towns

canterbury cathedral

By Heather Cameron

Predominantly set within environmentally attractive surroundings, historic towns and cities have a strong sense of place, offer a good quality of life, are often prosperous and represent models of sustainable development.

Research shows that businesses based in older places are more productive than the average for all commercial businesses across the whole economy. Retail and leisure businesses often seek to cluster in historic areas of towns and cities, and historic buildings are particularly attractive to new business start-ups, especially in the creative and cultural sector. Well-maintained historic places also enhance cultural life and community resilience.

As a result, historic towns are much sought after places to live and work, which has contributed to unprecedented growth.

Growth pressures

While growth is seen as a good thing for the future of town centres, managing it effectively in these areas of historic importance is not without its challenges. Older townscapes and buildings are a valuable and irreplaceable community asset that need to be protected.

Growth in historic towns creates pressure for new housing and development, and the infrastructure that is needed alongside it. It can also lead to increased congestion and depletion of suburban quality through redevelopment and loss of garden space. The traditional infrastructure in these towns may not be able cope with the increased capacity resulting in demand for suitable adaptation.

Managing these growth pressures is a particular challenge for historic towns as they need to try and meet local development need while both conserving the identity and sense of place of the existing town and nurturing the creation of sustainable new communities within them.

The Historic Towns Forum has highlighted that “there are challenges of infrastructure, partnership working, working with major national developers, the tension between modernity and pastiche and how to learn from the past and the present when building at this scale.”

In addition, the main political priority across all areas is economic wellbeing, taking precedence over any heritage considerations. A report from Green Balance in 2014 found that this principle concern was interpreted differently from place to place, with some local councillors viewing heritage as beneficial to a town’s economic and social wellbeing, while others viewed it is a burden and drag on investment.

As the heritage of places can be a particular pull for tourism, not preserving them could lead to a loss in economic wellbeing. The importance of achieving the right balance between sustainable development and heritage conservation is a theme that has been consistently highlighted in the research.

Smarter growth

So how do such places manage growth while also safeguarding both the character of the towns themselves and the settings around them?

According to the Historic Towns Forum, key issues in effectively addressing growth pressures in historic towns include:

  • planning and process;
  • partnerships;
  • finance and economics;
  • climate change;
  • community benefits and community engagement;
  • design; and
  • learning from the past and present.

It has been argued that a strategic approach to growth needs to be taken, such as the approach taken in Cambridge, where the Cambridgeshire Quality Charter for Growth is being used to help steer the creation of high quality sustainable communities.

Partnerships involving a range of local stakeholders, encompassing a shared vision and cooperation are also important for effective growth. Where strategic resources are lacking, which is often the case in smaller towns, community engagement can be of particular importance, as shown in Cirencester.

Key principles of good design have been highlighted to include:

  • learning from the past, including study of appropriate models;
  • localising by understanding local conditions; and
  • transforming action by applying appropriate, robust advances.

The overarching message seems to be that ‘smarter growth’ is required.

Good practice

There are examples of good practice where historic towns are managing growth in a way that protects their heritage. Cambridge, as mentioned previously, is one example. Sutton is another, where the challenges of growth are being addressed through the use of a Heritage Action Zone. The aim here is to balance growth with the management of heritage assets, providing lessons for elsewhere.

It is also important to look further afield. The historic town of Amersfoort in the Netherlands has been presented as a good model for managing housing growth to achieve attractive new settlements and create balanced communities. It has been suggested that this smarter approach is something that historic towns in the UK can learn from.

Another good example is Freiburg in Germany. Although different in terms of development to Britain, some of the issues applicable to British towns and cities have been addressed – including how to attract families to live at higher densities close enough to city centres to avoid car dependency.

As Historic England states:

“Learning is central to sustaining the historic environment. It raises people’s awareness and understanding of their heritage, including the varied ways in which its values are perceived by different generations and communities. It encourages informed and active participation in caring for the historic environment.”


If you enjoyed this blog post, why not read are previous posts on the civic use of heritage assets and the value of preserving our built heritage.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Urban bike sharing: a tale of two cities

Bike sharing schemes are now a familiar feature of the urban landscape. From Montreal to Marrakesh, London to Lublin, more than 1000 cities around the world are learning that bike sharing can play a supporting role in reducing congestion, cutting air pollution, improving citizens’ health and boosting their reputations as great places to live, work and invest in.

But not all bike sharing schemes are progressing at an equal pace. While some, such as those in Paris and London are moving into the fast lane, others are struggling to stay upright. In today’s blog, we look at how two different cities – Seattle and Dublin – are tackling bumps in the road to better bike sharing.

Seattle

In recent years, bike-sharing schemes have been springing up in cities all over the United States. Among the success stories is Washington, DC’s Capital Bikeshare programme, which is rapidly becoming an integral part of the city’s transportation system.

On the other side of the country, however, Seattle’s Pronto bike share scheme had a difficult birth. In its first year, people took 142,832 rides on Pronto bikes (the comparable figure for Capital Bikeshare was one million rides). A year after its 2014 launch, Pronto became insolvent, and Seattle’s city council bailed out the scheme at a cost of $1.4 million. Last year, the council announced that Pronto would cease operations in March 2017.

Pronto’s disappointing performance has perplexed cycling enthusiasts in the city. One Seattle bike blogger observed:

“Washington, D.C. is freezing in the winter and horribly hot in the summer, but they’ve blown past us, definitely on bike share and also on their rates of bike commuting.”

The factors behind the failure of Pronto have been the subject of considerable debate. Some have blamed it on compulsory helmet laws in the city, pointing out that similar rules in Melbourne also resulted in poor take-up of its bike share scheme. Others have put forward a range of theories, from poor cycling infrastructure and inadequate marketing to Seattle’s rainy climate and hilly topography. The city’s bicycle club also weighed in, arguing that the scheme’s small size, insufficient density of bike stations and prohibitive pricing structure put the brakes on what should have been a success story.

Bike sharing in Seattle may be down, but it’s not out. The city council is preparing to launch a successor to Pronto that will provide electric bikes and double the number of stations. There are still concerns that the mandatory cycle helmet rule may discourage take-up, although helmets will also be available for hire.

The council hopes the new scheme will be launched in summer 2017. It remains to be seen whether motorized cycles can kick start Seattle’s bike sharing journey.

Dublin

In contrast to Seattle, Dublin’s experience of bike sharing started off with positive results. Within seven years of its 2008 launch, the Dublinbikes scheme had 55,000 long-term subscribers and had recorded over 10 million trips. An expansion in 2013 took bike sharing stations beyond the core of the city and delivered an extra 950 bikes.

The popularity of Dublinbikes has continued to grow, but would-be users have often been frustrated by the lack of available bikes and delays in further expansions. Funding difficulties lie at the heart of the problem.

Dublin City Council contracted the outdoor advertising company JCDecaux to operate the Dublinbikes scheme. In exchange, the company was given the right to advertising space at a number of locations around the city. Dublinbikes also secured sponsorship from Coca-Cola, and managed to stay in the black for its first six years. However, the scheme has been running a deficit since 2015.

The stark figures tell their own story:

  • the Dublin Bikes scheme costs €1.9m to run
  • subscriptions and usage charges generate €1.2m
  • sponsorship by Coca-Cola is €312,000

Under its contract with JCDecaux, Dublin City Council must fill the €388,000 shortfall, but the council is itself under financial pressure.  Expansion of the scheme would cost €1.2m, with a further €500,000 a year of running costs for the additional bike stations.

To fulfil its side of the Dublinbikes deal with JCDecaux, Dublin City Council proposed the placement of advertising screens in the southeast of the city. However, these plans were thrown into question in August 2016 when Ireland’s national heritage organization lodged objections. One heritage officer described the proposed screens as “nasty” “contemptible”, “tacky” and “grossly offensive”. City councillors subsequently voted against installation of the screens, leading to concerns that the costs would have to be shouldered by bike users.

In November 2016, the annual Dublinbikes fee rose by €5 to €25. That’s still lower than annual membership of London’s more extensive Santander bike share scheme (£90), but there are now concerns that the price increase will exclude people on low incomes or unemployed people, who may have found the bike share scheme more affordable than getting around by car or public transport.

Overcoming spokes in the wheel

Seattle and Dublin have experienced different problems in establishing their urban bike sharing schemes. But it’s worth remembering that Washington, DC’s early bike share scheme suffered very low use rates, while Montreal’s first attempt at bike sharing went bankrupt. Today, DC’s Capital Bikeshare is among the most admired in the world, and is contributing to cuts in congestion. Meanwhile, Bixi, which now operates Montreal’s bike share scheme, is exporting its expertise to other parts of North America.

Clearly, successful bike sharing schemes require careful planning, public participation, adequate funding and – perhaps most important of all – time to grow.

Introducing the Idox Information Service … supporting evidence use for over 40 years

Exterior of the Idox Information Service office in Glasgow

Exterior of the Idox Information Service office in Glasgow

As a team who work every day to supply evidence and good practice to our clients in the public sector and consultancies, it would be easy to feel a bit down about the ease with which the idea of a post-truth world has taken grip.

In fact however, it’s heartening that so many organisations continue to recognise the value that our service brings. Not only does it offer a continuing professional development resource for staff, it also acts as a channel for knowledge sharing between organisations – helping them when they have to review services, look for efficiencies, or transform what they do in light of changing government policy or priorities.

We know that much of what we do can remain hidden, even to our own members. So let’s go under the bonnet of our unique service …

Who we are

The Idox Information Service is a membership library service, which was established over forty years ago – originally under the name of the Planning Exchange. At the outset, the emphasis was on the provision of resources to support professionals working in planning and the built environment in Scotland, but over the years we’ve expanded our subject coverage to cover the whole spectrum of public sector information, and across the UK.

Our members include policy makers and practitioners from organisations including local authorities, central government, universities, think tanks, consultancies and charities. They work in challenging environments and often need evidence to inform service delivery or decision-making.

Our work

Our team is made up of a mix of researchers, public policy specialists and qualified librarians, along with support staff. They have professional memberships, including chartered membership of CILIP and the Social Research Association. This picture shows the typical range of activities in a year:

2014 statsPublic policy is an ever-evolving subject and so current awareness services are a big part of what we do. Members can set up their own subject alerts on anything that interests them, and we also have a set of weekly and fortnightly updates on common topics. Last year we added three new current awareness updates on Devolution, Smart Cities and of course, Brexit!

UK grey literature is a particular strength of our collection. We spend a lot of time sourcing documents such as technical reports from government agencies, and research reports produced by think tanks, university departments, charities and consultancies which are often overlooked by other databases. Recent research has highlighted the value of grey literature for public policy and practice.

We also write our own research briefings for members on different topics, with more detailed analysis of research and policy developments, and including case studies and good practice. Some of these briefings are publicly available on our publications page.

The interest from members in using our Ask a Researcher service has been increasing, due to the time pressures and other challenges that people face in sourcing and reviewing information. An example looking at the links between employee wellbeing and productivity is on our website. Members regularly comment on the usefulness of the results, and it’s satisfying to be able to make a direct contribution to their work in this way.

Keeping it personal

While our online database allows our members to search for and access resources themselves, there is a strong personal element to our work.

Our members know that we’re always available at the end of the phone or via email to provide them with dedicated support when they need it. It’s important to us that we provide a quality service which keeps pace with the changing needs and expectations of a varied membership base.

Hopefully, this article has provided some insight into the way that the Knowledge Exchange supports staff and organisations across a variety of fields. More information about the service can be found here.


In 2015, the Idox Information Service was recognised as a key organisation supporting evidence use in government and the public sector. It was named by NESTA / Alliance for Useful Evidence / Social Innovation Partnership in their mapping of the UK evidence ecosystem.

We also contribute data to the Social Policy and Practice database, which focuses on health and social care evidence, and is a resource recommended by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.