Science in the city: applying neuroscience to urban design

Cities have long been considered primarily in terms of their buildings and infrastructure.  However, in recent years, a more ‘human-centric’ view has been adopted – focusing on the people who inhabit the city, and how they perceive and respond to the city that surrounds them.

Research from a variety of disciplines agree that buildings and cities have a significant impact upon the people – from their physical and mental health, cognitive development, and wellbeing to their levels of productivity.

Neuroscience offers a new way to further explore this impact – and by doing so, help urban design professionals to create places that promote human health and wellbeing, whilst mitigating the negative impacts of the city environment as far as possible.

 

What is neuroscience?

But what exactly is neuroscience?  And how does it relate to urban design?

A recent report by FutureCatapult looks at how neuroscience can be used to improve the design of urban places, and thus increase human wellbeing and productivity.

It defines neuroscience as “a multidisciplinary branch of biology and is the scientific study of the brain and nervous system, including its interaction with the other parts of the body”.

There are various ‘scales’ or ‘levels’ of neuroscience – from cognitive psychology, right down to the study of individual cells in the brain.  Each level of neuroscience studies different aspects of how the brain functions, and thus offers different ways to explore and understand how humans perceive, respond to and are affected by their surrounding environments.  It has many applications in real life – and one such application is informing city strategy, design and policy.

 

Applying neuroscience research to urban design

Take mental health, for example.  It is a prime example of an area in which neuroscience can be used by city planners and policymakers to help improve human wellbeing.

As FutureCatapult point out in their report, cities have a greater prevalence of mental health problems than rural areas.

They note that several factors associated with cities have been found to contribute to mental health problems. These include certain toxins (produced by traffic, industrial parks), environmental stressors (noise and light pollution), climate conditions (urban heat islands) and social conditions (isolation).  Neuroscience offers a greater understanding how these factors impact on human health and wellbeing, thus creating an evidence base for the design of healthy places.

There are many other ways in which neuroscience research can inform city design.  For example, it has been found that:

  • poor air quality has serious detrimental effects on the natural developments of children’s brains
  • social isolation can accelerate cognitive decline in older people
  • an increase in noise decreases worker productivity
  • light influences brain function during specific cognitive tasks, especially those requiring sustained attention

Such findings can help inform the decisions made by city planners and policymakers, and help create cities that maximise human health, wellbeing and productivity.

Research into the brain’s ‘wayfinding’ processes – that is, how the brain processes visual information and makes sense of unfamiliar environments – is also of interest.  For example, how do people choose which paths to follow?  Are they influenced by street size, shape, colours, noise, or the number of cars? Such information could be used to inform the design of streets and places that are easier to navigate. This is of growing importance given the drive towards the design of inclusive and dementia-friendly places.

Relatedly, neuroscience offers a way to gain a deeper understanding of how non-neurotypical brains process and respond to different environments – for example, people with dementia or autism.  Understanding these different perspectives and responses is key to the creation of spaces that are truly inclusive.

 

Neuroscience in action

But how exactly does one go about examining how brain cells respond to an urban environment?

There are a variety of neuroscience tools that may be used to gather information about human’s experience of the city.

A key tool is mobile electroencephalography (EEG).  Previously, EEG involved equipment that could only be used in a laboratory.  However, technological advances have seen the development of mobile EEG ‘headsets’ that can be worn as research participants navigate different streets and environments of the city.

Mobile EEG enables researchers to measure brain function and activity, as well as the responses of the autonomic nervous system (heart rate, skin conductivity, endocrinological levels).  This can be used to understand how individuals experience urban environments.

For example, mobile EEG has been used to help understand the urban experiences of people with visual impairments.  Other mobile EEG studies have looked at whether using quiet, low traffic streets has a different effect on pedestrians than using streets busy with shops, traffic and other pedestrians.

Eye tracking machines are another tool providing research findings of interest to urban designers.  They study gaze behaviours and cognition, which are in turn related to attention, memory, language, problem solving, and decision making.  Eye tracking can help researchers to understand which features catch and hold attention, visual preferences and experiences. For example, one eye-tracking study found (perhaps unsurprisingly) that humans prefer lush greenery in urban environments.

As these neurological research and related technologies advance, their application will undoubtedly become more sophisticated and widespread.

 

Building upon evidence

The urban population around the world is expanding rapidly and finding solutions to the mental and physical health challenges that cities present is crucial.

By understanding the insights that neuroscience can provide, city planners, policy makers and others involved in urban design can access a growing evidence base upon which to build future cities that are healthy, attractive and inclusive places to live.


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How urban farmers are learning to grow food without soil or natural light

Mandy Zammit/Grow Up, Author Provided

This guest blog was written by Silvio Caputo, Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture, University of Portsmouth.

Growing food in cities became popular in Europe and North America during and immediately after World War II. Urban farming provided citizens with food, at a time when resources were desperately scarce. In the decades that followed, parcels of land which had been given over to allotments and city farms were gradually taken up for urban development. But recently, there has been a renewed interest in urban farming – albeit for very different reasons than before.

As part of a recent research project investigating how urban farming is evolving across Europe, I found that in countries where growing food was embedded in the national culture, many people have started new food production projects. There was less uptake in countries such as Greece and Slovenia, where there was no tradition of urban farming. Yet a few community projects had recently been started in those places too.

Today’s urban farmers don’t just grow food to eat; they also see urban agriculture as a way of increasing the diversity of plants and animals in the city, bringing people from different backgrounds and age groups together, improving mental and physical health and regenerating derelict neighbourhoods.

Many new urban farming projects still struggle to find suitable green spaces. But people are finding inventive solutions; growing food in skips or on rooftops, on sites that are only temporarily free, or on raised beds in abandoned industrial yards. Growers are even using technologies such as hydroponics, aquaculture and aquaponics to make the most of unoccupied spaces.

Something fishy

Hydroponic systems were engineered as a highly space and resource efficient form of farming. Today, they represent a considerable source of industrially grown produce; one estimate suggests that, in 2016, the hydroponic vegetable market was worth about US$6.9 billion worldwide.

Hydroponics enable people to grow food without soil and natural light, using blocks of porous material where the plants’ roots grow, and artificial lighting such as low-energy LED. A study on lettuce production found that although hydroponic crops require significantly more energy than conventionally grown food, they also use less water and have considerably higher yields.

Growing hydroponic crops usually requires sophisticated technology, specialist skills and expensive equipment. But simplified versions can be affordable and easy to use.

Mandy Zammit/Grow Up, Author Provided

Hemmaodlat is an organisation based in Malmö, in a neighbourhood primarily occupied by low-income groups and immigrants. The area is densely built, and there’s no green space available to grow food locally. Plus, the Swedish summer is short and not always ideal for growing crops. Instead, the organisation aims to promote hydroponic systems among local communities, as a way to grow fresh food using low-cost equipment.

The Bristol Fish Project is a community-supported aquaponics farm, which breeds fish and uses the organic waste they produce to fertilise plants grown hydroponically. GrowUp is another aquaponics venture located in an East London warehouse – they grow food and farm fish using only artificial light. Similarly, Growing Underground is an enterprise that produces crops in tunnels, which were originally built as air raid shelters during World War II in London.

The next big thing?

The potential to grow food in small spaces, under any environmental conditions, are certainly big advantages in an urban context. But these technologies also mean that the time spent outdoors, weathering the natural cycles of the seasons, is lost. Also, hydroponic systems require nutrients that are often synthesised chemically – although organic nutrients are now becoming available. Many urban farmers grow their food following organic principles, partly because the excessive use of chemical fertilisers is damaging soil fertility and polluting groundwater.

To see whether these drawbacks would put urban growers off using hydroponic systems, my colleagues and I conducted a pilot study in Portsmouth. We installed small hydroponic units in two local community gardens, and interviewed volunteers and visitors to the gardens. Many of the people we spoke to were well informed about hydroponic technology, and knew that some of the vegetables sold in supermarkets today are produced with this system.

Many were fascinated by the idea of growing food without soil within their community projects, but at the same time reluctant to consume the produce because of the chemical nutrients used. A few interviewees were also uncomfortable with the idea that the food was not grown naturally. We intend to repeat this experiment in the near future, to see how public opinion changes over time.

And while we don’t think hydroponic systems can replace the enjoyment that growing food in soil can offer, they can save water and produce safe food, either indoors or outdoors, in a world with increasingly scarce resources. Learning to use these new technologies, and integrating them into existing projects, can only help to grow even more sustainable food.

As with many technological advancements, it could be that a period of slow acceptance will be followed by rapid, widespread uptake. Perhaps the fact that IKEA is selling portable hydroponic units, while hydroponic cabinets are on the market as components of kitchen systems, is a sign that this technology is primed to enter mainstream use.


Silvio Caputo is Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture, University of Portsmouth.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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‘Agent of Change’ protects music venues from noise complaints, but won’t stop them from closing

This guest blog was written by Marion Roberts, Professor of Urban Design, University of Westminster.

A Conservative minister for housing, a grey-haired Labour MP, ageing icons of rock and creative young people have formed an unlikely alliance in support of the Agent of Change (Planning) Bill. The proposed law, which will be discussed for the second time in the House of Commons on March 16, makes developers responsible for dealing with noise issues when they build new homes near music venues.

This all came about because people were worried about the high number of live music venues that were closing across the UK. The Greater London Authority (GLA) asked for a report on London’s grass roots music venues, only to find that 35% of them had been “lost” since 2007. Cities across the nation – from Glasgow to Manchester – have similar stories to tell, even though the government has recognised how important the music industry is for the economy.

So how did this happen? Many different governments since around the year 2000 have tried to get more flats and houses built in cities, because there aren’t enough for everyone who wants to live there. Many homes have been built on “brownfield” sites – where there used to be factories or warehouses, which are now used less or not at all. These types of places also offered spaces where creative entrepreneurs could set up new clubs, or take over existing venues and attract new customers with the offer of live music.

Buyer beware

But as people move into the new flats built on these sites (which they often pay a lot of money for) some inevitably complain about the noise coming from the venues. Venue owners in Shoreditch (one of London’s hip neighbourhoods) actually put up signs warning would-be buyers that there are live music venues in the area.

Up until now, these complaints caused big problems for music venue owners, because planning principles were not on their side. The onus was on them to ensure their neighbours weren’t disturbed by music and loud noises. But putting in proper soundproofing or keeping customers quiet can be difficult and expensive.

This doesn’t just affect the kind of places run on a shoe string on the outskirts of town. Even London’s mighty Ministry of Sound – which has been a mecca for House music lovers since 1991 – was caught up in a lengthy planning application for a tower block of flats nearby – a case which eventually ended in the flats having to be soundproofed.

A matter of principle

The way the planning system works, is that local authorities in England and Wales produce their own development plans, which must align with national policy as set out in a 2012 document called the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This document made a small move to protect venues, by saying that if they wanted to expand, then there should be no unreasonable restrictions. But it didn’t address the situation described above.

Some local authorities have already started to draw up their own policies, which put the burden of noise reduction measures firmly on the developer who is making the change – whether it’s for flats or other uses. This is the legal principle, known as the “Agent of Change”. The bill, now supported by government, will ensure that the principle is embedded in the NPPF – so all local authorities will have to follow it. It will also carry more weight in appeals against planning decisions.

Although the “Agent of Change” principle will help prevent live music venues from closing, it won’t be enough on its own. Sadly, it would not address other issues such as rising rents, hikes in rateable values and property owners preferring to redevelop their buildings into flats. For example, consultancy firm Nordicity estimated that a revaluation of business rates would cause a fifth of London’s grass roots venues to close. And London’s oldest LGBTQ venue, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, is still engaged in a battle to save it from redevelopment, by way of a community buy out.

Yet past examples show that people can save their local pubs from closure, whether through local campaigning or by taking ownership of the buildings. And to see creativity and culture, especially for young people, supported through the dusty corridors of parliament, is truly heart warming.


Marion Roberts is Professor of Urban Design, University of Westminster.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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What makes a city child-friendly?

In 1996, Unicef launched one of the first initiatives to promote a child-friendly approach to urban design – the Child Friendly Cities Initiative (CFCI).  Since then, interest in the design and development of ‘child-friendly cities’ has grown significantly.

In the UK, the CFCI has inspired a number of city-based initiatives that, while not officially part of the CFCI, have adopted its ethos.  Examples include the Bristol Child Friendly City (CFC) movementChild Friendly Leeds and Bath and North East Somerset Child Friendly City and Community.

There is a common perception that the provision of parks and playgrounds is sufficient to make an environment ‘child-friendly’.  However, in reality, many different aspects of the urban environment have significant impacts upon children’s health, wellbeing and development.

What do children want?

According to Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard, Founder and Director of the International Making Cities Liveable conferences:

There are three things that children need in their normal everyday world: face-to-face social interaction with a community of all ages; direct interaction with nature; and the chance to develop independence at every age

Indeed, research has consistently found similar overarching themes.

The role of good urban design

Good urban design clearly has a central role to play in the creation of such environments.  But what does this mean in practice?

One indicator of good urban design is the extent of children’s independent mobility. However, over the past few decades, this has declined significantly.  For example – the number of primary school children travelling home from school alone fell by 61% between 1970 and 2010. High traffic volumes and unwelcome public spaces are partly responsible for this.  These are two areas that planning can directly influence.

Studies have found that a carefully planned mix of accessible green spaces within a reasonably dense structure might provide the most child-friendly environment. A dense urban structure promotes active journeys to school (e.g. walking or cycling), increases independent mobility, and means that locations meaningful to children, such as parks and green spaces, are only a short distance away.

Other child-friendly design elements include:

  • parks, playgrounds and sports and community centres
  • zones with priority for pedestrians, players and cyclists
  • access to landscaped green areas, open spaces and nature
  • affordable and accessible transport options

For children living in poorer areas, opportunities for play in and around the street can be an important alternative to more costly leisure and recreational activities. Indeed, Play Streets where streets temporarily close to enable children to play have been successful in Bristol and London.

Similarly, a key theme to emerge from a report by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) was the importance of making provision for ‘slack space’ within the urban environment that is conducive to spontaneous re-use and re-invention by children and young people.

Ten top tips for building a child-friendly city

Leading child’s play researcher and advocate, Tim Gill, highlights a succinct 10-point checklist for child-friendliness, based on the work of a Vancouver urbanist and writer Jillian Glover. Important factors for building a more child-friendly city include density, family–oriented housing, walkability/bikeability, and access to nature.

Intergenerational interaction

Urban design not only influences the way that children use and access public spaces; it can also facilitate interaction between different generations. Flexible public spaces and community initiatives such as gardening and food-growing projects provide great opportunities for young and older people to come together.

Research by Future Cities Catapult has looked at ways of encouraging better intergenerational encounters in urban areas.  Examples include shared service hubs and ‘accidental’ encounters in public space.  There is a clear crossover between the needs of children and older people in cities.

Designing for teenagers

Of course, children have varied needs across their life course – from babies to older teenagers.  A study by Growing Up Boulder – a child-friendly city initiative in Boulder, Colorado, USA – found that some of teenagers’ most consistently requested features for public space included Wifi, affordable and diverse food options, and lighting and safety features.

A city that works for everyone

As well as addressing the different needs of different groups of children, there is also a need to cater for children and young people with specific needs, such as those on the autistic spectrum or those with disabilities.

As such, child-friendly urban design shares many of its principles with that of other movements, including the design of cities for older people, those with disabilities and those with dementia.  Indeed, many of its principles, such as improved road safety, walkability and accessibility of public transport, are of universal benefit, regardless of age or disability status.

As Peter Madden, Chief Executive of the Future Cities Catapult, has observed::

If a city works well for very old and very young people, it is likely to be a city that works for everyone”.


Keen to make your city more child-friendly?  Why not read our previous blog post on involving children in the town planning process.   

Idox Information Service members can also download our briefing on Planning a child-friendly city via our customer website.

Involving children and young people in town planning

By 2050, it is estimated that nearly 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas.  In the UK, this figure is expected to be closer to 90%.   This demographic shift, along with population growth in general, means that more children than ever are growing up in urban environments.

This has a number of implications for the town planning system.  Creating a ‘child-friendly’ environment requires much more than just ensuring there are enough parks and play spaces.

As well as having a fundamental human right to participate in decisions that affect them, there are clear links between children’s health, wellbeing and development and the quality of their surrounding environment.  Particular areas of influence include:

  • housing quality
  • road safety
  • the walkability of an area
  • opportunities for cycling
  • play facilities
  • access to greenspace
  • local amenities such as libraries and community/leisure centres
  • environmental pollution
  • community safety/fear of crime
  • access to healthy food choices

One key way to address this is to involve children in the planning process. As well as helping to create safer, more suitable environments for children to grow up in, involving children in decisions about their local areas has a number of additional benefits.  It helps to build social capital, helps children to form a bond with their home city, and fosters a feeling that they can help to make a change in the world they live in. For planners, involving children can help to provide them with a new perspective on how children use their environments, and highlights issues that adults may not recognise or fully understand – potentially leading to improved design.

Participation methods

Research published in 2011 found that children’s voices had been “notably absent from UK planning and regeneration policies throughout the past two decades”. Children’s participation in planning tended to be focused on services that were designed ‘for them’ rather than ‘with them’, and little attention was given to children’s roles in the wider regeneration agenda.

However, there are some examples of successful involvement.  Methods that have been used successfully range from formal mechanisms such as youth councils, child-led surveys and data collection, to informal ones such as photography, computer-aided mapping, model building and role-play.  Dr Jenny Wood reports that she had success with a delightfully low-tech method, where children were asked to annotate A3 OS maps with a range of stickers, post-it notes and pens, to highlight their likes, dislikes, routes to school and any other information they felt was important about their local area.

At the other end of the scale, some particularly innovative examples capitalise on recent technological advances.  These include the use of mobile phone apps to make traffic reports (see Case Study 1 below), the use of Minecraft (see Case Study 2 below), mapping their local area (Children’s Tracks in Norway) and the use of the SoftGIS methodology in Finland.

Case Study: Traffic Agent, Norway

A new app-based initiative in Oslo, ‘Traffic Agent’, directly involves children in transport planning. It enables children to provide direct feedback on road safety, based on their own experiences.  The app makes use of ‘gamification’ whereby users act as “secret agents” for the city, sending immediate reports on their route to school when they come across, for example, a difficult crossing on the street or an area of heavy traffic.

The project lead, Vibeke Rørholt, illustrates its impact: “I received a telephone call from the mother of a little boy who had reported some bushes that meant he couldn’t see when he was crossing the street. And two days later the bushes were cut. She phoned in saying he’s so happy that he could make this happen.”

Case study: Blockbuilders, England

Blockbuilders is an innovative method of involving communities, and children and young people in particular, in the town planning system.

Using the hugely popular game, Minecraft, the Blockbuilders team create a 3D representation of a local area.  The model is then used as the basis for consultation with the wider community, and can be interacted with and played with to enable communities to help design and shape their local areas.  Projects have included the development of Lewes Neighbourhood Plan, the development of a family-friendly park by Brighton and Hove City Council, and an interactive map of Brighton and Hove.

Common success factors for children’s effective participation

There is no one definition of ‘good’ or ‘effective’ participation practice – the most suitable method depends on the age of participants and the nature of the decision that they are being involved in. However, in their review of children and young people’s participation, the Ecorys project identified a number of common ‘success factors’ for children’s effective participation in planning and regeneration. These include:

  • Official recognition of children’s fundamental rights
  • Partnership working, e.g. planners, local government, academics, NGOs, community organisations and residents
  • Involving adults with knowledge and experience of young people’s participation
  • Utilising a range of diverse participation mechanisms
  • Understanding participation as a ‘whole’ process of learning and change
  • Openness and reciprocal learning between children and adults
  • An incremental and realistic approach to goal setting and developing trust/confidence
  • Visibility in the results
  • Embedding at different levels and spatial scales

Challenges

Despite the compelling arguments in favour of children’s participation in the planning system, a number of barriers exist.

There is a general lack of awareness of the purpose, benefits or skills required for facilitating young participation among planners.  Children are often viewed as being incapable of engaging in a meaningful way, despite research concluding otherwise.

Children’s participation in planning is frequently still viewed as ‘special’, rather than as part of general community engagement processes.  It tends to be focused specifically on children’s services, rather than the wider range of universal services, and takes the form of consultation, rather than proper involvement in every phase of the decision making process.

A number of political and structural barriers also limit children’s potential influence – such as competing interests within the planning system and the short timescales often required for decisions.  This can mean that even when the intentions are there, planners themselves may have limited time or influence over the decision making process.

Future steps

However, these challenges are not insurmountable.  As we have seen, through its influence on the design of the urban environment, the town planning system has a huge impact upon the wellbeing and development of children.  By involving children in the design of their local environment, it can help create environments that support children to reach their fullest potential.

Children who are involved and interested in their local environment will hopefully grow up to become adults who are involved and interested in their local environment.  The town planning system is in a unique position to help facilitate this.  And as Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia has said:

If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people”.


Keen to make your city more child-friendly?  Next month we look at the characteristics of child-friendly urban design. 

If you can’t wait, why not download our briefing on Planning a child-friendly city – available to Idox Information Service members via our customer website.

Planning for the digital economy

The digital tech sector is the UK’s fastest growing sector.    Recent statistics show that it is growing as much as 50% faster than the wider economy.  In London alone, a new tech business starts up every hour.  Beyond London, digital tech clusters across the country are driving the economic resurgence of many cities and city regions.

The rapid growth of the sector means that its spatial footprint has become increasingly evident in towns and cities across the UK.  In May, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) published guidance on how town planning can respond to and guide the future development of the digital economy.  It makes recommendations for planners in two areas:

  • how to encourage the growth of the tech sector in their local area; and
  • how to make best use of the opportunities provided by the tech sector for the planning system

What is the tech sector?

The digital tech sector is increasingly diverse, and there is no straightforward definition.  The 2016 Tech Nation report identified 16 different sectors, some of which include:

There are currently around 58,000 active digital tech businesses in the UK.  It employs 1.64 million people, and job growth is more than double that of other sectors.  Roles are generally highly skilled and well paid, compared to other sectors.  Indeed, the average salary is 44% higher than the national average!

Location preferences

Digital tech, as a sector, thrives off well-planned spaces with access to good local infrastructure.  Tech firms and their employees tend to prefer easily accessible, walkable, multi-use districts. This results in the creation of ‘clusters’ of similar firms in central urban locations.

Clustering has a number of advantages for digital tech businesses – including easy access to large talent pools and the ability to network and exchange ideas face-to-face with local, likeminded businesses and employees – a key driver of innovation.

London, Manchester and the Greater South East have some of the largest digital tech clusters in the UK; however, the Tech Nation 2017 report mapped 30 significant clusters across the length and breadth of the UK – from Dundee to Exeter.

Facilitating the growth of the sector

The recent growth of the sector has already led to a number of economic policy responses, including the development of enterprise zones, innovation and business centres, and ‘innovation districts’.  The RTPI guidance also highlights a number of smaller-scale responses that can be utilised to attract and foster tech industry growth, including:

  • ‘de-risking sites’ by making sure that planning requirements are “practical, clear and known in advance of specific proposals coming forward
  • using public money for assembling and servicing sites that are more challenging
  • the provision of Wi-Fi in specific locations
  • making districts pedestrian and cycling friendly
  • leveraging Public Private Partnership models to build digital infrastructure

In addition to these responses, the RTPI makes three recommendations for planners on how they can create an environment that is attractive to digital tech firms.

First, it suggests that planners should monitor the local economy to get a sense of what local growth industries are.  Policies can then be adapted to local economic conditions.  Some local authorities already do this using company registration data.  For example, Camden Borough Council use this data to inform a quarterly ‘Business and Employment Briefing’.  It covers a range of measures, including business size and type, employment in the borough, commercial property, unemployment, worklessness and qualifications.

In order to attract and assist the growth of the digital tech sector, it is important for local planning teams to have a proper understanding of the sectors’ spatial preferences.  This is particularly important when drawing up local plans.  Therefore, the second recommendation made by the RTPI is that local authorities should employ someone to engage with local tech firms to find out how planning could help to better facilitate their growth. The roles of The Dublin Commissioner for Startups and the Amsterdam Chief Technology Officer are potentially interesting models for this.

Third, the RTPI recommends ensuring that there is sufficient housing, office space and transport infrastructure to meet capacity.  These three elements are the “fundamental ingredients for an economically and socially successful city”.  Without them, no amount of other interventions will attract firms to an area.

The Tech Nation 2017 report found that 30% of digital tech community members cited their local transport infrastructure as a ‘business challenge’.  Tech London Advocates report similar concerns, whilst also highlighting the challenges posed by digital infrastructure: “It has become increasingly clear that a fundamental challenge facing tech companies in London is infrastructure. The tech sector has grown so fast that the provision of office space and digital connectivity is having to play catch up”.

The digitisation of planning

The growth of the digital tech sector not only creates jobs and generates wealth; it creates opportunities for improved efficiency in other sectors too.  In planning, digitisation can free up time and resources, and create new tools for planners to utilise.  From the adoption of  geographic information system (GIS) software for mapping, to experimental trials of 3D modelling software and virtual reality in plan making and community engagement, technology has and continues to present a number of opportunities to improve the planning system.

Beyond planning, innovations in the digital tech sector aid the creation of ‘smart cities’ – where information and communication technology (ICT) and ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) technologies are integrated to manage cities’ assets, with the overall aim of improving efficiency.  Examples of potential usage vary considerably, from supporting people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, to the provision of real-time traffic data, controlling streetlights and monitoring environmental data.

As such, a final recommendation made by the RTPI is to make use of local firms’ skills and resources to address cities’ infrastructural challenges.

Addressing inequality

Despite the rapid growth of the digital tech sector and its contribution to job and wealth creation, there is an increasing recognition that the benefits created by the sector can be insular and often do not spill over to the local economy.

Indeed, studies have found that the higher the share of tech employment in a city, the more income inequality there is.  On this basis, the digital tech sector has been criticised for its potential to create a ‘two-tier economy’.  There are also concerns about the gentrifying effects of digital tech clusters on local areas.  In London, for example, tech growth has increased the cost of living in some parts of the city, displacing smaller firms and lower income families.  It also poses a potential threat to innovation as startups are priced out of successful digital tech clusters.

Clearly addressing these issues poses some significant challenges for policymakers.  Last year, the RTPI made a number of recommendations in this regard, including helping local people to develop the skills needed by local tech companies.

Successful planning

The digital tech sector has enormous potential to enhance economic growth.  Through its ability to create the optimal conditions for the digital tech sector to thrive, planning can help to encourage this growth.  Understanding local economic trends, consulting with digital tech businesses about their needs, and ensuring that local infrastructure has the capacity to meet these needs, are vital to successful planning for the digital tech sector.  At the same time, ensuring that this growth is sustainable and benefits wider society are key challenges for planners.

The 5G arms race: the UK’s strategy to become a global leader in 5G technology

By Steven McGinty

On 8 March, the UK Government published their strategy for developing 5G – the next generation of wireless communication technologies.

Released on the same day as the Spring Budget, the strategy builds on the government’s Digital Strategy and Industrial Strategy, and sets out the government’s ambition to become a global leader in 5G.

Accelerating the deployment of 5G networks, maximising the productivity and efficiency benefits to the UK from 5G, creating new opportunities for UK businesses, and encouraging inward investment, are the strategy’s main objectives.

If the UK makes progress in these areas, the strategy argues, 5G infrastructure has the potential to become an enabler of smart city technologies, such as autonomous vehicles and advanced manufacturing, and to support the expansion of the Internet of Things – the interconnection of people, places, and everyday objects.

5G Innovation Network

Although the strategy highlights the enormous potential of 5G, it makes clear that 5G technologies are still in development, and that the majority of funding will need to come from the private sector.

To support the growth of a commercial market, the strategy explains, a new 5G trials and testbed programme will be introduced – through a national 5G Innovation Network – to coordinate the development of 5G services and applications. This programme will help government and private sector partners understand the economics of deploying 5G networks, ensuring that technologies can he delivered in a cost-effective way, and enabling best practice to be captured and knowledge disseminated.

The government is investing an initial £16m into the programme (involving partners such as UK Research and Innovation and the Government Digital Service), and has targeted a trial of end-to-end 5G (high speed connectivity without the need for intermediary services) by 2018. In February, Ericsson announced that they had a successful end-to-end 5G trial in Sweden, alongside partners SK Telecom Korea.

Improving regulations

To support the development of 5G, the strategy suggests that there may need to be regulatory changes, particularly in the planning system. As such, the government has committed to reviewing current regulations before the end of 2017, and then to conduct regular reviews, as partners learn more from their 5G trials.

Local connectivity plans

The strategy highlights the important role local regions play in the deployment of mobile technologies, and explains that the government will be consulting with councils on how planning policies can be used to provide high quality digital infrastructure.

However, it also suggests that there may be a case for introducing ‘local connectivity plans’, which would outline how local areas intend to meet their digital connectivity needs. Interestingly, the strategy highlights that evidence, such as local plans, may be taken into account when the government is making funding decisions for local infrastructure projects.

Coverage and capacity, infrastructure sharing, and spectrum

The strategy accepts that the move towards 5G won’t be as straightforward as the move from 3G to 4G. Instead, 5G technology will be developed alongside the expansion of the 4G network.

In addition, the government has accepted the recommendations of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC)’s ‘Connected Future’ report, which states that unnecessary barriers to infrastructure sharing between telecommunications companies must be tackled. The strategy states that it will explore options for providing a clearer and more robust framework for sharing.

Increasing the available radio spectrum was also highlighted as key to developing 5G technology. The strategy notes that the government will work with Ofcom to review the spectrum licensing regime to help facilitate the development of 4G and 5G networks.

5G strategy’s reception

Natalie Trainor, technology projects expert at law firm Pinsent Masons, has welcomed the new 5G strategy, explaining that:

“…technology and major infrastructure projects will become much more interlinked in future and that the plans outlined can help the UK take forward the opportunities this will present.”

In particular, Ms Trainor sees the establishment of the Digital Infrastructure Officials Group – which will bring together senior staff from across departments – as a way of providing greater awareness and co-ordination of major public projects that involve digital infrastructure. Ms Trainor also hopes that the new group will encourage the Department for Transport and the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) to work with industry to develop digital connectivity on the UK’s road and rail networks.

Professor Will Stewart, Vice President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, similarly welcomes the new strategy but highlights that the funding announced will ‘not come anywhere close’ to the investment required to deliver 5G across the UK. In addition, he also makes it clear that coverage and regulatory change will be vital, stating that:

The biggest challenge for government will be improving coverage for all, as 5G cannot transform what it doesn’t cover. And achieving universal coverage for the UK, outside high-capacity urban areas, will not be affordable or achievable without regulatory change.”

Former Ofcom director and author of The 5G Myth, Professor William Webb, has also applauded the government’s plans, even though he is an outspoken critic of the 5G industry. For Professor Webb, the strategy recognises that we are in the early stages of 5G technology, and that there is still a need to develop 4G networks.

Final thoughts

5G technology provides the UK with the opportunity to become a genuinely smart society. Yet, as the strategy acknowledges, 5G is still in its infancy and the idea of a 5G network across the UK is a long way down the road.

The new 5G strategy includes a number of positive steps, such as listening to the recommendations of the NIC report, and exploring the realities of deploying 5G networks. This cautious approach is unlikely to show any significant progress in the short term, but does provide a focal point for academia, government, and industry to rally around.


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Graduate ‘brain drain’ – is regional economic growth the solution?

college graduates groupBy Heather Cameron

With the economic performance of cities and regions increasingly reliant on the skills of their workforce, the longstanding issue of graduate ‘brain drain’ to London and the south is something that needs to be addressed.

Although students attend many of the universities spread across the country, a significant number of graduates flock towards the capital at the end of their studies. According to a recent report from Centre for Cities, this deprives other cities of skilled workers and essentially damages the overall economy.

The evidence

A quarter of all new graduates in 2014 and 2015 were found to have moved to work in London within the six months of finishing their degree. And the highest achievers make up a significant proportion. While London accounts for around 19% of all jobs, of the graduates that moved city six months after graduation London employed 22% of all working new graduates, and 38% of those with a first or upper second class degree from a Russell Group university.

Although most cities experience an overall graduate gain, cities outside London don’t retain the majority of students that move to their city to study – the ‘bouncers’ that drive the brain drain overall, overshadowing any gain:

  • Manchester lost 67% of these students upon graduation;
  • Birmingham lost 76%; and
  • Southampton lost 86%.

Other figures show that 310,000 graduates have left the north in the past decade, contributing to a net average deficit of 7,500 highly qualified workers leaving annually, or 75,500 over a decade.

Northern regions have to some extent offset the effect of local brain drain by attracting enough highly qualified foreign workers to fill the gap. But with reductions in immigration, these regions could be left lacking.

Given the UK’s current position regarding the EU, concerns have also been raised over whether Britain faces a further brain drain of academics to Europe, following Brexit. A recent survey highlighted that 42% of academics said they are more likely to consider leaving Britain after the vote to leave.

Why?

While it may seem plausible to assume that higher salaries are the reason for this brain drain, it appears that the main pull for graduates is the availability of jobs and career progression, which London’s vast labour market offers.

However, as recent research from Homes for the North has identified, these are not the only reasons. It highlights the importance of additional non-work drivers of graduate location decisions, including the cost and quality of housing, quality of local amenities and the prospect of home ownership.

Of the graduates polled, 80% said the quality of housing was important, while more than 60% said the cost of housing was important. The quality of green spaces and local amenities was also deemed important by over 60% of graduates.

What can be done to redress the balance?

There have been numerous graduate retention initiatives at the local and regional level aimed at tackling the uneven distribution of graduates, such as graduate wage subsidies and local graduate job matching.  But it seems little has improved. The Centre for Cities research argues that these alone will not tackle the root cause of the graduate brain drain.

It suggests that cities themselves have a vital role to play in ensuring the local job market offers an appropriate number of graduate job opportunities that will allow them to both retain graduates and attract graduates from elsewhere. Policy should therefore broaden its focus to improve local economies by investing in transport, housing and enterprise, rather than focusing solely on graduate retention and attraction policies.

The chief executive of the Centre for Cities commented that the government’s new economic and industrial strategy should be used to strengthen existing devolution deals for city-regions such as Greater Manchester, extending their scope to grow.

Indeed, the industrial strategy green paper, published in January, clearly places emphasis on addressing the economic imbalances across the UK through a number of measures, such as working with local areas to close the skills gap, including new schemes to support the retention and attraction of graduates. However, the strategy has been criticised for providing little clarity on how regional rebalancing and sectoral deals will work in practice.

Final thoughts

While it appears clear that cities outside London need to improve their graduate offer with better job prospects, the evidence on graduate migration suggests it is more complex than this.

As has been argued, the provision of good quality affordable housing could play a role alongside high-skilled job creation and opportunities. With the cost of living in London so expensive, this would make sense, particularly as the average graduate salary in London is not that much higher than the average across other UK cities.


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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.