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‘What makes a sustainable place? Single sex marriage, astrology, evidenced-based policy and active citizens.

28 October 2015

by Dr Andrew P. Kythreotis


In my last blog I discussed the implications of the 2015 Well-Being of Future Generation (Wales) Act (FGA) with respect to how Wales spatially addresses present and future climate challenges. I concluded that communities needed to work more closely with the public sector on adaptation strategies that limit the impacts of climate, and that inspiring future leaders and community champions are central to achieving this. In this blog, I ask the simple question of what makes a sustainable place. What constitutes a sustainable place is not just concerned with environmental resilience, it also has to be socially inclusive and for the more Cornucopian amongst us, economically viable. The one common denominator that runs through this traditional sustainability tripartite in making a place more sustainable is the role played by people as citizens. However, like all ‘good’ academics who pride themselves on the rigour of their research, the term ‘people’ and their relationship to their physical environment needs to be qualified, scrutinized and well evidenced…

I start my argument about people being central to sustainable places by talking about same sex marriage – yes – you read it correctly. Same sex marriage. What does same sex marriage possibly have to do with creating sustainable places I hear you ask? Well, in the UK we pride ourselves on the democratic right of free speech; we even have unique places where we can congregate to bestow our ‘truths and wisdoms’ to those around us, like Speakers Corner in Hyde Park. The UK democratic system allows us people, as citizens, to speak our minds, and to vote for politicians that seem, on the face of it, to hold similar environmental, social and political values to ourselves, so that our voice is represented in the corridors of political power. Some politicians though have a rather, to put it bluntly, obscured view of the world and very strange ideologies indeed. An obvious example is the Henley-on-Thames local councillor for UKIP, David Silvester who made comments that the winter floods of 2013/4 were a result of the passing of same sex marriage laws, and was subsequently suspended. There are more examples. Another one I particularly enjoy is Tory MP David Tredinnick’s assertion that astrology has an important future role in healthcare.

Due political (and even scientific) process did run its course after the ‘Silvestergate’ affair. The UKIP LGBT group came out (pardon the pun) and unequivocally criticised Silvester, maintaining that the floods, as reported by the Met Office, were a result of “west and south-west winds, bringing in mild air from the Atlantic.” Nevertheless, media-fuelled political furores like ‘Silvestergate’ are symptomatic of the way some of our politicians in the UK practice their politics ‘in the moment’. Let us be clear. This blog is not a persecution of David Silvester per se; he does have the right to exercise free speech, Speakers Corner an ‘all. However, I think as continually evidenced in UK politics, some of our politicians do not think before they speak (this is strange given that public oratory should be one of the key chapters in the idiots guide to being a successful politician). Thinking before you speak involves a whole set of other processes though, one of which, is acting on the right information and evidence – and this is where evidence from the academe comes into the equation of creating more sustainable places.

The use of evidence and its interpretation can be a funny thing – as illustrated by the above examples which lack a clear understanding of how peer-reviewed evidence should be central to the policymaking process. These examples are more akin to policy-based evidence. As academics and scientists (and when I say scientists I mean social as well as physical) we work tirelessly to test our data to ensure rigour and then we publish our research in the top ranking peer-reviewed journals so it can be used by other academics who work tirelessly to test their data and publish their research in the top ranking peer-reviewed journal… you get the tautological picture. For the more cynical amongst us, the life of an academic is painfully more often than not, reduced to us pragmatically playing the ‘academic game’ of getting our next REF-able piece. But that does not stop us from applying the necessary methodological tools to ensure rigour in the evidence and research we produce. Yet have we all stopped for a moment to think about how useful our research can be in contributing to policymaking, especially given the amount of effort and resources that is put into producing the data in the first place? Thinking about our raison d’être, we should be asking ourselves this fundamental question.

Many academic researchers already directly or indirectly contribute their research as evidence for important policymaking and many academics sit on various local, regional, national and international policy-informing bodies. Directly, academics are often called to certain Parliamentary Select Committee meetings to give evidence, and governments have chief scientific advisory roles which are held by people with a prestigious and reputable academic background. Indirectly, many of my colleagues working on climate change related issues contribute to IPCC reports, part of which include a Summary for Policymakers that synthesises all the best available scientific evidence in a policy neutral, and arguably a more digestible form so that politicians can more easily get a grasp of the current state of climate science so as to inform their policymaking.

The IPCC may not be the most polished example of evidence-based policymaking though. The role of bodies like the IPCC in knowledge production has been questioned and it has been argued there is the potential for scientists to politicize the science. IPCC scientists are bestowed with powerful ‘expert’ status that can potentially produce new policy trajectories even though scientists are not democratically elected by people to have such power. This highlights that forging a political system underpinned by the ethos of evidence-based policy can be deeply entrenched in a myriad of complexities; this is maybe one of the reasons why some politicians are quite reticent in utilising scientific research more in their policymaking. Yet this should not be an excuse for politicians not to seek contributions from academics and scientists to the policymaking process and should not deter us as academics from actively striving to get the evidence we produce into policy realms, even though some may claim academics are too politically naïve to try and do so. If we are to make places more sustainable then academics have to ‘do differently’ and not necessarily conform to pre-conceived intellectual and institutional boundaries. Most, if not all academics that I have met have that non-conformist streak; we are an argumentative, I mean inquisitive bunch!

This is why a consortium of academics from Cardiff, Exeter, Bath and Bristol are now actively promoting the Evidence Information Service (EIS) as a GW4 initiative. For more on the evolution of the EIS see our blogs charting its progress from inception to the results of a citizen science-based model consultation phase with parliamentarians conducted by local champions – the people. There is a long way to go in getting this project fully operational as we transit into the implementation phase, seeking contributions from like-minded academics and increased funding to get the service up and running.

Promoting the EIS is an example of what producing sustainable places is all about – putting people at the heart of shaping our communities and political systems in a non-token active way. The project team are under no illusions that the EIS is ambitious. In our pursuit of this project our team are not completely bagging the UK policymaking system. Parliamentarians and policymakers have a tough job and all academics should understand the political system in which policymaking operates. Yet it is not up to just the politicians to be seen to be making a difference in society – people are central to the success of places (a point I made at the end of my last blog). Academics have an important role in ensuring our research can have a positive impact on citizens. It is time for academics to realise the importance of their research and act now by actively trying to contribute to the policy that shapes the places where we go about our everyday lives. This is what ‘sustainable place-making’ should be all about.


More about  Dr Andrew P. Kythreotis

Andrew is a Lecturer and Research Fellow under the Cardiff University Serious Brain Power initiative in Cardiff School of Planning and Geography, and also a Sustainable Places Affiliate. His research and teaching revolves around the broad theme of climate change and how its policy and governance is constructed around scalar ontologies.


Cardiff School of Planning & Geography and Sustainable Places Research Institute

Twitter – @SBPCardiff