Whether it’s climate change, pandemics or other external shocks, if you want cities with resilient infrastructures, you need to engage local communities. We often talk about infrastructure resilience as an engineering problem and community resilience as a social problem – but they shouldn’t be seen in isolation. All too often industry and academics treat the public as passive participants. Then they wonder why projects hit problems when people don’t behave as they’re ‘supposed to’.
The focus of my fellowship research – Bottom-Up Infrastructure – is exploring how we can bring together engineering, science and communities to create resilient, sustainable systems that meet the needs of people and the environment under conditions of uncertainty.
A great example is the Leather Market Kipling Garden Design project, where residents of an Inner London social housing estate wanted to transform a derelict playground into a community garden. They came to us because they wanted advice on installing irrigation – but by providing them access to expert knowledge we were able to create plans that worked as an urban drainage feature as well.
Funded by NERC, the project was part of CAMELLIA (Community Water Management for a Liveable London), which looks at integrated water management in London. We brought the community together with local council flood risk managers and Thames Water engineers at a series of workshops. An app was created that allowed people to see how different types of planting – for example, entirely with grass or incorporating raised beds, etc – affected the water resources. This enabled them to come up with a design that optimised the benefits for everyone. This sort of community focus can provide a way to drive an interdisciplinary and integrated approach to managing resources.
Working with local communities can be an effective way of getting research into policy. This can be done in a direct way, like working with local government and industry (which we do), but engaging communities can bring about change in an indirect, sometimes more impactful, way. Another project we worked on for the London Tenants Federation provided analysis of the impacts of demolition versus refurbishment. Developers are often keen to demolish houses, and tenats were able to use our findings in their submissions to the Greater London Authority, which in part, helped contribute to a change in policy and processes for estate regeneration.
Perhaps more importantly, community engagement democratises access to technical knowledge. Through my work I see many people who are motivated to create change but don’t know how to access the best evidence or make contact with the agencies that can implement change.
Making decisions about the complex issues we’re all facing – climate change, pandemics, housing shortages – requires technical information. As a society, we cannot have a situation where the only people that have access to that information are the ones who can pay for it.
Sarah Bell is Professor of Environmental Engineering at the Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering, UCL. Her Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council Living With Environmental Change Research Fellowship is investigating bottom-up approaches to community engagement in infrastructure provision. The Leather Market Kipling Garden Design project is funded by NERC and the Mayor of London.
New Knowledge Exchange Fellowship call
NERC sees public engagement as a key part of knowledge exchange, and a route to increasing the impact of research. That’s why we are now encouraging public engagement project applications to this year’s Knowledge Exchange Fellowship call.
For more ideas on how public engagement can deliver impact, check out the NERC Engage blogs.