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From theory to reality

This month, we built on some of the discussions we had during our first term when we talked about where we live and work, to discuss 'blue and green cities: from theory to reality'.

Our first witness was Dr David Cope, the Director of Strategy and External Affairs at the Royal Botanical Gardens Kew. He joined Dr Gillian Petrokovsky, James Martin Fellow in the Oxford Long-Term Ecology Lab at the University of Oxford and Dr Scott Hosking, a Global Climate Modeller in the Atmosphere, Ice and Climate team at the British Antarctic Survey and they helped us to generate new questions related to how green spaces can be designed to mitigate the effects of climate change in cities and bring benefits to our wellbeing, local economies and biodiversity, and city and national-level policies which could support them.

Research gaps

The three witnesses discussed different approaches to gathering knowledge that can then be applied to improve our urban environments and people’s relationship to nature, be it through advanced modelling approaches, the use of old knowledge in new settings or through public outreach campaigning.

Dr Scott Hosking is interested in energy resilience in a warming world according to the global Paris targets of 1.5 and 2°C and how the magnitude, frequency and duration of heatwaves will change in these scenarios as well as what this means for humans. Most climate models quickly surpass those temperature targets so there are not enough models for this scenario. However, at a city scale issues will be magnified and we do not know how cities will react to temperature spikes. There is a lack of ground-truthed data, such as that concerning change in energy over time, traffic flows, diurnal cycles, spatial-temporal variance in important weather variables (temperature, air quality, wind speed, humidity, etc.) and the built environment (solar shading, street canyons, etc.). A future step may be to use machine learning to improve climate model calibrations and combine heterogeneous datasets, but fundamentally we need to start designing specialised climate models to answer big questions about regional future climate extremes.

Dr Gillian Petrokovsky outlined the multidisciplinary nature of the Oxford Martin School and her work in systemically reviewing evidence bases. Globally, developmental metrics are improving but this puts massive pressure on biomes, and there is a tension between forestry, agriculture and urban states. However, development and forestry have to operate together. The utilisation of older, silvacultural knowledge in new urban environments is an untapped resource. Currently there is too much focus on aesthetic concerns, whereas forestry offers an enormous vat of unanalysed and unstructured information that could be valuable for understanding how trees can be grown within cities in a way that improves or avoids adversely affecting human wellbeing. We need to create practical tools to understand and assess the value of trees and other ecosystem services in the built environment.

Dr David Cope of Kew Gardens emphasised the importance of diversity in the plant and fungi kingdoms for providing cultural, food and ecosystem services and as crucial for solving some of humanity’s problems including climate change and antimicrobial resistance. Kew use their gardens and outreach activities to try and deepen the relationship between humanity and the natural world, which is vital for bringing the environmental agenda back to the political fore. Tackling this issue requires systems thinking and greater ambition, particularly with regards to future planning for cities. Can we imagine a resilient city that connects people to nature through infrastructure design and by placing ecosystem services at the forefront of planning? What are the mechanisms for achieving this at a more local level? Will industrial automation provide an opportunity to reimagine urban lifestyles? With regards to policy, how do we design interventions that incorporate experimentation and flexibility? Can cities globally be helped to take a different development pathway? Finally, how can a little botanic garden and its like make a real difference?

Wicked problems and questions generated by the open discussion

There is still a lack of data regarding urban environments. Even in well surveyed cities, such as Tokyo, it can be challenging to disentangle county-wide, city-scale and highly localised data, and there may not be a known baseline. The range of these scales is extremely challenging, and regional biases need to be reduced. Getting more data is a long-term process that must overcome logistical and funding difficulties.

How can we improve our existing green spaces in urban environments? It is important to understanding the wider, individualistic factors that influence people’s relationship with nature and work with local communities. For some, trees can be a renewable resource; for others they are a treasured memory. If people are not persuaded that change is something they want, it will not happen regardless of the evidence base behind the intervention. Long-term planning could make change gradual through the diversification of planting schemes and the age-structures of trees.

How can research compete with financial pressures? Local funding is being cut, so cheapness becomes a priority for local councils looking after the environment. It is important to encourage policymakers to make decisions based on transdisciplinary evidence rather than subjective aesthetic understandings of nature.

What are the best ways of improving people’s relationship with nature? The false binary between cities and nature needs to be removed. Kew ran the Grow Wild programme, but it needs to be overlaid with socio-economic research to try and discern its impact. Differentiating communities is vital for engagement; people’s connections to nature will be very different as children versus in old age. The former need schools to educate them about the environment properly and the latter could be engaged as volunteers in retirement. ‘Edginess’, or tapping into people’s desire to do something different, may be a way of encouraging behavioural change by allowing disruptive perspectives to shine new light on a problem and reaching out to different actors.

Should smaller spaces be valorised? Working at a local level makes it easier to create experimental testbeds. Current environmental schemes tend to focus on large areas, but perhaps by focusing on smaller areas, such as individual streets, there can be greater engagement with communities.

Should data be public or private? There is huge future potential for big data to help us with problems ranging from knowing if we should have a solar panel on our roof or tracking the status of individual trees. A Wikipedia-model, with open data, may encourage more citizen science but this needs to be done with great caution too as societal problems will corrupt such datasets. Currently commercial enterprises like Google have the resources to curate some of this data, but there are issues with privacy and researchers getting access to data.

To find out more about this theme or the meetings, please e-mail Dr Rosamunde Almond ().

This meeting built on the discussions we had during the in the 'Places' theme in October, November and December 2016 and here is an overview of these together with a report which provides a bird's eye view of all key questions and wicked problems we generated.

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In Perspectives article in Science published in early May - 'The natural capital of city trees' - Kathy Willis and Gillian Petrokovsky explores ways in which planting trees in cities provides benefits for human health and pollution control.

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The WHO Regional Office for Europe has recently released a report which aims to deepen our understanding of relationships between nature, health and wellbeing in green urban spaces by summarizing existing ecological, socioeconomic and health data.

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