Housing Refugees: Prejudice and the Potentials of Encounter

By Julian Shaw (King’s College London)

Syrian Refugees at Keleti Railway Station in Budapest, Hungary Photo: Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Commons

Syrian Refugees at Keleti Railway Station in Budapest, Hungary
Photo: Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Commons

This summer the British media opened its eyes, cleared its collective throat, and eventually gave voice to a global refugee crisis that has been growing for years. Initially the tragedy traversed the narratives of public and political figures, then it made its way into the private discussions of British families (via TV news and online petitions). Now the tragedy’s spatial journey appears to have followed suit – moving from the public spaces of train stations and border checkpoints, it is now poised to enter private space. In The Independent it was revealed that “one in 14 people – the equivalent of almost two million UK households – said they would be prepared to offer a room or space in their home to a refugee” (The Independent, 2015); what an amazing thought.

Concurrently in September’s issue of The Geographical Journal, Valentine et al. published the latest instalment in their investigation of the geography of encounter; looking in this article at “encounters…within the context of family life” (Valentine et al., 2015: 280). Their article specifically turns the significance of everyday intimate encounters with diversity in the home, and how these may have the potential to challenge wider prejudices evident in public life.

Turning to the cities of Leeds and Warsaw, Valentine et al. surveyed over 3,000 social attitudes and made in-depth qualitative explorations with 60 of these respondents. Their findings revealed that indeed “intra-familial diversity does produce more positive attitudes in public life” (ibid.: 291). Should such a result be consistent across the UK, this has made me wonder about the wider positive implications that could occur if British families were to house refugees in their spare rooms, as was suggested in The Independent.

Of course, housing someone does not necessarily make them family – or at least not in the traditional sense. However, Valentine et al. acknowledge in their study that the intimate encounters they explore do not presume the traditional sense of family – in the modern world family structures are much more malleable and changeable than they used to be. Instead they extend their investigation of families to the wider spatial setting of “the home and associated spaces of family life” (Valentine et al., 2005: 281). In this case, I suggest that their findings could be directly relevant to UK families welcoming refugees into their homes.

However, the obvious caveat here is that likely volunteers to house refugees are those already holding positive views towards them. I guess the challenge is – if intimate encounters can break prejudice – enabling intimate encounters with refugees to enter into the homes of those harbouring intolerance? Yet, don’t most of us have some distant or extended family members that we might reluctantly describe as being intolerant, even while we hold broad and accepting views ourselves? If this is the case then the intimate encounters described by Valentine et al. (2015) could indeed happen in the families of those offering to house refugees. Let’s hope the offer becomes reality.


60-world2 The Independent (2015) Online article: “Revealed: the extraordinary response to the Syrian refugee crisis – and how it shames David Cameron”, by Adam Withnall and Matt Dathan on 23rd September 2015, Accessed online at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/refugee-crisis-the-true-extent-of-the-british-publics-extraordinary-response-revealed-10514341.html (Accessed on 23rd September 2015)

books_icon Valentine, G., Piekut, A., and Harris, C., (2015) Intimate encounters: the negotiation of difference within the family and its implications for social relations in public space, The Geographical Journal, 181(3): pp.280-294 (open access).

Geography, Urban Geomorphology and Sustainability

By Mary Thornbush, Brock University, Canada

WordItOut-word-cloud-1071134With the expansion of cities around the world, there is an increasing emphasis within geography to consider urban environments, and the impacts humans have on the environment more generally. This opens up opportunities for the development of human-environment investigations within the context of current urban studies.

Working within the context of human impacts on their environment, it is possible to integrate studies so that they holistically examine both human and physical components of the environment. This has already been an integral part of human geography, but is novel within physical geography and geomorphology specifically, where the sub-field of urban geomorphology has recently experienced some growth from the framework of human-environment interactions. In addition, sustainability has gained attention within geomorphology, and there has been, for instance, a recent special issue on ‘Human Impacts on Landscapes: Sustainability and the Role of Geomorphology’ published in Zeitschrift für Geomorphologie by Hudson et al. (2015). This approach recognizes the importance of long-term studies within the domain of geomorphology, and is applicable to studies of environmental change that is currently affecting cities and shaping urban geomorphology.

The key landscapes examined within an urban context are still diverse, encompassing (for instance) rivers, karst, uplands, deserts, tropics, etc. Within this special section on ‘Geography, Urban Geomorphology and Sustainability,’ there is a focus on rivers, karst and applied geomorphology, with six papers delineating urban geomorphology in settings where there is a concentration of urbanisation and natural environments have been altered by humanity and natural processes, which in turn modify human structures, as is the case with the weathering of historical buildings and structures. Case studies are central to this special section, illustrating key contemporary issues from a long-term perspective and considering the future of human-environment interactions and landscape change.

Specifically, this special section of Area presents a diversity of papers that range from Europe to North America. First, Thornbush (2015) provides a long-term assessment (16 years) following the implementation of the Oxford Transport Strategy (OTS) in central Oxford, UK. She employs the historical buildings located in the city centre as a measurement tool in order to gauge post-OTS environmental change. Second, Randall and Baetz (2015) relay their land-use diversity index (LDI) as a GIS-based model to determine sub-urban sprawl applied in Ontario, Canada. Third, Martín-Díaz et al. (2015) offer a post-war examination of planning policy and land-use planning in Sarajevo that is relevant to urban development within geomorphology. The second half of the special section focuses on rivers. A fourth paper by Sammonds and Vietz (2015) approaches urbanisation in greenfield sites from the perspective of stream naturalisation. Fifth, Shuker et al. (2015) likewise approach stream restoration, but from a hydromorphological perspective. Finally, Booth and Fischenich (2015) similarly address stream restoration through their channel evolution model that focuses on urban sustainability.

Together, these papers contribute towards the development of urban geomorphology from a sustainability perspective of long-term landscape change. Theirs is an integrated approach of human-environment interactions in urban settings. With more human impacts on the natural environment, it is necessary to acknowledge and consider more human-affected landscapes as well unaffected natural landscapes, which are increasingly harder to find. Separating the human-nature signatures in the environment is becoming a challenge; however, such interdisciplinary investigations could make a contribution towards the development of urban geomorphology and sustainable environments.

About the author: Dr Mary Thornbush is an Adjunct Professor within the Department of Geography at Brock University, Canada. Her research interests include: interdisciplinary and applied geomorphology; weather science and landscape change; and geomorphological fieldwork and field-based training.

Special section papers: 

books_icon Thornbush, M. 2015 Geography, urban geomorphology and sustainability. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12218 (introduction to special section)


books_icon Booth D B and Fischenich C J 2015 A channel evolution model to guide sustainable urban stream restoration Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12180

books_icon Martín-Díaz J, Nofre J, Oliva M and Palma P 2015 Towards an unsustainable urban development in post-war Sarajevo Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12175

books_iconRandall T A and Baetz B W 2015 A GIS-based land-use diversity index model to measure the degree of suburban sprawl Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12182

books_icon Sammonds M J and Vietz G J 2015 Setting stream naturalisation goals to achieve ecosystem improvement in urbanising green-field catchments Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12181

books_icon Shuker J L, Moggridge H L and Gurnell A M 2015 Assessment of hydromorphology following restoration measures in heavily modified rivers: illustrating the potential contribution of the Urban River Survey to Water Framework Directive investigations Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12185

books_icon Thornbush M J 2015 Building health assessed through environmental parameters after the OTS in the city centre of Oxford, UK Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12161


books_icon Hudson P, Goudie A and Asrat A 2015 Human impacts on landscapes: sustainability and the role of geomorphology Zeitschrift für Geomorphologie 59 1–5

Before same-sex marriage: finding ‘homonormativity’ in rural Wales in the early 1980s

By Gavin Brown (University of Leicester)

World Pride Toronto (June 2014). Photo Credit: Gavin Brown

World Pride Toronto (June 2014). Photo Credit: Gavin Brown

On 26 June 2015 the US Supreme Court ruled that state-level bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. Four days before marriage equality was approved in the United States, the Pitcairn Islands, with a population of just 48 people (and no known same-sex couples) also joined the growing list of nations to recognize and allow same-sex marriage. The accelerating acceptance of same-sex marriage around the world is part of a wider trend, over the last two decades, of greater social tolerance towards sex and gender minorities in many countries. This has been accompanied by new forms of legal recognition and protection for lesbian, gay and transgender people in some countries (at the same time as more repressive legislation has been threatened or enacted elsewhere).

Geographers and other social scientists have attempted to understand and make sense of these changes in social attitudes. One popular explanation is that these changes are an expression of a ‘new homonormativity’. This concept was first articulated by Lisa Duggan, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, who argued that the incorporation of some lesbian and gay people (particularly those in settled couples) into American society’s normative understandings of appropriate sexual conduct was an expression of ‘the sexual politics of neoliberalism’. By this, she meant that society was increasingly willing to accept and support lesbian and gay people who took responsibility for their own well-being (without recourse to state welfare benefits) and who preferred to express their sexuality within domestic spaces rather than the public sexual cultures of earlier (lesbian and) gay neighbourhoods in major urban centres. Homonormativity is said to have domesticated gay culture. ‘Homonormative’ lifestyles are understood to be socially liberal, but fiscally and sexually conservative.

As I have previously argued (Brown 2012), although there is a lot of merit in many analyses of contemporary ‘homonormativity’, too often they focus on the experiences of people living in major urban centres (in Europe and North America) at the expense of those living in provincial cities, smaller towns and rural areas. By studying lesbian and gay lives in a wider range of locations, it is possible to reconsider what it means to be socially ‘normative’, and what it takes for sexual minorities to fit in, or feel part of, different types of localities. The geographical study of sexuality and sexual politics is diminished if scholars over-emphasize urban (and specifically metropolitan) sexual cultures at the expense of other places.

In the 1970s, lesbian and gay subcultures became more visible in the urban landscape and many lesbians and gay men migrated to large cities in the hope of finding community and the possibility of leading more open lives. At the same time, and in parallel with a wider ‘back-to-the-land’ movement, smaller numbers of lesbians and gay men left the cities for a ‘simpler’, more self-sufficient, and ‘environmentally friendly’ life in rural areas. I have recently been revisiting the archives of a lesbian and gay organization from the period, the Gay Rural Aid and Information Network (GRAIN), which offered practical support and encouragement to gay people who wanted to move to rural England and Wales (see my paper published recently in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers). Although many in the network believed that they were socially and politically progressive, I find their rejection of urban gay subcultures and their promotion to domestic-level self-reliance, to be more complex and contradictory, at times being socially and sexually conservative. Even so, the economic practices pursued by these lesbian farmers and gay smallholders were far removed from the emerging (urban) neoliberal economies from which they had fled. They engaged in all sorts of non-waged labour, domestic production, bartering and skill-swaps. Some of these practices were part of their ideological commitment to living sustainably on the land; but they also helped to embed them, as lesbians and gay men, in the existing diverse economies of the rural areas to which they had moved. Although these people (and the places where they lived) are very different to those normally considered in debates about contemporary ‘homonormativity’, I believe traces of emergent homonormative beliefs and practices can be found in their lives.

Thinking about the diversity of economic practices and social relations that might be associated with the emergence of homonormative attitudes over recent decades emphasizes that ‘homonormativity’ is not as a single entity, but a cluster of traits, relationships and values. Geographers can make an important contribution to understanding homonormativity by demonstrating that homonormativities are multiple, as well as time and place specific. A cultural and historical geography approach to these questions can help find traces of homonormativity in some very unexpected places.

About the author:

Gavin Brown is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Leicester where he leads the Critical and Creative Geographies research group.

60-world2 BBC (2015), ‘US Supreme Court rules gay marriage is legal nationwide’, 27 June,

books_icon Brown, G. (2012), “Homonormativity: a metropolitan concept that denigrates ‘ordinary’ gay lives,” Journal of Homosexuality 59 (7): 1065 – 1072.

books_icon Brown, G. (2015), ‘Rethinking the origins of homonormativity: the diverse economies of rural gay life in England and Wales in the 1970s and 1980s’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, doi: 10.1111/tran.12095

60-world2 The Guardian (2015), ‘Pitcairn Island, population 48, passes law to allow same-sex marriage’, The Guardian, 22 June

60-world2 Halberstadt, A. (2015), “Out of the Woods”, New York Times, 6 August.

Undergraduate to Under-Paid: Assumptions Behind the Marketisation of University Fees

By Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

As universities across the country prepare for the latest influx of new students this month, an article by Sarah Hall (2015) in the most recent issue of Area reveals the truth about the saga surrounding university tuition fees.

The New Labour Government first introduced undergraduate student fees in 1998. Originally capped at £1,000 per annum, fees facing English students have now risen to a maximum of £9,000 per annum, completely changing the nature of higher education. What is more, an article in The Independent (2015) this summer has predicted a further increase, with fees expected to reach £10,000 per annum by the end of the decade. University degrees have been transformed from a public to a private good, a commodity that reframes students as consumers. Fees, however, vary within the newly-devolved United Kingdom. Welsh students currently pay a maximum of £3810 per annum, Northern Irish students £3805 per annum, and Scottish students have paid nothing since devolution in 2000.

The justification of English university fees relies on a number of assumptions about graduate salary premiums and domestic labour markets which, Hall (2015) argues, ignore the simultaneously relational and territorial nature of labour markets. The process whereby undergraduate fees were normalised in this country was based on the argument that existing funding was not financially sustainable. Asserting the value of obtaining a degree in terms of enhanced job prospects and greater salaries, it was decided that the individuals who benefit most from universities should contribute more. However, the nature of these benefits is highly variable, with employment rate and salary premium differing greatly between degree subjects, universities, genders, and geographical locations. It cannot, therefore, be assumed that every university student graduates with the same opportunities.

The marketisation of university fees in England depends on students being prepared to take out a student loan, but also on their earnings reaching the threshold level of £21,000 so that the loan starts to be repaid. However, these assumptions have now been challenged, as it is estimated that fewer graduates will be able to pay back their loan. A report in The Independent (2015) predicts that as many as 75% will not pay back their loan before it is written off, 30 years after their graduation.

Hall (2015) identifies the multiple global factors changing the nature English graduate labour markets, and contributing to the increased number of graduates not earning the threshold level. A major factor is the significant increase in the number of international students graduating from English universities and competing with English students for graduate jobs. Furthermore, the nature of work is changing; employers are increasingly looking for higher skilled workers at lower costs, and information technology is being used as a managerial tool to further reduce labour costs. Finally, an increasing number of graduates are working in non-graduate level jobs or overseas and, therefore, not benefiting from salary premiums.

It appears that holding a degree from an English university no longer puts graduates at an advantage. It is, however, not all doom and gloom. An article by BBC News (2015) last month shows that at least graduate unemployment is on the decrease. Only 2.6% of students graduating in 2011 are now unemployed, the lowest rate since 2008. Furthermore, the number of students at university from disadvantaged backgrounds has not decreased, as was expected following the rise in tuition fees.

The Times Higher Education (2015) last month stated that students’ spirits are not being dampened by their precarious financial positions. In its first year since the rise in fees, the National Student Survey has reported an unchanged level of student satisfaction. 86% of current students are satisfied with their university experience, but how many will be as satisfied once they have left the deceptive university bubble and enter the real world?


books_iconHall, S. (2015). “Geographies of marketisation in English higher education: territorial and relational markets and the case of undergraduate student fees”, Area, doi: 10.1111/area.12216.

60-world2BBC News. (2015). “More graduates in work, survey suggests”. August, 27th 2015. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-34053555.

60-world2The Independent. (2015). “Tuition fees: UK universities set to charge £10,000 by end of decade, says major report”. July 30th 2015. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/higher/tuition-fees-uk-universities-set-to-charge-10000-by-end-of-the-decade-says-major-report-10424931.html.

60-world2The Times Higher Education. (2015). “National Student Survey 2015: £9k fails to dent satisfaction”. August 12th 2015. Available at: www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/national-student-survey-2015-9k-fees-fail-dent-satisfaction.

Climate resilience and adaptation: raffia production in Makira Natural Park, north-east Madagascar

By Joseph J. Bailey (@josephjbailey), University of Nottingham, UK.

Support for women’s associations in Madagascar to enhance raffia production is also helping the conservation of biodiversity in the Makira Natural Park.” (AllAfrica, Aug 18th 2015)

Local climatic changes, such as an increase in the frequency and/or severity of droughts, can have a significant impact on communities and businesses that rely on natural resource extraction. Building climate resilience is therefore vital to secure a sustainable income from these products. In parallel, these products must be sold for a fair price by means of establishing a solid value chain between the producers at one end and retailers at the other. Such businesses can also contribute tremendously to the economic empowerment of women in these communities, and safeguarding such provisioning ecosystem services can operate neatly alongside biodiversity conservation and the protection of other ecosystem services (e.g. flood prevention, carbon storage). The benefits therefore seem plentiful and ensuring the environmental and socio-economic sustainability of such schemes under future climate change should be a priority.

Raffia production around Makira Natural Park (NP), north-east Madagascar, provides a fine case study for demonstrating this interplay between climate resilience, economic empowerment, and biodiversity conservation, as reported earlier this week by AllAfrica. This area has an environment that allows for the production of high quality raffia products, which may be used in the fashion industry, for example, but has been affected by frequent droughts in recent years1. A current project by the International Trade Centre (ITC) (see their news article on the project) in collaboration with World Conservation Society (WCS) Madagascar is training several women’s associations (totalling 180 people) around Makira NP in raffia extraction, from the harvesting to the processing stage. For long-term sustainability, importantly, this includes training on planting techniques for new raffia trees in an effort to increase climate resilience and decrease losses. Training on contract negation is planned for next year. This is part of a broader ITC programme across Madagascar, which is supported by the government of Madagascar.

A use for raffia. High quality raffia, such as that produced in north-east Madagascar, is also frequently used in the fashion industry. Image from: Wikimedia Commons, by gripso_banana_prune (Antony Stanley). Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Raffia_animals_created_by_artisans_in_Madagascar.jpg

A use for raffia. High quality raffia, such as that produced in north-east Madagascar, is also frequently used in the fashion industry. Image from: Wikimedia Commons, by gripso_banana_prune (Antony Stanley). Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Raffia_animals_created_by_artisans_in_Madagascar.jpg

While still underway, this scheme seems to be going very well and it is hopefully progressing towards a situation where tangible, sustainable economies can operate for the people and empower women, whilst also contributing positively to the natural environment and the protection of many important species. This project is about adaptation by building climate resilience in situ to mitigate potential effects (e.g. increased frequency of droughts). However, this is not the only approach to climate adaptation, and more extreme approaches may be required when the environmental changes become severe.

A recent article by Bose (2015) in Area considers various approaches to climate adaptation, including strengthening resilience in situ, but also the idea of environmentally induced displacement (EID). This is where people are either completely relocated where there is a purported risk to their lives or to make space for climate adaptation infrastructure, or where people are prevented from accessing certain areas, which they may rely on for various resources, for connectivity, or cultural activities, in the hope that protecting such areas will produce a more resilient environment (these restricted areas may also be used for climate adaptation measures such as flood defence). The case study of Bangladesh, one of the countries presently most at risk from flooding and sea-level rise, is discussed by Bose, who considers the potential for the displacement of people not because of environmental transformations but because of climate adaptation schemes themselves, leading towards “the production of a new form of environmental refugee” (p. 6).

Here, we have therefore seen two very different approaches to potential climate change; building resilience in situ versus moving people from at-risk areas or areas that are required for adaptation infrastructure. Circumstances and the (potential) severity of the environmental changes will no doubt guide any such decisions, all of which will probably be highly idiosyncratic to the place in question. As a global community, we are already seeing the overwhelming need for climate adaptation solutions, from flood defences in London, UK, to managing increased drought frequency in north-west Madagascar, to the potential of moving people en masse when the environmental changes become too much to cope with. It strikes me that any solutions that can bring nature and people into accord will be the most sustainable and potentially highly beneficial culturally, economically, environmentally, and socially, to the people who live there.

60-world2 AllAfrica (2015) Madagascar: Empowering Malagasy Women Through Climate-Smart Raffia Production (online). Available at: http://allafrica.com/stories/201508180892.html

Bose, P. (2015). Vulnerabilities and displacements: adaptation and mitigation to climate change as a new development mantra. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12178

60-world2 ITC (2015). Empowering Malagasy women through climate-smart raffia production (online). Available at: http://www.intracen.org/news/Empowering-Malagasy-women-through-climate-smart-raffia-production/

1 It is impossible to know whether what is being seen in north-east Madagascar is the result of short-term fluctuations or whether more frequent droughts are going to be an ongoing issue. It seems sensible to plan for the worst, though.

‘Beach body ready’: Fitness holidays and the ‘natural’ body

By Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s that time of year again; the holiday season is in full swing and many of us will be taking some much-needed time off for rest and recuperation during the summer. But instead of lazing about on the beach, drinking cocktails, and eating ice cream, increasing numbers of Brits will, in fact, embark on ‘fitness holidays’. Instead of crash-dieting in order to get ‘beach body ready’ pre-holiday, fitness holidays aim to have you ‘beach body ready’ post-holiday, having made some lasting changes to your habits and mind-set. Little’s (2015) paper in The Geographical Journal approaches this relatively new phenomenon from a geographical point of view, considering the intrinsic links to nature and the body.

‘Fitness holidays’ represent a large and varied market, which has expanded over the past decade. Offering exercise and fitness training, combined with health and well-being programmes, fitness holidays help relieve stress, improve diet, and promote fitness. The emphasis is on enjoyment and lasting health benefits; such holidays are transformative, encouraging sustainable lifestyle changes.

Sarah Knapton (2015), Science Editor for The Telegraph, wrote in March about the increasing popularity of fitness holidays amongst Brits, attributing this trend to our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, at work and at home. She contrasts the active nature of fitness holidays to what she terms ‘fly-and-flop’ holidays, characterised by idleness and excess. Citing a recent travel survey, Knapton (2015) states that one third of Brits want to ‘tone up’ whilst on holiday, and one quarter want to lose weight. In January this year, the Telegraph listed the top 10 fitness retreats for 2015. From a detox holiday in Italy (£5,249 for seven nights), to trail running in the Alps (£1,145 for seven nights), to tennis in Cyrpus (£945 for seven nights), to sea swimming in the Mediterranean (£815 for seven nights); the options for fitness holidays are not cheap, but, nevertheless, are increasing as their popularity also booms.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Little (2015) conceptualises fitness tourism using a Foucauldian approach, arguing that underlying these holidays are important questions about the management of healthy bodies. Fitness holidays are, Little (2015) argues, a response to modern pressures to conform to the ‘ideal’ body image, including aesthetic norms in relation to size, weight, and appearance. According to prevailing discourses, the ‘natural’ body, a body in its ‘natural’ state, is fit and healthy. We are increasingly encouraged to take responsibility for our own fitness, disciplining and regulating – in Foucauldian terms – our own bodies, and learning more about our corporeal ‘needs’. Fitness holidays combine all of these elements, providing a way of (self-)regulating health and fitness.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The importance of nature to health is well-known. Natural landscapes are widely recognised as therapeutic spaces, having healing and relaxation effects. Nature has become an active agent in shaping our well-being. Throughout history, due to our increasing disconnection with nature following extensive urbanisation and industrialisation, access to the countryside has been linked with a better quality of life, the clean air and pleasant surroundings acting as natural medicine. ‘Untouched’ nature is deemed to provide a more ‘authentic’ engagement with the natural landscape and, therefore, is better for human health. Thus, fitness holidays, as a means of getting people out in the fresh air and into the natural environment, have perceived beneficial qualities for health and well-being. Simultaneously reinforcing and blurring the nature-culture binary, fitness holidays emphasise the exceptional qualities of nature, whilst highlighting the ways in which nature and culture combine to produce our bodies.

So how will you be spending your summer holiday? Indulging in ice cream and cocktails whilst acquiring some unfortunate tan lines, or making a real difference to your health and well-being?


books_iconLittle, J. (2015), Nature, wellbeing and the transformational self. The Geographical Journal, 181: 121–128. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12083

60-world2Knapton, S. (2015). “Britons ditch fly-and-flop holidays for fitness retreats”, The Telegraph Online. March 22nd 2015. Available at: www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/11488447/Britons-ditch-fly-and-flop-holidays-for-fitness-retreats.html.



The Life and Death of Zero Carbon Housing Policy

By Andrew Karvonen (University of Manchester), Gordon Walker (Lancaster University) and Simon Guy (Lancaster University)

On 10 July 2015, the UK government announced that it was abandoning its 2016 commitment to require all new housing in England and Wales to be zero carbon. In ‘Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous Nation’, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne cited the zero carbon housing policy as a constraint on new homebuilding and an apparent drag on the productivity of the UK economy. The announcement served as an anticlimactic and rather brutal conclusion to a decade of active working towards decarbonising the future housing stock in England and Wales. This particular case provides a fascinating window on wider debates over sustainable transitions and the politics of reducing carbon emissions (see our paper Walker et al. 2015, recently published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers).

About a quarter of the total UK carbon footprint is attributed to the construction, operation, and demolition of the British housing stock. Housing thus provides an important target for climate change mitigation policies. In December 2006, the mainstreaming of zero carbon housing was kickstarted in the UK with the introduction of the Code for Sustainable Homes (CSH). The CSH established a ten-year period of innovation for the homebuilding industry to improve the energy efficiency of new-build houses, culminating in the regulatory zero carbon standard taking effect in 2016. The Government simultaneously funded cutting-edge housing developments through the Homes and Communities Agency to demonstrate how zero carbon housing could be achieved in practice.

Park Dale zero carbon social housing scheme in Wakefield

Park Dale zero carbon social housing scheme in Wakefield

The UK’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions through the CSH was significant and tangible. The definition of ‘zero carbon’ was intentionally left to housing industry stakeholders (homebuilders, building professionals, policymakers, and NGOs) working together through the Zero Carbon Hub to ensure that the target was achievable. In the ensuing years, debates about the definition of zero carbon have revealed how deeply fossil fuels are embedded in the economy, planning regulations, and the daily life of British households. Reducing carbon emissions involved a wide range of discussions that centred on how energy and housing are connected. While some of the deliberations were highly technical and involved building scientists devising strategies to reduce carbon emissions through improved efficiency and renewable energy sources, others revolved around how to reduce and manage the costs of low-carbon strategies and technologies and how homeowners should (or should not) be drawn into shifts towards new patterns of zero carbon living.

As the zero carbon standard evolved, there was a clear separation between how a house was designed and built versus how it was occupied and lived in. This was particularly evident in March 2011 when the definition of ‘zero carbon’ was changed to create a distinction between ‘regulated emissions’ such as space heating, ventilation, hot water, and fixed lighting versus ‘unregulated emissions’ from plug-in appliances such as televisions, computers, and tumble dryers. This watered down the ambitions of the zero carbon target considerably by restricting the CSH to design and construction of building fabric and energy supply. The CSH effectively became just another requirement of building regulations (although one that was more stringent than existing energy performance requirements) while avoiding a broader social commitment to low-carbon lifestyles.

The demise of zero carbon housing regulation diminishes but does not signal the end of the carbon reduction agenda. The Government apparently continues to work towards carbon emission reduction targets, although they are not specific to the housing stock and do not have a clear route to reduce domestic emissions. And it is likely that some if not all of the stakeholders in the homebuilding industry will continue on the innovation journey that began in 2006. The technical, economic and construction principles developed through the CSH might continue to influence the homebuilding industry (especially if they are not perceived to add to the costs of housing). However, without the regulatory push of Government, it is likely that decarbonisation of the housing stock will slow considerably rather than become embedded in the mainstream practice of homebuilding. Meanwhile, a bubbling undercurrent of localized experiments, demonstration projects, and community based initiatives will continue to take a more expansive approach to low-carbon housing design, development, and living that recognises domestic carbon emissions as unavoidably wrapped up in the combination of both the built environment and occupant practices.

About the authors: 

Dr Andrew Karvonen is a Lecturer in Architecture and Urbanism at the University of Manchester. Professor Gordon Walker is based in the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University and is the co-Director of the RCUK funded DEMAND Centre (Dynamics of Energy, Mobility and Demand). Professor Simon Guy is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Lancaster University.