Category Archives: Urban Geography

Sustainable Urbanism: Transport Hubs and City Exchanges

by Fiona Ferbrache

Rotterdam's Centraal Station as a gateway to the city

Rotterdam’s Centraal Station as a gateway to the city

Travel by train through Reading or Northampton and you will be able to observe the construction works of the station redevelopment programmes currently being carried out in those urban areas. According to last week’s Economist these are two of Network Rail’s 11 stations being redeveloped.

This development is not just about improving stations as transportation nodes, it is also about enhancing the city and making stations desirable destinations in their own right as ‘exchange spaces’ or ‘meeting places’ for city residents, workers and visitors.

“Without a bigger and better station, Northampton’s vital economic growth will be constrained” announces the Northampton Station website. “Cities now measure their appeal by their stations” claims the Economist, and if we consider St Pancras International, Rotterdam station in the Netherlands, or Schiphol Airportcity in Amsterdam, we can begin to understand how this might work, for in these locations one is encouraged to invest time and money, and to stay a while.

Developments of this type can complement sustainable urbanism, a theme taken up by Rapoport in Area.  Her 2014 paper explores the actors who guide sustainable urban projects – the masterplanners – of large-scale programmes that create sustainable urban areas or ‘eco-cities’ from scratch. Rapoport identifies an elite group of international architecture, engineering and planning firms known as the global intelligence corps (GIC), and analyses their role in shaping an international model of sustainable urbanism.  She unearths a rather standardised set of ideas for enhancing urban development that, she argues, creates a discourse defining what is unsustainable about current urbanisation patterns, and what solutions can and should be used in response (e.g. bus rapid transit, bicycle lanes, sustainable urban drainage systems, and renewable energy).

While sustainable urban projects such as Vauban in Freiburg, or the Bogotá and Curitibas bus rapid transit systems provide examples that GIC rate as ‘good practice’, Reading and Northampton might soon provide a template for visionary urban regeneration where the station is developed as a more sustainable and intricate part of contemporary urban living in Britain.

books_icon  Rapoport, E. 2014 Globalising sustainable urbanism: the role of international masterplanners. Area. DOI: 10.1111/area.12079

60-world2 Urban Planning: Rail ambition. The Economist (March 1st)

60-world2  Northampton Station redevelopment

Opening Spatial Secrets and Closed Spaces: Urban Exploration

by Fiona Ferbrache

Urban exploration 0001Robert Macfarlane (author of The Old Ways and other adventures on foot) focused his attention on Urban Exploration last month with an article in The Guardian.  Macfarlane’s piece opens as “a guide for the uninitiated”; a little like a job application with a list of essential criteria for those wishing to pepper pot manoeuvre the architecture and materiality of urban spaces.  Following Macfarlane through a “strange world of urban exploration”, the reader is introduced to a land of porous infrastructure where spaces deemed to be closed off, secret and securitised are opened up by the urban explorer.

Geographers reading Macfarlane’s article may decipher urban exploration as a critical engagement with space.  For example, he writes that “the usual constraints of urban motion, whether enforced by physical barriers or legal convention” do not necessarily restrict the urban explorer.  In another way, street level is interpreted as “a  median altitude” in urban exploration, as accessible spaces penetrate downwards through sewers, bunkers and tunnels, and upwards via skyscrapers and cranes.  Perhaps this is proper space exploration as well as urban exploration?

Macfarlane is guided through his urban initiation by experienced explorer (and geographer) Bradley Garrett.  From Macfarlane’s conversational introduction to urban exploration, readers can gain a more theoretical perspective from Garrett (2013) in an early view TIBG paper.  Here, Garrett refers to urban exploration as “recreational trespass” and explores explicitly some of the challenges to spatial engagements that are implied by Macfarlane: “urban exploration as a practice that speaks directly to past and present debates around space, place, subversion, surveillance, community and urban life within geography” (p.2).

The two articles are written for different audiences, thus offering young geographers useful insights to purposeful writing.  For the more experienced geographer, Garrett’s paper sets up urban exploration in the context of political action, and will be of further interest to those concerned with deep ethnographies.  For explorers, it may be the physical infrastructure of the local town that seems the most intriguing.

books_icon  Garrett, B.L. 2010 Urban explorers: quests for myth, mystery and meaning. Geography Compass 4,10 pp.1448-61

books_icon  Garrett, B.L. 2013 Undertaking recreational trespass: urban exploration and infiltration. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographer. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12001

60-world2  Macfarlane, R. 2013 The Strange World of Urban Exploration. The Guardian

Gibraltar: The Fortune of Location

by Benjamin Sacks

'The Rock' looms large in political and geographical discourse. © 2013 Wikimedia Commons.

‘The Rock’ looms large in political and geographical discourse. © 2013 Wikimedia Commons.

As is the case every few years, Gibraltar recently returned to many newspapers’ front pages as London and Madrid exchanged heated words over the British-controlled territory. Speaking to reporters after meeting with Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, Prime Minister David Cameron stated that ‘the UK would always stand up for the British territory and the interests of its people’. Spain’s Foreign Minister, Jose Manuel-Margallo, responded that Gibraltar ‘is, has been and will be a national priority’. But why?

Gibraltar is an oddity amongst the world’s remaining colonial possessions. A tiny peninsula, only part of which is habitable thanks to a 1,398-ft limestone promontory, Gibraltar and its environs have been contested by various European and North African empires for a millennium, each seeking control of ‘The Rock’s’ ideal position at the entrance of the Mediterranean Sea. Today, it remains an occasionally emotional source of tension between two states otherwise intimately allied via NATO, the European Union, and almost countless cultural and economic relationships. Its remarkable physical and topographical geography has long fascinated explorers and politicians alike. Pero López de Ayala, a fourteenth century chronicler and counselor, described it as possessing near-mythical qualities: ‘With uplifted hands he [Ferdinand IV] gave thanks to Providence for the reduction [from the Moors] under his dominion of a Rock and Castle so important, and almost impregnable’. Alexander Von Humboldt described Gibraltar’s prehistoric formation at the rupture between Eurasia and Africa as ‘ante-historical, or far beyond any human tradition’, a point to which, in 1867, then-Royal Geographical Society president Sir Roderick Impey Murchison agreed. H T Norris intertwined Gibraltar and its central position with the vivid, exotic life and travels of fourteenth century Arab explorer Ibn Battūtah, who described the peninsula in lush prose:

I walked round the mountain and saw the marvellous works executed on it by our master (the late Sultan of Morocco) Abu’l-Hassan, and the armament with which he equipped it, together with the additions made thereto by our master (Abū ‘Inān), may God strengthen him, and I should have like to remain as one of its defenders to the end of my days. 

Spain formally ceded Gibraltar to Great Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) – a peace which recognised the latter’s global ascendancy over the former’s empire. The Rock rapidly became a byword for British imperial power, the supposed stability of ‘Pax Britannica’, and – just as importantly – a slogan for the Empire’s geographical extremes. Scholars, explorers, and entrepreneurs turned to Gibraltar (or, at the very least, its image) to describe similar oceanic passages, strategic outposts and, albeit more recently, territorial-colonial disputes. ‘The best parallel I can give to tidal observation of Barrow Strait’, Sherard Osborn, for instance, argued in 1873, is that of the strait of Gibraltar…where the flood-tide flows into two enclosed seas from the Atlantic Ocean’. H H Johnston, visiting Stanley’s way stations along the Congo River, borrowed the colony’s importance and meaning to describe Franco-Italian competitor Pietro Paolo De Brazza’s attempts to control the Congo region:

Should De Brazza ever reach the Congo in his present expedition, and succeed in establishing himself at Mfwa, it is rumoured that he would like to take Calina Point and make it the Gibraltar of the [Stanley] Pool, and then with this fortified post and the station of Mfwa opposite he would be able to close, if necessary, the mouth of Stanley Pool where it commences to narrow into the rushing lower portion of the Congo.

In 1915, P M Sykes similarly invoked The Rock to describe Kala Márán, a mountain near the village of Pá Kala in Persia.

Gibraltar’s position extended far beyond the Mediterranean and European Atlantic. It proved to be an ideal replenishing site for expeditions in Africa, the Middle East, the Americas and, after the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Indian Ocean. Writing in The Geographical Journal months before the outbreak of the First World War, Rudyard Kipling reduced the Britain-to-India route to four essential steps: ‘London-Gibraltar; Gibraltar – Port Said; Port Said – Aden; Aden – Bombay’. Its pivotal location also greatly aided British and allied efforts during the First and Second world wars, and in a number of Cold War-era conflicts, including Suez, Aden, Malaya, Dhofar, and the Falklands.

The Royal Geographical Society was quick to discuss the Gibraltar issue following Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s decision in 1969 to close the border with the British colony. That year, John Naylon described how Spain intended to recover Gibraltar via the creation of an economic and social development around the peninsula: the so-called Campo de Gibraltar. Madrid indeed invested in the region’s growth, but Gibraltar steadfastly refused to revert to Spain.

books_icon Gilbard, G J, 1881, A Popular History of Gibraltar, Its Institutions, and Its Neighbourhood on Both Sides of the Straits, and a Guide Book to Their Principal Places and Objects of Interests, London, 52.

books_icon Kipling, R, 1914, ‘Some Aspects of Travel‘, The Geographical Journal43.4: 365-75.

books_icon Johnston, H H, 1883, ‘A Visit to Mr. Stanley’s Stations on the River Congo‘, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, New Monthly Series, 5.10: 569-81.

books_icon Murchison, R I, 1867, ‘Address to the Royal Geographical Society‘, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London37: cxv-clix.

books_icon Naylon, J, ‘The Campo de Gibraltar Development Plan’, Area

books_icon Norris, H T, 1959, ‘Ibn Battūtah’s Andalusian Journey‘, The Geographical Journal125.2: 185-96.

books_icon Osborn, S, 1873, ‘On the Probable Existence of Unknown Lands within the Arctic Circle‘, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London17.3: 172-83.

books_icon Sykes, P M, 1915, ‘A Seventh Journey in Persia‘, The Geographical Journal45.5: 357-67.

60-world2 ‘On This Day: 1982: Spain’s Rock Blockade Ends‘, BBC News. 

60-world2 ‘Gibraltar: Talks on sovereignty discounted by UK and Spain’BBC News, 3 September 2013.

“On Yer Bike”: Sociotechnical Perspectives of Cycling

Jen Dickie

Complex Cycle Lane Markings. I'm glad I was walking! At the junction of City Road and Middle Street, Beeston.  The copyright on this image is owned by David Lally and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Cycling hit the headlines last week when David Cameron announced that £94 million would be invested across eight cities and four National Parks to promote cycling in England.  The scheme, described by the prime minister as the start of “a cycling revolution” is reported to be the largest single injection of public money into cycling in England.  Whilst pro-cycling campaigners welcome this investment, they argue that more funding, spread consistently over future decades, is needed if Britain is going to “transform into a continental style ‘Cycletopia’”.

Haroon Siddique and Peter Walker report in The Guardian that the fund will pay for both upgrades to existing cycle networks and create new ones in a bid to make it easier and safer for people who already cycle, and to make cycling more appealing to those who don’t.  The government is encouraging local councils to “up their game” to deliver cycling-friendly infrastructure from the design stage, and will assist this process by cutting the red tape that “stifles” cycle-friendly road design.  The government’s press release outlines a wide variety of improvements that will be implemented as part of this scheme, including; expanding the network of 20 mph zones in urban areas and 40mph limits in rural areas, the introduction of ‘Trixi’ mirrors at junctions so that HGV drivers can see cyclists more easily, contraflow measures so that cyclists can use one-way streets, mini-signals at cyclists’ eye height, filter signals, trials of different roundabout designs and options for larger advanced stop lines at junctions.

Before implementing any changes, the government should perhaps look at experiences of similar schemes, such as the Launceston Bike Network in Tasmania, Australia.  In their paper for Area, Roger Vreugdenhil and Stewart Williams describe how this scheme became subject to “intense community conflict” or “white line fever”, whereby the seemingly innocuous white lines depicting the cycle lanes were likened to acts of vandalism, causing confusion to road users and were seen to increase territorial ‘them and us’ behaviours.  They argue that cycling and infrastructure should be reconceptualised as an “urban sociotechnical system” and that by recognising this, transport policy and planning may be able to overcome such resistance in future schemes.

The public response to the English scheme has been interesting; the BBC published a report outlining the details on Monday 12th August, by Tuesday morning there were 1051 comments posted from the public.  It is well known that there is conflict between road users, particularly car drivers and cyclists, and this is well reflected in some of the comments.  There are, however, some who show a more balanced view, recognising that a cultural change is needed and that all road users need to be more educated if we are to become a cycle-friendly country.

books_icon Roger Vreugdenhil and Stewart Williams, 2013, White line fever: a sociotechnical perspective on the contested implementation of an urban bike lane network, Area, DOI: 10.1111/area.12029

60-world2 Government shifts cycling up a gear, Government press release, accessed 20th August 2013

60-world2 Cycling groups welcome announcement of £77m government fund, The Guardian, 12th August 2013

60-world2 Cycling gets £94m push in England, BBC, 12th August 2013

Place-naming: designing city narratives

by Fiona Ferbrache

Place names0001Gliding up the escalator of Station Jean Jaurès, the lively activity of Place (du Président Thomas) Wilson comes into view in the centre of Toulouse, SW France.  I’m introducing a friend to the city and explaining the significance of the political figures whose names have been given to these places.  It is the same in any city, the intimate relationship between people and territory is marked by place names (Shoval 2013).

Our stroll through the city takes us down rue Clément-Ader, onto the metro at station Jean-Mermoz and we take coffee on Avenue Louis-Bréguet: “as in the Bréguet Atlantic aircraft?” asks my friend.  Indeed, for Toulouse, centre of the European aerospace industry, has numerous streets and locations commemorating important people in the history of aeronautics: a subtle and symbolic reminder of the city’s particular historical narrative tied in with aviation.

Place-naming and territorial signification has been explored from an academic perspective (e.g. Yeoh 1996, Nash 1999), most recently by Shoval (2013) whose paper extends existing knowledge by focusing on the practice of street-naming specifically to promote places for tourism development.  Grounding his arguments in examples from the Old City of Acre, Israel, Shoval reveals how naming from the mid-1960s was partially aimed as helping tourists to navigate streets and alleys around the city.  He refers to this as evidence of urban landscape as “an expression of tourism consumption” (p.13).  Shoval also recounts the political significance of street-naming in Acre; how tensions played out ‘from above’ and ‘from below’, and as different expressions of heritage meaning.  Place-naming is rarely, if ever, a straightforward process.

Leaving Toulouse, we drive close to the airport via Avenue Didier Daurat (a pioneer of French aviation).  The Airbus Beluga is coming into land overhead – a symbol of Toulouse’s contemporary aeronautical activities.  Like Acre, this city is a residential, tourist and symbolic space, and it would be fun to adopt Shoval’s perspective to further explore the significance of these place names among current tourists and residents.

books_icon Shoval, N. 2013 Street-naming, tourism development and cultural conflict: the case of the Old City of Acre/Akko/Akka  DOI: 10.1111/tran.12003

books_icon Nash, C. 1999 Irish Placenames: post-colonial locations. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 24:457-480

 books_iconYeoh, B. 1996 Street-naming and nation building: toponymic inscriptions of nationhood in Singapore. Area 28:298-307

Mapping Class

By Benjamin Sacks

Five Boys

Conceptions of class remain inseparable from contemporary society, according to a BBC-commissioned study. The Great British Class Survey, undertaken by the BBC’s Lab UK and faculty at LSE, University of Manchester, University of York, City University London, Universitetet i Bergen, and Université Paris Descartes, surveyed 161,000 people across the British Isles. The study’s authors argued that ‘class’, as twentieth century writers tended to define it, was ‘too simplistic’.  Rather than an equation of ‘occupation, wealth and education’, class was actually formulated around ‘economic, social and cultural’ dimensions, of which the traditional structure only formed a part. Along with the traditional classes – elite/upper class, middle class (itself a category distinct from US conceptions), and working class – new divisions had arisen: technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emergent service workers, or ‘precariat’, the authors’ term for ‘precarious proletariat’. Predictably, the study’s publication catalysed a diverse range of media responses. The Financial Times reminded its readers of how deeply entrenched class was in British history. Tristram Hunt recalled William Harrison’s 1577 Description of England: there were ‘four degrees of people’, led by ‘those whome their race or blood or at least their virtues doo make noble and knowne’. A letter to The Guardian compared it to the hierarchy used by the National Statistics Socio-economic Classification scheme (NS-SEC). The Guardian itself wondered whether the new hierarchy was more reflective of the television programme ‘The Wire‘ rather than of British society.

Critics aside, the BBC survey indicated the continuing influence of class, whether desired or not, in shaping how different people think, act, speak, travel, and shop. Geographers have long been aware of the role and perception class played in British and international cultures. Indeed, in 1995, Gary Bridge (Rodney Lodge) called for a standardised, ‘consistent application of class analysis’ when examining urban and rural gentrification. In a 2004 Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers study, Anthony J Fielding (University of Sussex) documented the spatial organization of Japanese cities by class. Critiquing previous, recent accounts that suggested that Japan’s rapid, postwar capitalist transformation had erased, or at least minimised cities’ ‘social geography’ (defined by Fielding as the distinction of classes or groups in space), Fielding used GIS programming to visually and textually demonstrate how major cities have, in fact, been organised by class and social standing, as is the case in most European and North American cities. Interestingly (and importantly) however, through the collection of mapping of this aggregate data, he suggested that the degree of spatial ‘segregation’ was generally lower than in the West. Comparing Kyoto and Edinburgh, Fielding proposed that the former’s spatial organisation was different, and it experienced a lower, but still quite identifiable level of segregation (p. 83). Indeed, Fielding’s study of Japan implicitly mirrored Jon May’s study, also from the University of Sussex, seven years previously. In the 1996 study, May, evidently fatigued from ‘theoretical literature’ on London’s complex social dynamic, created visual and textual maps of Stoke Newington (p. 195).

Class, it almost goes without saying, infected the storied halls of Lowther Lodge. For some two decades at the turn of the twentieth century, the Royal Geographical Society had debated whether to elect women to the fellowship (women had applied for admission as early as 1847, but the issue was not seriously considered until the 1890s). If women were to be admitted, as Morag Bell (Loughborough University) and Cheryl McEwan (Durham University) recalled, then, as the debaters proceeded to argue, they must be of the right social and economic standing. Returning to more recent issues, JoAnn McGregor posited the rapid growth of Britain’s Zimbabwean community within class ‘differences and identities’, in a fascinating shift from more mainstream studies of Robert Mugabe-era emigration. Regardless of whether the BBC survey has lasting impact, geographers will continue to observe, critique, and play with class.

60-world2 ‘Huge survey reveals seven social classes in UK‘, BBC News, 3 April 2013, accessed 7 April 2013.

60-world2 Tristram Hunt, ‘The rise of the precariat and the loss of collective sensibility‘, Financial Times, 7 April 2013, accessed 7 April 2013.

60-world2 David Rose and Eric Harrison, ‘Little solidarity over the question of social class‘, The Guardian, 5 April 2013, accessed 7 April 2013.

60-world2 Paul Owen, ‘BBC’s seven social classes: The Wire version‘, The Guardian, 4 April 2013, accessed 7 April 2013. 

books_icon Mike Savage et al., 2013, A New Model of Social Class: Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey ExperimentSociology 1-32.

books_icon Gary Bridge, 1995, The Space for Class? On Class Analysis in the Study of GentrificationTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 20.2, 236-47.

books_icon Anthony J Fielding, 2004, Class and Space: Social Segregation in Japanese CitiesTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 29.1, 64-84.

books_icon Jon May, 1996, ‘Globalization and the Politics of Place: Place and Identity in an Inner London Neighbourhood‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 21.1, 194-215.

books_icon Morag Bell and Cheryl McEwan, 1996, The Admission of Women Fellows to the Royal Geographical Society, 1892-1914; the Controversy and the Outcome‘, The Geographical Journal 162.3, 295-312.

books_icon JoAnn McGregor, 2008, ‘Abject Spaces, Transnational Calculations: Zimbabweans in Britain Navigating Work, Class and the Law‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 33.4, 466-82.

The Low Carbon Dichotomy: Efficiency Versus Demand Reduction

by Briony Turner

800px-London_-_The_Gherkin_&_Canary_Wharf

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

One could say that effective low carbon solutions will be those that respond to the requirements of energy infrastructures and to the ways in which people actually integrate the social and technical aspects of energy systems to achieve comfort, cleanliness, and other ordinary ways of life.  This requires developing a better understanding not only of householders’ daily practices within their homes and how adaptable these practices are but also the practical application of this understanding into standard industry working practices.

An international climate change audit found that the UK lags behind others in Europe on programmes to move consumer choice to more energy-efficient appliances, recommending that the government “undertake evaluations of effectiveness based on real practice in homes so that programmes can be responsive and kept on track”.   We increasingly have the research findings to enable this.  Take for instance Harriet Bulkely and Sara Fuller’s article in Area which explores how British people who have recently migrated to Spain actually adapt to new regimes of heat. Intriguingly, one of their findings is that adapting to the heat may potentially result in “increasing vulnerability to the cold, demonstrating how responses to stresses on thermal comfort are culturally and materially conditioned”.

So, bearing in mind the challenges posed by cultural and material norms, people’s expectations of comfort and the potential for adaptability, all-be-it with repercussions, there is an additional challenge in the form of a divergence in industry strategies within the UK, at the heart of which is the interlinking black box of domestic practices. The built environment industry is focused on low carbon in the form of reducing emissions of buildings through improving their energy performance, reducing their overall energy usage, i.e. focusing on how much electricity the buildings (including the human activity within them) use.   Yet, the energy supply industry sees the issue, within a future grid system based on inflexible nuclear generation and intermittent renewable generation, as one of balancing supply and demand.  This requires demand management which is not just focused on how much electricity people use, but, is actually more concerned with when they use it –for more on this, see Sarah Higginson and colleague’s 2011 conference paper.

Both industries diverge on the strategy for tackling people.  Whilst both confine people to the term “end user”,  the supply industry regards the end user as an object necessitating “demand management” whereas, the built environment industry sees the building (which contains the end user) necessitating “demand reduction”. The householder has in many ways been divorced from the home, with the focus of behaviour change activity resting predominantly on utility supply and demand chains.

Both industries concede some acknowledgement of the impact of individual behaviour on energy demand with most interventions in both industries aimed at encouraging activities based on small lifestyle adaptations that enable continuation and/or enhancement of existing standards and conventions. Yet the dichotomy of managing energy demand to uphold/lock in/enhance existing ways of life when everyday practices are constantly changing is widely criticised –for those interested in this have a look at Yolande Strengers’ paper on ‘Peak electricity demand and social practice theories’.

To achieve the ambitious energy consumption and carbon emissions reductions set out in statute, low energy/low carbon design and retrofitting needs to shift from focusing on building energy performance, to domestic energy performance, with the building fabric, services and interior design being better understood as contributory factors to locking in, but also with the potential to change domestic energy practice. This perspective leads beyond the supply and demand rhetoric to analyse how energy systems lock in or challenge existing unsustainable needs and what opportunities there are across the material infrastructures to change domestic practice.

books_iconSara Fuller and Harriet Bulkeley, 2012, Changing countries, changing climates: achieving thermal comfort through adaptation in everyday activities, Area, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2012.01105.x

GJ book reviewSarah Higginson, Ian Richardson and Murray Thomson, 2011, Energy use in the context of behaviour and practice: the interdisciplinary challenge in modelling flexible electricity demand presented at Energy and People: Futures, Complexity and Challenges Oxford University 20-21 September 2011

GJ book reviewINTOSAI, 2010,  Report by the INTOSAI Working Group on Environmental Auditing:  The Climate is Changing – Key Implications for Governments and their Auditors

GJ book reviewYolande Strengers, 2012, Peak electricity demand and social practice theories: Reframing the role of change agents in the energy sector, Energy Policy 44 226-234

Bricks, Mortar and Bricolage: an Economic Geographer’s Take on the Stumbling Blocks of Knowledge Transfer in the Built Environment Industry

by Briony Turner

Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tree of Knowledge

If you can get past the academic jargon, there’s an interesting article on knowledge transfer of green building design by James Faulconbridge in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.  Perhaps the reason it’s interesting in a practitioner sense, is that it is based on actual professional practice –it draws not only upon other academic reflections, but also on those of 25 current British/Australian industry professionals.

The paper says it aims to suggest a framework for geographical analysis of attempts at mobilising green design knowledge.  However, it misses a trick, in that it raises some salient and relevant points for industry with regard to the stumbling blocks of transferring innovative design and best practice into action.  For those in the built environment industry it will come as no surprise that application of this framework, i.e.. the paper’s conclusion, reveals that knowledge is situated and place-specific and that solutions need to incorporate bricolage within knowledge assembly and transfer.

The author makes reference to blockage of attempts to reduce environmental impact being in part due to the lack of recognition of the “benefits of collective learning and the sharing of green design knowledges” -whilst this paper is not country specific, for the UK this is not necessarily the case.  The stumbling block quite often, as pointed out later in the paper, is the institutional context, particularly time, importance and resource allocated to the processes of knowledge mobility.  Much new knowledge, often termed within industry ‘best practice’ (even when its more-often-than-not actually innovative practice), is freely available, but hearing about it, knowing where to find it and having time to digest it and work out how to adapt current practice to incorporate it, are part of the daily struggle of most bought-in, already interested practitioners.  For those that aren’t (the greater challenge when it comes to step-change within professional practice) other/additional knowledge mobility tactics may well be required.

Many professionals use conferences as a means of staying up to date, the odd lucky few get to go on study tours as mentioned in the paper.  However, in these austere times, ability, both in terms of time away from the desk and cost, for the majority, is hampered.  Cracking how to enable effective knowledge transfer within current regime constraints is certainly a challenge worthy of uptake here in the UK.

The paper also suggests that economic geographers can contribute to debates about transitions to sustainability and building design via institutional analyses of knowledge mobility.  Hopefully they will, but perhaps in more accessible language, to ensure their own knowledge contributions aren’t rendered ‘situated’ within academia.  It would be wonderful to see the recommendations within this paper in plain English, in trade press such as the RIBA Journal, Inside Housing, Building, Eco Building, Green Building etc.

Now, a brief, but I hope the reader will agree, salient semantic foray into a few of the terms being used.  Focus of academic and industry efforts must not get tied to purely a focus on ‘green design’ as commonly perceived and, in fact, as reflected in this paper’s definition, as “negative environmental impact mitigating” design, but instead should ensure that focus includes the social aspect, i.e. not simply the wider community/society, but the people, the inhabitant(s), aspect of homes.  Homes should be fit for habitation now and in the future, i.e. resilient/enable their inhabitants to be resilient to current and future climatic projections.

Along these same lines, industry needs to assign more importance on the incorporation of domestic function as well as to form and fabric into thinking on green/sustainable design.  Whilst at present there is increasing focus on energy efficiency behaviour of inhabitants (pause here for a wry smile on reading the title of the National Housing Federation’s recent launch event of their “Count us in” report on this, aptly named Don’t forget the people”), the internal environment of homes and health of inhabitants receive less attention, yet are, as, if not more, important – certainly important for those landlords aware of the housing health and safety rating system

Furthermore, sustainable design/green design that tackles both mitigation of carbon emissions from residential stock and adaptation of stock to projected changes in climate is not confined to new build.  These are design issues as relevant to new build as to existing housing stock.  For more information on this, take a look at the useful, clearly set out, easy to read “Design for Future Climate” report produced by the Technology Strategy Board, and for those wanting facts and figures on overheating in particular, take a look at the Department for Communities and Local Government’s recent gap analysis and literature review, which formed part of their investigation into the overheating of homes – their recommendations are also worth a read.

If you’re struggling to connect why excessively cold and overheating homes are design problems, take a look at the Heatwave Plan and the Cold Weather Plan for England 2012, short documents both published by the NHS whose recommendations include factors relating to the built environment.  The NHS picks up the pieces of this current neglect of thinking about the internal environment and domestic life within homes.  Its staff know all too well the contribution of poor housing stock to the medical and death toll during periods of climatic extremes, projected to become increasingly more frequent over the coming years.  Speaking of the NHS, there is an intriguing piece of research underway called SHOCK (not) HORROR which is capturing the highly refined and evolved efficient knowledge transfer processes within A&E wards for help in improving infrastructure resilience. Watch this space…

books_iconJames Faulconbridge, 2012, Mobile ‘green’ design knowledge: institutions, bricolage and the relational production of embedded sustainable building designs, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00523.x

globe42Count us in”, National Housing Federation

globe42Cold Weather Plan for England 2012, National Health Service

globe42Design for Future Climate, Technology Strategy Board

globe42Heatwave Plan for England 2012, National Health Service

globe42Investigation into overheating in homes: analysis of gaps and recommendations, Department for  Communities and Local Government

globe42Investigation into overheating in homes: literature review, Department for Communities and Local Government

Reproducing ‘Authenticity’: The Politics of Restoration and Preservation

by Jen Turner

Nigel Homer [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A recent BBC News report explained how English Heritage and Bradford Council are offering grants of up to 80% to recreate “lost” historical features along the village of Haworth, West Yorkshire made famous by the Bronte sisters. In 2010, English Heritage claimed Haworth’s traditional character was being eroded by gradual minor changes and invited business owners to suggest ideas to enhance the main street.  Councillor David Green, executive member for regeneration and economy, said Haworth was a “special place”. Bradford Council maintained that “historically accurate” details such as traditional shop fronts and sash windows could be reintroduced.

English Heritage regional director Trevor Mitchell places increased business revenues at the heart of the project, claiming that “A restored shop on Haworth Main Street will be more attractive to customers and tenants”.  For me, Howarth as a place is enchanting.  I grew up with West Yorkshire as my home and a penchant for literature that gave the town a magical appeal for me.  In my view, preserving its integrity is important – both picturesque and meaningful for me, I would hate to see its surroundings degenerate.  However, this raises an important question.  What is the definition of this ‘integrity’; and how should it manifest itself?  What processes (and the repercussions of them) should geographers attend to when considering how regeneration schemes seek to reproduce ‘authenticity’ in the contemporary environment?

It is here that I would like to make reference to a numbers of works that have emerged in recent years surrounding these issues within the discipline. As Mihalis Kavaratzis explains, cities all over the world have been applying marketing techniques and increasingly adopting a marketing philosophy to meet their operational and strategic goals; allowing  City marketing to grow into an established field of research and an academic sub-discipline.  The article outlines the historical episodes of such marketing, highlighting how branding has been influential in shaping future prospects for urban spaces.  In Howarth, the ‘Bronte Brand’ is quintessential in the marketed atmosphere of the town.  This also relates to the work of  Adrian While and Michael Short, which recognises that the built heritage of most cities is heterogeneous, hybrid and multiple.  They highlight how certain heritage objects and meanings are invariably privileged over others in place-making strategies, having impact upon the production of local heritage and the regulation and conversation of changes in the built environment.  For Geography Directions followers with interest in this field, their paper further contributes to conceptual debates about the situated politics of heritage and the institutional work performed by heritage discourse.  In aligning ourselves with these debates, it is easy to question the complex relationship between place-making, capitalism, and the ‘authenticity’ we take for granted in our favourite tourist destinations.

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Mihalis Kavaratzis, 2007, City Marketing: The Past, the Present and Some Unresolved Issues, Geography Compass, 1(3) p. 695-712.

books_icon Aidan While and Michael Short, 2011, Place narratives and heritage management: the modernist legacy in ManchesterArea, 43(1) p. 4-13.

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Effort to return Bronte authenticity to HaworthBBC News Leeds and West Yorkshire, 5 Jan 2013.

Mapping Education

by Benjamin Sacks

As pupils, teachers, and parents head into the final weeks preceding the winter holiday, education remains a perennial and hotly debated issue. In the last week alone, Education Secretary Michael Gove urged Lancashire primary schools to increase their standards and testing results, commentators discussed raising university fees on the Isle of Man and, while on a trip to India, Boris Johnson railed against declining numbers of foreign students attending British universities. These stories come on the heels of several years of upheaval in the British education system – ranging from the introduction of high tuition fees to reforms in primary and secondary care.

In the most recent Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Sarah L Holloway and Heike Jöns (Loughborough University) headlined a thematic issue focusing on changing geographies of education. The articles, as well as Holloway and Jöns’s summarisation, featured at the Second International Conference on Geographies of Education, held 10-11 September 2012 at Loughborough University, and presently form a 14-article ‘virtual issue’.

The authors begin their analysis with a discussion of the vital role states play in the successful implementation of educational policy at every level, from ensuring that regions meet appropriate national testing regulations, to provide local medical, nursery, and food assistance. In so doing, they highlight at least two key, but uneasy partnerships: the state and parents; and the balance between public and private responsibilities. These balances appear to be in nearly constant flux; demanding education reform that’s attune to the needs of different constituencies.

Sociologists and geographers of education are increasingly cognizant of the rapidly changing nature of education itself or, as the authors concisely described, ‘[W]hat is learnt’ (483). Several important themes are highlighted:  interdisciplinary studies; the importance of informal education, or education that does not take place within the traditional classroom (e.g., field trips, active citizenship and volunteering); introduction to and engaging in national and international issues, and conceptualising different ‘spaces of learning’ that can be tailored to maximise opportunities in various environments (484-86). Geographers of education must also engage with the ‘complex networks’ and the ‘diverse flows of knowledge, information, capital and resources’ that are becoming increasingly global in the age of internet communications. As a final call to action, both authors suggest that British debates on education geography and policy engage with non-British sources, incorporating ideas and priorities from the Americas, South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

 Sarah L Holloway and Heike Jöns, Geographies of Education and LearningTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 37 482-88.

 Michael Gove: Lancashire primary schools need to improveBBC News, 23 November 2012, accessed 26 November 2012.

 Isle of Man students to pay more for universityBBC News, 26 November 2012, accessed 26 November 2012.

 Boris Johnson warns that UK is losing foreign studentsBBC News, 26 November 2012, accessed 26 November 2012.