17 March 2017

The many paths to better public participation in a sustainable built environment

The KLH team spent a day at Ecobuild earlier this month and came away with more than just free mugs and literature. The common theme across the numerous talks attended by Rosa, Tercia and Abby was how the general population perceive and engage with the built environment. Discussion focussed on how to improve those interactions at every point in the process to deliver a more sustainable built environment. The team discusses three key aspects in more detail:


Participation in Planning

At a session on The Future of Planning, Abby heard from speakers at Future Cities Catapult, Mastodon C, Cast and HTA Design about ways to improve the planning process—top to bottom and start to finish—to make it more transparent, accessible and efficient. While the focus of the session was on digitisation, most of the panel were more nuanced than the typical big data/smart cities cheerleaders, focussing on the realities of implementation and the needs of the public, planning authorities and developers.


Ideas debated included:

- Standardising and digitising planning processes nationally to improve monitoring, comparisons and cross-project learning;

- Improving the way the evidence base is developed to make it more searchable, easier for planners to use and more accessible to the public; and,

- striking a better balance between what can be automated, what needs to be done by external specialists and what important things planners should have time to focus on.


Abby kicked off the Q&A with a question about transparency and accountability. It’s not enough to make information more accessible by digitising it. There also needs to be consideration of how much information, how to ensure it is understood within its context and how to allow its use to empower planners and local community groups.


Perceptions of Sustainable Materials

Moving towards the physical aspects of the built environment, Tercia spent the day investigating the link between materials, sustainability and perception. A common theme was that materials influence how we and the general public perceive and engage with the built environment, with this interaction typically focussed on the look and feel of a building. Building owners and occupiers have a tendency to think that buildings should be kept looking as ‘new’ as possible, with uniform colouring and appearance. This is particularly difficult with natural materials, such as timber, that change with exposure to the environment. The orientation of the façade, shading and overhang details all influence the speed with which natural weathering occurs and can lead to colour variation.


This idea of expecting buildings to stay looking new was challenged by the researchers from BiotA Lab, UCL, at a session on Future Materials Research. They discussed the use of bio-receptive materials that encourage bio-colonisation – i.e. materials that encourage the growth of microorganisms and plants, such as mosses. These plants provide ecosystem services such as filtering pollutants, capturing carbon dioxide and absorbing water, all essential in an urban context. However, to incorporate these materials on buildings and façades, we need to challenge the idea that plants growing on buildings is unattractive and indicative of poor maintenance. We need to be thinking about how we can encourage more realistic expectations of buildings so that changes in natural materials are accepted and ideas such as bio-colonisation are endorsed.


Bio receptive material 4  Bio receptive material 5


Figure 1: Bio-receptive material © Chris Tubbs


Building Relationships for Retrofit

Retrofit for sustainability is an oft debated topic. Rosa attended a number of sessions related to engaging communities in retrofitting their built environment. This is not always straightforward, particularly in communities who have previously been subject to half-hearted consultations and poor planning processes that left them feeling unheard or ignored. Throughout the day’s events, many case studies offered ways of overcoming the stigma that surrounds community engagement in retrofit projects, which instead of leaving people feeling ‘done to’, leaves them feeling ‘part of’ the change. SmartKlub discussed this issue in the context of low-income housing retrofit projects. By responding to local concerns, such as high unemployment levels, with schemes that employed local talent to carry out the retrofits, SmartKlub were able to build relationships whilst fostering an environment in which they were able to keep employment local. This in turn increased the communities’ resilience to the retrofits taking place.


Especially inspiring were the retrofit projects in vulnerable neighbourhoods in which the young and unemployed were engaged and equipped with skills and confidence in their new roles as neighbourhood ‘sustainability champions’, such as in Groundwork London’s Climate Proofing Housing Landscaping programme. It will be interesting to learn about how these communities continue to engage with their new built environment beyond the project’s completion.


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