Thursday, 18 February 2016

So, tell me...what is it that you're doing again?

I recently had to put together a one-page summary of my PhD topic - and I've actually found it incredibly useful for explaining what it is I'm trying to do. 

It was theoretically written for other academics who may not be experts on green infrastructure, or flood risk management, but will have some understanding of the field. 

But actually, it's been most useful in relating to people who are outside of academia: my friends and family who repeatedly ask what I am doing because they really want to be interested and they really want to support me, but... It's not the most transparent topic, and there's a trade off between the short, jargon-heavy description and the long, less technical but very wooly description. 

But in its written form, with an indication of context, and time to digest the wording, it's proved a lot more understandable!

So without further ado, my research topic in one page:

The Blue-Green Advantage

Today I have been ignoring the beautiful winter sunshine, and instead have been holed up in a conference room at the Newcastle Centre for Life, to attend a dissemination event for the Blue-Green cities research project, Improving Flood Resilience: The Blue-Green Advantage. 

It was good to see so many people there from across multiple sectors. Not just academic, not even just academic and public bodies, but also the private and third sectors as well, from large organisations and small ones.

At this early stage of my research I'm still feeling a little bit like a passive observer at these sorts of events, but the legacy of the Blue-Green Cities project impact on Newcastle as its demonstration city will prove invaluable. All knowledge is built on other knowledge, and they've built me some pretty strong foundations!

It's clear that as an industry concerned with Blue-Green, we're all still learning - not just those of us embarking on formal education, but perhaps more importantly those who are tasked with delivering this stuff too. The risks and realities of flooding are very prevalent in people's minds at the moment, and that has definitely translated into the proceedings here today. 

It's really exciting to be getting involved with such an important and relevant issue, and to be here on the ground to witness (and influence) what feels like a huge change in focus and culture. 

There are three key messages I have taken out of the presentations and discussions in the morning part of the event. 

Firstly, that collaboration and community are key. 
 - Collaborative cross-sectoral working: drawing on the academic to inform the practice, but also keeping practical application at the forefront of research.
 - Involving local communities and communicating well: local people are the knowledge holders of their local area, and if properly involved and allowed to shape and influence solutions they can become huge allies. On the other hand, they can be the biggest barriers if they're not considered and involved in the process and don't think the schemes being designed are right for them.

Secondly, that there's no such thing as waste water.
 - Ultimately a huge driver for Blue-Green approaches/Green Infrastructure is climate change. It's extremely encouraging to see that in practice there's a lot of people stepping up and ready and willing to engage with climate change adaptation issues. 
-It has been pointed out, though it probably goes without saying, that flooding is a matter of when & where, not if. But someone this morning did flag up that we mustn't allow the recent weather patterns and issues distract us from the fact that our future climate is to an extent uncertain still. We need to think about drought and heat waves as well. Luckily, the multifunctional nature of green infrastructure means that there are almost certainly combinations of scheme design that can address these issues too - it's a question of picking from the options available, and choosing a selection of elements that best address the most likely issues in any given area. And ideally as a strategic planned and joined up network, rather than in an attempt to plug the gaps as the water pours in (metaphorically or otherwise). 

That leads us nicely into this final point: when we talk about Green Infrastructure, or Blue-Green cities, or whatever terminology, we're talking about systems. Networks of measures that work together to provide a benefit. 

As has rightly been said this morning, these systems will work with grey infrastructure- both 'grey' elements of the water management systems, but also other infrastructures that work together in an urban space: transport, utilities, etc. 

Thinking about the parts of this system as individual projects and for primarily for the benefit of local communities is great for the good design of that project and for that community. But there needs to be joined up design and a strategic approach to planning and delivery to ensure that what we end up with is a system. 

Because my third take home message has been that a system is only as strong as its weakest point

My research, in its infancy as it is, is going to be inherently concerned with Green Infrastructure as a network. One of my key questions is whether a system of GI as a whole has a value greater than the sum of its parts. So lots of food for thought for me...

It's been fantastic to be here today - to see that there is an appetite to work towards a Blue-Green future for the city and to really grapple with the issues of how to build a strategic network, how to overcome barriers to implementation, how to balance tradeoffs and the nature of multiple benefits. 

It's a good time to be involved in the Blue-Green conversation, and it's going to lead to great things.  

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Some links to relevant stuff:
The Blue Green Cities project 
Today's proceedings panned out on twitter, under #BlueGreenAdvantage

And so many thanks to the Blue Green team, and everyone who has taken part in organising today.