Author Archives: Briony

The Low Carbon Dichotomy: Efficiency Versus Demand Reduction

by Briony Turner

800px-London_-_The_Gherkin_&_Canary_Wharf

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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

Geographic Information Systems –a Tool for Geographers or a Science in Its Own Right?

Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 by Terje Sørgjerd

Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 by Terje Sørgjerd

by Briony Turner

There’s an interesting paper by Mordechai Haklay in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers which starts off by describing an ‘Iron Sheep’ exercise at the recent Association of American Geographers conference – one could be forgiven for thinking it’s a trial for inclusion in the next Bond film.

The paper itself provides an interesting history of geographical information science. The paper doesn’t touch on the difference between geographical information “science” and “systems” so for other geographers perhaps slightly unsure like myself, the science part is the theory behind the use and application of the technology/software that comprises geographic information systems.  Perhaps this confusion is itself a product of the ‘cleavage in GIS between two traditions, that of spatial information on the one hand and that of spatial analysis on the other’ (Goodchild, 1992).  Mordechai’s paper explores whether geographical information science is a sub discipline, or not, of Geography.

Back in the 1854 John Snow, one of the forefathers of modern day GIS as well as epidemiology, mapped out the Soho cholera outbreak using points to represent individual cases and revealed a cluster around a public water pump on Broad Street.  This led to identification of the contaminated water pump as the source of the disease.  For teachers, this legendary Cholera map in various GIS formats and suggested lesson content is freely available via the James Madison University National Centre for Rural Science and Mathematics Education.

In a more modern day context, Peter Webley, Assistant Research Professor at the Geographical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, who back in my undergraduate days was a Postdoctoral Research Associate in our Geography Department, uses GIS as a means to bring together fieldwork and remote sensing data for operational use. He’s now part of the IAF-AVO remote sensing group and is responsible for the volcanic ash cloud model forecasts for volcanoes around the world.   You might well ask, why focus on this individual?  It is creative individuals like him, that put to use GIS software to translate geographic data, models and forecasts into something tangible, understandable and operational for the rest of society.   For instance he developed a system to analyse thermal hotspot volcanic monitoring in Central America to help provide the information necessary for disaster warnings (UAF, 2012).  In addition to the day job, he’s part of a team that have developed “MapTEACH” which is a fantastic educational tool to help teachers and their students in Alaska get to grips with GIS whilst simultaneously preserving their community heritage, their history told through stories, with mapping.

Hopefully this post will have inspired some of you to seek out more information on GIS and for the teachers amongst you, perhaps to spend some lesson time on it.  The Royal Geographical Society has a GIScience Research Group, so do check out its pages if you’d like to find out more.  There’s a “Virtual Issue” of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers with papers over the past five decades covering the use of computers in geographical and cartographical research, a substantial amount of which, including Mordechai Haklay’s paper, are free to download so do also check them out.

For those of you in London, interested in debating this/want to meet people who use GIS in their jobs/research, the London Trainee and Student GIS Community are meeting for drinks at the aptly named John Snow pub, Sunday 20th January at 2pm, 39 Broadwich Sreet, London W1F9QL, the more the merrier!

GJ book reviewMichael F Goodchild, 1992, Geographical information science, International Journal of Geographical Information Systems, 6 31–45

books_iconMordechai Haklay, 2012, Geographic information science: tribe, badge and sub-disciplineTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37  477-481

GJ book review

Augustine eruption leads to updated model, University of Alasaka Fairbanks

Get Your Jacket On, We’re Going into the Field

By Briony Turner

Source: author

There’s nothing like getting to the raw base and passion of geography than by going out into the field.  The literal fields and forests of the beautiful British countryside offer a perfect location.

In the UK, the lesser spotted physical geographers tend to favour exposure to the elements wearing some form of rip-stop nylon, lightweight, waterproof, breathable multi-climate jacket, waders for the river fanatics and, rarer these days, sleeveless jacket with multiple pockets for vital gadgets and gismos.  Their social ecology is such that they tend to roam in groups and can often be found, when not in the pub discussing the merits of different real ales, stomping around in boots.  They can be easily distinguished from other people, particularly dog walkers, as they tend to be holding/fiddling/hovering over tools of the trade, be it the one hundred square grid quadrat or the latest near infrared camera- helium balloon-iPhone concoction.  Well, this was the perspective reached from experience of past field trips and from joining the first year undergraduates and assorted staff on a physical geography fieldtrip to Heartwood Forest in Hertfordshire earlier this week.

Once immersed outdoors in fieldwork, suddenly newspaper article angst and breakfast news headlines become highly relevant.  For what did we identify? In the midst of admiring the efforts of recent tree planting and noticing some natural regeneration we discovered ash saplings.  A week or two ago, for some of us we wouldn’t have blinked an eye, but now it is almost as if these harmless baby trees have an aura of the forbidden about them, namely Chalara Fraxinea, or dieback of ash as its more commonly known, a disease that leads to leaf loss according to DEFRA.  For those wanting to know more facts, the Forestry Commission have photos and nifty map depicting the distribution of Chalara positive sites.  As its recent spread in the UK is suspected to originate from stocks of imported young saplings from nurseries, the Government has imposed strong import restrictions.  This follows a media speculative fanfare, the most recent of which is John Vidal’s article in The Guardian, on the inadequacy of the European Plant Health Regime and the bureaucratic infrastructure that results in the UK importing ash saplings from foreign nurseries.

After a successful day out in the field with, hopefully, another generation of undergraduates inspired or at the very least aware of the importance of field work, interdisciplinary working and the usefulness of primary data collection within the more physical side of Geography, I was left to reflect on a couple of recent articles by Marc Tadaki and colleagues and Simon Dalby which have questioned, in different ways, the importance of this area of the discipline.  On re-reading them, I was struck by their common reference to a paper by David Demerit in 2009 on framing environmental research in geography.  The paper opens with commentary about the human/physical geography divide.  On reading the paper I was left wondering, why, at the very time when Geography offers the ultimate discipline of interdisciplinary thinking, are the academics set on this physical/human divide?  In this world where we are increasingly aware of the complexity of interrelating systems of environments both natural and man-made, of cause and effect,  why call for the creation of yet another sub discipline? Why call for an environmental middle ground when actually the middle ground, the interdisciplinary thinking, is the very heart of Geography?

So I implore all those academics reinforcing the divide with theoretical musings to come down from the ivory tower and get out into the field with your colleagues and students.  Geography has so much to offer as a discipline, so let’s focus efforts on building bridges rather than trenches.

Ash dieback: Forestry companies blame ‘chaotic’ import system The Guardian, 1 November 2012

David Demeritt, 2009, From externality to inputs and interference: framing environmental research in geography, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34 3–11

Government bans imports of ash trees DEFRA, 29 October 2012

Marc Tadaki, Jennifer Salmond, Richard Le Heron and Gary Brierley, 2012, Nature, culture, and the work of physical geography, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 547-562

Simon Dalby, 2012, Geo 2.0: digital tools, geographical vision and a changing planet The Geographical Journal 178 270–274

“are We Whistling in the Wind?”

By Briony Turner

MEC's green roof among others by sookie (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This was the question posed by Dr Bob Bloomfield, Head of Innovation at the Natural History Museum, whilst chairing a discussion at the IHDC 2012 conference, on designing ecosystem services into the built environment.

Our connection with nature is at times, and certain locations, tenuous to say the least.  The National Trust has documented the children of Britain’s declining connection with nature and the external environment.   Stephen Moss, who reviewed the findings, diagnosed a “Nature Deficit Disorder”.  This report, “Natural Childhood”, marked the National Trust’s launching of an inquiry to determine the barriers and the solutions for children’s connection with nature.   The inquiry found that children’s love of nature is best started in the home. If we are to avoid creating a generation cut off from the natural world, we need to look not only at the role of parents and authorities, as recommended in the findings, but also at that the built environment practitioners can play by designing in nature to the places we call home.  This call for greater practitioner attention to nature-based assets within metropolitan boundaries is mirrored in the recently published UNEP “Cities and Biodiversity Outlook” report and in research by Luca Salvati and colleagues on the link between urban planning and land degradation.

Our connectivity with nature is not just a childhood concern.  Some may recall the 2009 flood of Victoria Station that brought transport chaos to London and the greater South East.  Well it also served as a spark to rethink growth plans in the Victoria Business Improvement District (BID).  The event served as a stark reminder that economic growth of an area is vulnerable to nature, that there is work needed to improve the climatic reliance of local businesses and that nature can play a vital role in doing so.  The Landscape Institute case study explains the actions of the Victoria BID, including conducting a green infrastructure audit which identified a phenomenal 25ha suitable for green roofs capable of intercepting 80,000m3 of rain water each year.  This now ties in with the new London Plan and its All London Green Grid Supplementary Planning Guidance, which formalises consideration of design and management of green infrastructure within London.  The Mayor of London has recently teamed up with the Landscape Institute and the Garden Museum to run a High Line for London competition, which made for some interesting visions of London, and commentary in the London Evening Standard.

Whilst the rhetoric; urban greening, green infrastructure, ecosystem services make nature seem like a distant planet, manageable only by institutions and an abundance  of bureaucratic processes, this is not the case.  Any patch of ground, free of tarmac, even that hidden under decking/concrete slabs, has the potential to help intercept heavy rainfall.  The Guerrilla Gardening movement is hot on the case with their ‘pimp your pavement’ campaign and a number of water companies have teamed up with the Environment Agency and other organisations to produce a free ‘UK Rain Garden Guide’ for household action.

If we are to manipulate ecosystems to provide enhanced service to our cities, then we perhaps need to ponder the “banal violence of configuring spaces exclusively around human proclivities” (p. 580) as highlighted by Kathryn Yusoff in her paper on the “Aesthetics of loss”.  Perhaps, before we get carried away with the services and quantification rhetoric, we should ask ourselves does nature have to have a function for us to have it in our urban areas?  How depressing if the answer is yes.

Whilst some would argue that there’s an inherent tension between the built environment and nature, others might argue that urban ecosystems themselves show the wonderment of nature, its adaptability, and how many other species put us to shame.  You can make your own judgement at the Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum –there’s a category for urban wildlife, defined as images that focus on nature’s occupation of the man-made environment.

Ecosystem Services Come to Town; Adapting to climate change by working with Nature,  IHDC 2012 Conference, 15 October 2012, Natural History Museum, London.

We’ll take the high road: off the streets and into the sky could be the future for London bikes, London Evening Standard, 11 October 2012

Case Study: Greening for Growth in Victoria, Landscape Institute 2012

Natural Childhood, National Trust, London

Reconnecting children with nature, National Trust, London

Pimp your Pavement, campaign from GuerrillaGardening.org

Luca Salvati, Roberta Gemmiti and Luigi Perini, Land degradation in Mediterranean urban areas: an unexplored link with planning?Area 44, 317-325.

Cities and Biodiversity Outlook, UNEP

Victoria Business Improvement District (2012)

KathrynYusoff, Aesthetics of loss:  biodiversity, banal violence and biotic subjects, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 37, 578-592.

The Return of that Great British Institution, the Weather

By Briony Turner

Source: author

Somewhat regrettably, those scorching days admiring sporting finesse, feeling the heat of the sun against skin (and the 100% recycled polyester iconic top of a Games Maker –the not so regrettable aspect) are now a distant memory, washed out by a month’s worth of downpour in one day.

Having had the topic of weather embargoed for the summer (Games Makers were implored not to be quintessentially British and moan about the weather), the country has returned to its favourite topic of conversation, wiping even the Duchess of Cambridge off the front pages.  According to the Met Office official blog, the culprit is an ‘unusually active’ and ‘lingering’ (blame that part on the jet stream) low pressure system from the Atlantic which has had a field day moving north across the UK, picking up the cooler polar air en route, causing a deeper depression, not only meteorologically but also metaphorically in its wake.

Future climate projections suggest a rise in frequency of such extreme events.  Some geographers, Marc Tadaki and colleagues, are caught up in whether physical geography needs to exist,  and/or indulge in a ‘navel gazing and angst’ debate as to the purpose of geography (Dalby, 2012 p.270).  However, others have simply rolled up their sleeves and are conducting geographical analyses, improving the understanding of and addressing climate change and human vulnerabilities, as noted by Simon Dalby in his recent book review in The Geographical Journal.   These applications and analyses form the basis of information provided by organisations like the Environment Agency, whose website provides the latest flood alerts and enables householders to identify the extent to which, if at all, their homes are at risk of flooding. A catastrophe modelling firm, working with the European Space Agency, has recently launched a mapping tool with geo-coded ‘snapshots’ and impact assessment features to help insurers handle the aftermath of flooding.

Extensive systems and infrastructure, including governance arrangements, are in place to attempt to reduce the impact and effects of flooding.  Homeowners in the UK at risk of flooding currently benefit from the “Statement of Principles”, an agreement between Government and insurers, although it will expire on the 1st July 2013.  Defra are currently working on a replacement.  An article in The Geographical Journal, provides a timely reminder of the complexities encountered in public engagement within flood risk management (FRM) and the potential negative consequences that can result if the local micro-politics are not understood and sensitivities, particularly repercussions of shifts in local power relations, are not accounted for before application of FRM engagement.

One way of reducing the scale of flooding in urban areas is to intercept and delay rain and surface runoff by utilising and improving urban ecosystems.  Built environment industry experts are looking at innovative ways of ecologically adapting the built environment, there’s an annual conference and, this year, a public exhibition of the Integrated Habitats Design Competition’s winners and finalists in October at the Natural History Museum (a Fringe Event of the UN Convention on Biodiversity).  This just goes to show that urban ecosystems can be enhanced, have social, economic as well as ecological value and, as Robert Francis and colleagues point out in their article in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, offer opportunities for innovative research.

Flooding – availability and coverage of insurance Association of British Insurers

S. Dalby, 2012, Geo 2.0: digital tools, geographical vision and a changing planet, The Geographical Journal 178 270–274

UK Climate Projections:  Briefing report (UKCP09) Defra

R. A. Francis, J. Lorimer and M. Raco, 2012, Urban ecosystems as ‘natural’ homes for biogeographical boundary crossings, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 183–190

Defra tweaking statement of principles replacement Insurance Times.co.uk

What’s bringing the stormy weather to the UK? Official blog of the Met Office news team

Satellite Flood Footprints PERILS

M. Tadaki, J. Salmond, R.  Le Heron and G. Brierley, 2012, Nature, culture, and the work of physical geography, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 547–562

C-P. Tseng, and E.C. Penning-Rowsell, 2012, Micro-political and related barriers to stakeholder engagement in flood risk management, The Geographical Journal 178 253–269.

Britain gets almost a month of rain in 24 hours , The Guardian