Switching On: Can You Plan Resilience in the Built Environment?

Partisan’s Switching On webinar invites a panel of expert commentators and industry professionals to discuss issues about the future of the built environment in Greater Manchester.

On the panel for our latest Switching On webinar were:

  • Danny Crump – Director of Urbanism, Broadway Malyan
  • Jemma Hynes – CEO and Technical Director, FoodSync
  • Fiona Tuck – Associate Director, Metro Dynamics.

What are the Guiding Principles for Long-term Planning?

Dealing with a pandemic is dealing with the unpredictable. Even as lockdown begins to ease, slowly, there are more questions than answers about the way we will live and work in the future.

But what future, the immediate one, or something more long-term?

A positive response to post-covid planning requires a high degree of flexibility and adaptability, but you can still establish some guiding principles.

A simple but effective way of thinking is to start with people: if you want to understand what makes a place special and unique, then put these questions to an audience with a real stake in it.

What are the priorities for these communities when re-emerging out of the coronavirus crisis?

Why is Food Security Important?

On the ground, food needs are more acute than ever, and the crisis has highlighted flaws in mainstream food systems. At a local level, food aid requirements are acute in many areas.

The food system is not resilient enough because there is a lack of diversity in supply.

Establishing food security must, therefore, be a priority. How will people access an adequate diet?

Earlier in the coronavirus crisis, the threat of food nationalism threatened certain supplies, such as milling flour from Kazakhstan.

Is There a Top-down Disconnect?

The UK’s top-down approach has exposed a disconnect between local and national government when it comes to supply chain security.

The Government voted against amendments to the Agriculture Bill, which would have provided greater protection to domestic food producers.

But the more we import, the more vulnerable, and less resilient, our food security is.

At a local level, councils and other organisations know how important it is to ensure communities are fed.

This has led to a multi-level response during the pandemic, involving the public and private sectors, and the third sector, working closely together to ensure supply chains keep working.

Will this have a legacy beyond COVID-19?

To rapidly adapt, we need more diversity in supply chains.

Can You Benchmark for Resilience?

Coronavirus has exposed a lack of understanding of local supply chains, with modern, optimised systems not flexible enough to cope easily and rapidly with disruption.

Macro-analysis can only take you so far. Thorough, detailed, local knowledge based on experience builds a detailed picture of a region and its different places.

Key aspects to this on-the-ground knowledge include:

  • People’s connectedness
  • The business stock of an area
  • Its labour market
  • How dynamic the area is
  • Whether there is innovation.

Local assets are people-based as well as place-based. It is people in communities who understand what these communities need.

They should be an essential resource when benchmarking for resilience.

The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated how communities can respond and mobilise themselves in unique ways to face an existential threat.

Could responses like these become key contributors to developing more resilient local economies in the future?

Is Resilience in the Mix?

Identifying assets and vulnerabilities of a place helps to establish a base-level you can then improve upon.

This should start with context. What is the location’s mix of structures like, such as residential, civic, commercial, leisure and retail?

A healthy mix will not be over-reliant on any single type. For example, if an area is heavily dependent on retail, this does not imply a potential for long-term resilience.

Resilience comes from as broad a mix as possible.

This includes transport infrastructure too. If a single mode dominates, such as the car, then this can lead to fragmentation.

Other key aspects are history and heritage, and a place’s character. Character is not fixed, in that you can bring it into an area with new developments, if they fit in with the established local community and its culture.

Choice or Necessity?

Planning for resilience on the back of a mothballed economy and the disruption the pandemic has brought is not really about making a choice.

It is a necessity.

Short-term, reactive policies will not be enough. Long-term strategic planning is the thing that will separate those places that survive and thrive, from those that struggle to stay afloat.

There are significant challenges ahead. The pandemic is the initiator, and there will be more disruption and change to come, not least with challenges to the labour market.

How Dependent Are We on Behaviour Change?

As urban centres begin to re-open, the infrastructure is adapting to try and encourage greater use of alternative modes of transport, such as walking and cycling.

But however much local authorities make changes, ultimately, lasting change comes from individual behaviour.

The question post-pandemic thinking is asking is how people are going to live in the future.

Research has shown that COVID-19 has had a major effect on the eating habits of consumers. This is on a global scale:

  • 73% say they plan to eat and drink more healthily
  • 55% say they are now more conscious about the environment.

However, any kind of planning on the back of changing trends has to take into account the gap between people’s stated intentions and how they act in practice.

A proactive approach to building resilience in places should encourage behaviour change by facilitating it.

Currently, funding cycles in the UK tend to align to electoral cycles and are politically-driven.

This tends to hamper long-term planning, which should cut across elections and appealing to the immediate concerns of voters.

Does the Built Environment Recognise Social Value?

Social value has wide economic and environmental implications if we are to build resilient communities and economies.

Places need to be adaptable enough to give something back to the people who live and work in them.

Understanding the lived experience is fundamental to change. What people experience can lead them to change their behaviours.

In the built environment, if you include social value from the start, it may not always be the most profitable option, but it is highly likely to be the most sustainable.

The challenge with social value is to quantify it. This can lead to its measurability taking on more importance than its actual outcomes.

In fact, the outcomes are much more valuable.

Capital investment is still massively significant, because it is the thing that can deliver positive labour market and community outcomes.

This means convincing and converting developers and investors to the long-term return on investment, rather than the short-term gain.

Can the Commercial Property Market Support Agile Working?

One of the key aspects of resilience during the pandemic is how different enterprises and organisations have been forced to adopt much more flexible working practices.

The technology to do this has been around for some time, but now it has the working processes in place to support its widespread use.

Is this going to have a huge impact on the market for office space, especially in busy urban centres?

The trend may shift towards a kind of co-working and working from home hybrid. What would have been feeder towns for the commute to the city may end up establishing co-working hubs of their own.

But this still begs the question of how to repurpose large city centre offices.

And office culture still has value, far beyond counting the number of desks. Company cultures thrive on collective numbers of employees working together. 

Remote and periodic working pose challenges to onboarding and to fostering brand awareness within businesses.

You could argue that there is social value in being in an office environment and being in tune with your team.

We still feel a long way from resolving the challenges coronavirus has given us, and we will need resilience to make change happen.

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