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Timothy Crawshaw: Reflections on the Earthshot

Some of us are going to space, many people can’t afford to put on the heating.

Timothy Crawshaw MRTPI is an International Planning and Development Consultant. He is currently the RTPI’s Vice-President and will become President in 2022.

Whilst William Shatner no doubt enjoyed his trip to the edge of space and for many of us the irony of a 1970’s space icon actually going there was at least mildly entertaining, but, and it’s a big but, there appears to be a massive disparity in the amount of funding and attention that is being paid to glamourous and high-tech projects that assist the rich in achieving their dreams. Meanwhile, even on our islands (not forgetting that we are the 6th largest economy in the world[1]) there are hard decisions being taken between heating and eating for increasing numbers of people and increasing inequalities that have been both revealed and exacerbated by Covid-19.

In contrast to this excessive consumption of fuel sending four privileged people to the edge of space others meanwhile are trying to solve localised problems of energy, climate and biodiversity as highlighted by the finalists and winners of the Earthshot Prize. As I listened to the radio as I returned from a successful RTPI General Assembly where we discussed the challenges of translating research into practice in planning, I was inspired by the solutions that had been developed solving everyday problems faced in less developed economies. They came thick and fast, peer to peer micro-grids developed for Bangladesh, hydrogen production from renewable electricity, food waste to fertiliser and insect protein in Kenya and closer to home a waste hub in Milan. Close to my own work in the natural environment Living Sea Walls demonstrate design innovation in repairing natural habitats threatened by climate change.

The role of planning professionals as leaders and innovators

It got me thinking about the role of planning and innovation perhaps challenging perceptions of the profession and the range of issues we are skilled in. Each facet of the urgent need to do things differently could easily be seen as planning matters, not just from a regulatory point of view, but from a visionary and integrated perspective. This week the joint TCPA / RTPI publication 'The Climate Crisis - A Guide for Local Authorities on Planning for Climate Change' demonstrates the power of planning to tackle the climate emergency in new development. This timely and detailed guide I commend to everyone who has an interest not just in planning but the future survival of life on earth.

I have spoken to many people in recent weeks and there are enormous development needs in the UK right now that would not only form part of the solution to climate change but also begin to address some of the structural inequalities and perversities of the market led approaches to energy, housing, and food. It has not taken long for the wheels to fall off and a combination of shocks has revealed the fine veneer that hides a somewhat shaky system that we are now all required to depend on and ultimately pay for, often at the expensive end of the pipe in healthcare costs, crime, and low productivity. Whilst we are broken down at the side of the road with the bonnet up it’s time we had a look around to see how things work and try and do things differently.

We need more innovation and investment in our existing homes and communities if we are to address our own development needs that are urgent, and the size of the prize is huge if we get it right. It’s not just about insulation or through the front door retrofitting, although this is important, this is about the deep retrofitting of places to meet our basic needs at a local level. The Government announced this week funding in the form of a grant to replace gas boilers with heat pumps which, whilst welcome, will not address the fundamental investment required in our existing homes and communities. The rich and able will no doubt benefit but where is the incentive for the private landlord?

What struck me from the Earthshot prize finalists was the nuanced understanding of the development need and the social and economic transformations that can be achieved through investment in the planet and crucially vice versa. We have to accept and own that innovation needs to be focussed on some tricky and unglamourous and often systemic problems that might make us have to look at the society we have created. Like many planners I got into this profession to make the world a better place. Planners should be leading the charge on this urgent innovation that is required to reimagine the future using the best of technology, the intelligence of our citizens and future proof funding and financing.

A radical proposal

My own Earthshot would include the best of our universities, the private and public sectors and communities to come together and start the process of developing the processes, kits, products and skills required to retrofit our existing places and communities alongside new development, right here, right now. If you are a researcher reach out, if you are an innovator reach out, if you are a funder reach out. This is going to involve multi and trans-disciplinary working that I fundamentally believe planners should lead on. Together we can do this!


Image credit: Alex Yeung /

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