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Early Career Researcher Award winner 2015

Sponsored by Routledge Journals, Taylor & Francis Group




Dr Mick Lennon, School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Policy, University College Dublin

The Utilization of Environmental Knowledge in Land Use Planning: Drawing Lessons for an Ecosystem Services Approach

This paper was co-authored with Dr Richard Cowell, School of Planning and Geography, Cardiff University.


About the research

'Ecosystem assessment' or 'ecosystems services' is the latest in a long line of attempts to ensure that the 'true value' of the environment is considered in decision-making. This research examines whether environmental knowledge can become more influential in local planning processes through three case studies of previous but similar attempts to value the environment in decision-making: environmental capital assessment in minerals planning in Berkshire; ecological footprinting in Cardiff; and green infrastructure in the Republic of Ireland.

The findings show that the impact of these concepts on planning decisions is 'uneven' and can be limited. The impact depends less on the way these concepts are designed or the evidence they include, and more on a combination of the institutional setting and whether the environment is already valued in some way, for example in locations where local politics and institutions already value or share a 'sense of threat' to the countryside. How such forms of assessment relate to the spatial scales used in land-use planning can also be important for their influence.

"Although environmental capital, [ecological footprinting], and [green infrastructure] all in different ways mobilise an economistic, instrumental language of value, our case studies showed little evidence that this language in itself automatically translated into wider support for pro-environment decisions. …[W]here novel assessment approaches lead to conclusions that challenge economic priorities, the fact that environmental values might come clothed in economistic language of 'capital' or 'services' offers little protection against them being criticised or set aside. It seems unwise, therefore, that many advocates of ecosystem services approaches continue to attribute innate persuasive powers to economistic measures of value…"

This research is available here.

Implications for policy and practice

These findings suggest that actively cultivating wide stakeholder buy-in to new assessment approaches such as these may secure some wider support, but not necessarily translate into a major influence on decisions. This also means that these forms of assessment should not be expected to spread of their accord; 'policy entrepreneurs' and 'skilled intermediaries' – including planning officers – can be crucial to promoting them.

Advocates of ecosystem services approaches could promote collaborative ways of assessing the value of the environment, by actively engaging stakeholders as a way of improving the assessment and achieving greater buy-in to the results. However, this can lead to the watering-down of the environmental aspect in favour of other objectives, for example economic growth.

Judge's comment

"A very rounded paper indeed; this most clearly linked a planning policy issue to the tricky territory of the relationship between knowledge and action."