Last week I went to my first (but not the first) quarterly meeting of the EPSRC funded ‘grand challenge’ project “Self-repairing Cities” (http://selfrepairingcities.com/). Self-repairing Cities is primarily an initiative centred around automating the repair and maintenance of key pieces of built urban infrastructure, such as roads, street lights and pipework. Nevertheless, the implication for people and the natural world of widespread urban robotics is immense. My role in the project will be to assess the impacts of the anticipated level of automation on urban biodiversity. Watch out for a post-doc as part of the project which I’ll be advertising soon!
This week I had the pleasure of chairing the fascinating Urban Ecology session at the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting in Liverpool, so a big thank you to all the presenters. We had a really varied session, reflecting the huge breadth of research interest on cities from ecologists. We heard talks on the multi-functionality of brownfield sites, from Mark Goddard, urban greenspaces and their potential for biofuel and food production from Jill Edmondson, urban foxes from Dawn Scott, Frances Mullany talked about the impact of pollutants on urban robins, Helen Hoyle investigated the perspective of those who might manage and establish perennial urban meadows in public parks and Briony Norton introduced a method for assessing the walked experience of biodiversity in an urban environment. Finally, Richard Scott stole the show with his talk and then a fascinating and prolonged Q&A on cultural ecology and how the natural world can help tell the tale of the two cities of Liverpool and Manchester.
We’re now underway with the Valuing Nature Programme’s Peatland Tipping Points project. Led by Mark Reed at Newcastle University and involving Leeds, the Scottish Association for Marine Science, CEH Bangor, Scotland’s Rural College and the BTO, we will investigate how changes in climate and how we manage land might lead to abrupt changes, or “tipping points”, in the benefits that peatlands provide to UK society. We will identify early warning signs (such as changes in common insects) and provide evidence about the likely economic and social impacts of reaching tipping points. Our intention is that this information will be used to develop options for policy and practice that can help prevent tipping points being reached and facilitate restoration and sustainable management of peatlands across the UK. I’ve taken this summary from the project’s website, where you can also find out more about the team and follow our progress over the next three years.
Led by Olivia Rendon (soon to be off to the Plymouth Marine Laboratory), we’ve just had our paper comparing and contrasting different approaches to estimating opportunity costs of ecosystem service provision published in Ecology and Society. Working with farmers in a complex land-use system in Honduras, we found that both flow and rent based approaches offer comparable and consistent estimates of a farmer’s opportunity costs associated with the provision of clean water. However, costs vary according to both what land is used for and the individual circumstances of the land managers themselves. I’ve pasted the full abstract below, but the paper is open access and freely available here:
Unsustainable land uses present many challenges for securing ecosystem service provision. It is also difficult to estimate the cost of a transition to more sustainable land-management practices for individual landholders. The main cost to landholders is the opportunity costs, the income foregone when changing land use for continued or enhanced ecosystem service provision. Thus accurate estimation of opportunity costs and understanding their distribution are crucial starting points for determining the economic viability and design of any payment for ecosystem services (PES) scheme. We compare two opportunity cost approaches and examine the distribution of these costs for improving drinking water quality in a complex farming system in a Honduran forest catchment. Data for both approaches was collected through a survey applied to upstream catchment landholders. Our results indicate that the direct flow approach and the proxy rent approach provide comparable and consistent opportunity cost estimates. The mean net flow return ha-1 was US$1410, but this estimate was skewed, mainly by exceptionally high coffee returns and negative returns of land uses making a loss. This estimate would imply spending over US$2 million per annum for water conservation, but a revised estimate comes to US$257,057 per annum. Opportunity costs were found to vary according to differences in land use and landholder characteristics. High value cash crops upholding the local economy, such as coffee, entail much higher opportunity costs than for example cattle grazing. These results suggest that discriminate PES payments, that vary according to opportunity costs and thus discriminate between land uses and landholders, are essential. Water quality at our case study site could be managed sustainably by a scheme focusing on high-impact land uses with lower opportunity costs and closer to water sources.
Right now, through the Leeds-York NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, I have a number of PhD studentships advertised to come and work at the Sustainability Research Institute in Leeds. The projects reflect an eclectic mix of my research interests and cover modelling movements of the hyper-abundant crop pest, the red billed quelea, in sub-Saharan Africa, through to work on the health and well-being benefits of urban greenspaces in Bradford. You’ll find links to all the projects below.
The deadline for applications is 9th January 2017 – all the details of how to apply are here: http://www.nercdtp.leeds.ac.uk/how-to-apply/
Please get in touch with me (or the lead supervisors) if you’re interested.
Spatial and temporal modelling of the African crop pest, the red-billed quelea in relation to environmental change
Reducing post-harvest loss in African smallholder farms: An interdisciplinary approach to pest and disease control
Project partner(s): Better Start Bradford (CASE)
ESRC Festival of Social Science Event ‘Streaming: Getting the social in flood policy’, jointly hosted by the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy & The Priestley International Centre for Climate
Flood risk management is again high on the national political agenda with the July release of the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017 and the September release of the National Flood Resilience Review. Bringing these risks closer to home, affected communities in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria are still recovering from the devastating 2015/16 winter floods. Many in these communities are interested in being better prepared and protected in the future.
Streaming is a public event that will bring together civic, business, environmental and policy interests for an evening to learn about flood risk, to hear about social science flood risk management research and to listen to stories from the flood affected. The event has been planned around participatory activities that will create a two-way exchange with the audience. Researchers from the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP) and the Sustainability Research Institute (SRI) of the University of Leeds will facilitate “live” learning through instant polling.
Streaming will also provide an opportunity for a panel to contribute their reflections on the winter 2015/16 flooding and their perspective on how we can be more resilient to and better prepared for future floods.
The benefits of spending time outdoors are well known. Whether travelling for an hour to reach open countryside or simply walking five minutes to a nearby urban park, being in and around nature makes us happier and healthier. Across entire societies, better access to parks and gardens reduces crime and helps people get on with one another.
Increasing the amount of nature and green space that people experience in their everyday lives should, therefore, result in noticeable improvements to public health and well-being. It could offer many billions in savings on social care and visits to the doctor.
More and more cities are looking for ways to increase the number of parks and open areas so that we can all benefit. However, we still don’t really know what works best and why. Most research has focused solely on creating more green spaces and making them easily accessible, on the grounds that people will spend more time there and reap the benefits. And there is some intriguing evidence that nature reserves or other areas with more diverse wildlife provide even more benefits above and beyond a typical park or garden.
But creating more parks is expensive – even simply maintaining the current ones is hard enough – let alone managing them to encourage more wildlife in our cities. Getting people to visit parks more often and for longer is difficult. Then there is the complex task of establishing whether either approach has worked; gathering crucial evidence to justify continued investment is practically impossible for an average parks department in an average city.
Perhaps worrying about the finer points of what makes the “ideal” green space stops us from following other solutions, as there are a variety of cheaper alternatives that are easier to implement and which might have the potential to do more or less the same amount of “good” for people. For instance, if most of the benefits of an outdoor space come from providing the opportunity for people to socialise, play games and take in the sunshine, then do we need “real” nature at all?
The grass is always greener on the AstroTurf
Synthetic nature is everywhere, particularly during the summer. Pop-up “parks” transform city streets into public green spaces by closing them to traffic and laying down AstroTurf. City beaches, such as those in Sheffield or Brixton in south London, import sand so families can play, relax and spend time out of doors. Piping birdsong into service stations leaves customers feeling happier. And the Pokémon Go phenomenon encourages gamers off the sofa to track down fantasy animals in the outdoor world.
Evidence suggests that this synthetic nature can also be good for human well-being, as well as helping people live more active lives. Indeed, it appears to be possible to “trick” the human body into thinking that it is exposed to nature, such as when people exhibit higher pain tolerance while watching videos of mountains, waterfalls and colourful flowers, or nature videos and pictures of plants reducing stress levels in hospital waiting rooms or among blood donors.
We’ve still a lot to learn here though as other research has suggested, that videos of nature are no better than brick walls when it comes to stress reduction. Perhaps we do get greater benefits in “real” natural spaces, with a diversity of real wildlife, natural habitats and landscapes. There is also growing evidence that it is the animals, plants, and micro-organisms that we come into contact with that contribute to our health, rather than simply observing greenery.
Natural green spaces also do many other jobs. Trees reduce air pollution and moderate the temperature by providing shade. And soil protects against flooding as even heavy rainfall can only seep through relatively slowly helping to prevent drainage systems overloading.
In contrast, providing a thin veneer of nature over stone could be counterproductive. While natural grass and trees can reduce urban temperatures during the summer, artificial grass actually makes it hotter.
But fake nature is still better than no nature. Where real trees and grass are absent or difficult to provide, we should embrace the synthetic and enjoy the fake plastic turf before winter drives us all indoors.
Martin Dallimer, Lecturer in Environmental Change, University of Leeds; Christopher Hassall, Lecturer in Animal Biology, University of Leeds, and Ian Kellar, Associate Professor of Health Psychology, University of Leeds