Why planning has a vital role to play in helping adapt to climatechange

Planning policies are too intent on cutting carbon emissions when more attention should be given to adapting to climate change, providing green infrastructure and promoting healthier lifestyles, argues Paul Tomlinson.

Tackling climate change is synonymous with good planning, yet national and local government seems to focus almost exclusively on policies to cut carbon emissions.

This appears to contradict suggestions that we are already locked into climate change as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. There is no doubt that more needs to be done holistically to adapt to climate change and this is where strategic environmental assessments and sustainability appraisals play an important part.

Some local authorities have started to consider policies that adapt to climate change but, with the recent floods, there is a danger that such strategies are becoming too focused on managing flood risks. Planning must also consider the effects of climate change on the quality and safety of surface waters under threat from increased demand, particularly in the South East.

Planning authorities and the Environment Agency also have to deliver on the management of water catchments to prevent further quality degradation, in line with the EU water framework directive.

The RTPI environmental planning and protection network (EPPN) has formed four task groups to explore the adaptation strategies needed in response to climate change. These groups look respectively at how changing climate impacts on health, biodiversity, water and energy.

The health and climate change task group has been exploring how the planning system ought to respond to climate change. Bodies such as the Department of Health (DoH) and Health Protection Agency have jointly published an updated report on how climate change is affecting health in the UK. The task group concluded that planning is key to adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change on health and inequalities. Key roles include helping to prepare for disasters and cross-sector collaboration to handle response to and recovery from extreme weather events.

There is emerging evidence demonstrating that green space contributes towards improved health and that development values are enhanced by better planned environments that are resilient to the effects of climate change. Sustainable food production, lifestyles, town and city design along with health issues such as obesity urgently need to be discussed.

Research shows a link between physical activity, health and natural green space. For example, the 2004 Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Working Paper 63 highlights the relationship between flooding, health and climate change. It concludes: "for the south in particular, improvement in general health practices and infrastructure can play a vital role in reducing the specific risk from flooding". The DoH, the UK Public Health Association and the London Climate Partnership have also produced reports relevant to planners.

This guidance needs to find its way into planning now. While researchers have to improve the way in which they disseminate their work to planners, planners in the public and private sector should do more to keep up with the latest research. Planners and elected representatives have to take the spatial planning agenda fully on board so that adaptation to climate change is able to cope with the impact of greenhouse gas emissions.

As University of Manchester research conducted under the banner of the Adaptation Strategies for Climate Change in the Urban Environment project by Susannah Gill, John Handley and others concludes, "climate change is already with us and there is an urgent need to develop adaptive strategies. The creative use of green infrastructure is one of the most promising opportunities for adaptation and needs to be recognised in the planning process from regional spatial strategies through local development frameworks to development control in urban neighbourhoods."

Paul Tomlinson is head of environmental assessment and policy, Centre for Sustainability/TRL Ltd. This article has been produced by the EPPN. The network engages with key issues such as planning for climate change, the interface between planning and pollution control legislation and the regulation of hazardous sites. For more further information or to join the network, please email epp@rtpi.org.uk.

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