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Today, cities are home to 54% of the world’s population, and by the middle of this century that figure will likely rise to 66%. As urban becomes the reality for most of the population, urban issues become central to researchers worldwide. Cities need to be part of a solution towards better communities and a sustainable urban future. Inspired by SDG 11 and the prominence of urban topics in our lives, Springer aims to engage communities as well as government and stake-holders with ground-breaking research that brings about change and a sustainable urban future.
Our cities are 'naturally challenged': here's why
By Dr. Nicola Dempsey, Co-Editor of the book Naturally Challenged: Contested Perceptions and Practices in Urban Green Spaces
"'Lockdown has been a time when many have appreciated the urban nature around us. Maybe it has been noticing the weeds growing through the cracks in the pavement or hearing birdsong that couldn’t be heard before. Many more people have been visiting parks, which have provided much needed respite from the challenges lockdown has brought.
... We have long known about the health and wellbeing benefits of urban green spaces – and Covid-19 certainly demonstrated how urban green spaces are an essential service. So why are there still longstanding problems in accessing, funding and managing our parks and green spaces? A new book (published by Springer), which I edited with Dr Julian Dobson at Sheffield Hallam University, aims to answer this question.
Our new book Naturally Challenged: Contested Perceptions and Practices in Urban Green Spaces sheds light on why the health and wellbeing benefits of urban green spaces jar with the asset management approaches that view public green spaces as liabilities. With contributions from international green space management experts, the book demonstrates that it depends on how the wellbeing benefits of urban nature are analysed and valued.
Too often, urban nature is not valued highly enough for local and national decision-makers to invest significant funding. There tends to be a ‘business as usual’ approach to dealing with green spaces which are underpinned by logics of ‘we’ve done this because we’ve always done this’ or ‘that couldn’t work here’ without any exploration of the alternatives.
Such logics mean that decision-makers don’t meaningfully prioritise urban green spaces, and that is often attributed to (or blamed on) others. “It’s the public who aren’t interested in the outdoors”. “It’s the housing developers who can’t provide too much green space because it makes a development unviable”. “It’s because of other government departments and their silo mentalities”. “It’s because academics don’t provide the right evidence”.
These are all examples of ‘logics of inaction’ that are examined in the book and their implications are considered by experts from the UK, Italy and New Zealand. Knowing these logics of inaction exist means we can challenge national policymakers to secure funding for our green spaces in life beyond the pandemic."
Dr. Nicola Dempsey, Senior Lecturer in Landscape Planning, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Sheffield, UK
How much more evidence do we need to invest in green spaces?
by Dr. Julian Dobson, Co-Editor of the book Naturally Challenged: Contested Perceptions and Practices in Urban Green Spaces
"We know green spaces are good for us. The evidence is overwhelming. So why don’t we invest in what we know to be healthy and helpful, when we can find £522 million to subsidise people who want a meal out?
In case there’s any doubt about the evidence, earlier this year a team at Sheffield Hallam University produced a report, Space to Thrive, which reviewed nearly 400 recent academic papers on the social benefits of urban parks. As well as supporting physical and mental health, which you’d expect, parks also play an important community role, bringing people together and enabling people to feel more involved in society.
But we also know that parks and green spaces are underfunded. A parliamentary inquiry three years ago found they were at a ‘tipping point’ of decline in England. So why are they considered less important than roads (£27.4bn investment over five years in England), private houses (£3.8bn diverted to the better-off through the suspension of stamp duty in 2020-21), or prisons (£2.5bn to create an extra 10,000 prison places)?
‘We want to invest, but we can’t’
It’s not as if local councils, which are responsible for most urban parks and many other green spaces, think parks are unimportant. But between 2010 and 2017/18 central government funding for English local authorities fell by 49.1% in real terms, and spending power (taking locally raised resources into account) fell by 28.6%. There is no statutory duty for councils to create or maintain parks.
Even this year, when the importance of parks has been spotlighted during the Covid-19 lockdown because they were among the very few public places people could use, local authorities are still discussing how they can save more money from parks budgets.
And even when there is a chance to invest, council officers often feel disempowered and unable to make the case. In recent research in Sheffield we found a series of ‘logics of inaction’, justifiable reasons for not making the improvements council staff knew would be helpful.
Unsurprisingly, the main logic was a financial one – people believed they would not be able to justify investment compared with actions generating a perceived immediate economic benefit, like mending roads, or where there was a legal duty attached, such as social services. But we also found people were institutionally disempowered: ten years of austerity have instilled a ‘finance says no’ culture within local government.
Evidence-seeking as myth and ceremony
A common expression of this culture of disempowerment is to seek more evidence to justify investment, but then to argue that the evidence is insufficient. One parks professional we interviewed put it like this:
‘…what we need to do is be better and savvier at using statistics, using the work of yourself and research in the city to say, Parks and Countryside have got so much x, it provides y, the benefits are pounds and economic savings.’
But in further discussions, another made the revealing comment that ‘I don’t even try anymore’. In a new book published by Springer Nature, I and my co-editor Nicola Dempsey argue that evidence-seeking has become an excuse for kicking the can down the road, deferring commitment on the basis that evidence is still not good enough.
In Naturally Challenged: Contested perceptions and practices in urban green spaces, we investigate the ‘logics of inaction’ affecting suggested investments. Drawing on John W Meyer and Brian Rowan’s classic study in organisational theory showing how organisational structure is often a result of ‘myth and ceremony’ which services the purpose of legitimising activities, we consider evidence-seeking through the same lens.
While organisations engage actively in the search for appropriate evidence, the evidence legitimises a process of decision-making that does not require evidence to be acted upon. Evidence-seeking becomes a justificatory activity. We argue:
‘The myth of evidence-based policy … enables proposals to be rejected on the basis of insufficient evidence, effectively masking the politics of decision-making. A concern with “what works” and “good practice” provides an appearance of logical inevitability for what is actually a political choice.’
Where does that leave the case for investing in parks and green spaces? In our view, the evidence is good enough: it is the consequent action that has failed.
We are on the brink of a spending review that will set priorities in the UK for half a decade or more. In the run-up to that review, professionals, academics and campaigners are amassing the evidence and making the case for serious and significant investment in green space. The National Trust, for example, says we need a £5.5bn fund to improve green spaces and create new ones.
If the spending review does not deliver, it won’t be for lack of evidence. It will be a political choice. And if the political choice is for prisons rather than parks, we should ask what that tells us about our priorities."
Dr. Julian Dobson, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University, UK
Resilient Urban Futures
By Dr. Zoé Hamstead, Co-Editor of the book Resilient Urban Futures
“Cities must wage simultaneous battles to curb global climate change trends while adapting and transforming to address local climate impacts. How do cities develop anticipatory and long-range planning capacities for more resilient futures, earnest collaboration across disciplines, and radical reconfigurations of the power regimes that have institutionalized the disenfranchisement of minority groups?
This volume brings the science of urban transformation together with practices of professionals who govern and manage our social, ecological and technological systems to design processes by which cities may achieve resilient urban futures in the face of climate change."
Dr Zoé Hamstead, Assistant Professor of Environmental Planning and Founding Director of the Community Resilience Lab at the University of Buffalo's School of Architecture and Planning, Buffalo, USA.
"I have published 3 books with Springer and a further 2 are in preparation. The first of these, Urban Morphology, has been downloaded more than 20,000 times and has 140 citations - four years after publication. Springer, and in particular the team of The Urban Book Series led by Juliana Pitanguy, are effective partners. From the discussion of the first idea for a new project, the submission of a proposal, the referee evaluation process to the completion of the book, everything is framed by excellency and high professionalism."
Professor Vítor Oliveira, Secretary-General, International Seminar on Urban Form
Computational Urban Science
A new open access journal that focuses on the intersection of computational sciences and urban sciences in building intelligent and resilient cities.
Editors-in-Chief: Hui Lin, Jiangxi Normal University, China; Xinyue Ye, Texas A&M University, USA
Discover Sustainability aims to support multi-disciplinary research and policy developments addressing all 17 of the UN SDGs. The journal publishes open access research from across all fields relevant to sustainability, including cities and urbanization.
Editor-in-Chief: Walter Leal Filho, Hamburg, Germany
npj Urban Sustainability
A new open access, online-only journal, dedicated to publishing high-quality papers that describe the significant and ground-breaking research covering urban environments through the lens of sustainable development, studied across a broad range of research topics.
Editor-in-Chief: Thomas Elmqvist, Professor in Natural Resource Management, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden.