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Study takes novel 'back-casting' approach to transform cities for healthier lives

31 May 2012

​Researchers at four of the country’s leading universities are embarking on a low carbon engineering project that could transform the way cities are built, as well as the way we live in them, by taking a novel ‘back-casting’ approach to their study.

Led by the University of Birmingham, the study will create visions of an alternative urban future with drastically reduced CO2 emissions then develop realistic and radical engineering solutions to achieve them in a socially acceptable way. Research will closely link people’s social aspirations and wellbeing with the engineering of cities.

This project represents a multi disciplinary challenge, and the research team comprises scientists, engineers, socials scientists and designers.

Lancaster University's contribution comes from Design led by Professor Rachel Cooper at ImaginationLancaster and Sociology led by Professor John Urry.

They said: “'We will be addressing the social implications of low carbon living, we will be evaluating how you can design low carbon cities and what effect that has on our wellbeing, quality of life and behavior. One of our case study sites is Lancaster, where we plan to test ideas and collect data with the city and the community.”

The project is led by Professor Chris Rogers of the University of Birmingham’s School of Civil Engineering who said: “Engineering of our cities has traditionally been a ‘top-down exercise, mainly because it’s so very difficult to create a ‘bottom-up’ approach: solutions are created and society must learn to work and live with them, or choose to resist them.

“Our research is novel in that we start by imagining the future that we want for our cities, for example what does an 80 per cent carbon reduced Lancaster look like? We then work backwards to find out what combinations of engineering solutions, behavioural changes and technological developments are needed to make these alternative futures possible, while at the same time ensuring that the planet can still provide us with the resources we need. The ambition of our research programme is necessary to deal with the global challenges that we face.”

Professor Rogers’ research experience encompasses the Mapping the Underworld project to create a prototype multi-sensor device to detect and map the pipes that lie beneath our city’s streets without the need for excavation. Such technical advances will make utility service provision and streetworks more sustainable.

As the world undergoes the largest wave of urban growth in history, research that can provide visions of an alternative economically viable future for low carbon, sustainable development is crucial.

In 2008, for the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population was living in towns and cities. The UK was the first country in the world in which this happened. By the 2001 census almost 80 per cent of the UK population lived in cities, today this figure has risen to 90 per cent.

The UK government is committed to meeting its 2050 climate change target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent from 1990 levels.

By using focus groups, case studies, a city analysis methodology and other approaches in pioneering futures research, the researchers will create a roadmap that aims to drive future engineering thinking for decades to come. Its goal is to influence policy and be used by urban designers in the UK with the potential to be applied anywhere in the world.

 

The study has been made possible by a £6 million programme grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Programme grants are flexible grants made available to world-leading research teams aiming to address major research challenges.

University College London and the University of Southampton are also part of the five-year multidisciplinary research team.

Commercial partners include power and gas company E-ON, global engineering consultancy Halcrow, international engineering and construction company Costain, and the UK’s rail operator Network Rail.