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Assembly 2014: Adapting urban lives

Adapting our cities to environmental changes often depends on technical fixes – water management systems or air conditioning, for example. But equally as important is the human element: do residents and occupants like their adaptations, does it provide the lifestyle they want, do they know how to use the technology they’ve been given?

This session at the ARCC assembly was a chance to think about how the significance of the human psyche in achieving adaptation.

Martin Huttly started by showing us a journey of taking adaptation to the public, based on his experience at Northumbrian Water. We learnt that knocking on doors produces proper engagement, but leaflet drops don’t; that providing adaptation technology doesn’t always mean that adaptation will happen; and adaptation will appeal because it meets other needs and aspirations of individuals and their community.

This latter point was a continuing theme. Helene Joffe and Nick Smith from the Liveable Cities project interviewed residents about their aspirations for urban living: people have clear ideas, but sustainable practices will only work if they first of all meet residents’ bigger needs, for example, towards building a caring community.

The Land of the MUSCos project, presented by Christof Knoeri and Katie Roelich, completely revises the traditional view of the services that urban-dwellers depend on. So instead of thinking about water supply and electricity distribution, the focus is on what end-users need: a hot shower or a warm home. It’s a significant shift in our thinking that uncovers, for example, how policy might need to change to enable more innovative service provision.

The discussion was wide-ranging but a few themes emerged from the session.

  • Getting householders to take up new sustainable actions makes substantial demands on time and resources. Government-led schemes need to be easy for industry and for consumers to adopt.
  • People often have clear ideas of the kind of urban environment they want, but there are some tensions and inconsistencies, so framing and planning for the future is complex.
  • We need better links between related projects, and also with policy and practice, as understanding behaviour can help to create policies and practical actions that are more likely to succeed.
  • Re-thinking the delivery of infrastructure services to focus on users’ needs and how this can identify incentives to use resources more efficiently.

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