Paving the way for healthier, zero carbon transport
The Transport Studies Unit’s Christian Brand has helped develop the World Health Organisation (WHO) ‘HEAT’ tool, which quantifies the health & carbon benefits of walking and cycling, and is used by local and national governments across the globe.
Our sedentary lifestyles are cutting our lives short and making them less enjoyable. Inactivity is one of the top four risk factors of premature deaths, according to Christian Brand, a researcher at the Transport Studies Unit. “However, by incorporating active travel into our daily lives we can prevent certain diseases, improve mental health and cut carbon emissions.”
Thanks to Christian Brand and his colleagues, we can now calculate these health and carbon benefits of walking and cycling in the broader context of physical activity, road accidents, carbon emissions and exposure to air pollution. Working for the World Health Organisation this team of international experts have developed the innovative Health Economic Assessment Tool for walking and cycling, known simply as HEAT. Bringing together traditionally-siloed thinking on urban planning, transport and public health, HEAT enables planners and policy makers to evaluate the health and carbon benefits of their active transport projects and plans.
Whilst economic appraisal is an established practice in transport planning, it has been dominated by travel-time savings which typically favour faster methods of travel. Yet health benefits have economic impacts too – reducing healthcare bills – and these measurements are important to record and communicate to the public.
Christian believes that this tool will put the subject of healthy transport decisions on the agenda for policy makers and the public, where previously it wasn’t a consideration: “Current appraisals of transport planning projects often don’t cost the benefits of improved health and reduced carbon emissions. By using the HEAT tool and measuring and valuing these things, planning decisions that have a positive impact on public and planetary health might be made more often.”
The HEAT tool is freely available online at heatwalkingcycling.org. It has seen an excellent uptake and is now used by local and national governments across the globe to inform investment decisions and value existing travel choices. Some national governments even recommend HEAT as the de facto tool for transport appraisals. This is good news for public and environmental health.
“In the UK only 2% of all journeys are made by bike which might not sound like a lot but it has a value in carbon terms, saving thousands of tons of carbon a year. If you value that economically with what is called the ‘Social Cost of Carbon’ you end up with millions of pounds saved each year.”
Dr Christian Brand, Senior Research Fellow and Associate Professor
Transport Studies Unit, University of Oxford.
Further Information and Links
- HEAT 4 online tool
- WHO HEAT webpage
- EU ‘PASTA’ project HEAT webpage
- P.F. Rodrigues, M.C.M. Alvim-Ferraz, F.G. Martins, P. Saldiva, T.H. Sá, S.I.V. Sousa (2020). Health economic assessment of a shift to active transport, Environmental Pollution, Volume 258, 113745.
- K. Pérez, M. Olabarria, D. Rojas-Rueda, E. Santamariña-Rubio, C. Borrell, M. Nieuwenhuijsen (2017). The health and economic benefits of active transport policies in Barcelona, Journal of Transport & Health, Volume 4, pp. 316-324.
Rural water risk: sharing responsibility in Kenya
The vast majority of the rural population in Kenya rely on pumps and pipes for their water supply. However, when they break, they are often not repaired for a long time, as they fall outside of formal water service provision areas. Dr Johanna Koehler explains how her research on water risks and institutional change in Kenya contributed to the consultation for Kenya's national Water Act 2016, which seeks to address these issues.
Over the last few decades, over $1bn has been invested in water infrastructure in rural Africa. However, with one in four handpumps out of action and in need of repair at any one time, poor people living in rural regions frequently use distant and dirty water sources. In Kenya 70% of the population live within rural communities, where water service provision is often deemed “not commercially viable”. Instead, water companies tend to focus on urban and peri-urban areas. This leaves much of the Kenyan population to manage water risks on their own.
Dr Johanna Koehler has been working to address this problem with colleagues in the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment’s Water Programme, led by Professor Rob Hope. Specifically, Koehler’s research investigates how water risks are governed in rural Kenya in the wake of the country’s decentralisation reform, and she explores which institutional models best support the maintenance of rural water infrastructure to provide sustainable and reliable water services for all.
Focus group discussions with over 600 water users in Kitui County and surveys with 3,500 households in Kwale County over three years helped to provide a deep understanding of the different ways of managing rural water risks. This research contributed to the design of the award-winning smart handpumps project and ‘FundiFix’ model with Rob Hope, Patrick Thomson and others. FundiFix links smart monitoring of pump failures and professional repair services with sustainable finance from users, government, and private actors.
“Communities subscribe to an affordable service contract which protects their rights and makes them responsible for regular payments,” Koehler explains. This can unlock further public and private funding. She terms this sharing of risks and responsibilities across the state, market, and communities ‘institutional pluralism’.
Through continuous engagement with national and county governments as well as other key stakeholders, Koehler was successful in lobbying for this “new sector thinking”, and the idea of sharing water management responsibilities across communities, government, and the private sector was included in Kenya’s Water Act 2016. The change was facilitated by the recent government structural reform in Kenya, when 47 county governments were mandated with water and health service delivery, among other things.
Article 94 of Kenya’s Water Act 2016 highlights those rural areas not considered commercially viable. It is important, she says, because this provides for more dynamic approaches to rural water maintenance, emphasising the important role of all three – public, private and voluntary sectors. “It puts into words the aspiration of the Sustainable Development Agenda as well as of Kenya’s Constitution of reliable water for all.”
“By transferring responsibility for rural water services to county governments and acknowledging the importance of maintenance, the hope is that local solutions such as FundiFix are more likely to be integrated into a wider system of governance and regulation and, as a result, rural Kenyans would have more reliable water services.”
Dr Johanna Koehler, Researcher and Programme Manager
Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford.
Mapping the hidden values of Bicester's green spaces
ECI ecosystem researchers have compiled a toolkit to help Bicester's urban planners map 'green infrastructure' and deliver their vision of a garden town and healthy new town.
"Green Infrastructure provides a whole host of valuable ecosystem services," ECI ecosystems researcher Alison Smith explains. "What’s more, these 'services' have a financial benefit to the local area, as well as cultural and health benefits."
The benefits are broad and varied, from cleaning the air, reducing flooding, regulating the local climate and supporting pollination; to improving people’s health by providing green space for exercise. There is also strong evidence that people value their local green spaces because they make a place more beautiful and distinctive, and provide habitat for wildlife.
Once green space is gone the species it supports and the services they provide are – more often than not – gone forever, Alison reminds us. Because of the irrevocable nature of local planning decisions, she says, it is crucial that local authorities – usually pressed for time, money and resources – have access to the best possible tools and knowledge to support their town planning.
This is why a small team of ECI ecosystems researchers, led by Dr Pam Berry, headed to Bicester to create an easy-to-use toolkit for assessing and valuing green infrastructure within the urban environment. The town is set to almost double in size in the next 15 years, with 10,000 new homes in the pipeline. This brings both opportunities and threats for local green spaces.
Working with the district, town and county councils, as well as local wildlife groups and the Environment Agency, the ECI team identified the most important 'ecosystem services' to measure around Bicester. Recreation, water quality regulation, flood protection, urban food production, wildlife habitat, sense of place and aesthetic value came in as top priorities, with air quality, local climate regulation, water supply and pollination also noted as being important factors in defining the value of Bicester’s green spaces.
Using these categories for evaluation, the team 'scored' the land around Bicester – its playgrounds, meadows, woodlands, hedgerows, wastelands and waterways – for its environmental, health and cultural value.
"Land-use scoring tools, like the ones we have used in Bicester, provide a quick first-cut approach for mapping and assessing green infrastructure and ecosystem services," Alison explains. "Though not rigorous, it provides local authorities with enough information to start to identify the areas that should be protected and the opportunities for improvements."
Other approaches have also been tested, including working with the public to map the value of their green spaces. Apart from revealing a wide range of cultural benefits, including connection to nature, social cohesion and a 'sense of place', the councils were surprised to find that local people can be just as passionate about the value of street trees and small patches of green space outside their homes as they are about the larger parks in the town.
The toolkit, which brings together a range of existing tools into a simple framework, has already generated a lot of interest from users beyond Bicester.
"With these tools, we hope that planners will better be able to 'test' whether developers’ green infrastructure plans will best serve the needs of local people and protect biodiversity."
Alison Smith, Senior Research Associate
Environmental Change Institute (ECI), University of Oxford.
Surviving environmental change in the Middle Stone Age
An interdisciplinary "dream team" of Quaternary geomorphologists, archaeologists and geochemists are chipping away at the last 250,000 years of environmental change in central southern Africa, to help us understand how early humans dealt with difficult environments.
"Many people think deserts have always been deserts" says Professor David Thomas: however they have gone through hugely dynamic changes. "The emerging picture from our research is that today's Kalahari Desert once held one of the biggest lakes in the world, the size of Portugal and tens of metres deep."
Through state-of-the-art luminescence dating and isotope analyses, desert sediments can unlock the secrets of thousands of years of environmental change, generating detailed climate, vegetation and hydrological histories. However, as well as digging deep into the Kalahari's landscape, this latest research project looks at the human artefacts found on the surface too.
Previous work by Dr Sallie Burrough and Professor David Thomas revealed an abundance of archaeological treasures - thousands of waste flakes and fragments of hunting tools used by our Stone Age ancestors - spread over hundreds of kilometres of dry lake floor. Until now, no one has explored the relevance of these relics: how the tools got there, why they are on the ancient lake floor, and how humans fit in to this puzzle of environmental change in the region?
In the field for several weeks each year, an Oxford-led interdisciplinary team explores these questions. They take 'cores' of the ancient lake mud, and map and sample landforms and sediments. Archaeologists Dr Sigrid Staurset (SoGE), Dr Sheila Coulson (Oslo), Dr Sarah Mothulatshipi and students from Botswana painstakingly log and collect the artefact scatters. These fragments of 'silcrete lithics' help build a picture of how early humans used and moved around individual sites.
"Silcrete is perfect for tool-making," Thomas explains. "It breaks with a glassy sharp-edge, and it is a natural resource of deserts. What is more, each source-area patch of desert silcrete has its own unique geochemistry, inherited from the local water and parent sediments."
As part of the project, Professor David Nash (Brighton) has been expanding a Kalahari "silcrete geochemistry database". This means the team can now effectively "finger print" the basin's stone tools, to see where materials were sourced, adding to the picture of early human mobility in Africa. "Our findings suggest a complex ancestral use of the region, dispelling the idea that early humans only used deserts when they were really wet in the past," explains Thomas.
The region's "hidden history" can help unravel complex relations between people, environment and mobility - factors that underpinned Homo sapiens' ability to eventually colonise the whole globe. "This desert holds the promise of key answers to big questions surrounding human origins. It is now important that we put this neglected part of Africa on the map by making it a world heritage site," says Professor David Thomas.
"The central African desert region has some fascinating stories to tell."
David Thomas, Professor of Geography
School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.
A new frontier: Oil palm in the Peruvian Amazon
On a journey to understand the effects of Peru's new boom crop on the country's forests and its people, Oxford DPhil researcher Aoife Bennett has been working with small-holder farmers, villagers, indigenous communities, government officials and an oil palm company.
Aoife Bennett has seen forests go up in flames as Amazon rainforest is cleared ready for the new, highly contentious crop in town: oil palm.
At the heart of this rush to grow oil palm is the belief that the crop can lift the local people out of poverty, whilst also not damaging the environment. Living with oil palm producing villages and communities during her DPhil research gave Bennett a unique understanding of the producers' lives, motivations and challenges. "Everyone wants prosperity and everyone loves the forest," she says. "However, naturally, prosperity is much more highly valued, and the forest comes much lower down the list of priorities where livelihoods are concerned."
Oil palm is often viewed as a win-win solution to poverty alleviation and environmental goals, because it is a tree and has a higher yield than other oil crops. Unfortunately, it is not always the 'silver bullet' solution to sustainable development. Bennett explains that it is very dependent on the production models utilized, and the geographical areas that are selected for planting (forest versus degraded areas).
The Peruvian Government estimates that at least a further 600,000 hectares of the country's Amazon rainforest is 'apt' for oil palm, but it is already the third largest agricultural driver of deforestation in the country. A worrying statistic considering the youth of the oil palm sector in Peru.
Bennett, who has been measuring forest biomass since 2012, has discovered that the reality of deforestation is in excess of official estimates. "If trends continue, the government will not be able to meet their zero deforestation commitments in time," she warns.
She explains, "Amazon forest has an amazing capacity to recover from forest degradation and deforestation by itself, when this is facilitated by policy and practise. "Rethinking new, young forest, secondary forest and even fallows as environmentally and socially beneficial rather than legislating them as 'degraded' is one of my main policy recommendations."
Through her research Bennett hopes to inspire a more holistic view of forests as well as a better understanding of the communities who live in and around them. Banning oil palm is not realistic, nor would it be a solution. Rather, she sees that there is an opportunity for government policy to encourage farmers and companies to look after and grow forest alongside oil palm, and support good practice, such as keeping fallow land and changing forest land titling legislation.
The Peruvian Government are in a difficult position, having to align rural development goals with conservation commitments, but Bennett believes that there is opportunity to forge a prosperous future for the Peruvian people and a greener future for the country.
"I believe that there is still time to do this the right way - Peru is still in the early stages of oil palm development."
Aoife Bennett , DPhil Research Student
School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.
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.
Marginal voices and bullying at the UN
If we think that diplomacy is important it's crucial that all voices - especially those of marginalised groups, indigenous communities, ethnic minorities and displaced diasporas - are given meaningful opportunities to be heard, says Dr Fiona McConnell, an Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of Oxford.
Diplomats of unrecognised nations and unrepresented peoples are the "inconvenient truths" of international diplomacy, says Dr Fiona McConnell. These marginalised voices deliver testimonies of discrimination, oppression and injustice, often at the hands of UN member states. Yet, there is a problematic diplomatic deficit: marginalised groups-whose interests are most at stake-are often blocked from spaces of international diplomacy. Her research aims to better understand this deficit by examining the strategies by which such unrepresented communities seek to engage with the UN.
Dr McConnell has been conducting research with diplomats from marginalised communities for the past 5 years. Through collaborations with the Unrepresented Nations and People's Organization (UNPO), she has attended UN forums on minority and indigenous issues where she has documented how the UN structures and practices favour the big, not the brave.
Interviewing UNPO diplomats McConnell heard first-hand accounts of access to the UN being blocked, verbal threats and filibustering. Bullying takes place both at the UN, where speeches have been interrupted and speakers intimidated, and outside these diplomatic spaces. Visas have been refused, individuals followed, and families back in representatives' homelands have been threatened with violence.
Dr McConnell and colleagues are seeking to raise awareness of the inequalities that underpin spaces of international diplomacy by documenting such incidents: "The first step is to record this [bullying], to put it on the agenda, to make people recognise that UN forums do not offer the level playing field that they claim to be."
She hopes that her research will feed into changes in diplomatic practice at the UN. Only when this happens, might diplomats from marginalised communities feel confident to report incidents and the culture change she says.
In addition to documenting bullying and blocking tactics used by member states at the UN, Dr McConnell has facilitated a series of workshops, training UNPO diplomats in lobbying skills, so that they might be more effective in representing their polities at the UN. These workshops are a crucial element in demystifying the UN's complex rules, legal language, and culture, and providing unrepresented diplomats with the tools to make it a space where all voices can be heard equally.
After all, diplomatic spaces should be places where "estranged difference" can be brought together; they should be safe spaces for "reaching across that gap". However, as Dr McConnell reminds us, this is only possible when everyone has an equal chance to speak and when everyone listens.
The future of small islands: Solar power, sea and sand?
A global transition to carbon-free clean energy could be a matter of survival for small island states that are threatened by rising sea levels due to climate change. DPhil researcher Kiron Neale travels to the Hawaiian solar super-power island, Oahu, to learn lessons in how best small islands can transition to renewables.
Small islands' geographical locations provide both energy opportunities and challenges. Many islands are positioned near the equator which provides them with an abundance of powerful solar energy just waiting to be tapped. A further impetus to adopt new energy technologies is the isolation of small islands - they are often set within vast oceans. Importing energy is not cheap or easy.
Trinidad, the small island from where Rhodes Scholar and DPhil researcher Kiron Neale originates, is an anomaly when viewed in comparison to its neighbours. It has one of the world's greatest resources of petrocarbon (by island standards) and, as Trinidadians benefit from subsidised energy bills, changing their energy culture is more of a challenge.
When Neale created a 'solar power' index of 79 locations, as part of his MSc in Environmental Change and Management at the Environmental Change Institute, the American state of Hawaii came top of the list. It had the best natural and political climate for solar power growth. "Oahu is a location with a lot of great lessons to offer other island states," says Neale, who is now dedicating his DPhil to studying how small islands shift to solar power.
The core purpose of Neale's research is to identify the best small island solar power practice and share it with Trinidadian policy makers.
Oahu and Trinidad have stark differences in their energy policies. Their renewable energy targets are 100% by 2045 and 10% by 2021 respectively. Oahu, having incentivised solar power uptake with a 1:1 tariff scheme called Net Energy Metering (selling and buying back electricity at the same price), now has over 47,000 photovoltaic (PV) systems installed on the island; NEM is but one policy used to achieve this.
When interviewing energy industry and government professionals about Oahu's energy policy, Neale uncovered some unforeseen side effects of their clean energy revolution. There were safety concerns by some when, at peak sunlight, the grid could became saturated with electricity.
As wealthier households are more likely to invest in the PV technology, Neale's work shed light on a broadening of the gap between the rich and the poor. Those with panels made money from them and those without were hit with rising bills.
Kiron believes the message is clear for other islands states such as Trinidad. "I would advise Trinidad to develop a solar power policy that avoids further deepening inequity," Kiron explains. "There are currently missed opportunities because islands are not talking to, and learning from, one another," he says. "I would to love my research to be considered by the Trinidadian government - that's why I'm doing this, because I want to see change. I want Trinidad to adopt sustainable energy policy recommendations."
"I would love my research to be considered by the Trinidadian government - that's why I'm doing this, because I want to see change. I want Trinidad to adopt sustainable energy policy recommendations."
Kiron Neale, DPhil Research Student
School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.
Extreme Weather Farming
MPhil research student Bernard Soubry has worked with small-scale farmers in Canada to forge a climate change 'battle-plan'.
Bernard Soubry has first-hand experience of how the weather can put food production and small farms at risk. In the winter of 2014-15 the East-Canadian province of Nova Scotia - and the small vegetable farm that he was then working on - was buried under 7ft of snow. "It just kept coming," he recounts. "We got our last snow on May 1st - that was exceptional".
At present, there is no climate change adaptation plan or policy for the food system in Canada which, Soubry says, makes the country's food system vulnerable. Wanting to do something to address agriculture's climate change challenge, Soubry applied for a Rhodes Scholarship to study an MPhil in Environmental Change and Management at the ECI.
Whilst studying, he learned first-hand from ECI food systems researchers about combining 'scenarios workshops' with 'visioning' and 'back-casting', to build strategic plans to safeguard food security. This new research method has been pioneered by the ECI's Dr Joorst Vervoort and Dr Ariella Helfgott, as part of the EU-funded TRANSMANGO project. It brings together people working within the food sector to identify where the system's weaknesses and strengths lie, areas of vulnerability and resilience, in the context of future change. From these workshops come explicit plans with tangible policy recommendations for governments.
Inspired by TRANSMANGO's methodology, Soubry decided to set up a similar project for his MPhil, focusing on small East-Canadian farms, to help them build resilience against potential 'shocks', such as extreme weather events (made more likely by climate change).
Bringing together a wide range of stakeholders who would not usually talk to each other - farmers, retailers and government officials from across all three Canadian Maritime provinces - Soubry facilitated a strategic planning exercise where a "battle-plan" for a resilient food-system future was collectively drawn up.
"Stakeholders from across the food sector began by envisioning an ideal food system." Soubry explains, "then they back-cast their way from that vision to the present day by presenting concrete actions and the actors responsible for them, creating a strategic plan for a sustainable food system in the Maritimes."
However, if we don't really know what the future is bringing, how can we make adaptation decisions now that will stand up to a whole range of possible shocks? Through the workshop it became apparent that increasing adaptive capacity, by strengthening the existing systems, is the best way to build resilience. Small-scale farms are agile to respond to change and hotbeds for creative adaptation techniques so, Soubry says, we should respect farmers' knowledge and support them to adapt, however they see fit.
"If necessity is the mother of invention, then climate change - which will make extreme weather events more likely - is the impetus for innovation on the farm."
Bernard Soubry, DPhil Research Student
School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.
Squatters: Urban Pioneers in Sustainable Living?
From do-it-yourself & pop-up events, to community gardens & communal living; we can learn a lot about sustainable urban living from studying squatting culture, says Dr Alexander Vasudevan.
In the United Kingdom the housing crisis is intensifying. House prices increase more rapidly than wages and homelessness rises.
Searching for unconventional solutions to the housing crisis is Alex Vasudevan, Associate Professor in Human Geography at the School of Geography and the Environment. He has spent years scouring 'alternative archives' and talking to squatters across Europe and North America, to bring light to this alternative, often overlooked and misunderstood way of living in a new book.
He suggests that, by shining a light on this hidden history of cities - creating a record of these radical autonomous spaces - we can learn from their successes and their challenges, and find inspiration for new city infrastructure and design.
"Squats are the prototypes of innovative sustainable city living, because they are spaces where communities are empowered to design and co-create their environment together; they are spaces where creativity and innovation may flourish."
When given the permission to remain, squat communities have thrived. In some squats that have been legalised, Vasudevan describes how whole autonomous community infrastructures have been created: "A few spaces in Germany that I spent time in had community services, a kingergarten, a canteen that served everyone, a bike repair workshop".
Of course, not all spaces are afforded the luxury of local authority cooperation. Vasudevan does not brush over the 'dark' side of squatting in his history: The precarity of living with the daily threat of eviction, along with the challenges of communal living, has in some cases led to violent clashes with the establishment and within the squatting communities themselves.
We are now living in an era where the impulse towards squatting is stigmatisation. However, instead of stigmatising squatters, Vasudevan sees them as co-creators, inventors, designers and "urban pioneers".
Is the squatter is an endangered species? Vasudevan thinks not. "We're moving into a moment of austerity across the global north but also a profound intensifying of the housing crisis, it is not surprising that squatting is re-emerging in many respects.
"Legal changes will provide new constraints but also provide new opportunities to think more creatively as well."
"We need to urgently rethink how we live and how we build cities."
Dr Alexander Vasudevan, Associate Professor in Human Geography
School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.