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Ensuring nature is mainstreamed into planning policy

A consistent weakness of urban planning policy and decision-making is the dilution of policies for nature in development plans for towns and cities. Green Infrastructure (GI), for example parks, rivers, trees and hedges, are often given lower priority than ‘grey infrastructure’ associated with housing, transport and economic development. Professor Alister Scott from the Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences has championed the benefits of including GI in urban areas, which include improved health and well-being of residents, biodiversity and flood risk regulation, and is now working with planners to ‘mainstream’ GI into policy and decision-making processes and outcomes to ensure it is not neglected in the future.

In 2017, Professor Scott secured a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Knowledge Exchange Fellowship aimed at changing the way Green Infrastructure (GI) is viewed, valued, used and delivered in urban planning. GI is a network of interconnected natural, semi-natural and green spaces that provide benefits for people and nature. These include woodlands, parks, rivers, ponds, paths and cycleways. As well as conserving biodiversity and the environment, GI also attracts social and economic activities, all helping to boost well-being and quality of life. Specifically, Scott wanted to improve the inclusion of Green Infrastructure (GI) in the planning system to ensure it becomes mainstream.

His approach was to work with existing policy and practice communities to add value to their work and help forge better links between research and practice through active knowledge exchange. Hence, he works as Chair of the Building with Nature Standards group; the UK first benchmark for assessing what good green infrastructure looks like. He is on Natural England’s advisory group on the development of their GI standards framework as part of actions from the HM Government 25 Year Environment Plan. He has worked on projects with WSP and Ecosystems Knowledge Network on developing the UKs first net gain planning NATURE tool and helped develop Natural England’s Net Benefits from Nature tool. He has also supported the work and activities of the Green Infrastructure Partnership managed by the Town and Country Planning Association, including an evaluation of its performance.  

In collaboration with Max Hislop, the Programme Manager at Glasgow and Clyde Valley Green Network Partnership, Scott created a GI policy assessment tool (GIPAT) to improve how GI is embedded in local plans and other strategies.  This involved the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) and UK Green Infrastructure partnership in the co-design and testing phases. This self-assessment tool has been used on UK policy frameworks (with an expert briefing paper for the EU PERFECT project) and multiple local plans to assess how well they incorporate GI (across 26 criteria including integration, biodiversity, water, air, access and recreation) and how strong the associated policy wording is. The assessment highlighted the lack of strong policy wording in relation to GI, making it vulnerable to be overtaken by other policy priorities.

As a result of Scott’s work, using GIPAT is now a requirement in the development of local plan policies for the West of England Combined Authority and Essex County Councils. This ensures that weak GI policy can be identified and strengthened early on in the process to ensure GI is not sidelined later. Planners in New Zealand have adapted GIPAT to help them incorporate Maori values into development planning in Tasman.

In June 2021, Scott was awarded a Levelling Up Universities Award towards Goal 12: Building homes and sustainable communities for his work towards ensuring that, in future, nature and green infrastructure in urbanareas becomes mainstream.

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