The Knowledge Exchange Blog

The official blog of The Knowledge Exchange from Idox

Idox congratulates the winners of the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence 2019

Working across professional boundaries was a key theme among the winners of the 2019 Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) Awards for Research Excellence, which were announced this week. The awards were presented at the opening ceremony of the UK-Ireland Planning Research Conference at the University of Liverpool.

Idox is proud to have supported the awards since 2015, and this year we again sponsored three of the five awards – the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement, the Consultancy Award, and the Student Award.

The judging panel of 28 experienced academics and leading voices from the public and private sector, considered submissions from across the UK and around the world, and the winning entries reflected this diversity.

Entries were on a range of topics, including climate change, spatial justice, physical and mental health, rural development, neighbourhood planning and community engagement.

Award winning research from around the world

RTPI President Ian Tant, who presented the awards, commented that: “High quality and impactful research forms a vital basis for planning practice. This year’s Research Awards have again shone a light on fantastic planning research from around the world.”

Henk Heerink, Director of Idox Content, said: “It was inspiring to see the research showcased in this year’s award applications. At Idox, we have a close relationship with the research community via RESEARCHconnect, our end-to-end solution which supports researchers and institutions to find funding or research partners.”

“It is again a pleasure to see these awards bestowed on researchers who are leading the way in showing how planning research can help shape the world we live in.”

Supporting communities in neighbourhood planning

The Sir Peter Hall Award was awarded to Gavin Parker, Kat Salter and Matthew Wargent (University of Reading – Real Estate & Planning, Henley Business School) for their book and supporting website designed to help communities to engage with community-led planning. This work is the result of extensive research in neighbourhood planning and community involvement in planning led in the past five years by the Neighbourhood Planning academic research hub at Reading University.

The judges found that the project had succeeded in “engaging a wider audience, mobilising an impressive research output and communicating it in an innovative and clear way.”

Planning for healthier outcomes

All four shortlisted entries for the Consultancy award were for research undertaken by Lichfields in different parts of the UK. The ultimate winner was Myles Smith, for their annual review of Local Plan progress under the NPPF 2012. The detailed review of Inspectors’ reports and the qualitative application of planning judgements within them has set the standard for future research in this area.

The judges found the research “eminently relevant for planning practice and research and extremely well-documented.”

Cross-cutting impactful research

The Academic Award went to Dr Chinmoy Sarkar, Prof Chris Webster (University of Hong Kong, Faculty of Architecture, Department of Urban Planning and Design) and Prof John Gallacher (Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford) for their study ‘Residential greenness and prevalence of major depressive disorders: A cross-sectional, observational, associational study of 94,879 adult UK Biobank participants’.

The Early Career Award went to Dr Guibo Sun for his work with Prof Chris Webster and Xiaohu Zhang (University of Hong Kong, Faculty of Architecture, Department of Urban Planning and Design): ‘Connecting the city: A three-dimensional pedestrian network of Hong Kong’.

The Student Award went to Richard Lundy (Cardiff University, School of Geography and Planning) for his Masters dissertation: ‘Incompatible Imagery: The conflict between heritage and development at Liverpool Waters’.

For the first time, two Practitioner Research Awards were also made. RTPI members who are practising planners were invited to submit research proposals and the winners received £5,000 of research funding.


The full list of winners and shortlisted finalists for the 2019 RTPI Awards for Research Excellence are available here.

We interviewed the winner of the 2016 Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement, 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.

Finalists announced for the 2019 RTPI Awards for Research Excellence

The RTPI have announced the shortlisted finalists for this year’s RTPI Awards for Research Excellence. The Awards, which are in their fifth year, cover six categories and aim to recognise and promote high quality, impactful spatial planning research from RTPI accredited planning schools, and planning consultancies around the world. It’s a truly international shortlist with research from countries including South Africa, Hong Kong, the United States, China, and New Zealand as well as the UK.

Idox sponsors three of the Awards categories – the Planning Consultancy Award, the Student Award, and the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement.

David Meaden, CEO 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”.

A diverse shortlist

The shortlisted research includes work on a range of scales, from neighbourhhod planning to regional economies and mega-events. Research projects include work on natural capital valuation, the impact of urban environments on mental health, transport interchanges, and the siting of hot food takeaways.

It also highlights the range of disciplines which planning impacts, from heritage management to housing delivery, from regeneration to public health.

Improving planning practice

Dr Daniel Slade, speaking on behalf of the RTPI when the shortlisted entries were announced,  said: “To be effective, just, and respond to society’s greatest challenges, planning practice needs high quality and critical planning research. This year’s shortlist shows that planning schools, RTPI members and consultancies are producing this in abundance. It’s also wonderful to see such diversity – in terms of topics, geographies, and entrants.”

The winners will be announced on 2 September during the opening ceremony of the UK-Ireland Planning Research Conference at the University of Liverpool.


The full list of finalists for the 2019 RTPI Awards for Research Excellence are available here. We also interviewed the winner of the 2016 Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement, 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.

Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Conference 2019 open for bookings

We’re pleased to announce that 2019’s Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Conference is returning to Edinburgh on Thursday 19 September, and the programme has now been released.

This flagship conference always attracts a knowledgeable audience from the planning and legal professions, with a focus on quality discussion and debate.

The focus this year is on two main themes: the approach to housing, land value and infrastructure delivery, and the impact of the community empowerment agenda in Scotland. With the Planning (Scotland) Act finally having received Royal Assent on 25 July, we’ll also be looking at what to expect next, including a review of the National Planning Framework. And as usual, there will also be the popular sessions on recent case law.

Conference programme

The programme features a wide range of speakers, bringing perspectives from the private sector, local government planning, academia and central government to bear on the issues. The chair for this year will be James Findlay QC.

The conference is an excellent opportunity for solicitors and planners to refresh their knowledge of recent changes in planning and environmental law, as well as providing time for quality networking.

Confirmed speakers and panel members this year include:

  • Mark Lazarowicz, Terra Firma Chambers
  • Shona Glenn, Head of Policy & Research, Scottish Land Commission
  • Dr Mark Robertson, Managing Partner, Ryden
  • Nicola Woodward, Senior Director, Lichfields
  • Fraser Carlin, Head of Housing & Planning, Renfrewshire Council
  • Pauline Mills, Land & Planning Director, Taylor Wimpey
  • Tammy Swift-Adams, Director of Planning, Homes for Scotland
  • Nick Wright, Nick Wright Planning
  • Pippa Robertson, Aurora Planning
  • Dr Calum Macleod,Policy Director, Community Land Scotland
  • Neale McIlvanney, Strategic Planning Manager, North Ayrshire Council
  • Stefano Smith, Director, Stefano Smith Planning and former Convenor, RTPI Scotland
  • Pam Ewen, Chief Officer – Planning, Fife Council and former Convenor, RTPI Scotland
  • Jacqueline Cook, Head of Planning, Davidson Chalmers

If you’re interested in planning or environmental law in Scotland then there’s no doubt that SPEL 2019 is an unmissable conference.


The 2019 Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Conference is on 19 September at the COSLA Conference Centre, Edinburgh.

The conference programme and booking form are available here.

The conference is supported by Terra Firma Chambers.

Climate change: we can reclaim cities from the car without inconveniencing people

This guest blog was written by Richard Kingston, Professor of Urban Planning and GISc, University of Manchester and Ransford A. Acheampong, Presidential Academic Fellow in Future Cities, University of Manchester.

Since the 1920s, the car has revolutionised the way people travel; eliminating the constraints of distance while offering a personal, fast and convenient way to get from one place to another. Cities have been designed and built to make space for cars, and many cities which existed centuries before the advent of the car reshaped their streets to accommodate it.

The car, along with investments in major road infrastructure, has allowed people to live further away from city centres. The result has been that residential settlements can sprawl out over large areas – a perfect example is US surburbia. Yet people’s dependence on cars poses a major threat to public health and the environment.

It is estimated that there are more than a billion cars in the world. As well as driving up energy use, contributing to more than 70% of C0₂ emissions in the transport sector and reducing air quality, cars are also responsible for increasing obesity and chronic illnesses and killing more than 1.25m people around the globe every year in traffic accidents.

Cities around the world are taking steps to reduce the dominance of the car, to benefit residents and the environment. Of course, big changes in urban planning and individual behaviour are likely to take decades to accomplish. But while there’s no one plan which can work for every city, there are a few ways that authorities can reduce people’s dependence on cars, and reclaim space for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport.

1. Introduce car-free zones and charges

Car-free zones and charges are increasingly being adopted in cities around the world. These areas, which deter or restrict car use, can range in size and nature. In some cities, such as Copenhagen and Brussels, cars are entirely banned from parts of the city centre.

Other cities have instituted partial bans: for example, in Madrid, cars not belonging to residents are banned from the heart of the city. The entire city of Ghent, in Belgium, is car-free – but public transport, taxis and other permit holders may be allowed to drive through the city at up to five kilometres per hour. Elsewhere, like in central London, charges are applied to drivers entering during peak hours or using polluting vehicles.

To make these restrictions work, it’s crucial for city authorities to gain public support for them. The 2008 attempt to introduce what would have been the UK’s largest congestion zone in Greater Manchester was rejected in a referendum by 79% of voters on a 53.2% turnout. A number of opposition groups, involving businesses, residents and leaders of councils, mobilised to defeat the plan.

Many did not support the proposals in Manchester because they did not feel adequately consulted. Perhaps experimenting first at a much smaller scale, in the city centre, and gradually expanding to other parts of the city would also help people to accept the proposals.

2. Provide public transport alternatives

Many people living in suburbs or on the outskirts of cities might view restrictions on cars negatively, as a source of inconvenience or even a loss of freedom. An obvious way to address these concerns is to provide people with reliable, flexible and cost-effective public transit.

Adequate investments in public transit today will provide benefits in the long term. For example, evidence shows that there is an overall decreasing trend in car use in many cities across Europe, the US and Australia. A number of factors explain this trend, including the provision of public transit, having more older people who tend to drive less and the rise in fuel prices.

What’s more, young people today – especially young men – are delaying learning to drive and are less likely to own a car, compared to the generation before them. If fewer people are going to drive, then the public transport of the future needs to be affordable and accessible for both young and old.

3. Reshape the city

Significant progress towards reducing car use will be made by addressing underlying factors through urban planning. We need to build high density, mixed-use developments with affordable housing and excellent green spaces. We need to offer people the opportunity to live closer to shops, employment and recreation, thereby promoting “active” travel such as walking and cycling.

There are examples of planned and ongoing urban developments across the globe, including Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates and The Great City in China prioritising walking and public transit over cars, as well as experimenting with electric and driverless vehicles. These new developments are aiming to provide basic services within walking distance, create safe spaces for people to walk and provide public transit that uses clean energy.

Cities such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Malmo and Utrecht are reallocating road space from motorised to non-motorised transport and investing in new cycling infrastructure. It should not be unthinkable to have protected cycle highways connecting suburban communities to their city centres, as has been the case for cars for many decades.

So, there are a number of ways by which cities could significantly reduce car dependence and ultimately become car-free. But such policies must aim to change behaviours, as well as reshape the built environment. Both inner city and suburban residents must be able to access reliable public transport.

Above all, people want to be heard and involved in designing interventions that directly affect them. If people can own the vision and understand the benefits of the car-free city, then nothing will stand in the way of reclaiming the city from the car.


Guest post written by Richard Kingston, Professor of Urban Planning and GISc, University of Manchester and Ransford A. Acheampong, Presidential Academic Fellow in Future Cities, University of Manchester.

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

Idox sponsors RTPI Awards for Research Excellence in 2019

Idox is pleased once again to be supporting the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence for 2019.

The awards recognise and promote high quality, impactful spatial planning research from RTPI accredited planning schools, members and planning consultancies, in the UK and around the world.

The 2019 Awards are now open and there is still time to enter – the deadline for entries is 30 May 2019.

About the Awards

The RTPI Awards for Research Excellence are intended to:

  • recognise the best spatial planning research from RTPI accredited planning schools;
  • highlight the implications of academic research for policy and practice;
  • recognise the valuable contribution of planning consultancies to planning research; and
  • promote planning research generally.

The award categories are:

  • Academic Award, for established planning researchers
  • Early Career Researcher Award, for PhD students and academics who were awarded their PhD less than five years ago
  • Student Award, for undergraduate or masters-level research completed in pursuit of an RTPI-accredited degree
  • Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement, which recognises conducting and/or communicating high-quality planning research to audiences beyond academia
  • Planning Consultancy Award, for planning consultancies around the world that employ RTPI members.

In addition, this year RTPI members who are practising planners are invited to submit research proposals. Two winners will each receive £5,000 of research funding.

Idox: supporting the planning profession

As the UK’s leading provider of planning and building control solutions to local authorities, Idox actively engages with issues affecting the planning profession. And here at the Knowledge Exchange, we see our core mission as improving decision making in public policy by improving access to research and evidence.

This is the fifth time that Idox has given its support to the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence.

Previous winners

The winner of the 2016 Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement Award was Dr Paul Cowie from Newcastle University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape. Paul went on to write a guest blog post for us describing his innovative project, which uses theatre to engage communities in planning.

In 2018 the award-winning research showed the diverse range of topics engaging planners, from green infrastructure benchmarking, office-to-residential change of use, community engagement and healthy planning.


In 2019, Idox is pleased once again to be sponsoring the Student, Wider Engagement and Planning Consultancy awards.

Further details on the award categories, application guidance and entry forms, are available from the RTPI here. The closing date for applications to the awards is 30 May 2019.

Finalists will be announced in late July and the winners will be presented at the UK-Ireland 2019 Planning Research Conference in Liverpool on 2 September.

Engaging the ‘silent majority’ in planning: is digital the answer?

It has long been a concern that traditional planning consultation methods do not adequately capture the views of the majority.

Instead, they tend to be dominated by individuals with certain characteristics – typically older people or retirees, with high disposable income and social capital, and the time and means to attend in person.

This is partially because traditional planning consultation methods, such as public exhibitions, mainly involve individuals physically attending events at pre-specified places and times.

Younger people, students, people with disabilities, and working families with or without children, may find it difficult to attend and engage with such consultation methods.

In addition to this – people are also more likely to engage with the planning system when they are opposed to something.  Research by Shelter found that people opposed to local housebuilding were three times more likely to actively oppose an application than supporters were to actively support it (21% compared to 7%).

However, the majority of people surveyed were actually supportive or neutral regarding local house building.  This means that in many cases, there is a ‘silent majority’ – people whose voices are not being heard by the planning system.

This ‘silent majority’ often includes young people and others who may have the most to gain from new housing, employment and other benefits created by local developments.

In the rest of this blog, we consider the potential of social media and digital apps to make the planning system more accessible, inclusive and representative.

The potential of social media

Social media is everywhere – and as such it has a huge potential to reach and engage people from all walks of life.

Through adverts or posts in relevant groups, information about developments can be shared, with likes and comments providing feedback.  Short questionnaires or polls can also be administered to help gauge public opinion on a range of matters, such as locations, layouts and designs.

At present, social media is not a widely used planning consultation method – however, there is support for it to become so.

In 2016, a YouGov survey explored local councillors’ attitudes towards the use of social media during public consultation.  It found that:

  • 75% of councillors felt that social media was an important or very important engagement tool
  • 74% believed that social media would add value when reviewing planning applications
  • 60% felt that developers should be doing more to engage with local communities through social media
  • 60% believed social media will increase in importance as a public engagement tool over the next three years

It has been argued that social media is a much more relevant way to share information and consult on development proposals, particularly for young people.

It also has the potential to help overcome many of the time and accessibility barriers that prevent people from attending traditional ‘time and place’ consultation events.  And it has an incredible potential reach too – with Facebook having a total of 44 million active users and Twitter 14 million.

There are, however, some concerns – particularly regarding the verification of an individuals’ locality and the public management of negative comments, particularly as users can remain anonymous.  The potential for cyberactivism against a development and the spread of ‘fake news’ are also concerns.  Social media training would no doubt be required for those using social media to consult on developments.

Innovative apps

In addition to social media, digital apps offer an exciting new way for people to engage with the planning system.

Hailed as ‘Tinder’ for urban planning, CitySwipe is a new digital tool being used in Santa Monica’s downtown area to learn citizens’ preferences and concerns about the city’s urban core.  It enables local residents to swipe left or right to indicate their preferences regarding various different urban development scenarios.  For example, users may be asked to choose between different types of outdoor seating.  The app also covers attitudes towards things such as walking, bike lanes, housing and other such areas of interest to urban planners.

If CitySwipe is Tinder, then TrueViewVisuals can be likened to the Augmented Reality (AR) mobile gaming app ‘Pokémon Go’.  AG is a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, thus providing a composite view of both.  TrueViewVisuals makes use of this to enable users to use their mobile device to view proposed developments in existing locations and is thus particularly useful in assessing their potential visual impact.

Bootlegger is a mobile app originally designed to film live music, which is now also being applied to the urban planning context.  It enables users to collaborate and share their footage with others, and edit them into a single video.   In Berwick-upon-Tweed, Bootlegger has been used to enable members of the public to make their own ­films regarding planning proposals and the neighbourhood area and share them with others.

ChangeExplorer uses location data to provide users with ‘push notifications’ when they enter a geographic location that is subject to redevelopment plans.  Users can then view and comment on the plans, making it much easier for local residents and visitors to have their say on planning decisions.  It has been used successfully by North Tyneside Council, where it was found to be “an effective tool in encouraging participants to think about what they would like to change and for them to feel empowered in raising relevant issues”.

Enhance and evolve

These are just a handful of the ways in which technology can be used to engage young people and others within the ‘silent majority’.  It is an area which is developing all of the time – as recent reports by the Scottish Government, Future City Catapult and the RTPI show.

It also comes at a time where there is wider discussion of the need to make planning more inclusive.  In order to do this, it is essential that the views captured by planning consultations truly represent the needs and preferences of all local residents.

Of course, online engagement cannot replace the need for traditional consultation approaches and techniques entirely.  Instead, they should complement one another, offering both an enhancement and an evolution of the current planning system.  And in doing so, the planning system can meet both the needs and expectations of an increasingly digital world.


 Follow us on Twitter to discover which topics are interesting our research team.

Banning fast food outlets near schools: have takeaways had their chips?

A number of organisations – including the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, Public Health England and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health – have called for the creation of ‘fast food exclusion zones’ – banning fast food outlets from opening within 400m of schools and other places where children congregate.

In this blog post, we consider the arguments in favour of restricting the growth of such fast food outlets near to schools, and whether the evidence supports this.

More children becoming obese, earlier and for longer

The UK is now ranked among the worst in Western Europe for childhood obesity. Not only are more young people overweight or obese, they are also becoming obese at earlier ages and staying obese for longer.

Indeed, recent statistics show that nearly a quarter of children in England are obese or overweight by the time they start primary school aged five, rising to one third by the time they leave aged 11.

Increased risk of social, psychological and long-term health problems

In addition to the social and psychological problems associated with obesity, obese children are at a greater risk of developing serious diseases, including coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.  They are also 20% more likely to develop cancer as adults than those of a healthy weight.

There is also a financial incentive for addressing obesity in both adults and children – recent estimates suggest that obesity-related conditions cost the NHS around £6.1 billion per year.  The total estimated cost to society is even greater – at least £27 billion per year.

Indeed, the annual spend on the treatment of obesity and diabetes is greater than the amount spent on the police, the fire service and the judicial system combined.

Deprived areas have greater levels of both obesity and fast food outlets

There are also strong reasons to address obesity from an equalities angle.

Recent data compiled by Public Health England shows that there is a strong association between area level deprivation and the density of fast food outlets.  Some areas, such as Blackpool, and parts of Manchester and Liverpool, have up to five times more fast food outlets than more affluent areas.

The evidence is generally clear that deprivation is associated with higher levels of overweight and obesity, and lower levels of vegetable consumption.

The evidence suggests that the food environment does influence food choice

During the past 10 years in the UK, there has been a significant increase in the number of fast food outlets, and the consumption of food away from the home has increased by 29%.

Researchers and policymakers have sought to understand whether unhealthy food environments – such as those with a high density of fast food takeaways – may encourage unhealthy food choices, and thus contribute to obesity.

Last year, the Scottish Government published a research paper on the link between the food environment and the planning system.

In relation to the link between the food environment and obesity in general, the report concludes that while the evidence is mixed, “overall the evidence would suggest that increased exposure to outlets selling unhealthy food increases a person’s likelihood of gaining weight”.

In relation to the effect of the food environment around schools on children and young people specifically, the evidence is less clear cut – with some research showing a link to obesity while other research does not.

Interestingly, there was evidence that access to outlets selling healthy food decreased the odds of being overweight or obese.

Research by Brent Council, involving seven secondary schools – four of which were within 400m of a fast food outlet – found that 27% of students said they would not bother going out at lunch if they had to walk more than 8 minutes.

It does seem like common sense – make fast food less readily obtainable and children will be less likely to consume it.

Prof Russell Viner, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, has said “This food is tasty and cheap – it’s easy to blame the individual, but humans, particularly children, will find it hard to resist tempting food.”

England already making progress, Scotland likely to follow

In England, the National Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) outlines the role that planning can have in reducing obesity by limiting over-concentration of fast food takeaways, particularly around schools.  It also encourages planning authorities to limit takeaways in areas with high levels of obesity, deprivation and general poor health, and in areas with over-concentration and clustering of outlets within a specified area.

Similarly, the Child Obesity Strategy commits to developing resources to support local authorities who want to use their planning powers to restrict fast food takeaways, and providing up to date guidance and training for planning inspectors on the creation of healthy food environments.

A number of councils have already implemented 400m exclusion zones.  Some notable examples include St Helen’s Council, Sandwell Council, Dudley Council, and Milton Keynes.

Sadiq Khan has included proposals for a 400m exclusion zone around schools in the new Draft London Plan, and plans to limit the number of fast food takeaways near schools in Luton were approved in 2018.

At present, there are no powers to restrict fast food outlets on health grounds in Scotland – however, it is likely that this will change in the near future.

As well as the aforementioned research project, last year, the Scottish Government published the consultation, ‘A Healthier Future’, which commits to exploring the opportunity for the planning system to contribute to an improved food environment:

We will research precedent, evidence and good practice on the relationship between the planning system and food environment, including exploring how food outlets in the vicinity of schools can be better controlled, with a view to informing the review of Scottish Planning Policy”.

In the December 2018 issue of Scottish Planning and Environmental Law (SPEL), Neil Collar of Brodies LLP concludes that:

Taking account of Action 2.12 in ‘A Healthier Future’ and the research project, it seems likely that the draft National Planning Framework, expected to be published by the Scottish Government in 2019, will contain policies to control hot food takeaways and the food environment around schools. An evidence base to justify controls in local areas will be important”.

Creating a robust evidence base is crucial

Children have a right to grow up in an environment that supports them to attain the highest possible standard of health – and the planning system has a key role to play in facilitating this.

Of course, the planning system cannot address obesity on its own, and the causes of obesity are far wider and more complex than just the food environment.

Other approaches are also being put in place – including supporting food outlets to provide smaller portions and healthier options – some of which have been very successful already.

The creation of a robust evidence base upon which to make informed decisions regarding the location of fast food takeaways and the creation of healthy environments is essential.

There are already a number of useful datasets available for local authorities to use, including the Food environment assessment tool (Feat) and guidance on the creation of healthy food environments.

As more local authorities make use of their powers to restrict fast food outlets, it will be interesting to see whether more evidence emerges of the link between fast food and childhood obesity. We at the Information Service will, of course, be watching this with interest.


 Follow us on Twitter to discover which topics are interesting our research team.

Autism-friendly cities: making a world of difference

At this time of year, high streets and shops across the country are bustling, decked out with lights and colourful decorations, and of course, the familiar Christmas tunes.

For many, this is part and parcel of the exciting run up to Christmas.  However, for autistic people, the added crowds, lights and noise can turn an already challenging experience into a sensory nightmare.

Indeed, although more than 1 in 100 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum, many still struggle to access local shops and services.  Places that many neurotypical people may take for granted – shops, theatres, cinemas, cafes and restaurants, hairdressers, libraries and museums, public toilets, and public transport – can be particularly challenging environments for autistic people.

Unpredictable and unfamiliar noises, lights, smells, crowds, queues, and other events can be overwhelming, and may cause sensory distress – ultimately leading to a meltdown.  Meltdowns may present as crying, screaming, kicking, biting or lashing out.  A lack of understanding and awareness of autism among the public – including unfriendly looks, judgements and comments – can further enhance the distress experienced.

In 2015, a YouGov poll found that 99.5% of people in the UK had heard of autism. However, there remains a lack of public understanding about how it may present, and the associated challenges autistic people face.  This is perhaps best illustrated by the recent case of a young woman with Asperger’s being forcibly removed from a cinema for ‘laughing too loudly’.  Unfortunately, this experience is not unique.  Research has found that as many as 28% of people have been asked to leave a public space because of behaviour associated with autism.

Indeed, many autistic people and their families have changed their own behaviour to reduce the chance of experiencing intolerance from the public.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that social isolation is a common issue – 79% of autistic people and 70% of parents feel socially isolated.  Almost half (44%) sometimes don’t go out because they’re worried about how people will react.

Increasing public understanding

The recent Too Much Information (TMI) campaign, delivered by the National Autistic Society (NAS), aims to increase public understanding of the five core features of autism.

Those five core features are:

  • anxiety in social situations
  • anxiety with unexpected changes
  • sensory overload
  • meltdowns
  • processing time

Creating an autism friendly city

One response has been the drive towards the creation of ‘autism-friendly’ cities.

According to Autism Together and Autism Adventures, an autism-friendly city is one in which autistic people can ‘use public transport, shop for food and clothes, take part in sports and leisure activities, visit cultural and tourist institutions and eat in restaurants.’

The NAS have established an ‘Autism Friendly Award’, which aims to help businesses make the small changes that make the most difference to autistic people.  Their Autism Friendly Awards toolkit sets out a helpful five-point checklist:

  • customer information: providing appropriate information to help support autistic people and their families’ visitor or customer experience
  • staff understanding of autism: developing staff understanding
  • physical environment: making appropriate and reasonable adjustments within the limits of the physical environment
  • customer experience: a willingness to be flexible and providing a clear way for autistic people and their families to provide feedback
  • promoting understanding: committing to helping increase wider public understanding of autism

Examples of good practice

In Glasgow, the council have been working to make the city centre autism-friendly.  The plans have focused initially upon shopping centres, transport hubs, museums, cinemas and key operational staff across the city centre.

The Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT), Scotland’s oldest independent cinema, recently became the first cinema in the UK to achieve an Autism Friendly Award for their work with children and adults.  This includes monthly screenings for autistic adults and children, with the volume slightly lowered, stair lights remaining switched on, house lights dimmed and a chill out zone provided. Trained ‘autism facilitators’ also answer questions at the end of each film.

Other organisations have followed the GFT’s lead. Glasgow Science Centre, for example, has recently introduced autism friendly hours.

In the North East, Aberdeen has also announced its intention to work towards autism-friendly status.

As well as raising awareness and making key shopping locations more accessible for autistic people, Aberdeen also plans to introduce autism-friendly libraries, including pop up sensory sessions designed for autistic children.

Research has shown as many as 40% of people with autism never visit a library – however, 90% have said they would be more likely to visit their local library if some changes were made.

Such adjustments include staff training, increased tolerance of noise and understanding from the public.  Dimensions have released free online training and top tips for libraries looking to become autism-friendly. It notes that while many people with autism need a quiet environment, they may make noise themselves – for example, by talking to themselves or others, becoming excitable or moving around. They highlight the importance of making clear to the public that the library is autism-friendly, which includes a tolerance of certain levels of noise.

Other cities that have been working towards autism-friendly status include: Bristol –  whose airport has won an Autism Friendly Award; Liverpool – where autism champions are being supported to recognise and respond to autism; and Newcastle in Northern Ireland – which has been named as Northern Ireland’s first autism-friendly town. It is anticipated that being autism-friendly will help boost the local economy and tourism.

Other ways to make cities autism-friendly

As well as organisations themselves making adjustments and promoting autism understanding among staff and customers, there are a few other ways in which cities can be made more autism-friendly.

Making public transport more accessible is a key challenge.  More than half of autistic people avoid public transport due to fears of disruption.  There are many things that can be done to help make public transport less distressing for autistic people.

From an architecture and design perspective, there are also many other things that can help to make urban buildings and spaces more accessible, in regard to ventilation, acoustics, heating, lighting, layout and outdoor spaces.

From a town planning perspective – there is currently a lack of research and guidance on the design of places for autistic people per se, however, there may be some transferability of lessons from work on the creation of dementia-friendly and child-friendly spaces.

For example, the provision of clear signage and removal of street clutter may be beneficial for autistic people.  Edinburgh City Council has recently banned on-street advertising structures in order to make streets more accessible for people with disabilities.

There have also been concerns raised that shared spaces – including the removal of road signs, traffic crossings and delineation between roads/walkways – may negatively impact upon autistic people, who may struggle with the uncertainty such schemes deliberately create.  This is an area where more research and guidance is needed.

The way forward

Creating a city that is autism-friendly requires a multi-faceted approach that includes both raising public awareness and understanding, and creating towns and places that allow for the specific challenges that are faced by autistic people and their families.

Many steps that can be taken are low cost and easy to implement – and support is available from a range of national and local autism organisations, such as the NAS.

Even just reacting with kindness and compassion when witnessing a possible autistic meltdown – perhaps offering some solution such as a quiet space – is significant.  The sum of these small changes can make a world of difference to autistic people and their families.

I wouldn’t change my son for the world but I will change the world for my son.” Julie Simpson, Founder of Autism Adventures


Follow us on Twitter to discover which topics are interesting our research team.

Liveable cities with people at their heart

The historic Royal Mile in the centre of Edinburgh was the suitably attractive setting for a conference last week on liveable cities. As Paul Lawrence, Executive Director of Place at Edinburgh City Council, observed, Edinburgh has been grappling with liveability for 300 years. But it’s one of many cities now facing new challenges to ensure that the concept applies as much to the “have-nots” as to the “haves.”

Including the precariat

Paul described Edinburgh’s single biggest challenge as addressing social and economic polarisation. While the city has a very successful economy, the benefits are not being enjoyed by all of its people. Many have well-paid jobs and enjoy a good quality of life, but those at the fringe of the labour market – the “precariat” – are on short-term contracts, with low wages and poor housing.

At the same time, the city of Edinburgh is facing significant urban planning challenges. Paul highlighted the difficulty for pedestrians – particularly those with disabilities – negotiating Princes Street at the height of the Edinburgh Festivals, and noted that the city didn’t have a single example of a successful pedestrian precinct.

Making successful places

The theme of how to make cities more liveable was taken up by Ian Gilzean, Chief Architect for the Scottish Government. He gave numerous examples of successful placemaking, such as the Crown Street and Laurieston redevelopment projects in Glasgow and regeneration in Edinburgh’s Craigmillar district. Ian also highlighted the work of charette programmes, which bring communities together to engage in the design and development of their neighbourhoods.  Ian stressed that the key drivers of sustainable development – social, economic and environmental – were also vital for improving the health and wellbeing of communities.

Reinventing a post-industrial area

A great example of the reinvention of a post-industrial area came from Ian Manson, Chief Executive of Clyde Gateway, Scotland’s biggest and most ambitious regeneration programme. When it comes to recovering from the demise of old industries, the East End of Glasgow has seen many false dawns. As Ian explained, when Clyde Gateway was launched ten years ago, the local community were sceptical about the programme’s ambitions. But they were also ready to engage with the project. A decade on, the area has undergone significant physical generation, but more importantly this has taken place in partnership with the local people. Unemployment in the area is now 26% – still too high, but an improvement on the 39% of 2008. The project has taken risks –  building infrastructure such as roads and a school in the hope that developers will be attracted. And, as Ian explained, Clyde Gateway needs more people to settle in the area to fill the gap left by the 20,000 who moved away in the post-war years.

To attract more people, places need to be distinctive, to surprise and delight. And, as Ian stressed, they need to acknowledge and respond to their historical urban patterns and buildings. For example, the much-loved former Olympia cinema at Bridgeton Cross has been given a makeover, and is now home to a public library, café, boxing centre and Scotland’s first BFI Mediatheque.

Learning from Denmark

The conference was organised by the Royal Danish Embassy in the UK, and there were good examples of successful placemaking from Denmark.

Jacob Kurek, from Henning Larsen Architecture in Copenhagen explained why the Danes are so famous for doing design differently. “We have a curiosity and ambition for making things better for people.” Denmark has put this philosophy into practice, designing clean harbours for swimming in the city centre, providing safe and stylish bike lanes and planning open-air spaces that take account of the challenging Danish winters (what Jacob described as “conquering the public realm”).

This approach has attracted attention elsewhere, and Jacob described his work in Belfast, where there are plans to transform the east bank of the River Lagan, using Copenhagen harbour as a model.

Stephen Willacy, Chief Architect for the city of Aarhus, reminded the audience that there’s more to Denmark than Copenhagen.  Aarhus is a city on the move, with a population growth of 5,000 per year. Stephen described some of the efforts to make Aarhus a good city for everyone by developing facilities for living, playing and working, including an ambitious masterplan for the city’s harbour.

Ewan Anderson of 7N Architects in Edinburgh has also been learning from Denmark. He took his team to Copenhagen to explore the city’s innovative approaches to place making, such as the transformation of a car park into a playground and the creation of a “pop-up neighbourhood” on a former warehouse site. Once back in Scotland, the 7N team developed their own ideas for making more liveable cities – introducing electric bikes for hilly streets, replacing a car park with a modern art gallery and even transforming Edinburgh’s Leith Walk into a Ramblas of the north.

Putting people at the heart of placemaking

Too often, architects and town planners have failed to engage with the communities they serve. Throughout the day, speakers at this conference made it clear that those days are largely in the past. Many made reference to the influential Danish architect Jan Gehl, whose vision for successful public space and urban design had people at its heart.

As this conference demonstrated, his vision is being realised in places as different as Copenhagen and Glasgow, Belfast and Aarhus, to the benefit of visitors and more importantly for those who live there.


More on urban planning and liveable cities:

Creating caring places: placemaking in our town centres

What do caring places look like? How can planners, developers and project organisers contribute to the discourse around creating caring places? And what responsibility do they have to communities to help develop places that put people at their heart?

They are just some of the questions being increasingly raised by organisations in Scotland, trying to identify if there is a new way to focus on place and wellbeing in Scotland’s towns. Projects such as Carnegie Trust’s Kindness, Scottish Towns partnerships’ Town Centres First, or Architecture and Design Scotland’s Creating Caring Places are all exploring the importance of the quality of a place to the wellbeing of people who live there. But what does this mean for people who actually plan these areas, and what could they consider in the future to help develop more caring places?

The 3 P’s: place, people, practice

Many of the discussions around creating places which foster wellbeing and wellness centre around 3 key concepts:

Place: Understanding place and the impact that it has on wellbeing is a significant part of this agenda. The environment in which people live day-to-day has a significant impact on individuals and can be both a positive or negative influence. It can help to facilitate positive community interaction, creating stronger community ties and helping organisations and people to feel more valued within their community.

In order for places to be caring a number of factors have been identified, and these are common across research done by a number of organisations including Architecture and Design Scotland and the Carnegie Trust. These include: a sense of support (from people); a sense of purpose (stuff to do); a sense of place (familiar surroundings); and a sense of worth (feeling wanted).

People: Loneliness or social isolation has the same impact on health and mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Traditionally, it has often been assumed that older people are most often victims of social isolation (as they are less mobile and less willing or able to participate in community activities). Recently however more research has been produced which highlights the growing isolation of younger people. Understanding the nature of isolation, which impacts across the whole community, can help us to identify effective solutions which benefit and engage multiple groups.

Practice: This particularly relates to care within communities. The process of deciding where and how we care for the old or ill is a vital part of how we function as a society. Effective care extends far beyond the physical act of caring for someone, although this is obviously a key element. It also includes creating more and better jobs within the sector, and encouraging people to enter the profession as a worthwhile career choice; shifting the focus from acute to primary care settings and away from hospital-based emergency care; and giving people greater choice about how and where they receive care through increasing and improved personalisation of services.

There is a responsibility on both spatial and community planners to identify need and to create places which facilitate wellness, choice and care at home. This could be through the building of new infrastructure or more effective transport, or it could be through the creating of a community centre which offers recreational classes to someone who would otherwise have no contact with the outside world. Putting place at the centre of discussions provides an opportunity for a community approach to wellbeing, with strategies on placemaking being linked to other approaches such as asset-based, or strengths-based, planning.

Thinking about people like we think about the environment

Even as little as 10 years ago, the prevalence of environmental impact assessments for development projects was limited. Now we take for granted that we measure the impact of a project on the environment. What if we thought about people and in particular the risk of isolation, in the same way during planning processes? What if developers, planners and project organisers considered the “isolation impact” of a project, how it would impact the people of a local area, and whether it would specifically impact one group more than another (either for good or for bad), and reported on the steps they were taking to mitigate any adverse impact?

It is a striking notion, but creating a set of criteria to measure the social impact of developments, may be hugely useful if we are trying to place an increasing emphasis on inclusion and community within our town centres.

In fact, planners are beginning to realise the critical role they play in connecting services to people, and the necessity of understanding which services are needed in an area and how to make them as accessible for the whole community as possible. And while it is down to the community to use the resources they are given by planners to create connections and networks that help to combat things like poor mental health and social isolation, the decisions that planners make about how and where to plan in services and infrastructure can be the difference between someone leading an active and engaged life, and someone living a life where the only human contact they have in a day is a carer.

Planners can and should recognise the significant role they can play in making someone’s life more livable.

Final thoughts

Creating caring places for people to live and grow old in is vital to the success of our communities. Effective and thoughtful decisions on investments such as infrastructure and community planning projects can have a significant positive impact on wellbeing and reduce loneliness not only among older people, but throughout the community.

Increasingly, policy makers in Scotland are being asked to consider the human element of planning in their work. Creating places that allow people to feel safe, valued and happy is key for planners to help bridge the gap between the creation of places, and the wellbeing of people who live in them.


If you liked this article you may also be interested in:

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

%d bloggers like this: