Spotlight on Research: Giving power to the people affected by floods

Giving power to the people affected by floods

At a time of growing mistrust in 'experts' geographers at the University of Oxford are going against the grain and giving local communities the training & the tools to help them participate in flood risk management.

Researchers at the University of Oxford have developed a new 'community modelling' approach to flood-prevention design, that engages directly with the people who are affected by flooding.

"If you are a scientist you know certain things about [natural flooding] processes," Dr Catharina Landstöm explains, "and if you are a local resident you know how these processes look in real-life. Those different types of knowledge are quite difficult to join up because they use different languages. However, we discovered that computer models - or simulations - were very good tools for communicating across the divide between scientists and local people and co-creating new knowledge."

After the Christmas floods of 2015, the School of Geography and the Environment's Professor Sarah Whatmore and Dr Catharina Landström were invited to set up a new flood research partnership in the West Yorkshire town of Otley. Building on their previous work, which used computer models to help local people better understand flooding causes, they decided to go one step further and give Otley residents first-hand access to the modelling tools usually reserved for scientists and local authorities. Community Modelling was born.

A bespoke computer model was set up for the town, which allowed a small group of local volunteers to explore how different variables affect flooding and test ideas for alleviating floods.

Initial trepidation ("I don't know maths") and scepticism ("we don't believe in the modelling") of volunteers in a pilot Community Modelling project did not last long. Once people are shown how to use the tool they are converted, says Landström: "We had to ask them to leave at the end, it worked wonders! Here was a machine that could show you how things, in your very well-known locality, might actually work in different circumstances."

By the end of the process, at a meeting between Leeds City Council, the Environment Agency and the volunteers, Landström recounts their "unprecedented" confidence in communicating their ideas.

Typically research projects' limited funding restricts the time that researchers can spend on projects. However, this new approach - investing in the local communities who care about their environment, their homes and businesses - will reap much more long-lasting rewards and impacts, as participants can run with the project after the scientists have gone home.

Computer modelling may not be a silver bullet for all environmental problems, however it is a way of bringing local knowledge and science together, so that we might understand environmental problems and possibilities better. Thanks to technology and SoGE scientists, a revolution in river-management may be on the way.


"Using computer models, we can bring local peoples knowledge into science."

Dr Catharina Landstöm, Researcher
School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.


The Community Modelling in Otley project was funded by Oxford's ESRC Impact Acceleration Account.


Professor Sarah Whatmore, Dr Catharina Landström in collaboration with researchers at the University of Durham, and Leeds City Council.