08 Sep 2017
My three year NERC fellowship on mainstreaming green infrastructure started on Monday September 4th 2017 and represents an exciting development in my “pracademic” career. Ever since my PhD on the Dartmoor Commons Act back in 1986 I have sought to tackle complex resource management challenges wearing an interdisciplinary hat; working to agendas set by policy and practice communities so that my research hopefully makes a difference in the real world.
My NERC fellowship is a culmination of these efforts and takes me well out of my established academic comfort zone to become a catalyser to help translate relevant NERC science into policy and decision making processes as part of a wider process of mainstreaming green infrastructure in the UK planning system and beyond.
It is clear to me that green infrastructure is not yet mainstreamed in policy and decision making. Often it is a bolt on in developments, struggling to generate investment in the built environment sector particularly when capital and revenue costs are factored into traditional cost benefit models and where economic viability as currently framed within the current National Planning Policy Framework trumps such concerns. Despite the many claimed benefits from the creation and use of green infrastructure, seemingly there are gatekeepers and barriers in the planning system which limits its potential influence and impact.
Mainstreaming is an important but neglected word here. It is used uncritically and yet involves a complex and messy process requiring improved translation, acceptance, usage and learning of knowledge or an idea (green infrastructure) in line with classic diffusion of innovation and social learning theories. Here science/knowledge/ideas evolve from initial discovery through to implementation and acceptance involving key stages of knowledge generation, persuasion, decision (adoption/rejection), implementation, learning and knowledge exchange and confirmation. Given that mainstreaming involves the active diffusion and exchange of an idea from one area to another (e.g. the planning system) where it is deemed not to have gained sufficient acceptance, attention necessarily needs to be focussed on the ways (mechanisms or tools) the idea/knowledge is spread; partly through the different communication channels and time but also how the prevailing governance framework responds. Mainstreaming processes have many barriers to overcome particularly when it involves a change of practice or goes against established culture. Equally there are opportunities to exploit particularly from those early adopters who are the risk takers.
One way to address this is to share new science and evidence relating to green infrastructure in conversations as part of a knowledge exchange process, exposing audiences to new ideas, approaches involving tangible societal benefits and environmental and social justice; themes that lie at the roots of our planning system but have become increasingly neglected.
This endeavour becomes my 3 year mission; to seek out such evidence from the NERC research community and apply existing and/or develop new pathways to impact to enhance the value of green infrastructure in the planning system. Here I will work hand in hand with NERC researchers to maximise their research reach. I will also work with key policy and decision making groups to see to what extent they can, or are willing to, change their work practices to embrace this new evidence. Supporting this research evidence will also be a policy and practice review of those “innovators” who are using/adapting green infrastructure applications in their own work practices; whether successful or not. See the call for evidence on this web site.
A key part of my proposal is based on a partnership with the Town and Country Planning Association who have kindly agreed to host me for 2 days per month over the next three years in their London offices. This enables me to benefit from their grass roots experience championing green infrastructure with their leadership role with the Green Infrastructure Partnership and their work in the EU Perfect project.
Yet this work programme is not focused on one agency. It is about working with different groups and mind-sets covering public, private and voluntary sectors and environmental, economic and social issues, sharing the enthusiasm and concerns about the value and usage of green infrastructure in their work practices to then co-produce outputs and outcomes that can enable a transition towards a successful mainstreaming process. I have not predefined what these outcomes/outputs will be as they arise from the project as it evolves. Equally here, you the reader can help set the agenda by sharing your own experiences and concerns in the call for evidence section of the web site.
This project will not pursue a lowest common denominator approach, however, where only those areas that everyone agrees to are developed. Pathways of greatest impact for the planning system will be pursued to prioritise gains in areas where green infrastructure is currently struggling.
In a 3 year project with limited resources pragmatism becomes key but so too does innovation. I will share my research trials and tribulations openly with you in a series of monthly blogs so that readers can understand and learn from my failures and successes as my work proceeds as well as any changes to the programme. I am acutely aware that often research and practice focuses on the good case studies and exemplars rather than focus on what doesn’t work and why; this is often swept under the carpet. So part of my knowledge exchange is to expose my pursuit of the mainstreaming process, warts and all! Important lessons can be learnt from such endeavours.
If this blog captures your imagination and enthusiasm or raises concerns or if you have any views about the way green infrastructure can be more effectively mainstreamed then please respond directly or use the call for evidence; after all I am hoping to be a jolly good fellow!
 https://www.tcpa.org.uk/pages/category/green-infrastructure-partnership accessed 5th September 2017
 https://www.tcpa.org.uk/perfect-project accessed 5th September 2017