Bunking off to Bunkers Hill

by Claudia Carter & Dan Roberts

Built Environment BCU Students at West Midlands Safari Park.

Studying the maps for Bunkers Hill

New students, new impressions, new happenings. It’s Freshers’ Week and two coach loads of students and staff make their way to the West Midlands Safari Park which serves as the setting for a day’s work by budding students in building surveying, construction management, architectural technology, quantity surveying, real estate, and planning. The focus for the group studying Planning, Environment and Development is Bunkers Hill, a grass-covered flat-topped hill, punctuated by molehills and laced by wonderful mature trees (many of them chestnuts, which looked much better this year, recovered from the leave miner attacks in previous years).

We start by looking at a topographical and a basic park map to set the context before walking to Bunkers Hill past some of its (less fierce) animals, African inspired huts, remodelled stables block, the fairground and the renovated and extended ‘manor’ house, Spring Grove House, which now is largely used as a wedding venue. We then walk the rest of the way to the currently largely undeveloped part of the park ascending Bunkers Hill and taking in the views and grassy smell, spot the communication masts with their owl and bat boxes and walk around to get a better feel for the site.

Now to the challenge: How would one best fit a 250-bed hotel on this site? Where should it be located based on the character and slope of the land, the surrounding area, and to complement what has already been developed within the park? We did not show the students the actual outline plans, but wanted to get their ideas and impressions of what would suit the site and why. We emphasised that considering the economic development potential and viability of the project were crucial in current planning thinking.

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The future of urban form and infrastructure: more effective management of flooding and other challenges

by Peter Larkham

“Plan boldly!” (Lord Reith, 19401)

Photo of flooded residential area at Wimborne, February 2014

Flooding on the Stour, Wimborne, Dorset.
Photo: Ian Kirk (via Flickr)

The recent floods are just one example of the problems we are likely to face in the coming 50-100 years as a result of environmental and social change.  Traditional urban forms are vulnerable, and current ways of planning are weak and slow to respond.

I spent a day recently at an ‘expert symposium’ on the future of urban form and infrastructure, part of the Government Office for Science’s “Foresight Future of Cities” project.  It was a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion with a good range of experienced academics and professionals.  But it actually said very little about form or infrastructure in any detail.  We largely accepted that much existing research had already identified good and bad form, and in fact the key to better urbanism in the future was better management, at all scales.

So, acknowledging ideas from the assembled experts (though anonymised via Chatham House rules), there are some radical lessons for planning and management. [Read more…]


Planning Processes for Sustainable Urban Form

by Peter Larkham

I am writing from a small but international and interdisciplinary meeting at the Swedish School of Planning, part of the Blekinge Tekniska Hogskola, in Karlskrona.  Sustainable urban form is, of course, a contemporary professional and political ideal: but what is it and how do we achieve it, especially in existing settlements?  This event draws together eminent keynote speakers, PhD students and new researchers, and the School’s Advisory Board.

Quote Blog 16The first keynote was from Simin Davoudi (University of Newcastle, UK): on ‘cities and energy consumption: rational or habitual?’  An important point because without sustainable cities there will be no sustainable world; but cities are such a plural, variable, phenomenon.  Urban form determines sustainability to a great extent, for example levels of transport-related greenhouse emissions, and building energy efficiency is also significant.  So how do we change users’ behaviour; indeed what constitutes ‘behaviour’?  Compare Atlanta and Barcelona, two cities of the same population but covering 4280 km2 and 162 km2 respectively, with per capita CO2 emissions 10x greater in the former in part because of the need to travel owing to the low-density urban form.  A US model of ‘sprawl’ is still being followed, especially in Asia.  China’s building rate is frightening in terms of sustainability: it builds the equivalent of Rome every 2 weeks. Simin explores how decisions are ACTUALLY made with respect to urban form and use.  Remember that the rational economic model hardly matches the messy and irrational decision-making of real life.  So for more sustainable cities, technical and structural change is important but insufficient.  She argues that behaviour change, perhaps radical, is also needed, at the level of individuals and institutions.

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Why isn’t our research having a greater impact on UK society?

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by Mark Reed

Throughout history, civilisations have risen and fallen on their ability to generate new knowledge and innovate in the face of major challenges. In the UK, many of the fastest-growing sectors of our economy are knowledge-based. This is made very clear at the Birmingham Made Me Design Expo 2013 at Millennium Point this month, which argues that design and innovation are drivers of wealth creation. This thirst for knowledge goes right to the heart of Government, with policy-makers increasingly striving to make “evidence-based” decisions on controversial issues like the designation of Marine Protected Areas and the creation of new markets for peatland carbon – issues that my colleagues and I at Birmingham School of the Built Environment are researching.

I think that we, as researchers, often take for granted that we have privileged access to the latest knowledge, forgetting that this is often locked behind publisher pay-walls. We have the skills to generate answers to some of the biggest questions facing society, and yet as a research community in the UK, only a small proportion of our work actually provides answers to these big questions. So why isn’t more UK research having a greater impact on society?

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