Smart Chicago: how smart city initiatives are helping meet urban challenges

Outside a Chicago theatre, with a huge 'Chicago' sign outside

By Steven McGinty

Home to former President Barack Obama, sporting giants the Chicago Bulls, and the culinary delicacy deep dish pizza, Chicago is one of the most famous cities in the world. Less well known is Chicago’s ambition to become the most data-driven city in the world.

A late convert to the smart city agenda, Chicago was lagging behind local rivals New York and Boston, and international leaders Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Singapore.

But in 2011, Chicago’s new Mayor Rahm Emanuel outlined the important role technology needed to play, if the city was to address its main challenges.

Laying the groundwork – open data and tech plan

In 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued an executive order establishing the city’s open data policy. The order was designed to increase transparency and accountability in the city, and to empower citizens to participate in government, solve social problems, and promote economic growth. It required that every city agency would contribute data to it and established reporting requirements to ensure agencies were held accountable.

Chicago’s open data portal has nearly 600 datasets, which is more than double the number in 2011. The city works closely with civic hacker group Open Chicago, an organisation which runs hackathons (collaborations between developers and businesses using open data to find solutions to city problems).

In 2013, the City of Chicago Technology Plan was released. This brought together 28 of the city’s technology initiatives into one policy roadmap, setting them out within five broad strategic areas:

  • Establishing next-generation infrastructure
  • Creating smart communities
  • Ensuring efficient, effective, and open government
  • Working with innovators to develop solutions to city challenges
  • Encouraging Chicago’s technology sector

 Array of Things

The Array of Things is an ambitious programme to install 500 sensors throughout the city of Chicago. Described by the project team as a ‘fitness tracker for the city’, the sensors will collect real-time data on air quality, noise levels, temperature, light, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and the water levels on streets and gutters. The data gathered will be made publicly available via the city’s website, and will provide a vital resource for the researchers, developers, policymakers, and citizens trying to address city challenges.

This new initiative is a major project for the city, but as Brenna Berman, Chicago’s chief information officer, explains:

If we’re successful, this data and the applications and tools that will grow out of it will be embedded in the lives of residents, and the way the city builds new services and policies

Potential applications for the city’s data could include providing citizens with information on the healthiest and unhealthiest walking times and routes through the city, as well as the areas likely to be impacted by urban flooding.

The project is led by the Urban Center for Computation and Data of the Computation Institute  a joint initiative of Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago. However, a range of partners are involved in the project, including several universities, the City of Chicago who provide an important governance role and technology firms, such as Product Development Technologies, the company who built the ‘enclosures’ which protect the sensors from environmental conditions.

A series of community meetings was held to introduce the Array of Things concept to the community and to consult on the city’s governance and privacy policy. This engagement ranged from holding public meetings in community libraries to providing online forms, where citizens could provide feedback anonymously.

In addition, the Urban Center for Computation and Data and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago ran a workshop entitled the “Lane of Things”, which introduced high school students to sensor technology. The workshop is part of the Array of Things education programme, which aims to use sensor technology to teach students about subjects such as programming and data science. For eight weeks, the students were given the opportunity to design and build their own sensing devices and implement them in the school environment, collecting information such as dust levels from nearby construction and the dynamics of hallway traffic.

The Array of Things project is funded by a $3.1 million National Science Foundation grant and is expected to be complete by 2018.

Mapping Subterranean Chicago

The City of Chicago is working with local technology firm, City Digital, to produce a 3D map of the underground infrastructure, such as water pipes, fibre optic lines, and gas pipes. The project will involve engineering and utility workers taking digital pictures as they open up the streets and sidewalks of Chicago. These images will then be scanned into City Digital’s underground infrastructure mapping (UIM) platform, and key data points will be extracted from the image, such as width and height of pipes, with the data being layered on a digital map of Chicago.

According to Brenna Berman:

By improving the accuracy of underground infrastructure information, the platform will prevent inefficient and delayed construction projects, accidents, and interruptions of services to citizens.

Although still at the pilot stage, the technology has been used on one construction site and an updated version is expected to be used on a larger site in Chicago’s River North neighbourhood. Once proven, the city plans to charge local construction and utility firms to access the data, generating income whilst reducing the costs of construction and improving worker safety.

ShotSpotter

In January, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Department commanders announced the expansion of ShotSpotter – a system which uses sensors to capture audio of gunfire and alert police officers to its exact location. The expansion will take place in the Englewood and Harrison neighbourhoods, two of the city’s highest crime areas, and should allow police officers to respond to incidents more rapidly.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson highlights that although crime and violence presents a complex problem for the city, the technology has resulted in Englewood going “eight straight days without a shooting incident”, the longest period in three years.

ShotSpotter will also be integrated into the city’s predictive analytics tools, which are used to assess how likely individuals are to become victims of gun crime, based on factors such as the number of times they have been arrested with individuals who have become gun crime victims.

Final thoughts

Since 2011, Chicago has been attempting to transform itself into a leading smart city. Although it’s difficult to compare Chicago with early adopters such as Barcelona, the city has clearly introduced a number of innovative projects and is making progress on their smart cities journey.

In particular, the ambitious Array of Things project will have many cities watching to see if understanding the dynamics of city life can help to solve urban challenges.


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Managing growth in historic towns

canterbury cathedral

By Heather Cameron

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

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

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

Growth pressures

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smarter growth

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

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

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

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

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

Key principles of good design have been highlighted to include:

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

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

Good practice

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

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

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

As Historic England states:

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


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

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Smart-eco cities: how technology is addressing sustainability challenges in the UK

Looking down on densely packed buildings of New York

By Steven McGinty

As cities realise the need to improve sustainability, many are turning to innovative technologies to address challenges such as traffic congestion and air pollution. Here, the ‘smart agenda’, with its focus on technology and urban infrastructure, overlaps with the ‘sustainability agenda’ – usually associated with energy, waste management, and transport.

In 2015, an international research project – coordinated by the University of Exeter and involving teams from the UK, China, the Netherlands, France, and Germany – was launched to investigative how smart-eco initiatives can be used to promote the growth of the green economy. As part of this work, the report ‘Smart-eco cities in the UK: trends and city profiles 2016 was published.

Below we’ve highlighted some interesting case studies from this report.

Glasgow

Glasgow’s smart city approach has been described as ‘opportunistic’ (as opposed to strategy-led) by the report’s authors. New initiatives are often linked to creative organisations/individuals and competition funding, such as Future City Glasgow, which was awarded £24 million by the Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK).

Nonetheless, this has helped Glasgow become a smart city leader, not just in the UK, but globally.

Almost half of the £24 million Innovate UK funding was spent on the Operations Centre, located in Glasgow’s east end.  The new state-of-the-art facility integrates traffic and public safety management systems, and brings together public space CCTV, security for the city council’s museums and art galleries, traffic management and police intelligence. As well as helping the police and emergency services, the centre can prioritise buses through traffic (when there are delays) and has recently supported the Clean Glasgow initiative, a project to tackle local environmental issues, such as littering.

Intelligent street lighting was also a major part of Future City Glasgow. Three sections of the city have been fitted with new lighting: a walkway along the River Clyde; a partly pedestrianised section of Gordon Street; and Merchant City, a popular retail and leisure district. The new lighting includes built-in sensors which provide real-time data on sound levels, air quality, and pedestrian footfall. ‘Dynamic’ lights, which use motion sensors to vary lighting – increasing levels when pedestrians walk by – have also been introduced.

London

London’s smart city programme is linked to the challenges it faces as a leading global city. Its need for continuous growth and remaining competitive has to be balanced with providing infrastructure, services, and effective governance.

The Greater London Authority (GLA) is behind both the strategy, through the Smart London Board, and the practical delivery of various activities. Much of their work focuses on encouraging collaboration between business, the technology sector, and the residents of London. For example, the London Datastore, which includes over 650 governmental (and some non-governmental) data sets, plays an important role in ensuring the city’s data is freely available to all. Visitors can view a wide variety of statistics and data graphics, on areas such as recycling rates, numbers of bicycles hired, and carbon dioxide emission levels by sector.

In 2014, the Smart London District Network was established to explore how technology could be used in four regeneration projects: Croydon; Elephant & Castle; Imperial West; and the London Olympic Park. To support this, the Institute for Sustainability was commissioned to run a competition asking technology innovators to pitch innovative ideas for these projects. Winners of this competition included the company Stickyworld, who created an online platform which supports stakeholder engagement through a virtual environment, and Placemeter, who developed an intelligent online platform which analyses the data taken from video feeds and provides predictive insights.

Manchester

Recently, the City of Manchester Council consolidated their smart city initiatives into the Smarter City Programme. The Smart-eco cities report explains that the programme draws on the city’s 2012 submission to the ‘Future Cities Demonstrator’ competition, focusing on the development of Manchester’s Oxford Road ‘Corridor’ around five main themes:

  • enhanced low carbon mobility
  • clean energy generation and distribution
  • more efficient buildings
  • integrated logistics and resource management
  • community and citizen engagement

Manchester’s approach to becoming a smarter city involves a wide range of partners. For instance, Triangulum is a €25m European Commission project involving Manchester and two other cities (Eindhoven and Stavanger) to transform urban areas into ‘smart quarters’.

In Manchester, the council-led project will integrate mobility, energy, and informations and communications technology (ICT) systems into the infrastructure along the Corridor. It will introduce a range of technologies into assets such as the University of Manchester Electrical Grid, with the aim of showing their potential for supplying, storing and using energy more effectively in urban environments. Data visualisation techniques, based on the use of real-time data, will also be developed.

In 2016, Manchester launched CityVerve, a £10 million collaborative project to demonstrate internet of things technologies. The project will involve several smart city initiatives, including:

  • talkative bus stops, which use digital signage and sensors, to provide information to passengers and provide data to bus operators on the numbers waiting for buses
  • air quality sensors in the street furniture
  • ‘Community Wellness’ sensors in parks, along school and commuter routes, to encourage exercise
  • a ‘biometric sensor network’, to help people manage their chronic respiratory conditions

Final thoughts

There is great excitement about the potential for smart city technologies. However, as is highlighted by the smart-eco cities report, many are limited in scale, short term, and based on competition funding. If we want to create sustainable cities, which meets challenges of the future, greater investment will be needed from both public and private sector.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other smart cities articles. 

SURF Awards winners: success stories in Scottish regeneration

Promotional materials from the SURF Awards 2015

Image by Steven McGinty

By Steven McGinty

I recently attended a workshop highlighting three winning projects from the 2015 SURF Awards, an annual ceremony which recognises best practice and innovation in community regeneration in Scotland.

Kilmarnock

The day began with a presentation from the winners of ‘Scotland’s Most Improved Large Town’, Kilmarnock. From the outset, Karl Doroszenko the Development Planning & Regeneration Manager at East Ayrshire Council acknowledged that Kilmarnock had gone through some hard times, remarking that most people would associate the town with words such as ‘failing’, ‘deprived’, and ‘unemployment blackspot’.

However, for Karl, the town has a lot to be confident about. In 2005, East Ayrshire Council introduced a strategy to revitalise Kilmarnock town centre. A key part of this strategy was introducing the ‘Town Centre First Principle’, an approach which encouraged the council to locate their offices to the town centre. It also included a commitment to valuing local heritage, and over £21 million was invested in heritage buildings, including the former Opera House, which is now a modern office building for local council staff.

A Community Worker in East Ayrshire Council also provided his views on community engagement. In his words, ‘you either do it or you don’t’, highlighted the need to genuinely listen to stakeholders (businesses, voluntary organisations, and the local community) and to deliver for people. He also noted the importance of trying new ideas, and accepting that not all of these will be a success.

Barrhead

Barrhead, winner of ‘Scotland’s Most Improved Small/Medium Town’, had some notable similarities to Kilmarnock. For instance, Barrhead also incorporated a Town Centre First approach into its regeneration strategy – although implementation was more complicated due to the town’s fragmented centre.

But Barrhead also had its own unique set of challenges. In particular, political buy-in was difficult to achieve at times, with regeneration programmes often competing with other priorities such as education. Unfortunately, Barrhead also suffered from being a disadvantaged area within an affluent council (East Renfrewshire), sitting alongside areas such as Clarkston, Newtown Mearns and Giffnock. This limited the town’s impact when applying for external sources of funding.

Despite these challenges, Barrhead has had a number of successes, including:

  • A new £14 million health centre
  • The investment of £1.4 million in improving the public realm
  • The opening of a new £22 million town square and town square superstore
  • A new community facility, the Barrhead Foundry, which includes a sports centre, library, conference centre, and employability and business hub

Laurieston’s ‘Open Spaces’

The Open Spaces project, run by arts organisation WAVEparticle in partnership with New Gorbals Housing Association, was the winner of SURF’s ‘Creative Regeneration’ award. The artist-led initiative complements a major housing development in the Gorbals area of Glasgow, making a diverse set of buildings and open spaces – such as the Caledonia Road Church – temporarily available for creative uses.

The initiative is providing existing and new residents with opportunities to engage with a variety of creative projects. This has resulted in a number of benefits for the community, including:

  • attractive heritage-based cultural facilities and public artworks
  • improved community cohesion
  • enhanced urban connectivity
  • a greater feeling of ‘pride of place’

Debate

The presentations provided inspiration for a lively debate between delegates.

Unsurprisingly, many individuals highlighted the challenges of declining public funds for regeneration programmes. There was also criticism of the short term nature of funding (two or three year periods), particularly as there was general agreement that it takes decades to see the impact of regeneration projects.

However, some of the participants suggested that this might provide an opportunity as local government has realised that they cannot do everything. Delegates noted that this could result in a greater role for the third sector, as well as increased community consultation.

Interestingly, a senior member of Glasgow City Council, gave what he called ‘a plea for understanding’, explaining that although the council would have less funding available, it did not mean they were any less committed to improving the lives of residents. He highlighted that organisations should view the council as a ‘friendly partner’ and that partnership was key to achieving change.

Delegates also discussed the conflict between overarching national strategies and locally led approaches to regeneration. It was suggested we need to ‘think nationally’ as there are too many short term projects there are never embedded into practice or strategy. Others argued that regeneration needs to focus on local people, and that not enough is being done to support a community led approach.

One delegate also used the rather inspirational phrase ‘transfer of human energy’. This refers to the positive impact that community members can have on each other if provided with the right opportunities, such as through creative projects.

Final thoughts

The workshop was well attended and brought together a broad range of individuals, from town planners to local artists. However, what they all had in common was a desire to improve the health and well-being of residents in Scotland’s most disadvantaged communities.


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Creating inclusive, prosperous places to live

by Heather Cameron

What does quality of life and ‘a good place to live’ mean? What are the key challenges to ensure quality of life in cities today? How can we create better places to live and who needs to be involved? These were just some of the questions explored at a seminar hosted by Policy Scotland, Glasgow University’s research and knowledge exchange hub, last month.

Running the event was Dr Georgiana Varna, Research Fellow at Glasgow University. Georgiana is a multidisciplinary scholar, specialising in urban regeneration and public space development.

Cities back on the agenda

A particular emphasis was placed on the importance of both place and people. Georgiana noted that cities are very much back on the policy agenda as we try to fix the mistakes of the 60s and 70s. She alluded to the New Urban Agenda, which embodies three guiding principles:

  • Leave no one behind
  • Achieve sustainable and inclusive urban prosperity
  • Foster ecological and resilient cities and human settlements

Following Georgiana’s introduction, several short presentations were given by a range of professionals and scholars.

Speaker: Michael Gray, Housing and Regeneration Services, Glasgow City Council

Michael Gray of Glasgow City Council delivered the first of the presentations, focusing on the Commonwealth Games Athlete’s Village in the East End of Glasgow. There was a clear pride in what they achieved with a belief that the result is a sustainable, cohesive community.

Michael did allude to some concerns that have been highlighted by GoWell East surveys regarding speeding vehicles, lack of buses and lack of local retail. But he also noted that lessons have been learned from the project, which was very complex in terms of procurement, design and construction, and that future development is addressing such concerns.

Speaker: Keith Kintrea, Glasgow University

Keith referred to Scotland’s standings in the PISA survey, showing that maths, reading and science achievement in Scotland sits in the middle and ahead of England, despite their efforts to improve. However, he noted that there is no room for complacency as those children in the most deprived areas were less likely to do well – nearly 70% of Glasgow pupils live in the most deprived areas.

Again, the importance of neighbourhood/place was emphasised, this time for local educational outcomes. It was noted that while Scottish schools are less segregated than the rest of the UK and more inclusive according to the OECD, (similar to countries such as Finland), this is not necessarily the case in cities. Keith concluded that we need to do much more about what places do in terms of educational outcomes.

Speaker: George Eckton, COSLA/SUSTRANS

George highlighted the importance of transport for delivering social, economic and environmental initiatives, and for growth in city-regions. Inequality in social mobility was put down to inadequate transport and it was noted that many people are disadvantaged in the labour market due to lack of mobility.

He stressed the need to increase the use of sustainable transport and argued that a collaborative approach will be essential to create inclusive growth for all.

Speaker: Andy Milne, Scotland’s Regeneration Network

Andy focused on community regeneration, arguing that the issue of centralisation and decentralisation is crucial. He stated that as a result of centralisation, urban areas – where most of the population live – are vastly under resourced.

Interestingly, he also noted that regeneration doesn’t work when not all areas are addressed. He argued that successful growth and inclusion will depend on economic policy decisions and not on all the small actions taken to address inequality.

Speaker: Richard Bellingham, University of Strathclyde

Richard’s focus was on smart cities. He noted that cities rely on critical systems – food production, waste/water handling, transportation, energy systems, health systems, social systems – and that if any one of them fails, the whole city fails.

The issue of rapid growth was emphasised as something cities need to respond to in a smart way. The recent 50-lane traffic jam experienced by Beijing suggests that there was a lack of smart thinking in its approach of building more roads for more people.

Richard suggested that greater collaboration is required for smart cities to succeed.

Speaker: David Allan, Scottish Community Development Centre & Community Health Exchange

The final presentation focused on community development. David highlighted the importance of community development approaches to build healthy and sustainable communities and referred to four building blocks of community empowerment:

  • Personal development
  • Positive action
  • Community organisation
  • Participation and involvement

Two examples of successful community-led initiatives were presented: Community Links (South Lanarkshire) and Getting better together (Shotts Healthy Living Centre).

Key elements of these initiatives were identified as: community-led, responsive to community need, fair and inclusive, and flexible and adaptive. Challenges were also identified: the level of understanding of ‘community’, community ‘stuff’ is often seen as nice but not essential and there is a lack of capacity and supply at the local level. David also noted that there is a danger that city-regions may exacerbate existing inequalities by concentrating resources in powerhouses.

He concluded by noting that future cities are unlikely to look like something from Back to the Future. Rather, they will probably look very much like today but the underlying systems need to change.

‘Smart successful cities – distinct, flexible and delightful (great places to be).’


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Health Champions – “unlocking the power of communities”

Health Cubes_iStock_000022075266Large

By Heather Cameron

“On the societal level, we must understand that health is not an individual outcome, but arises from social cohesion, community ties, and mutual support.” Dr Gabor Maté

Health inequalities have long been an issue in the UK and despite continuous government commitment to tackling them, they continue to persist.

It is estimated that avoidable illness costs around £60 billion and that 1 in 4 deaths are preventable with the adoption of healthier lifestyles. Calls have therefore been made for radical changes in the approach to public health by improving health and wellbeing outside of the core public health workforce.

This is just the approach of the Community Health Champion model, developed by Altogether Better, which has demonstrated not only the positive impact on health but the social value of such an approach.

What are health champions?

Health Champions are volunteers from all walks of life who are provided with accredited training and support so they can undertake health promotion activities within their communities to reduce health inequalities and improve the health of the local population.

The Community Health Champion role began as a five year Big Lottery Funded programme (Wellbeing 1) in 2008. Over 18,000 Health Champions were recruited, trained and supported between 2008 and 2012, reaching over 105,000 people.

Through a combination of their training and own personal experiences, these volunteers empower and encourage people within their families, communities and workplaces to take up healthy activities, create groups to meet local needs and can signpost people to relevant support and services.

Challenges

While Wellbeing 1 succeeded in reaching many people in need, the programme also raised two specific challenges: in almost all cases, the work being done was invisible to the NHS; and securing ongoing funding to continue the support was difficult.

Peer support was later identified as the most appropriate way of trying to connect communities with health services.

Following this recognition and the success of the original model, further lottery funding was awarded to develop the Champion model and use it to engage champions, communities and health services (Wellbeing 2).

Co-production of health and wellbeing outcomes

The model was applied to health services specifically with the aim of addressing the apparent disconnect between the NHS and community-based services. It helps connect both patients with support in their communities and professional practices with those communities.

Many citizens have volunteered in different ways and in different settings. These include:

  • Practice Health Champions working closely with their General Practice to create new ways for patients to access non-clinical support
  • Youth Health Champions where children and young people are recruited, trained and supported to help young people more actively engage with and influence their own and their community’s health
  • Pregnancy and early years Health Champions who are interested in giving children a better start
  • Health Champions working within a specialist, hospital-based NHS service
  • Senior Health Champions who engage with older people, offering a complimentary approach to more formal programmes

Community-based health improvement initiatives such as this could help to strengthen community-professional partnerships and cross-collaboration among health, social and other services. And this in turn could lead to a reduction in health inequalities.

Positive outcomes

According to a recent evaluation of the Health Champions programme, Wellbeing 2 has resulted in a range of benefits:

  • 86% of champions and 94% of participants in the programme reported increased levels of confidence and well-being;
  • 87% of champions and 94% of participants in the programme acquired significant new knowledge related to health and well-being;
  • 98% of champions and 99% of participants in the programme reported increased involvement in social activities and social groups;
  • 95% of practice staff involved with the programme would recommend it and wish to continue.

Other benefits included reduced social isolation, increased levels of exercise/healthy eating and feeling physically better. One champion reported “this has helped me more than any medication might.”

Success stories  include the work of a cycle champion who has improved her own health and wellbeing, encouraged over 70 other people to improve theirs through taking up cycling, provided cycle training to over 50 people in 6 community groups and provided specific detailed help to 5 people.

Other successes have involved volunteers setting up football training, providing support to women with mental health issues, providing advice and support to ethnic minorities and providing advice on healthy eating.

In terms of monetary value, an  analysis of the social return on investment (SROI) of a series of Altogether Better project beneficiaries found a positive SROI of between £0.79 and £112.42 for every pound invested, highlighting the potential value of these initiatives to funders.

Final thoughts

At a time of increasing demands on health services and with the relentless squeeze on public sector resources, perhaps the move towards greater community empowerment and collaboration across sectors is the right one. After all, as I’m sure we’d all agree, prevention is better than cure.


If you liked this blog post, you might also want to read Heather’s earlier post on social prescribing

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Neighbourhood planning – the current state of play

communitygroup

By Alan Gillies

Following the May 2015 General Election, the only Conservative minister to be replaced in the resulting cabinet reshuffle was Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The appointment in his place of Greg Clark, dubbed “the architect of localism” and the person who “invented neighbourhood planning”, reinforces the government’s commitment to the neighbourhood planning system. Just a few weeks later the Queen’s speech confirmed that there would be legislation with provisions “to simplify and speed up the neighbourhood planning system, to support communities that seek to meet local housing and other development needs through neighbourhood planning”.

The Localism Act 2011

The neighbourhood planning system was introduced by the Localism Act in 2011. At that time Greg Clark was the minster responsible for the legislation’s passage through Parliament. He described it then as “as a powerful option [for communities] to come together and decide, collectively, what their neighbourhood should look like in future; where new shops and offices should go; and which green spaces are most important to the community.” (Clark, 2011)

The Act gives residents and businesses in a neighbourhood the option to do two things: create a neighbourhood development plan for their area; propose that a particular development or sort of development should automatically get planning permission in their area (neighbourhood development order/community right to build order). Neighbourhood plans must be subject to a public consultation period, expert examination and a local referendum. But once passed at referendum, local planning authorities are required to adopt the plan and give it weight, along with the local plan and national planning policy, in determining planning applications.

Progress so far

Earlier this year the government celebrated the milestone of fifty neighbourhood development plans passing the referendum stage. However, the fifty or so plans already approved are just the tip of the iceberg. In total around 1,400 communities are now involved at one stage or another in the formal neighbourhood planning process.  6.1 million people in England live in a designated ‘neighbourhood area’ (i.e. one formally designated as an area to be covered by a neighbourhood plan) – representing around 11% of the population. But, of course, that still means that 89% of the population is not yet involved.

Going forward

Whether this level of activity can be regarded as satisfactory progress and evidence of a real public appetite for neighbourhood planning depends on your point of view. But either way, the neighbourhood planning process represents a new mechanism for involving and empowering more people in the difficult decisions that the planning system has always faced – which can surely only be a good thing for those who become involved. And with the new government reiterating its importance, and a new minister in place who sees it as fundamental to localism, neighbourhood planning is here to stay.

The challenge, and legal requirement, for planners is to provide support to neighbourhoods to become involved.

References

Clark, Greg. A licence to innovate, IN MJ magazine, 17 Nov 2011, p15


 

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