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10/11/2021

Data drive: How data-led planning can help meet the climate challenge

Sean Vincent Kelly suggests that the steady progression towards data-led decision-making will allow planning to play its part in the climate crisis

I am neither an IT specialist nor data management expert. I am, however, a town planner, and one who recognises the increasing importance of data and sophisticated digital systems in how we plan our towns, cities and rural areas.

Such systems are even more important in the context of addressing our changing and unpredictable climate, which infiltrates almost all aspects of our lives in some way, with serious and well-recorded societal impacts.

As the facilitators of social, economic and environmental change, planners have a critical role to play in meeting the challenges of climate change. To do this, we will need a strong grasp of how technological advances could help us take more effective action. 

It is fair to say that our profession recognises this, with work well under way to implement digital changes to planning systems across the United Kingdom.

"The plan recognises that planners have a “crucial” and “influential” role to play when dealing with the climate crisis and that a digital transformation of the planning service is key to this"

For example, at a UK level, RTPI president Wei Yang is co-chairing the recently created Digital Task Force for Planning which has as its aim a mission to “raise the awareness, identify the needs, and urge actions” in relation to digital planning advances.

In England, although it has been reported that planning reforms are being “paused” for now, the government’s Planning for the Future white paper discussed the use of technology to aid developers, engage with communities and allow a more consistent approach to decision-making.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan is a key strategic document. The plan recognises that planners have a “crucial” and “influential” role to play when dealing with the climate crisis and that a digital transformation of the planning service is key to this.

It has since been backed with a £35 million funding pot to deliver the recently launched Digital Planning Strategy, which aims to develop a more coherent and green “world-leading” planning service in Scotland.

So legislation and policy seem to be changing and that is obviously positive.

Progress through technology

What are the possibilities for digital technology to transform the way we plan? As a profession, are we prepared for them?

Research commissioned by the RTPI highlighted a range of climate-related benefits from a digital overhaul of the planning system. In relation to climate, the suggestion is that better data management could result in lower energy demand and lower emissions from more efficiently planned places in terms of integration, connectivity (both travel and digital) and density.

Meaningful behavioural change could also be a possibility through digitally enabled and collaborative placemaking that encourages communities to adopt more sustainable ways of living (KPMG, 2020). Other studies suggest a digital planning service will allow us to monitor policy effectiveness in almost real time (Scottish Government, 2020). This could have a huge impact, particularly with environmental and socially focused policies allowing us to adapt before irreparable damage is done.

"The outputs from the research suggest that in Scotland the renewable heat potential from below our green and blue spaces could supply up to 80 per cent of the country’s heat demand"

This is all great stuff, and there are many examples from around the UK where planners and our colleagues are developing exciting ideas that go some way to making better use of data and technology. In Scotland, Greenspace Scotland’s Greenheat in Greenspaces (GHiGs) initiative builds upon its previous ParkPower project. GHiGS has taken a data-led approach to investigate the potential of urban open spaces, including green and blue spaces, as untapped low-carbon heat sources, heat storage locations and potential heat transmission zones.

The outputs from the research are eye-catching and encouraging, suggesting that in Scotland alone the renewable heat potential from below our green and blue spaces cou

ld supply up to 80 per cent of the country’s heat demand.

Greenspace Scotland has worked in collaboration with a number of local authorities on both ParkPower and GHiGS and Glasgow City Council’s planning department is currently reviewing how this most recent data can help inform the delivery of the city’s open space strategy. Unfortunately, licensing agreements mean that some of this data is not yet publicly available.

In London, the GoParks project has produced an interactive city map that identifies publicly accessible parks and green spaces across all boroughs in the city. This was developed by a consortium that includes the Greater London Authority and the National Park City Foundation.

The map is web-based and allows users to select spaces to find out:

  • what facilities are available;
  • which active travel routes can be used to access the space; and
  • how users can get more engaged with community activities.

It’s a good example of technology being used to encourage ownership and potentially even behavioural change, as well as a relatively straightforward and perhaps even obvious model for other local authorities to follow. However, to prepare and manage this level of functionality requires a lot of effort and joined-up thinking. It is also not clear how well and consistently systems like this integrate with local planning policy.

There are, no doubt, many other examples like these having positive impacts at the local level around the UK. But do they indicate a coherent digital planning service is on its way soon? Possibly not – not least because even understanding what data is available to draw from requires a level of technical understanding and a mastery of the technical language of data and digitisation that planners may not yet possess as a cohort.

The here and now

Glasgow City Council’s Connecting Nature project aims to bring nature back into the city and allow better decision-making with positive social, economic and environmental outcomes.

The project is using data as the key component in its map-based delivery plan for the city’s open space strategy. However, obtaining relevant and quality data sets in the right format has been a big challenge (see box, A granular view).

The examples in this article illustrate the scale of the challenge ahead if planners are to use technology to help us better plan for climate change. It is clear that we need more user-friendly language and training; easier ways to integrate across services; better access to consistent data formats; and robust governance structures for long-term management of tech.

We also cannot ignore how grotesquely underfunded planning departments have been up and down the country. The £35 million-funded digital strategy is, of course, very welcome but it has been well recorded that cuts have resulted in planning departments losing a third of our workforce since 2009 (RTPI, 2021).

Going back to our original questions, then? Well, the possibilities could almost be boundless. This article has only looked at digital planning in the context of climate within the UK and we can expect it to be much further reaching than this.

In terms of preparedness within the profession, I think the emerging policy areas and examples show that we are heading in the right direction. The difficulty is that any change will probably need to be gradual as we fight for more resources and champion the role of planners. The problem, of course, is that climate change is not gradual anymore. It is here now and our profession will need to act faster if we are going to take advantage of these technological shifts to take our place in a climate crisis. 


Q&A: A look at the planning 'datasphere'

Rania Sermpezi (RS) is a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and data specialist currently working as GIS technical officer on Glasgow City Council’s Horizon 2020 Connecting Nature project. Here, she offers insight and advice on the current ‘datasphere’:

Q: What are the three main barriers to being able to use data to help make better and more informed planning decisions?

RS: “First, the perceived need for confidentiality and lack of cooperation between departments and institutions impeding data sharing.

“Second, granularity and periodicity – ie, how granular is the data and how often is it collected? Data is often at city/national level and collected as a one-off job with no prospect of repeating this annually/biannually.

“Third, a lack of expertise which leads to unusable data formats; for example, non-GIS/database based but in Excel spreadsheets or PDFs."

Q: In your experience as a data GIS specialist, how easy is it to access different types of useful data sets?

RS: “It depends on the data and who is the owner of such data. There are citywide economic data sets which are open for everyone to use, but then social and health data are rarely available either because no surveys have been undertaken or they are considered part of ‘personal’ data and there is therefore hesitation to share. Environmental data are often project specific or national, and so rarely help when trying to consider habitats and biodiversity in Glasgow.”

Q: What’s the most positive recent development in data management for planning and the built environment?

RS: “Recently I’ve been speaking to representatives from various organisations who are all aware of existing data-sharing issues and keen to find ways to collaborate and break those silos.

“This, I think, is probably the most positive recent development in that there is wider recognition of the issue but also of the importance of good data management. A recent example from my work is the collaboration with Safe Haven to get access and analyse health data across the city to improve our understanding and base future council decisions on evidence.”

"Planners should be introduced to these concepts and the relevant technology at an early stage (perhaps as part of their academic lives) and inspired into exploring these further to improve their understanding and their career opportunities"

Q: We can expect the use of data to become more prevalent in planning. What tips do you have for young planners as they begin their careers?

RS: “More of a general requirement for all professions – and not just planning nowadays – is to have a basic understanding of data, analytics and the importance of evidence in decision-making.

“Planners should be introduced to these concepts and the relevant technology at an early stage (perhaps as part of their academic lives) and inspired into exploring these further to improve their understanding and their career opportunities.

“One thing the pandemic has shown us is how easy it is to convey a message and shape policy through some basic data in a simple dashboard.”

Sean Vincent Kelly MRTPI is senior project officer – Connecting Nature with Glasgow City Council and co-chair of the Scottish Young Planners’ Network steering group

Image Credit | Patrick-George | Alamy

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