Planning for Change

“How can we communicate more effectively to ensure that… the environment – ‘the source of our biological survival and our emotional wellbeing’ is addressed and valued in decision making?”

Sarah Jackson – Green Infrastructure Coordinator, Bath & North East Somerset Council and Communicate Committee member –  shares some insights into the value of green infrastructure and the communication challenges surrounding landscape scale initiatives, in a time of unprecedented change.

As Tim Scoones, host of this year’s Communicate conference has stated  in his blog – we are living in interesting times with a greater need than ever ‘to escape our comfortable self-validating echo chambers’ and ‘up our game as environmental communicators.’

For those of us lucky enough to be involved with landscape scale initiatives whether that be protecting special landscapes, water catchments, or managing our urban green spaces, many of us still face an uphill battle to protect these valuable resources, secure the required funding and change attitudes at the level and scale needed.

Take the example of our urban green spaces, despite substantial evidence of the multiple benefits these important spaces provide – reduction in public health incidents from heat and air pollution, increased physical activity, biodiversity, reduced flooding to name a few, we are still seeing local authorities dramatic cuts in parks budgets and the loss of green space to new development.

Planning and investment in green infrastructure into development and transport schemes has yet to become the norm.  The environment is still viewed by many as a constraint to growth and its enhancement as a ‘nice to do’ if the budget allows, this old fashioned discourse needs to get with the times, as good quality green infrastructure makes sound economic sense.

However, there is reason to be optimistic and an opportunity to work with those outside the main environment sector to communicate environmental benefits. There are a number of developers who have recognised that working with and enhancing the environment, incorporating green infrastructure can reduce planning, design and build costs, provide greater efficiency and resilience, and increase value of property.  A number of regions and local authorities are now integrating natural capital into planning including London and Manchester championed by their Metro Mayors.

The importance of the natural environment for our health and wellbeing is now well evidenced and is starting to be recognised more widely, but we have yet to see this translate to investment in parks and green open space as a key provider for health.  In 2010 Defra estimated that if everyone had access to sufficient green space, the benefits associated with increased physical activity it could save the health system £2.1bn per year. What, how and to whom do we need to communicate to make this step change in how we value our green and natural spaces?

There are now reams of evidence demonstrating the benefits of investing in the sustainable management of our environment, including  a plethora of tool kits: Green Infrastructure Valuation Tool (GI-val), Sustainable Urban Drainage scheme tool kit for planners and developers (BeST),  iTree and Natural Capital Planning Tool. How can we communicate more effectively to ensure that these tools and evidence are used, that the environment – ‘the source of our biological survival and our emotional wellbeing’ is addressed and valued in decision making?

Sessions at this year’s Communicate conference include Exploring Echo Chambers’ – how do we escape our own limited sphere to influence other ‘echo chambers’ different to our own, ‘Changing Face of Green Space – exploring the role that communication professionals play in ongoing debate around planning, funding and management of our local natural oases, and Outrage, optimism and opportunity‘ – recognising tendency to highlight environmental challenges in terms of negative impacts this session will explore techniques for inspiring optimism.

The conference is an opportunity for cross sector networking with speakers from outside the environmental sphere and skills development for successful communication. I hope you will join us.

Communicate is the UK’s conference for environmental communicators, bringing together over 150 delegates each year to develop their skills, share best practice and debate the latest issues in engaging people with the natural world.

Find out more here

Communicate 2017 is sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council www.esrc.ac.uk