Access denied: planning for the disabled-access city

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that over 1 billion people are living with some form of disability worldwide – that’s about 15% of the world’s total population. And, with trends in life expectancy and the prevalence of chronic health conditions on the rise, the number of disabled people living in cities is expected to only increase in the coming years.

Despite this, many cities remain unfriendly and widely inaccessible to their disabled populations.

Those with physical disabilities can be presented with barriers built into the smallest details of manoeuvring around the city, which could be seen as trivial and unobtrusive to the average able-bodied commuter.

From impassable steep kerbs, to sandwich board-cluttered streets, to shops and restaurants without lifts- – the makeup of the typical streetscape is lined with potential obstacles and restrictions. Moreover, for people who are neurodivergent or learning disabled, a bustling urban environment can cause harm through sensory overload, anxiety and stress.

Transport is another everyday aspect of city living where disabled people can feel excluded.

In many big cities, the metro is the most convenient way to travel. A recent study found that only 31% of London Underground stations are accessible by wheelchair or mobility scooter from street to platform. Considering that a number of those still require staff assistance and ramps to board trains, the number of fully accessible stations is even less. Another study found that similarly poor access exists across the world’s major metro systems.

Disabled people commonly report that accessibility worries can be a major deterrent to engaging in public spaces that are unfamiliar.

“I must always be thinking about accessibility in the back of my head” says Grace, in a Guardian article where readers with a disability share their experiences of city access. “The barriers start before a trip begins” adds Stef, talking about autistic-unfriendly travel.

Discussing New York, Lucy describes how accessibility barriers can make her feel excluded in her own city: “I often end up feeling like a second-class citizen who doesn’t even appear in the thoughts of city planners”.

Numerous studies have found that disabled people are less likely to work or socialise in areas with poor accessibility. Moreover, cities are losing out on economic benefits from inaccessibility-– the ‘purple pound’ (signifying the spending power of disabled tourists) was estimated to be worth around £250bn in the UK pre-pandemic.

Whilst disabled access is rising in prioritisation amongst city and transport planning, there is undoubtedly still a long way to go in many cities. But there are also some good examples of cities taking action to make their spaces accessible to all.

Opening up Chester’s ancient streets

The first British city to win the coveted European Access City Award, Chester is now regarded as the UK’s most accessible city. Famous for its Roman heritage, the city pledged to make its many tourist sites fully accessible for disabled people–a sizeable challenge, considering the city’s ancient streets and medieval walls.

Chester has implemented fully accessible, wide passageways with tactile paving and added handrails above the walls and famous Chester Rows, which were previously only accessible by steps. Narrow and secluded walkways have now been connected by 17 wheelchair access points. In addition, there are disabled access focused tours, access guides, signs and online information platforms.

Transport has been revamped, as council policy requires all public buses and licensed taxis to have wheelchair access, induction loops and colour-contrast handles. The council has also committed to including a specifically designed Changing Places toilet in all new developments, adding to the numerous facilities already deployed in busy spots.

The successful implementation of an extensive access plan has not been quick, but is rather the results of Cheshire West and Chester Council’s long-term commitment to improving disability inclusion. The council has had a designated access officer since 1991 and a disability forum of 16 organisations that actively promote accessibility in new developments – such as the multi-million pound Storyhouse arts centre that has received accolades for its standard of access.

Chester’s award has seen the city become a model to other city governments from across the world, who are now visiting the city for inspiration. “We’ve had them from Dublin to Israel, they want to see how it’s done”, says Graham Garnett, Chester’s previous access officer.

Accessible route mapping in Seattle

Primarily designed for commuters in vehicles, most online routing maps can be unhelpful for people with limited mobility, lacking detail on hills, steep kerbs and access points. Aiming to rectify this, however, is the University of Washington’s Taskar Center for Accessible Technology, who have designed the AccessMap platform for the hilly city of Seattle.

AccessMap allows users to receive tailored routes dependent on customised preferences, such as only showing sloped pavements or limiting the incline of streets. As platforms such as Google Maps currently don’t take such factors into account, AccessMap will provide the user with an alternative route that is not based upon journey time or distance, but rather on safety and ease of access.

The map even uses recent data from the Seattle Department of Transportation to accommodate for real-world conditions on pedestrian pathways, such as a construction site or potentially hazardous surface conditions. In addition, the developers are aiming to turn the platform into an open street map, where users and volunteers can create up-to-date entries about the conditions they encounter.

The research team behind the project want to use their development to provide the toolkits and instructions to create similar maps in other cities. They have identified 10 urban areas in the US with the potential to replicate successful platforms, such as New York, Boston and San Francisco.

Final thoughts

Chester’s motivation in becoming fully accessible is exemplary of a city that is leading the way in disability inclusion, ensuring that it is inherent to city government planning. Likewise, the mapping project in Seattle shows how alternative tools can enhance the experiences of disabled people.

But although these examples are encouraging, they are exceptions. As long as planners fail to acknowledge the needs of people with disabilities, most of our cities will remain, in effect, no-go areas for a substantial section of society.


Further reading: more on diversity and inclusion from The Knowledge Exchange Blog:

Could recent backlash crash the not-so-smart city?

In May 2020, Google-affiliated Sidewalk Labs abruptly cancelled its smart city vision for Toronto’s waterfront, citing that “unprecedented economic uncertainty” created by the pandemic had made the project unachievable.

Named ‘Quayside’, the venture proposed a 12-acre development of sleek apartments and neighbourhood amenities that heavily incorporated data and technology into urban design and residents’ daily living.

Including an underground delivery system and ice-melting heated roads, the futuristic plan aimed to turn Toronto into the world’s first truly ‘smart city’.

Yet, the Quayside development faced fierce criticism before it could even get underway.

Planned for the heart of the development was the harvesting of an extensive flow of data, amassed by studying millions of residents’ daily movements through sensor-laden streets and buildings.

However, critics saw a darker side to Sidewalk Labs, fearing that residents’ data would be stored and used by Google. Such fears only intensified after a series of publicised data breaches at Big Tech companies.

US businessman Roger McNamee described the project as “the most highly evolved version to date of surveillance capitalism”, warning that Google would use “algorithms to nudge human behaviour” for corporate interests.

Despite Sidewalk’s assurances that the data collected wouldn’t be shared with third parties, Toronto city council members began to voice official concerns. A National Research Council report stated that Canada was in danger of becoming a “data cow” for foreign tech companies.

After years of a controversial public debacle that played out in court rooms and street protests, the proposals were eventually abandoned altogether.

An industry slowing down

The story of Quayside’s defeat perhaps has greater implications for the future of smart city culture. Toronto has coincided with numerous high-profile examples of downscaling in grand smart city projects across the world, such as Songdo in South Korea and the ill-famed Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.

In fact, the overall trend of the smart city sector is declining, as the regions with the most smart-city deployments have seen large drop-offs in new developments. For instance, the number of new projects in Europe increased year-on-year to a peak of 43 in 2016- yet fell to just 17 in 2020.

Likewise, data suggests that the major suppliers to government smart city projects have considerably weakened their influence on the sector. Since 2016, companies such as Cisco Systems, Vodafone and Telensa have greatly reduced the number of new developments that they are undertaking, whilst there are numerous examples of backtracking throughout the industry.

In late 2020, Cisco Systems announced that the company was scrapping its flagship smart-city software altogether. Such instances suggest at least a slowing down in production ventures or perhaps even a full-on shift in company priorities.

So, why is the smart city bandwagon beginning to falter?

Not ‘smart’ enough post-pandemic?

Whilst the privacy backlash movement that finished off Quayside is exemplary of existing privacy concerns before Covid-19, the pandemic may have further compounded the barriers faced by the smart city.

The hard-hitting financial implications and uncertainties created by the pandemic have presumably put ambitious smart city projects on the back burner, as city governments re-align their priorities towards economic recovery.

They’ve [smart city technology providers] all seen the challenges and the opportunities in this pandemic moment, says Nigel Jacob, co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, a civic-innovation research lab in Boston. “I think they are still struggling and looking at their product portfolio and looking to see what value they can add. I do think the field has shifted.“

Jacob suggests that the pre-Covid landscape of smart city promotion has ultimately shifted, a viewpoint that is echoed throughout the industry. Many believe that the pandemic has forced city governments and citizens to re-evaluate their priorities of what needs to be achieved through urban areas.

David Bicknell, principal thematic analyst for GlobalData, arguesSmart cities had their time. They are no longer about glossy, sensor-driven metropolises.“  He adds, “The impact of the pandemic and climate change now means smart cities cannot just be ‘smart’ – they must be resilient and sustainable, too.”

It could be argued that there is now a greater focus for citizens in creating tangible outcomes in their communities on the key issues of climate change, health and social equity.

Whilst the potential for technology to contribute to driving change in these areas is undoubted, the idea that a smart city business model should just be about the city getting smarter is difficult to uphold in the landscape of post-pandemic finances.

With the exception of climate change issues, the traditional smart city does not look to tackle the big issues that have really been reinforced by the pandemic, Jacob argues.

Privacy concerns here to stay

The pandemic also introduced a new array of concerns surrounding data collection. Contact tracing apps, biometric vaccine passports and temperature scanning as a condition to entering premises have added fuel to the fire of privacy issues that people are now encountering.

Added to this, some academics worry that whilst these technologies have been accepted into day-to-day life under unprecedented measures, it leaves open the possibility of such platforms being manipulated for more sinister purposes in the future.

And, with the numerous high profile legal cases surrounding Facebook, Amazon and Google’s privacy policies now regular features in the media, the public is certainly more aware in its understanding of privacy issues since the Quayside story.

Final Thoughts

Despite how strongly opposed many residents were to the Toronto Quayside development, it is clear that the integration of sensors, scanners and cameras into city living is here to stay. And there are undoubted benefits of smart technologies that are already evident in cities throughout the world- from intelligent LED street lighting to data-driven traffic control systems.

However, for the potential of smart technologies to be truly realised and accepted by the public, the smart city must be re-aligned to fit the privacy conscious post-pandemic world.


Further reading: more about smart cities on The Knowledge Exchange Blog

Breaking barriers and engaging with future planners

A recent survey by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) in July 2021 aimed to gauge UK public awareness of the planning profession. The results suggested a significant disconnect between the public perception of planning, the scope of professions in the industry and the impact that planning has on society.

While 73% of respondents claimed to understand the job description of planners, only 32% recognised that planning can support future recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and only 37% believed that planning can influence the wider issues of climate change and the environment.

Victoria Hills, chief executive of the RTPI called the results ‘shocking’. However, they are perhaps the consequence of inclusivity challenges that the planning sector has failed to address for a number of decades.

Equality in the planning sector

Historically, the profession has been notorious for being dominated by middle-aged and older men. While an increasing number of younger women joined the profession in the 1990s and 2000s, recent years have seen a reversing trend away from the progress made towards gender equality in the sector.

Likewise, the number of overall students choosing to embark on planning-related degrees has remained low, despite there being a high demand for planning professionals. A town planning degree is in the top four postgraduate subjects for employability within six months of graduation and poses a respectable average starting salary, suggesting young people are being deterred for reasons beyond career motivations.

Overcoming the obstacles

So why are young people so seemingly disengaged with planning and how can barriers be broken?

Helen Hayes, a former town planner and the current Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, believes one glaring issue is the urgent need for a more diverse workforce in the profession. It is not just about needing an influx of numbers; people entering the profession need to be from all sections of society.

Only an estimated 2% of UK town planning officers are under 25 and just 19% are aged 25-34. As for ethnicity, 97% of planning officers are white.

Moreover, the 2020 RTPI Women and Planning research paper found that the majority of female respondents had faced gender related barriers to professional advancement in planning, and that workplaces overwhelmingly reflect ‘masculine’ cultures and norms of behaviour.

In recent years, the RTPI has committed to a long-term strategy to address diversity issues and entered a partnership with the BAME Planners Network. Initiatives such as these are welcomed but it is argued that they need to be supported by educational measures in diverse schools and universities.

In a 2015 issue of The Planner magazine, young professionals working in the industry were asked for their views of how to successfully engage young people with the planning profession. An obvious theme was to improve young people’s understanding of planning as a known career –  teaching them to associate it with places, shaping the everyday and solving commonplace issues.

Raising awareness: not just home extensions

Those within the industry believe that there is a concerning lack of awareness of how planning as a discipline is related to a wide remit of shared issues in society, from building valued places to solving the housing crisis and tackling climate change. “Planning needs to be properly championed. Ask a young person about what planning means and they think about home extensions and dormer windows”, says Rupy Sandhu, one of the young planners featured in the issue.

Helen Hayes further emphasises the issue, saying: The young people I speak to have an excellent grasp of local issues, and a passion to make a difference. But for the most part they have no idea that their knowledge and interest could, with training, translate into a rewarding career as a planner”.

It is perhaps evident that young people are passionate about such issues, but they need to be empowered.

Routes into planning

In The Planner’s Career Survey 2018/19, an overwhelming majority of respondents suggested offering more work experience placements and attending colleges and schools to be the most effective vehicles for engaging young people.

There is increasing attention to offering alternative routes into the planning profession outside of going to university. The RTPI currently offers a chartered town planning apprenticeship and a town planning assistant apprenticeship. Local councils are increasing the number of town planning apprenticeships at their organisations and private planning firms are also known for offering apprenticeships and work experience.

For instance, private firm Barton Willmore engaged with University of West of England Bristol students looking for new ideas through live planning challenges, leading to students later joining the firm on placements and work experience. The notion of ‘inviting in by reaching out’ is certainly a viable and rewarding route for both students and planning organisations, creating long-standing professional relationships.

The RTPI facilitates an ambassadors scheme which offers RTPI members the chance to speak at schools and universities about the planning profession, and the RTPI Trust also offers bursaries such as £2,000 of support to BAME and disabled undergraduate planning students.

Final thoughts

Taking a step back from the low-level engagement of young people with the profession, there is an argument that true representation will not be achieved unless there is an agenda for the reform of the top-down nature of the planning system and its practices.

Helen Hayes suggests that there should be a removal of the red tape and needless bureaucracy” in moving towards transparent and well-informed decision making, in which the views of diverse communities and groups should be reflected.

Perhaps genuine engagement and consultation with under-represented groups, such as young people, will help to inspire a new generation of planners to enter a progressive and equitable profession.

Image: Photo by Brandon Nelson on Unsplash


Further reading: more about the planning profession on The Knowledge Exchange Blog

Introducing the Scottish Planning and Environmental Law (SPEL) Journal

The Knowledge Exchange publishes a bi-monthly journal covering all aspects of planning and environmental law in Scotland. SPEL Journal (Scottish Planning & Environmental Law) launched over 30 years ago and is one of the leading information sources on land use planning and environmental legislation across the country.

Recent issues of SPEL have included responses and comment on the draft NPF4 as well as articles focusing on other key policy and practice areas:

  • The failure of planning guidance to reflect the impact of noise on wildlife
  • National development planning for Scotland’s rural areas
  • The draft NPF4, energy and the move to net zero
  • The Scottish Government’s onshore wind policy review
  • Access to justice in environmental litigation, and non-compliance in Scotland’s civil justice system with the Aarhus Convention

Key court cases examined recently in the journal include:

  • R v The Environment Agency – Pollution harmful to a vulnerable child
  • Greenpeace Ltd v The Advocate General – Unsuccessful challenge to oil field exploitation consent
  • North Lowther Energy Initative Ltd v The Scottish Ministers – Wind farm approval challenge
  • Cosmopolitan Hotels Ltd v Renfrewshire Council – Procedures for challenges to the validity of proposed local development plans
  • Trees for Life v NatureScot – Quashing of beaver culling licences

A journal of record

SPEL was launched in 1980 as ‘Scottish Planning Law & Practice’, to be a journal of record of Scottish planning. When it became apparent that the emerging field of environmental law was strongly linked to land use planning, the name of our journal changed to reflect this.

Written by a wide range of subject experts, SPEL Journal includes accessible commentary on topical subjects and current issues; details of new legislation and significant court cases; expert comment on key planning appeal decisions, government circulars and guidance; as well as notes about ombudsman cases and book reviews.

A widely read and valued resource

SPEL Journal is read by decision makers in Scottish planning authorities, planning law practices, planning consultancies, architects, surveyors, civil engineers, environmental managers and developers across Scotland. It is also valued by many practitioners outside of Scotland who need to keep abreast of developments.

An annual subscription to SPEL Journal is £170. For further details or a sample copy, please contact Heather Cameron on 03330111542 or email heather.cameron@Idoxgroup.com.

NPF4: a new prioritisation of the environment through planning?

The Scottish Government published the fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) draft for consultation on the 10th November 2021. Titled ‘Scotland 2045’, the eagerly awaited document outlines Scotland’s strategic approach to planning and land use to 2045, coinciding with the government’s ambitious target of transitioning towards a net-zero society by the same year. Now combined with the Local Development Plans (LDPs), it is a critical publication that will inform future planning proposals for Scotland over the next quarter of a century.

A plan of four parts

NPF4 is an extensive planning framework and it is impossible to fully review the 130 page document in a short post. However, it is made up of four key parts:

  • A National Spatial Strategy which sets out the four fundamental overarching themes which future development will aim to reflect and achieve. This is a vision for the creation of sustainable, liveable, productive and distinctive places.
  • 18 National Developments of ‘national importance’ that are proposed to support the delivery of the spatial strategy across the country. These include developments such as a Central Scotland Green Network, Urban Mass/Rapid Transit Network and Island Hubs for Net-Zero
  • 35 National Planning Policies for development and land use to be applied in the preparation of development plans, local place plans and development briefs; and for the determination of planning consents.
  • Delivering the Spatial Strategy through key delivery mechanisms such as aligning resources to targeting investment and an infrastructure first approach.

What does NPF4 include on climate change?

The transition towards a net-zero society through sustainable development is a cornerstone of the draft NPF4. In fact, the wider issues of climate change, decarbonisation, biodiversity loss and nature-based solutions are firmly rooted throughout many of the strategy’s policies.

Policy 2 is dedicated to climate change. It lays out a new requirement for all development proposals to give significant weight to the Global Climate Emergency as planning authorities are to carefully consider every development’s future implications for the climate.

It states that all developments should be designed to minimise emissions in alignment with the national decarbonisation targets and that proposals that do generate significant emissions should not be supported, unless the applicant provides evidence that the level of emissions is the minimum that can be achieved.

Tom Arthur, Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth, has highlighted the requirement of giving ‘significant weight’ to climate emissions as a crucial feature within the framework for facilitating future sustainable development.

There is an undoubted sense of prioritisation of the climate emergency within the draft NPF4, as well as recognition of the planning authorities’ role in reducing emissions that was not so evident in previous iterations.

However, the draft concept of ‘significant weight’ remains a loose term that could become open to uncertainty – especially with the wide variety of developments it will apply to in practice. Despite the draft NPF4 illustrating that evidence of minimum emissions is required in certain instances – such as carbon intensive proposals – it remains unclear what this translates to in more typical housing developments, for example.

A host of other policies are also relevant to climate. Policy 19 on green energy states that local development plans should “ensure that an area’s full potential for electricity and heat from renewable sources is achieved”, whilst all forms of renewable energy and low-carbon solutions should also be supported. This includes support for the extension and creation of new wind farms.

Another marked difference from previous iterations of the NPF is the inclusion of ‘20 minute neighbourhoods’ as a viable approach to low-carbon urban living. A key principle of Policy 7 on local living, it is mentioned 18 times throughout NPF4 – making it one of the most prominently used phrases in the document.

Nature and biodiversity loss

As well as acknowledging the climate emergency, the draft NPF4 is clear in its identification of a ‘nature crisis’ in Scotland that is being aggravated by urbanisation:

“Our approach to planning and development will also play a critical role in supporting nature restoration and recovery. Global declines in biodiversity are mirrored here in Scotland with urbanisation recognised as a key pressure. We will need to invest in nature-based solutions to mitigate climate change whilst also addressing biodiversity loss, so we can safeguard the natural systems on which our economy, health and wellbeing depend.“

Policy 3 is dedicated to promoting nature recovery, and again there is a heightened focus on this issue now compared to previous strategies. It states that development proposals should “facilitate biodiversity enhancement, nature recovery and nature restoration“, whilst the potential adverse impacts of development should be minimised as a priority.

Likewise, major development proposals or those where an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is needed should only be approved where it is concluded that the proposal “will conserve and enhance biodiversity, including nature networks within and adjacent to the site, so that they are in a demonstrably better state than without intervention”.

Further areas of importance with regard to nature preservation include the use of ‘nature-based solutions’, which is used in accordance with the spatial strategies, several of the national developments and planning policies.

In some instances, specific examples of nature-based solutions are provided – such as the impressive Central Scotland Green Network national development, which includes a nature-network approach to water management with sustainable drainage solutions in Glasgow and Edinburgh. However, it could be argued that the draft lacks an abundance of smaller scale examples of nature-based solutions, in the practicalities of more routine planning developments.

Moreover, Policy 33 on soils aims to give peatlands greater protection and restoration. The draft states that development upon peatland and carbon rich soils should not be supported unless for meeting essential criteria, whilst “local development plans should actively protect locally, regionally, nationally and internationally valued soils“.

What’s next for NPF4?

The consultation period for NPF4 is well underway, with the Scottish Government inviting feedback and scrutiny on the document until 31st March 2022. The draft is subject to several parliamentary committees engaging with planning stakeholders and the general public.

Committees are encouraging demographic groups who do not typically engage with planning matters – such as young people and the elderly – to take part in NPF4, underlining the desire for more inclusive involvement in planning decision-making.

Following the declaration of a national climate emergency, the announcement of world-leading decarbonisation targets and the hosting of COP26 in Glasgow last November, NPF4 certainly provides a starting vision for how environmental targets will translate into action through planning.


Further reading: more on planning and the environment from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

Follow us on Twitter to find out what topic areas are interesting our research team

Geographical Information Systems: mapping our ever-changing world

Location data in today’s economy is as important as coal and iron were during the industrial revolution. Using location data – information about the location and movement of people collected from mobile and wearable devices – the essential relationships between geography and consumer experiences, products and services can be identified. This can open up many new business opportunities.

So it’s not surprising that geographical information systems (GIS) – the technology that helps visualise and interrogate location data is experiencing rapid growth. It’s estimated that the UK market for location information products and services is over £2,000 million, while the global market size for GIS is expected to reach $25.6 billion by 2030. Recognising this trend, Idox (the parent company of The Knowledge Exchange) recently acquired two GIS businesses: thinkWhere and exeGesIS Spatial Data Management Ltd.

The power of GIS

As the name suggests, geography is at the heart of GIS. From variations in our landscape to changes in our climate, covering areas of life as varied as crime, health and pollution, GIS can help visualise trends that affect all of us. GIS can also help us to adapt to our ever-changing world. For example, GIS maps that display which areas are prone to flooding can be invaluable when planning new housing developments.

Some of the factors driving the increasing application of GIS include its use in urban planning, disaster management, transport management and the development of smart cities. The coronavirus pandemic has also accelerated the rapid growth of GIS. Governments around the world have adopted the technology to map the spread of the disease and evaluate measures to limit its advance.

GIS in action

Idox’s two new acquisitions have considerable experience of real-world GIS applications.

Working with land and property information firm Millar & Bryce, thinkWhere developed a customised version of its flagship groundMapper platform. The solution enabled Millar & Bryce to bundle all documentation pertinent to a project and publish it to a web viewer, reducing a one week process to 48 hours. Because they can make more informed decisions faster, Millar & Bryce have now made groundMapper the centerpiece of its new Site Assembly Solutions service, giving the company a distinctive selling point in a competitive market for land referencing.

thinkWhere has also applied its expertise to help Bucchleuch Estates easily capture, maintain and communicate their land and property assets and associated information such as documents, photos, drawings and reports. And when constructing a new bypass around the city of Aberdeen, Balfour Beatty was significantly helped by thinkWhere, which provided universal access to mapping and environmental data for all stakeholders — not just on the construction side, but also in legal firms, the government and transport authorities.

Similarly, exeGesIS has developed a strong reputation for its range of GIS focused software products, particularly in the field of environmental data.  Among its success stories, exeGesIS has built a web platform for the National Street Gazetteer, which provides essential information for local government, highway authorities and contractors on more than a million streets in England and Wales. The company has also developed a GIS to help local authorities in Scotland monitor litter and fly-tipping incidents, and worked with JNCC – which advises government on nature conservation – to create a new mapping system to display marine spatial data. In addition, exeGesIS  has worked with numerous local authorities, universities and charities to help them visualise and interrogate important information in interactive and imaginative ways.

Dynamic data for an ever-changing world

By uncovering patterns and relationships, GIS is providing organisations in almost every field of activity with the support to gain deeper insight into data, solve complex problems and make smarter decisions. Both thinkwhere and exeGesIS will continue helping to explain how our world works, and identifying ways to make it work better.

Image: thinkwhere


Further reading: more on digital technologies from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team this week.

Guest post | Mixing it up in Midtown Tampa

IMG_6443.jpg

Midtown Tampa is the kind of instant city that 20 years ago I would’ve raved about. It’s another great example of The Urban Experiment.

This is a mixed-use, walkable development that has been created out of whole cloth west of downtown, near the airport. It’s a sort of second generation version of these types of projects, and measurably better than the first generation.

Before I describe it further, though, it’s interesting to trace a brief history of apartment communities in the US.

Not long ago, not far away

In America, renting an apartment has been a choice of a minority of households since the New Deal incentivized home ownership. About 1/3 of households today are renters, though early in the twentieth century it was close to 2/3. I won’t comment on if that was good or bad policy. It’s just to note the context, note the incentives and how we’ve changed.

Apartments were most commonly rented in small buildings in that previous era. They were the Missing Middle types so often discussed, and highlighted very well by Dan Parolek of Opticos Design. Yes, there were larger buildings as well, and a wide variety of SROs, apartment hotels and boarding houses. But most of what housed people were ancillary apartments, duplexes, triple-deckers, fourplexes, etc etc. This was very common for middle-class people, virtually all over America.

As we became wealthy, single family ownership became all the rage, egged on by financing incentives and regulatory changes (zoning). At the same time, larger capital flows became more dominant in real estate, and the nature of apartment living began to change. Apartments increasingly were built in larger “complexes” of 100 or 200 units all at one time in one location. In order to make apartment living an attractive alternative to home ownership, and not just for the poor or those without choices, developers began adding “amenities” such as pools and common green spaces. Those were the sorts of things not even contemplated in the “Missing Middle” era. Back then, an apartment was just a place to live in a neighbourhood, no different than the house next door or around the corner. The “amenities” were often in public parks.

As time went on, the arms race for amenities ramped up. Soon were added fitness centres, spas, covered parking, valet services and more. Newer apartment complexes today are often touted as “luxury apartments.” In addition to the amenities, they also tout granite counter-tops, stainless steel appliances and whirlpool tubs in the units. Going after the renter by choice market has necessitated this push to go ever more upscale and out-class the competition. That’s not surprising, it’s just a certain element of markets and competition at work.

The walkability factor

Now enter the 2000s, and the slow but noticeably growing interest in urban living. In some cities, the newly thriving commercial districts, walkable to many apartments, became a new, sexy amenity. Many smaller developers smartly capitalized on this with renovations of historic buildings, loft conversions and some new urban infill. They helped create an urban market that had some of the new amenities renters (and some home owners) were looking for. Their buildings didn’t have pools or covered parking, but they had cool bars and restaurants to walk to, art galleries, lively streets and more things that appeal to a certain part of the population.

The folks who deploy big investment capital naturally noticed this change. And they didn’t want to miss out on the trend. For over a decade, every healthy market has seen an influx of large “luxury apartment” buildings of about 200 units in urban areas, complete with all the amenities they’re used to providing in suburban locations. You guessed it – the pool, the fitness center, covered parking, etc etc.

Again, I’m not passing judgment. This is simply an example of how development happens in modern America. In many cases, these larger entities deploy tens of millions of dollars to buy and upgrade buildings, build new ones and create portfolios of hundreds and hundreds of apartments. It’s very smart business. Some of the end results can be excellent, some very mediocre, but nearly all have been well received in the marketplace. Urbanist snobs like me might ask questions, but clearly the people renting the apartments are responding positively.

Enter Midtown Tampa

Midtown Tampa is simply another in the latest version of this phenomenon. It’s a brand new place, by different accounts, either 12 or 30 years in the making.

The apartments are very well appointed, the amenities are first-class. It also includes fantastic eating and drinking options, some retail, a Whole Foods and new office space. It truly is an “instant city” in the sense it has so much of what someone might need as part of a daily or weekly routine in one compact location. Despite the Florida heat, you can walk from your apartment indoors to the gym, where you can work out in perfect air conditioned comfort. This is the new, 21st century apartment complex.

Midtown has the trendiest new bar in town, and it looks like the kind of place I’d enjoy spending too much time in. It has a “signature scent.” Yes, that’s actually a thing. It’s not a cheap place at all, and not intended to be. The rents are about $3 per square foot. That’s the top of the market in Tampa, and in many similar markets in the US. You can do the math on what a simple, 900 square foot two bedroom apartment costs.

Everything in this development is impeccably managed. They do everything well that our cities do poorly. Trash and cleanliness, security, parking, and public space management are all incredibly well thought-through and executed. It gives people who advocate for privatization of city governance great ammunition.

So again, I’m not saying this is BAD. I think there’s much to admire and like. It’s just that this is another example of how we only produce this kind of development now. It’s either large single-family subdivisions on the edge of the city, or mega-investment “instant cities.” There’s nothing in between. It’s not just that the Missing Middle buildings are often zoned out of existence, it’s that the entire ecosystem of finance, acquisition, construction and more seems to make it virtually impossible to do again.

There’s no space in our system for the kind of change that gave us Chicago, or even my city. The professionalization of everything has created this predicament where the entire system pushes for bigger and more complicated projects and efforts of all kinds. This is not a “find a magic policy” problem. It’s the direct result of decades of policy, all made with good intentions and responding to constituents, but quietly damaging our systems piece by piece.

This isn’t healthy for our cities, and it’s especially not healthy for a democratic society. In this system, there seems to be little opportunity for people to build for themselves, to build wealth for themselves, and create the kinds of “messy” places that urbanists like myself most admire. The only option is to do it “sub-rosa” as Johnny Sanphillipo would say. And he’s right. That’s exactly what happens in the real world, often outside the view of the local authorities.

I have no objection to Midtown Tampa at all. In fact, it’s quite well done in many ways. But this simply cannot be the only solution to the development of our cities. We’ve got to unleash the swarm, as I like to say, or else all the current problems we fret about will only get worse.

Kevin Klinkenberg has worked as an urban designer, architect and planner. His blog – The Messy City – looks at ways to use urban design and development to make people’s lives healthier, wealthier and happier.

Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on urban development

Decarbonising our buildings: heat pumps or hydrogen for the future of heating?

In October, the Scottish Government released the Heat in Buildings Strategy: Achieving Net Zero Emissions in Scotland’s Buildings. The strategy presents the approach to achieving the target for net zero emissions from Scotland’s buildings by 2045 and is a key component of the government’s ambitious climate change targets for wider society.

In the same month, the UK Government also unveiled its eagerly awaited Heat and Buildings Strategy. This includes similarly inspired aims, such as the phasing out of all new fossil fuel based heating system installations by 2035.

The coinciding release of the strategies means that the journey to decarbonisation is gradually becoming clearer to the consumer. Both governments have indicated their ambitions to make housing greener.

However, they also recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all to decarbonising the tens of millions of homes with mains gas boilers. This transition will be hugely complex, most likely requiring multiple technologies and approaches.

Industry contest heating up

The major players in the UK’s domestic heating industry – believed to be worth an estimated £17 billion – are already moving to secure their role in line with the new government plans and commitments.

In the future, there will be little place for the out-of-favour gas boiler. Traditional boiler manufacturers are aiming to evolve and align their products for long-term security,  whilst the manufacturers of technologies in their infancy, such as heat pumps, are presented with an opportunity to reform the industry for good.

It’s led to the cottage heat pump industry facing off against the established big gas companies’ development of hydrogen ready gas boilers.

Heat pumps the main contender

Whilst no quick fix technology is currently available to replace boilers, heat pumps are undoubtedly a viable frontrunner. The electric devices are steadily growing in government promotion and consumer popularity, as sales more than doubled in 2021 to give the industry its best ever year.

And, as a key feature of the Heat and Buildings Strategy, homeowners in England and Wales will be offered subsidies of up to £5,000 from April 2022 as an incentive to convert their gas boiler to a heat pump.

Heat pumps extract energy from a lower temperature source such as the ground or air and increase it to an appropriate temperature for a heat source in the home – via a compressor and a circulating structure of liquid or gas refrigerant. This heat can either be directly blown into the property or transferred into the central heating and hot water systems.

The selling point of heat pumps is their potential to greatly reduce carbon emissions if they are powered by low carbon electricity, which much of the UK now is. A new air source heat pump can lower a home’s carbon emissions by over 23 tonnes over 10 years.

Whilst relatively novel, the technology behind air source heat pumps is well established with evident positives. They are typically safer than combustion systems, have a very long lifespan with little maintenance and can double up as an air conditioner during the summer months.

Despite the UK Government and Climate Change Committee (CCC) pushing heat pumps as a blueprint for decarbonising, they are not free of concerns and complications.

Heat pumps are expensive to buy and install upfront and, similarly to boilers, the cost can vary. According to the Energy Saving Trust, an air source heat pump will generally cost around £3,000- £4,000 for an average sized house pre-installation and around £7,000-£13,000 installed – raising concerns about affordability and the average consumer’s willingness to go green.

They are, however, very efficient once installed. With an average efficiency of 250%-350%, a heat pump is likely to save you money, compared to an old gas and oil-fired boiler or electric heating. In well-insulated homes, heating bill savings of as much as 60% can be achieved.

Sufficient insulation is a critical pre-requisite to heat pump success. Commenting on the release of the Heat and Buildings Strategy, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas described placing heat pumps in Britain’s poorly insulated homes as like “using a teapot full of cracks: its leaky, its inefficient and it’s a waste of money.“

The UK’s housing stock is among the most poorly insulated in Europe and the current insulation of an ageing stock, like Glasgow’s Victorian tenements, poses a real barrier to the mass roll-out of heat pumps. Whilst heat pumps are suitable for older properties, consumers will need to commit to a considerable amount of insulation upgrades and home disruption to realise their benefits.

Hydrogen

An intriguing alternative that is in the developmental stages to replace gas is the use of hydrogen, the most abundant element in the natural world.

Hydrogen is already being heavily researched as a fossil fuel alternative in transport, and support for its role in heating is growing in popularity.

A study by the Institution of Engineers and Technology (IET) found that there is no clear reason as to why hydrogen gas cannot be seriously considered as a clean and safe alternative on the UK grid. Similar to heat pumps, hydrogen has the potential to be entirely renewable with no carbon emissions.

Hydrogen is also attractive as it requires minimal disruption in terms of new appliances and installation in the home. Consumers would use a hydrogen ready boiler that works almost identically to a traditional boiler. Likewise, the UK’s existing gas pipe system is well placed to make the switch due to the ongoing systematic replacement of old, unsuitable iron pipes over the last 20 years.

However, creating a new national network of hydrogen supply to the country’s homes would be a monumental and extremely expensive challenge that has never been done before. Concerns also exist around the extraction of hydrogen at this scale, as it is likely to be extracted from methane.

The extraction process emits carbon emissions which must be contained and stored through carbon capturing. Carbon capture projects of this scale do not currently exist and the idea is still under development, raising concerns around greenhouse gas emissions as a by-product of hydrogen extraction.

Final Thoughts

It is clear that the challenge of reducing building emissions is no longer just about grand intentions and targets. Whilst these are important to commit to, focus must now turn to ironing out the practicalities of how these will be achieved.

At the moment, the only established technology able to deliver clean heating is the heat pump. Yet, the UK has the worst heat pump sales and second worst installation record in Europe for a country its size. Technology such as hydrogen has potential but is still in the very early stages with many unknowns.

The UK must speed up investment in these industries to meet ambitious targets, with more detail, support and incentives for consumers.


Further reading: more on energy efficiency and decarbonisation from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

Grey to green: can green spaces create equity and wellbeing in post-COVID cities?

As 2021 draws to an end, much of the world is slowly emerging towards post-pandemic life. Focus is shifting from response to recovery. Governments, activists and academics are arguing for a green recovery – a one-off opportunity to truly incorporate climate change objectives, sustainability and equity into future development.

Cities served as the frontline to the pandemic and will continue to do so in efforts to transition towards a sustainable recovery. Building the cities of the future was the focus of a recent NESTA webinar in conversation with Daisy Narayanan, Senior Manager of Placemaking and Mobility at the City of Edinburgh Council. It highlighted the importance of creating urban environments that put people first for healthy, safe and sustainable communities.

Opportunities for cities

Narayanan argued that positives can be taken from COVID-19, as it inspired collaboration across sectors and communities whilst proving the responsiveness and adaptability of traditional systems. She believes that this mindset should be harnessed going forward to facilitate meaningful changes and progression within our cities for everyone.

Describing herself as a ‘relentless optimist’, she stated, “I think there is something about this moment in time where there is a real kind of desire to move forward, in a way that changes how things used to be, into what things need to be or should be. I think there is a lot of excitement around shaping that together.”

Narayanan went on to talk about the opportunities she sees for transforming our public spaces with collaboration across planning, transport and economic development. She is excited by the potential of concepts such as the ‘20-minute neighbourhood’ and its growing presence within city planning around the world and in her own city of Edinburgh.

More broadly, she is excited that citizens are recognising the importance of living well locally and that community wellbeing should be inherent to placemaking.

The inequality of green space

Whilst positives can be drawn from collaboration during the pandemic, it also magnified how divisive our cities’ environmental issues can be. Pollution, congestion and dwindling green spaces compounded the health and social challenges for many of those living in urban areas.

With most inside amenities forced to close during periods of lockdown, city dwellers turned to parks for exercise and socialising in unprecedented numbers. However, urban green spaces proved to be unequal in distribution. Socioeconomic status is the most likely determinant to green space accessibility and quality, and access is typically limited to the more scenic neighbourhoods with higher average incomes.

The benefits of urban green spaces to an individual’s health and wellbeing are well documented, with associations between the presence of green spaces, greater quality of life and decreased risk of excess mortality. There is growing research suggesting that city populations without the provision of green spaces in the UK had typically higher instances of mental health issues, such as COVID-related anxiety and isolation.

Of course, the provision of green spaces is only one of a number of factors highlighted in discussions around equalities, health and well-being in urban areas. However, the pandemic exposed the barriers to accessing the potential value provided by such spaces which could continue to reinforce inequalities.

Can a green integrated approach to transforming our cities tackle inequality and promote wellness in the post-COVID city?

Lessons from Milan’s green placemaking

During the webinar, Narayanan briefly touched upon how Milan is a commendable example of a city making really big changes to its public spaces for the benefit of its citizens.

The city has impressive commitments for using nature-based solutions to increase resilience towards future environmental and health crises, whilst stimulating an equity-based approach to tackling climate change.

The Mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala, committed his city to green urbanism before the pandemic and has since campaigned for efforts to be increased due to the unequal challenges created in cities.

He stated, “The green and just recovery that is needed to create more sustainable and healthier cities sees urban nature as a key element for building back better I have been clear that any recovery in my city, in Italy and for Europe, must be rooted in these principles of equity and climate action.

Sala aims to plant three million trees across Milan by 2030 to tackle climate change and to halt the trend of deteriorating air quality. At the core of this strategy is the transformation of derelict land in deprived neighbourhoods into 20 high quality urban parks.

The city government is providing for residents to have trees planted in their private gardens and upon flat rooftops, whilst greenery is being incorporated into car parks and on the sides of office blocks.

Integrating green spaces, food supply and equity, the city’s growing number of community gardens and allotments are often situated upon apartment block rooftops. Residents can grow and collect food whilst local restaurants are encouraged to use ingredients from the nearby streets. Locals have also lauded the social spaces that these gardens have become, as users can collaborate and educate each other through gardening.

Perhaps the most symbolic project in Milan’s transition is the Bosco Verticale or ‘Vertical Forest’- two residential apartment blocks which have been almost completely covered with trees, perennials and shrubbery. Designed by architect Stefano Boeri, the 80m and 112m high buildings have the equivalent vegetation of 30,000 square metres worth of woodland upon only 3,000 square metres of concrete.

Consisting of hundreds of plant species of various shapes and colours, the project is a popular, living landmark throughout the year. Not only an appealing addition to the Milan skyline, the urban vegetation has been a remarkable success – lowering temperatures, encouraging 20 new bird species into the area and absorbing 30 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year.

The towers demonstrate the multiple benefits that can be achieved from small-scale integrated approaches to increasing green spaces. The concept is already being replicated in cities around the world.

If successful, it is believed that Milan’s vast increase in vegetation has the potential to absorb an additional five million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, whilst significantly decreasing the presence of pollutant particles in the air associated with cancer and respiratory diseases.

Concluding thoughts

Milan’s transformation is exemplary of a city that is learning from previous vulnerabilities, using urban space to directly promote citizen wellbeing whilst tackling climate change.

As Narayanan argues, all cities now have the opportunity to put people’s needs and wellbeing at the centre of future urban spaces. Whilst citizens and authorities often both want to achieve attractive, sustainable and healthy places, she argues that citizen voices get lost in consultation.

As a step to progressing away from this, she says: “Consultations should be more like conversations. Discussions need to be done respectfully, evidence-based, data-based and using people’s stories and life as the basis for change.”


More from The Knowledge Exchange blog on placemaking and liveable cities:

Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research officers and keep up to date with our latest blogs

Celebrating success in planning research: winners of the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence 2021

The winners of the annual Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) Awards for research excellence were announced on 8 September at an online ceremony hosted by the RTPI. 

The RTPI Awards for Research Excellence celebrate high quality, impactful spatial planning research carried out by chartered members and accredited planning schools from around the world.

For a seventh year, The Idox Knowledge Exchange has been pleased to sponsor three of the Awards categories – the Planning Practitioner Award, the Student Award, and the Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence.

The Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence

Hannah Hickman MA, MSc, MPhil, MRTPI, senior research fellow at the University of West England, was announced as the winner of the Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence.

Ms Hickman’s research explored the under-researched and poorly-understood area of post-consent – the journey of a development from the point of permission through to delivery and on-going management. In particular it evidenced a worrying decline in design quality occurring at this point. It identified some of the causes, and considered what local authorities might do to address this decline.

In the same category, Professor Jo Williams, of University College London, received a commendation from judges for her book ‘Circular Cities: a revolution in urban sustainability.

Early Career Research

Dr Meadhbh Maguire MRTPI PhD MSc MA, McGill University, School of Urban Planning.

This project considered the use of survey data in planners’ decision making processes. It found that survey methods ae heavily used within planning but are often influenced by political contexts.

Commended: Jianting Zhao, University of Hong Kong.

Planning Practitioner Award

Antony Rifkin BCom MCRP Dip Urban Design MRTPI FRSA, Allies and Morrison

Mr Rifkin’s ‘Complex City: London’s Changing Character’ project made the case for character-based densification and provides recommendations for local authorities and cities attempting to meet growth demands while preserving local character.

Commended: Colin Robinson, Lichfields Planning

Student Award

Nicole Collomb BA (Hons) MSc, University of Brighton, department of architecture and design

Nicole Collomb was handed the Student Award for her research into the effectiveness of green factor policies, in which she identifies a need for robust evidence base for these policies to be successful.

Commended: Samuel ‘Nepo’ Schrade, University of Brighton

Also announced at today’s ceremony were the two recipients of the two £5,000 grants from the Practitioner Research Fund.

The winners of the grants are:

  • Oscar Wong for the project: ‘Strategic legacy planning for mega-events to achieve sustainable development goals: critical lessons learnt from London Olympics 2012 and Rio 2016’
  • Timon Moss for the project: ‘Regional community wealth building in Scotland’.

An exceptionally high standard

Dr Wei Yang FRTPI, RTPI President, said: “After receiving many brilliant entries for this year’s awards, the RTPI is now delighted to announce the stand-out projects across our four categories and recipients of the Practitioner Research Fund.

“I would like to congratulate all the winners and those who were shortlisted. The quality of submissions was exceptionally high this year, and we thank all the entrants for their submissions.

The RTPI is grateful to all applicants for sharing their fresh and innovative work. The awards give us the opportunity to celebrate the best and brightest work in the sector which is vital in driving the profession forward.

I would like to extend our great appreciation to the awards sponsors, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group and Idox Knowledge Exchange.

The awards would not be possible without our excellent judges, who have volunteered their time to review all of the entries in their categories and we would like to thank you all for your continued support for the research awards.”

John McLaren, Head of Business for Grantfinder and The Knowledge Exchange at Idox said:

“Idox is very pleased to be continuing our relationship with the RTPI and supporting the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence for another year”.


Further information about the  2021 RTPI Awards for Research Excellence, including the winners, judges and sponsors are available here.

You can also read our guest blog featuring the winner of the 2016 Sir Peter Hall Award, Dr Paul Cowie from the University of Newcastle, about the impact of winning the award for the Town Meeting project, which used theatre to engage communities in planning.