by Claudia Carter
Our journey researching the rural-urban fringe is now published as an open access article in Progress in Planning 83: 1-52.
As in industry, the field of small to medium-sized research entities is different to that of the mega-million pound projects. Big research programmes often have (science) communication and other specialised experts to hand to help shape high impact outputs and to support knowledge exchange activities. With smaller grants the principal and co-investigators often need to fulfil a larger range of functions themselves; including working at times outside of one’s usual comfort zone. The project completed under the recently finished RELU programme on ‘Managing Environmental Change at the Fringe: Reconnecting Science and Policy with the Rural-Urban Fringe’ was no exception. The project team consisting of a handful of academic researchers and 10 practitioners and policy-makers were awarded just over £150,000 to work together on the rural-urban fringe and developing novel lenses by exploring the fusion of core themes in Spatial Planning with principles of the Ecosystem Approach. The research project journey has just been published in Progress in Planning – a 30,000 word guided tour from project rationale to practice-relevant outputs and planning theory. This journal provides an outlet for multi-disciplinary work relating to spatial and environmental planning in the form of monographs, with an impact factor of 1.750.
So, here is a 900-word quick guide through the rural-urban fringe project work without too many spoilers.
Rediscovering the Rural-Urban Fringe (RUF)
The situation of having a majority of ‘stakeholders’ or ‘end users’ as full members of the research team is unusual in the academic research world but was deliberately done to ‘ground’ the project and collectively shape the development, method, implementation, learning and outputs of this 18-month project. Team members were chosen based on their research and activities in the rural-urban fringe, and only two of the project members had actually collaborated previously – while common for European collaborations this is rare for regional/national based projects where research teams often comprise ‘the usual suspects’.
Our first project meeting showed that despite our unifying interest in the RUF we were all using different languages (jargon, concepts) and contexts (‘theories’, examples) – but we also shared a lot of ideas and goals.
‘Thought-Pieces’, Workshops and Case Studies
The RUF was used as a microcosm for exploring and testing more holistic approaches to environmental planning and management using relatively untapped synergies between the Ecosystem Approach and Spatial Planning. The research team members early on wrote reflective thought-pieces and carried out academic literature reviews. These were analysed and synthesized into a position paper which collectively shaped our interdisciplinary approach (our ‘lens’) within which to unpack the RUF. We favoured a common language approach with as little academic and professional jargon as possible, and took the opportunity to connect with the research team’s network of partners and stakeholders through a series of workshops to discuss drivers of change and common cross-cutting themes. Also, two case studies were chosen to ground our research and ideas covering multi-scalar perspectives. Hampton near Peterborough focused mainly on local scale issues whereas a North Worcester case study embraced a landscape scale.
Our initial analysis of literature and ‘thought-pieces’ identified three cross-cutting themes:
These common, jargon-free terms allow professional sectors and publics to engage, interact and participate more effectively within more inclusive and understandable concepts and language.
The rural-urban fringe is a ‘messy space’. Descriptions include ‘misunderstood space’ (Gallent et al. 2004) and ‘landscape out of order’ (Qviström 2007). We see it as an opportunity space for spatial planning due to its wide range of ecosystem qualities and benefits
RUFopoly – Our Interactive Decision-Making Board Game
The ‘no powerpoint’ request for the funder’s Knowledge Exchange conference resulted in the idea to develop a game to engage people with our research themes and findings. Promptly, a ‘hypothetical RUF’ map was constructed (in fact bits of Cumbria and Cambridgeshire with characteristics of our case study areas added). The whole team contributed to the pool of questions, drawing on our experiences and research to populate the 28 fields of the RUFopoly board. The game starts with an entry question on one of planning’s all-time hot top-topics: where to place new housing; should it be an urban infill strategy or an urban extension (possibly infringing on the green belt); should we create a new town or would it be better to focus on development in and around rural towns and villages?
The throw of the dice then determines which challenges the player can address. As in real life, participation and input into decision-making is not necessarily an open door to all at all times. The player’s thinking and justification of how to accommodate the competing economic, community and environmental needs are reflected in their recorded responses. Key benefits of the game are that questions and issues can be debated as a group but each player is in control of their own answer. At the end of their journey each player is tasked to reflect on their specific answers and construct a vision for the RUF based on the principles and trade-offs inherent in the answers. Having a hypothetical area which shares characteristics with other RUF spaces but is not one’s own well-known battleground of conflicting interests, power dynamics and associated high emotions, has been found to be a distinct advantage. Development issues and diverse perspectives are played out in a ‘safe’, discursive and self-reflective environment.
The rural-urban fringe is a transitory space, defined within short-term thinking but requiring more long term policy and investment opportunities. Learning from new and experimental approaches is key when planning for uncertainty using the available evidence, understandable concepts and language
The game has since been played by over a thousand people, including members of the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Government, Natural England staff, county councillors, students and researchers. The aim is to make the game more widely accessible and to develop new versions for use in schools, colleges and community planning.
Policy Brief Videos and Final Conference
Our policy briefs started off as conventional written outputs but then we decided to change to an audio-visual video format. This meant, for most, working outside our normal ‘comfort zones’ and trying something different. The schedule was tight but we managed to shoot five 15-20 minute videos in a day, involving most team members and including the perspectives of all the project partners. It was a steep learning curve with useful insights of how we’d do it better next time. Despite the ‘warts and all’ we had many positive comments and views of all five policy brief videos are in the hundreds already. The final international conference was attended by 120 people and streamed via CISCO; this allowed remote participants to see all presentations and to join into plenary discussions. Dissemination work continues; we are also collaborating in a ‘follow-on’ research project on the ecosystem approach in planning and wider decision-making as part of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment Follow-On Phase funded by Defra, Welsh Government and three of the UK research councils.
However, for the juicy theory-related discussions, get your free article now!
Gallent, N., Andersson, J. and Bianconi, M. (2004) Planning on the Edge: The Context for Planning at the Rural–Urban Fringe. Abingdon: Routledge.
Qviström, M. (2007) Landscapes Out of Order: Studying the Inner Urban Fringe Beyond the Rural – Urban Divide, Geografiska Annaler, 89 B (3): 269-282.
Claudia Carter is Lecturer in Environmental Management and Policy in the Birmingham School of the Built Environment. She is a co-author of this paper led by Professor Alister Scott along with 20 others of the RELU-RUF project. She also co-wrote, edited and poorly performed (tired!) in the video policy brief series.