Hidden in plain sight – the value of green spaces

jardin public

By Heather Cameron

They may be something most of us see every day but take for granted – the area of green space we pass on our way to work or frequent in our lunch break. And although we might make use of such spaces on a regular basis, is the true value of them really understood?

As highlighted by a recent report from the Land Trust, green spaces provide even more to society than we often think about.

Wider value

It has long been recognised that green spaces provide multiple benefits to communities and wider society, but there has been limited robust evidence on their wider economic value. The Land Trust report highlights that the services delivered by soil, grass, flowers, trees and water provide society and the economy with significant benefits.

It suggests that several important functions are provided by these green spaces, including:

  • Reducing and preventing flooding
  • Cleaning our water
  • Storing and removing carbon
  • Cleaning our air, reducing air pollution

Such functions help to alleviate costs to local and wider communities, such as to the health service, other public services and local businesses. Previous research has similarly alluded to such benefits.

Independent research by UK scientists in 2011 highlighted the true value of nature in relation to the economic, health and social benefits, estimating that it was worth billions of pounds to the UK economy.

Other research has also shown that green space has been linked to reduced levels of obesity in children and young people, and that access to open spaces is associated with higher levels of physical activity and reductions in a number of long-term conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and musculoskeletal conditions.

The proportion of green and open space is also linked to self-reported levels of health and mental health, through improved companionship, sense of identity and belonging and happiness. And living in areas with green spaces is associated with less income-related health inequality, thereby reducing the effect of deprivation on health.

What the Land Trust’s report does differently, is demonstrate these widely recognised benefits in physical and monetary terms to help create a greater understanding of the economic contribution of well-managed green spaces.

Natural capital accounting

A ‘natural capital accounting’ approach was taken to translate these benefits into financial terms, taking consideration of the physical land, its quality, how it is managed, used and the functions it performs.

Two different parks – Silverdale Country Park in the Midlands and Beam Parklands in London – were used in the study to demonstrate this value. Overall, Silverdale’s annual natural capital value was estimated to be £2.6 million, with a return on investment of £35 for every £1 invested, while Beam Parklands’ natural capital value, based on a 99 year period, has been valued at £42 million – an increase of £21 million since 2009.

Other benefits provided by Silverdale include:

  • Nearly £400,000 per year of flood risk reduction benefits
  • An annual value of £82,000 for the park and its maintenance to retain and purify water
  • A wider annual value of £840,000 of absorbed and stored carbon
  • A potential increase of 113% in local air pollution absorption since 2011

Other benefits provided by Beam Parklands (primarily a flood defence) include:

  • Nearly £600,000 per year of flood risk reduction benefits
  • Nearly £800,000 per year of educational and health benefits to the local community

As two well-maintained green spaces, they indicate the importance of long-term investment.

Final thoughts

Perhaps these financial values will help people to better comprehend the true value of our green spaces. As the report notes, it is important to remember that they are “not ‘one off’ monetary values or price tags” but rather an indication of what our green spaces are worth and their benefits to both society and the economy.

Put simply, as the Land Trust concludes, “green spaces… are valuable to society”.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our previous articles on pocket parks and green spaces.

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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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If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other smart cities articles:

Is it time to start building on the Green Belt?

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The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.”
William Blake, 1799

The forthcoming Housing White Paper from the Department for Communities and Local Government is expected to tackle the thorny issue of the Green Belt. Initially due for publication at the end of 2016, the paper has now been delayed twice, heightening speculation about its contents.

The Telegraph has suggested that councils are likely to be encouraged to make greater use of the controversial policy of ‘green belt swaps’. Green Belt swaps allow councils to remove protections on one part of green belt in return for creating a new area of protected land elsewhere.  This may enable councils to better meet demand for housing.  Current planning legislation for Green Belt swaps already exists, but often fails to work in practice. Proposals are often rejected at the planning stage due to the newly identified land failing to meet Green Belt definitions. The Times indicates that the White Paper may contain a more aggressive approach towards the use of the Green Belt for housing.

Potential benefits

There is no denying the need for more housing.  In general, experts agree that a minimum of 200,000 new homes will be needed each year in order to keep up with demand.

Recent government statistics on Green Belt in England in 2015/16 estimated that it covered around 13% of the land area of England. It has been argued that development on just 1% of reclassified Green Belt would allow for almost half a million new homes to be built. However, building upon the Green Belt provokes much passionate debate.

Proponents of green belt flexibility argue that:

Paul Cheshire, Professor Emeritus of Economic Geography, LSE, argues that many opponents of building on the Green Belt hold a romanticised image of the nature of the land, which is not truly representative of the majority of Green Belt land.

“Of course parts of the Green Belts are real environmental and amenity treasures, such as the beautiful bits of rolling Hertfordshire, the Chilterns or the North Downs. Or rather, the beautiful bits to which there is public access. Such areas really need to be preserved against development. But almost all Green Belt land is privately owned, so the only access is if there are viable public rights of way.”

He goes on to suggest selective building on the least attractive parts of Green Belts, which are close to cities where people want to live.

A similar sentiment is found in the recent LSE report ‘A 21st Century Metropolitan Green Belt’. Dr Alan Mace, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Studies at LSE (one of the authors of the report) concludes that:

“People often look at the Green Belt and say, ‘who would want to lose this?’ but often they’re looking at land that is protected in other ways, such as Metropolitan Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and this would not change. Some parts of the Green Belt are neither aesthetically pleasing nor environmentally valuable and these are the areas that should be looked at for potential development.”

Potential limitations

However, Green Belt swaps are not without potential problems.  For example, Shelter has cautioned that Green Belt flexibility “could create a mini industry in speculative land trading in Green Belt areas, making cheap land release much harder as landowners hold out for high prices”.

There is also much opposition to building on the Green Belt among the general public and environmental groups. Paul Miner, planning campaign manager at CPRE, is concerned that the Green Belt is being chipped away, arguing that, among its benefits, the Green Belt:

“…continues to provide impetus for urban regeneration, and makes environmental and economic sense in protecting the breathing space around our towns and cities.”

Perhaps Rowan Moore, writing in the Guardian, neatly describes the desire of many to protect the Green Belt when he states “The fact that it is named in the singular, although there are many green belts, indicates its status as an idea, even an ideal, as well as a place. It is part of English, if not British, national identity, protected by the shade of William Blake”.

Future policy

The government has remained tight-lipped on the contents of the White Paper, but if they do choose to include Green Belt swaps as a key feature of the paper, they will face an uphill battle in tackling public perception and reassuring environmental and conservation groups.

Reconciling these differences of opinion will not be easy.  Ensuring that there is no overall loss in the total land area and overall quality of the Green Belt will no doubt be a key step towards addressing this.


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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. 

Reflections from the Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference

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The theme of this year’s conference posed a question to speakers and delegates of the conference: is the current planning climate in Scotland presenting “new opportunities, or more of the same?”

Delegates came together in the COSLA building in Edinburgh to discuss all areas of planning and environmental law in Scotland. The gathering included a range of organisations and sectors, including lawyers and solicitors, planners, engineers, academics and civil servants.

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Image by Rebecca Jackson

The morning session focused on energy, infrastructure and economic development. Ross Martin (@SCDIChief), chief executive of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry kicked the day off with a discussion of place making in Scotland. He highlighted the economic benefit of good planning, noting that when it is done well planning has a core role in economic development strategies and can facilitate growth within an area.

This was followed by a discussion from Professor Becky Lunn from the University of Strathclyde who gave delegates some interesting food for thought in her discussion of the environmental, economic and moral consequences of Scotland’s energy choices.  A day after Ineos imported its first container of US shale gas to its Grangemouth refinery, Professor Lunn told delegates, that no energy solution is problem free, but “if we (Scotland) say no to the domestic production of gas and nuclear energy we are saying yes to something else”- the demand needs to be met regardless of whether the energy is produced in the UK or not. She questioned the moral arguments that it could be acceptable to import shale from elsewhere, while we are not content enough with the level of safety, the security of regulation and its wider environmental impact to do it ourselves (something which was picked up on by Ruth Davidson later that same day in FMQ’s). Professor Lunn advocated a strong public element to discussion, and a robust and well-informed debate around long term energy choices. She also warned against “crisis led” energy policy-making dictated by rhetoric of “fear and shortage”.

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Head of planning at Homes for Scotland, Tammy Adams (@TammyHFS) discussed the delivery of high quality homes in Scotland within the wider planning context. She highlighted the challenges and opportunities for house building, arguing that delivering new homes in Scotland should be “a golden thread” running through the Scottish planning system, and that an effort should be made to better align market realities and site strategy, but maintain flexibility of delivery.

The penultimate session of the morning was delivered by Sara Thiam, director of the Institution of Civil Engineers Scotland. She looked at the role of infrastructure and planning. Sara discussed the potential of devolution to city regions to grow the economy by allowing city regions to plan and build infrastructure which reflects their local social and economic needs. She also spoke about the need to be strategic about infrastructure choices, not just pushing increased finance for infrastructure, but targeting it strategically, investing in green infrastructure where possible, and thinking long-term about projects and desired outcomes.

The morning was brought to a close by event sponsors Terra Firma Chambers who provided some useful insights into  up-to-date case law, including notable cases that many delegates could draw on for their day to day decision making and planning submissions.

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Image by Rebecca Jackson

The afternoon session opened with a panel session which featured insights from four speakers: Greg Lloyd, Emeritus Professor of Urban Planning at Ulster University; Craig McLaren, RTPI Director of Scotland and Ireland; John McNairney, Chief Planner at the Scottish Government; and John Hamilton, CEO Winchburgh. The discussions focussed on the new opportunities presented in planning in Scotland, including the review of planning, building homes, creating more joined up planning and the planning process more generally. Discussions were wide ranging, generating a lot of interaction both within the panel and between the panel and the delegates. The discussions were wrapped up by a second case law update.

The final presentation of the day was delivered by Steve Rogers, Head of Planning and Regulatory Services at Dumfries and Galloway Council and Chair of Heads of Planning Scotland. He spoke about his experiences with smart resourcing and the importance of leadership in planning.

Overall it was a day full of insight and expertise, which provided everyone who attended with the opportunity to think critically about the state of planning in Scotland from a number of different positions. It posed questions to be considered, allowed delegates to reflect on their day to day practice and highlighted opportunities and potential barriers for planning in Scotland in the future.


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Ecotherapy in practice: nature based mental health care

Ecotherapy, also known as nature-based or green care is an alternative therapy for people suffering from mental health issues. It can be delivered as an individual treatment or in combination with traditional medicinal and talking-based treatments. Charities and research has suggested that it can reduce depression, anger, anxiety and stress as well as improving self-esteem and increasing emotional resilience.

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The mental health charity MIND emphasises the positive health benefits, commenting that ecotherapy:

  • is accessible
  • can take place in both urban and rural settings in parks, gardens, farms and woodlands
  • works through people either working in nature or experiencing nature

It can be structured or more informal, with some areas providing therapist led classes while elements of ecotherapy, such as taking walks or gardening, can also be done without specialist supervision, on your own or with family members and friends.

AAT and AAI (Animal Assisted Interventions and Animal Assisted Therapy)

This form of therapy uses guided contact with animals such as horses or dogs. It is becoming increasingly popular in university settings, with dog cafes or dog rooms during student mental health weeks or during exam times to help alleviate student exam stress. Pet therapy has also been shown to be effective with children and young people who suffer from anxiety or who have experienced trauma, and for elderly people suffering from dementia.

Therapy could be one to one or in a group and could also be delivered to people who are in residential care setting. AAT can also be used to assist mobility and coordination or simply to spend relaxed time with animals where patients can feed or pet them. This interaction can promote bonding between the individual and animal which has been found to reduce stress and anxiety.

Nature Arts and Craft Therapy

Nature based art therapy takes inspiration from nature to create and provide materials to create art work. This type of therapy can also include social and therapeutic horticulture (STH). This can be a particularly effective form of nature based intervention as it can be adapted to suit a wide range of mobility and abilities and could potentially lead to work experience or the sale of goods created, which in itself can build self-confidence and transferable skills.

Adventure Therapy

This therapy focusses on using physical activities to encourage psychological support, It includes activities such as rafting, rock climbing and caving. Often done in a group, this type of therapy aims to build trust and raise confidence. While it can be strenuous, less able individuals can take part in green exercise therapy, which largely includes walks and rambling, or wilderness therapy (which includes physical group and team activities such as making shelters and hiking).

Effectiveness of ecotherapy

In February 2016, Natural England published A review of nature-based interventions for mental health care, which considered the benefits and outcomes of approaches to green care or ecotherapy for mental ill health.

One of the main challenges the report highlights is to increase the availability of green therapies in order to make the practice more normalised within treatment. The authors also speak about the importance of standardising the use of terms such as ‘ecotherapy’, ‘green care’ and ‘nurture based interventions’ to allow people to fully understand what different interventions entail. The report makes nine recommendations, including:

  • expanding the evidence base around green therapy
  • increasing the scale of commissioning of green care initiatives
  • increasing collaboration between the green care sector and health and social care practitioners

Ecotherapy is still not widely accepted as a mainstream approach to mental health treatment. However, it is increasingly being offered as a combination therapy alongside traditional drug-or talking-based interventions. Advocates of ecotherapy hope that this will lead to wider acceptance of the approach and the positive effect it can have on people who suffer from mental ill health.

Advocates emphasise the holistic and person-centred benefits of ecotherapy, which has been shown to improve physical health as well as mental wellbeing. As the video below demonstrates, it increases social skills and in many instances can help people build new or develop existing skills which can help them enter, or re-enter employment. Potentially this may also reduce the burden on care and community mental health services.


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Flood prevention and protection: how the Dutch do it

Dredging to make a new canal and new recreation area, for flood control, Nijmegen, Netherlands. Image by Steven Vance via Creative Commons

“Every time there is a crisis, we see an opportunity”
– Jan Hendrik Dronkers, director general, Netherlands Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment

It’s been another stormy weekend, with large parts of the UK experiencing damage and disruption from high winds and flooding. Storm Gertrude is the latest in a succession of storms to hit the country since December. Thousands of homes and businesses have been flooded, not only in rural areas, but in the city centres of Leeds, York and Manchester. The storms have also left stretches of Dumfries and Galloway, the Scottish Borders and Aberdeenshire under water. And in Cumbria, one especially hard hit village has been flooded four times in eight weeks.

Although unprecedented, the most recent storms to hit the UK follow significant flooding events over the past decade. A report by the Met Office in 2011 suggested that this exceptional run of bad weather may be part of a trend towards more intense rainfall.

The increasing prevalence of flooding in the UK has put additional pressures on local and national government. Local councils have had to make provision for those made homeless, inform householders about support, repair roads and support the emergency services. At a wider level, initiatives, such as the Scottish Government’s flood prevention action plan, and the review of flood defence investment in England are indicative of how seriously the problem is now being viewed (although one recent opinion poll indicates that more needs to be done). The human costs of flooding are incalculable, but the economic impact is significant. Research by the Environment Agency estimated that record-breaking floods in 2012 could have cost the UK economy close to £600m.

Flood prevention in the Netherlands: making a virtue out of a crisis

In the Netherlands, where 60 per cent of the population lives below sea level, the threat from flooding has been an ever-present worry for hundreds of years. But in recent decades, the risks have appeared to be escalating. In 1953, a severe storm in the North Sea caused floodwater to inundate south-west Holland, resulting in 1800 fatalities (the same storm killed more than 300 people in the UK).

The Dutch response to the 1953 flooding was the Delta Project, a system of dams, sluices, locks, dykes, levees, and storm surge barriers, intended to prevent similar disasters striking again.

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The Hartelkering storm surge barrier in Spijkenisse, Netherlands, part of the Delta Works project .  Image: Quistnix at nl.wikipedia via Creative Commons

Making room for the river

In 1993 and again in 1995, the focus of concern shifted to the south-east of the Netherlands, when heavy rains threatened to breach the dikes holding back the waters of the Meuse and Waal rivers. Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, and although the flood defences held, the experience came as a profound shock to the country. “We thought we were prepared for everything,” an infrastructure and environment ministry official told The Surveyor magazine, “We thought evacuation was for other countries.”

This time, the Dutch responded with the Room for the River programme. The spatial development scheme not only involves the construction of higher, stronger dikes, but also the creation of wider, deeper floodplains. These give rivers additional space, reducing the chance of flooding elsewhere. The project has also involved difficult decisions, including the displacement of 200 families. But the near-catastrophes of 1993 and 1995 brought home that there was no alternative to relocation.

While the Dutch government is funding the €2.3bn project, it is being delivered in collaboration with local authorities, water boards and private sector partners. As well as improving flood defences, the project has generated some impressive spin-offs.  In Holland’s oldest city of Nijmegen, a completely new island has been formed from a flood control channel, providing additional land for housing and recreation. In effect, a new section of the city is being created from the river that once threatened to submerge it.

Learning from experience

At the end of 2015, as Storm Frank brought further misery to many residents across the UK, an analysis found that 10,000 homes are being built on floodplains in Britain each year. Although many of these may be protected by existing flood defences, recent flood events provide cause for concern.

Hard experience has reminded the Netherlands that flooding is a natural function of rivers. Instead of fighting the elements, the Dutch are becoming experts in water management, and offering advice to other flood-prone countries, such as Bangladesh and Vietnam. Perhaps the UK can also learn from the Holland’s flood resilience know-how: it may be time to look across the water.


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Further blog posts from The Knowledge Exchange on flooding and climate change:

Fossil fuel divestment:an idea whose time has come?

Introduction

Within just a few years, fossil fuel divestment has overtaken previous campaigns targeting apartheid in South Africa and tobacco advertising to become the fastest growing divestment movement in history.

In September, a report from Arabella Advisors found that 436 institutions and 2,040 individuals across 43 countries and representing $2.6 trillion in assets had committed to divest from fossil fuel companies.

What is Fossil Fuel Divestment?

Organisations, communities and individuals commit to fossil fuel divestment (FFD) by making a public pledge to stop buying stocks, bonds and investment funds from energy companies whose primary business relies upon coal, gas or oil. They also promise to invest in climate solutions, such as clean energy and sustainable agriculture.

Who’s involved in FFD?

The roots of the FFD movement may be found in the college campuses of the United States, where student campaigning has resulted in around 40 educational institutions (including the universities of California, Georgetown and Stanford) making full or partial divestments from fossil fuels.

The movement has spread rapidly beyond the education sector, taking in religious groups, municipalities, NGOs and healthcare organisations. While most divesting institutions are US-based, FFD has also become a worldwide movement, with the cities of Oslo in Norway and Uppsala in Sweden, and the Australian Capital Territory Government making their own commitments. Pledges to divest from fossil fuels have also been made by some surprising sources, including the Australian city of Newcastle (home to the largest coal port in the world) and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune).

In the UK, the FFD movement has also seen exponential growth. Last year, the University of Glasgow became the first academic institution in Europe to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Since then, other higher education institutions, including the universities of Oxford and Surrey and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) have made pledges to reduce their fossil fuel investments.

Four UK local authorities – Oxford, Bristol, Kirklees and Cambridge – have committed to FFD, while councils in York, Bradford, Reading and Hackney are reviewing their fossil fuel investments.

Other high-profile organisations committing to FFD include the British Medical Association and the Environment Agency’s pension fund.

The factors driving FFD

Moral and economic arguments have converged to propel fossil fuel divestment. FFD advocates say it’s morally wrong to profit from climate change, a view powerfully expressed by Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

“Just as we argued in the 1980s that those who conducted business with apartheid South Africa were aiding and abetting an immoral system, we can say that nobody should profit from the rising temperatures, seas, and human suffering caused by the burning of fossil fuels.”

There is also a growing recognition in the business world of the financial risks associated with investment in fossil fuels. As the Arabella Advisors report observed:

“Reports by Citigroup analysts, HSBC, Mercer, the International Energy Agency, Bank of England, Carbon Tracker Initiative, and others have offered evidence of a significant, quantifiable risk to portfolios exposed to fossil fuel assets in a carbon constrained world. The leaders of several of the largest institutions to divest in the past year have cited climate risk to investment portfolios as a key factor in their decisions.”

At the same time, falling costs have made renewable energy more attractive both to consumers and investors, although investment in clean energy is far from the estimated $1 trillion annually needed to limit global warming to 2˚C.

Resistance and resurgence

FFD is not without its critics, and some organisations have resisted pressure to change.  Last month the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) rejected calls to divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry. Instead, MIT argued that engaging with the fossil fuels industry was a more effective way to address climate change. Similarly, Harvard University has declined to stop buying fossil fuel company stocks, claiming its research and teaching contributes to a better understanding of global warming.

But FFD campaigners are not backing down. In May the University of Edinburgh ruled out a wholesale sell-off of its £27m investments in oil, gas and coal companies. However, after a 10-day occupation by students the university clarified its position, and announced it would fully divest from three of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers within six months.

There is also growing pressure on local authority pension funds to reduce their fossil fuel investments. In September, it was reported that UK local government pension funds hold over £14 billion in coal, oil and gas companies.

The focus now shifts to the UN Climate Change Conference, starting today in Paris. Divestment campaigners are making it clear that they expect governments attending the Paris summit to follow the lead of the FFD movement by committing to phase out support for the consumption and production of fossil fuels.


 

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Further reading

A beginner’s guide to fossil fuel divestment

The case for fossil-fuel divestment

Eco-Cultures: blending arts and the environment

Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, with the "Concrete Antenna"

Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, with the “Concrete Antenna” Image: John Lord via Creative Commons

By James Carson

To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it.
Wendell Berry

The worlds of place and imagination came together last weekend at EcoCultures, Glasgow’s festival of environmental research, policy and practice. With over 40 presentations covering topics as diverse as land reform, poetry, sculpture and urban ecology, the festival provided numerous opportunities to learn how artists, scientists and community activists are responding in very different ways to their environments.

Sharing a sense of place

For Rebecca Crowther, exploring shared experiences of nature is important for understanding notions of belonging. Rebecca’s PhD thesis is based on collecting and truthfully representing stories, watching people interact with the natural world, and collaboratively documenting experiences using journals and photographs. As Rebecca observed: “The stories people tell about places reveal which places matter to them, and why.”

Community gardens

Blair Cunningham’s presentation also highlighted the value of places for collective sharing. As part of a larger body of research looking at Glasgow’s growing network of community gardens, Blair was commissioned to create an artist book to explore some of the issues raised by the research, such as community empowerment and social inclusion.

ArtistBook

Blair Cunningham’s Artist Book. Image produced by permission of Aye-Aye Books

He described the process of identifying these community gardens, some of which are hidden from view, but still very-well used by their communities. As well as providing spaces for growing plants, fruit and vegetables, community gardens are also meeting places, with many offering learning opportunities, such as cookery classes. However, they are also engaged in a battle to survive. While some are dependent on grant funding, others rely on the good will of landowners, which may be withdrawn if the land can be sold for property development. Even so, the numbers of community gardens in Glasgow continue to grow.

Environmental policy

Growth of a different kind was under discussion at the environmental policy session.  Luke Devlin, from the Centre for Human Ecology, noted that the consumerist way of life had emerged as a significant measure of growth, and that very little policy was challenging that narrative. Growth, at any cost, he argued, means people and natural resources have become expendable. With 2015 likely to be the hottest on record for the planet, Luke held out little optimism for the outcome of the UN climate change talks next month in Paris.

However, Patrick Harvie MSP, from the Scottish Green Party offered some signs of hope. When the Green Party was established in 1973, he observed, recycling was regarded as something of an oddball activity. But now, he said, recycling is seen as imperative for households, companies and local authorities. Every political party in the Scottish Parliament supports climate change targets, and MSPs are held to account for their environmental policies. Another measure of progress, he suggested, was the recent speech given by Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, warning bankers and insurers on the risks of climate change, something unthinkable a decade ago.

All of this, Patrick argued, was still not enough, but politicians had to remind people that further progress was still possible:  “We cannot engage with the public on the basis that we’re all doomed.”

The artist’s response to climate change

Throughout the day, artists provided evidence of creative responses to environmental change. Rob St John showed a film about the “Concrete Antenna”, a sound installation at Newhaven, near Edinburgh. The antenna evokes the site’s various histories as a blacksmith, a railway siding and now a thriving creative workshop beside a wildlife-rich cycle route.

Later, Marlene Creates explained the development of her Boreal Poetry Garden in six acres of forest outside St John’s, Newfoundland. During the summer months, Marlene leads visitors on a walk through the garden, pausing to read site-specific poems. Sometimes, special guests, such as geologists or musicians will add further dimensions to the walk.

The garden is Marlene’s way of raising awareness about the threat to the Boreal forest, which covers a vast area across Canada, Russia, Scandinavia and a small part of Scotland. As Marlene observed, its immensity is no guarantee of its protection from climate change and deforestation. Even in her own neighbourhood, she reported, parts of the forest are being converted to lawns.

Like many of the contributions to the EcoCultures event, Marlene’s poetry garden served as a reminder that individuals and communities are finding ever-more creative ways to describe, protect and live with their ever-changing environment.

 

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Biodiversity in the UK – it’s not just about habitat protection but how we live our lives

By Morwen Johnson

When we talk about preserving biodiversity many people will assume it’s something that’s only an issue in far-flung places like the Amazon rainforest. England however has at least 55,000 species of animals, plants and fungi, and over a thousand of these are at risk. This includes familiar species such as hedgehogs, red squirrels, the small tortoiseshell butterfly, and birds such as house sparrows and starlings.

Small changes can make a big difference

Protecting habitats is a vital part of conservation – and the UK is lucky to have such diverse landscapes. While sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs), areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks all provide legal protection for the environment, it’s not all about large-scale conservation. Biodiversity can be supported at the local or neighbourhood level too.

Green infrastructure can help create habitat corridors for wildlife. We wrote recently about a new partnership between the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Barratt Developments looking at how the design of new housing developments can be wildlife-friendly. Another industry initiative is the BIG Challenge which encourages developers to add one new biodiversity enhancement to their construction site, development or existing building.

The shift to neighbourhood planning has also given communities more opportunities to improve their local environment. As well as mapping and protecting existing green assets, neighbourhood plans also enable communities to enhance or create new habitat areas.

This grassroots interest in the environment is reflected in other alternative approaches to making conservation relevant to the public, many of whom live in towns and cities.

Headlines were created earlier this year, with the suggestion that London should be rebranded as the Greater London National Park City. Many people don’t realise that 47% of London is already green space and has over eight million trees. The London Assembly has supported the campaign, with Assembly Member Jenny Jones saying in June: “This initiative could ensure that nature is included in every aspect of London’s urban fabric.

Inspiration from further afield can be found in the Rouge National Urban Park which was formally established in Canada in May 2015. A ‘national urban park’ is a new category in Parks Canada’s protected areas alongside national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas.

Biodiversity offsetting

While this is all positive news, there is a potentially different story emerging at the same time. In England, DEFRA consulted on the idea of biodiversity offsetting in 2013. This is a market-based mechanism that aims to compensate for biodiversity loss as a result of development, through conservation activities that deliver an equivalent amount of biodiversity elsewhere. The results of the consultation have still not been published, but it may be that the idea is still on the government’s agenda.

The question of whether a monetary value can be placed on biodiversity or whether one established habitat can just be replaced by another one, is controversial. The British Ecological Society reported on recent research which identified the risks of implementing offsetting without fully understanding the consequences. How the government chooses to take biodiversity offsetting forward will be a key test of the principle of evidence-based policymaking, and their wider approach to the environment.

Social aspects of biodiversity policy

In June 2015 the Scottish Government published Scotland’s Biodiversity: a Route Map to 2020 setting out how the goals in Scotland’s biodiversity strategy are to be achieved. Seven main pressures are identified: pollution, land-use intensification and modification, spread of invasive species and wildlife disease, lack of recognition of the value of nature, disconnection with nature, climate change, and marine exploitation.

Writing in August’s issue of the Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal, Professor Colin Reid of the University of Dundee notes that two of the priorities “deal with our relationship with nature rather than direct physical impact.” This suggests an appreciation that protecting our environment “calls for a pervasive change of mind-set as opposed to simply stopping particular harmful activities.”

Professor Reid also says that the focus on actions related to natural capital and greenspace elements reflect a “greater emphasis on the pervasive and social aspects of biodiversity policy.”

A healthy natural environment can only be achieved if regard for nature is integrated into how we live our lives. Biodiversity policy is now making this connection more explicit and the challenge, perhaps, is to ensure that this is reciprocated in other areas, such as planning”.


Reference

Colin T Reid ‘Big steps for biodiversity‘ IN Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal, No 170 Aug 2015, p78

Morwen Johnson is Managing Editor of Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal.

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