Reflecting on two years of interdisciplinary research together

From Urban Green Adaptation Diary

On 17 June 2016, at the 23rd Pacific Science Congress at Academia Sinica in Taipei, we delivered our first conference paper together. Titled “Achieving Mitigation of Land Surface Temperature via Greenspaces: A Case Study of Taipei Metropolis,” we shared the stage for five minutes each. Wan-Yu talked about her remote sensing work into urban thermal environments, and I spoke about content analysis of newspaper articles on heat and greenspace in Taipei. Before I came to Taipei, we had met each other only once, talked on Skype a couple of times, and exchanged a number of emails and messages. And somehow, we are still working together two years later.

So what have we achieved and learned together in the time since?

  1. Interdisciplinary working is hard. You have to be prepared to put the time in to get the outcomes, and have the persistence to deal with complications and setbacks. I have worked harder in the two years since we started doing research together than at any other time in my academic career. Conversely, I have also been more motivated to develop this research than on any other set of projects I’ve worked on;
  2. Having a common goal helps a lot. This can be a topic or subject that you can all work round, in our case climate change adaptation in cities through green infrastructure. This acts as a focal point that you can build your various approaches and techniques around. But it can also be a shared personal goal. In our case, we are at a similar career stage with similar aspirations, and can use this as a driving force to keep us moving forwards in the same direction;
  3. Working across disciplines is challenging conceptually, as well as practically. There are of course all the challenges associated with bringing together different types of data and different research methods. However, as we have discovered, there are also big conceptual differences between disciplines. What I mean by this is much deeper differences in what we consider to count as valid scientific knowledge; how we analyse, interpret and write up our research; and even fundamental differences in how the world works. Wan-Yu and I don’t always agree on these, but we do at least understand where the differences lie. This is important for good collaboration, but unfortunately takes time to achieve. Which is why we need…
  4. Good interpersonal relations. As above, work of this nature isn’t easy. You aren’t going to understand or agree with each other all the time. But the only way things will improve is if you are able to talk with each other openly and honestly about where your concerns lie. So having the trust and mutual respect to do this within your collaboration is very important. For me at least, it is not always comfortable to have my assumptions challenged and it can be hard to avoid becoming defensive, but we produce better work as a result. Building good relations also means taking the time to help each other out, explain things and find each other data, in a way that benefits everyone.

Developing a good interdisciplinary collaboration takes a lot of work and time. I think we would both agree it was really hard at first, but now we are finding a much better way to work together.


Hopefully, this is evidenced in what we’ve managed to achieve together over these two years…


In addition to our separate publications, we have managed four co-authored SSCI-indexed papers. Two of these are based on the content analysis of Taiwanese media I undertook in preparation for our PSC paper. One was published in World Development earlier this year, and the other will be out later this month in Environment and Urbanization (in fact, we were so engrossed in writing the first draft of it when we were working in NTU Library that we lost track of time and missed the PSA conference dinner). We polished up the interview-based work Wan-Yu did on biodiversity and ecosystem services governance in Durban, and got it published in Journal of Environmental Planning and Management (with a chapter in the Handbook of Climate Change Communication as well). And we worked up some of my interviews and policy analysis from Yubari in Japan, which came out in Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning earlier this year.

The next round of publications are currently under review and/or in the final stages of being written up…


We are just about to wrap up our first funded project, a Wellcome Trust Seed Award in Humanities and Social Sciences-supported project into urban heat and energy precarity in subtropical Asian cities. For that, we collaborated with the Clean Energy and Sustainable Development Lab in the University of Science and Technology Hanoi; and with the Department of Environmental Design in Kyushu University. We have had project meetings and fieldwork in Taipei, Hanoi and Fukuoka along the way, and picked out some ideas we want to develop further.

We’re also just about to start the second year of our Royal Society of Edinburgh-Ministry of Science and Technology Joint Research Project into green infrastructure, heat vulnerability and social-ecological characteristics. We are Joint PIs on this, working on the case studies of Glasgow and Taipei. Year 1 saw interviews and site visits in both countries, with more of the same to come in Year 2.

This means it is now time to be writing more proposals!



Fieldwork, conferences and travel

Other highlights along the way have included:

-two virtual co-lectures and two physical co-lectures in the Department of Urban Planning and Disaster Management at Ming-Chuan University, where Leslie delivered some sessions on his research in Japan and Scotland (with Wan-Yu’s linguistic support!)

-attending the IPCC Cities and Climate Change Science Conference in Edmonton together, and meeting many new (and old) friends while there;

-seeing our work start to get attention in, for example, the briefing note on climate justice and community resilience produced by SNIFFER, and involvement in the TRACTION project;

-establishing and growing our presence online through Urban Green Adaptation Diary, and through our presence on Twitter (please follow Wan-Yu and Leslie!)

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People in Yubari

I recently came across an image of Yubari on Twitter. It was not tagged as being in Yubari, but I recognised the building immediately and knew exactly where it was. What struck me was that whilst the building the person (and others) had been ‘exploring’ was indeed derelict, it was only a hundred metres away from a still-functioning shopping area and some offices. The original poster was clearly being careful not to give the location away, and I do not think I have made it too obvious from what I have written here.

While people have a right to photograph and safely enjoy ruins, it did make me think about how Yubari, where nearly 9,000 people still live, gets represented in the English-language corners of the internet. Indeed, it was pointed out to me that I myself use too many photos without people in them in my presentations and slides.

With that in mind, I thought I would make a short post with a few photos of people in Yubari, in the hope that this might dilute the number of pictures of empty buildings. So, without further ado, please find below some people in Yubari:


In Bunkado stationery in  Shimizusawa, Yubari


The proprietor of Okashi no Fuji, Shimizusawa, Yubari


Sakon-san, from the Planning Department of Yubari City Government


Staff in the Planning Department of Yubari City Government, Honcho, Yubari


OK, this is cheating, no people but the sign for the recently-opened Yubari Crafts & Goods, Yubari Station.

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NEW PAPER: urban greening, equity, and climate adaptation

Originally posted on Urban Green Adaptation Diary

This post summarises the main findings of the paper ‘What might ‘just green enough’ urban development mean in the context of climate change adaptation? The case of urban greenspace planning in Taipei Metropolis, Taiwan’, which we have had published in World Development.

What is the key point of this paper?

Our main argument is that climate change adaptation requires urban planners, governors and decision-makers to think differently about what equity and justice mean in the context of urban greenspace. It is well understood that urban greening actions may disproportionately accrue to more affluent areas, and that thinking in terms of equity across space can help to redress these imbalances. Yet much of this thinking to date has concentrated on the health, well-being and social capital benefits that greenspace provides. The way in which greenspace delivers climate change adaptation benefits may, however, be more complex. It requires thinking in terms of greenspace function at a whole-city level. As such, additional skill sets are required to balance these imperatives to deliver urban greening that is both appropriate from a technical and scientific perspective, and also desirable from a social justice viewpoint.


What were the findings, and what is new or significant about them?

We sketch out what these challenges might look like in practice through the case of Taipei Metropolis in Taiwan. Through evaluation of greenspace debates in Taipei, we suggest three actions required to work towards effective and equitable climate adaptation through urban greening. First is finding pathways that can guide planning and governance processes with scientific understanding of how greenspace functions are delivered, even in the face of development pressures and site-specific controversies. Second is acknowledging the societal benefits that can come with small-scale greening actions at the neighbourhood level, whilst also realising the most effective ecosystem services may be delivered through coordinated city-wide actions. Third is building wide-reaching rationales for urban greening which extend beyond climate adaptation, all the time ensuring that delivery of benefit to the most vulnerable remains front-and-centre throughout the decision-making process.

Why is this research important?

There has been something of a backlash in social science thinking against ideas of ‘resilient’ cities and thinking of the natural environment in terms of the ecosystem services it provides. Much of this concern is based on on the idea that these ways of thinking maintain the social and political status quo, especially if their aim is to build cross-sector consensus. That is, they do not really address the root causes of why some people end up being more vulnerable to climate change than others. At the same time, though, climate change is a real and pressing issue, which requires urgent and coordinated action across cities with good collaboration across sectors such as local government, private sector developers, NGOs, communities and academia. This is especially true in cities like Taipei, which even with aggressive emissions reduction are already on-track for harmful levels of climate change. We believe it is therefore crucial to find ways to realise the immediate risk reduction that can be gained if we use concepts like ‘resilience’ and ‘ecosystem services’ to get buy-in for adaptation actions from all sectors of society, but also to show sensitivity to the structural drivers of inequity and vulnerability.


How was the research conducted?

The research involved review of existing scholarly literature on equity and justice in urban contexts, with a particular focus on issues relating to urban greening. The concept of ‘just green enough’ actions developed by Wolch et al (2014) as a guard against green gentrification were especially helpful in this regard. Then, for information specific to Taipei, the two largest English-language newspapers in Taiwan were sampled: the Taipei Times and the China Post. Content analysis was undertaken on articles referring to greenspace and/or climate change adaptation issues, with an emphasis on urban heat as a focus issue. Peer-reviewed scholarly articles on planning and urban governance in Taipei were also reviewed for contextual understanding.

Who funded the research?

The initial data collection was undertaken by Dr Leslie Mabon in his own time without funding. However, further literature reviewing, and additional analysis of the dataset, was undertaken as preparation for the Royal Society of Edinburgh-Ministry of Science and Technology Taiwan Joint Research Project ‘Spatial relationship of heat hazard and socio-economic characteristics in urban neighbourhoods – the role of green infrastructure’. Wan-Yu Shih and Leslie Mabon are Co-PIs on this project.


Mabon, L and Shih, W-Y (2018) ‘What might ‘just green enough’ urban development mean in the context of climate change adaptation? The case of Taipei Metropolis, Taiwan’ World Development 107: 224-238.


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NEW PAPER: competences for managing sustainability transitions through urban planning

The purpose of this post is to summarise a new paper which has just been published in Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning. The paper, titled ‘Management of sustainability transitions through planning in shrinking resource city contexts: an evaluation of Yubari City, Japan’, looks at the actions undertaken at the municipal level in Yubari City, Japan, to counter challenges relating to the social, economic and environmental sustainability of the city.

What is the key point of this paper?

We argue that the urban scale has a crucial, but perhaps underappreciated role, in facilitating a managed transition to sustainability for cities facing complex social, economic and environmental challenges due to current or historic reliance on carbon-intensive industries. In particular, we suggest the development of sets of competences (sets of skills and attributes which help people to imagine appropriate solutions for environmental issues) in municipal governors and planners are key to being able to respond to this complexity.

We take as our case study the former coal-mining city of Yubari in Hokkaido, Japan. Yubari has seen significant population decline since the 1960s, and loss of economic base exacerbated by the closure of the city’s last coal mine in the early 1990s. After a period of economic hardship, however, the city has recently made progress in ensuring it can function into the future and respond to the social and ecological legacy left by coal extraction.


What were the findings, and what is new or significant about them?

Our findings indicate that the form of the built environment can act as a focal point for considering how to respond to social, economic and environmental issues in shrinking resource city contexts like Yubari. In Yubari, it has largely been the lived experience of change and decline in the urban environment that has brought different groups of people to realise the seriousness of the situation the city is facing. In turn, it is the built environment – especially shrinking or consolidating the city into a more compact form – that has brought consensus on how the city can become sustainable into the future.

The reason this appears to be successful, however, is that planning for sustainability is led by municipal planners and scholars with good competence in visioning the future, in understanding the specific actions required, in facilitating deliberation across sectors and with citizens, and in keeping equity and justice concerns in check. There is also emerging competence in understanding what some of the climate and ecological implications for Yubari might be into the future. Most crucial of all, though, in Yubari spatial planning is supported with strong social policy and the prioritising of citizen welfare in budgeting and decision-making.

Why is this research important?

Cities like Yubari which have relied – or continue to rely – on carbon-intensive activities such as coal mining, oil and gas extraction or petrochemicals face additional complexities in responding to urban sustainability challenges. These might be physical issues such as legacy infrastructure and contamination, or financial issues related to the loss of an economic base. However, this ‘legacy’ can also be social and psychological with regard to continued dependence on high-emitting activities, reluctance to consider transition to different forms of organisation, and even influences on people’s opinions towards and understanding of environmental issues. As such, assessing what Yubari has managed to achieve and the competences required to attain this can help build our understanding of what a managed transition to sustainability might mean in a trickier resource city context.


How was the research conducted?

In-depth interviews have been conducted in Yubari and Hokkaido more widely since 2016, and indeed are ongoing (Leslie was there doing interviews in the deep snow in January 2018, which will feed into the next paper!)

Systematic analysis was also undertaken on the Yubari City Urban Planning Masterplan and its supporting documentation, reading and coding for the five sustainability competences laid out by Wiek et al (2011).

Who funded the research?

The policy analysis and the interviews from 2017 onwards are funded by the Regional Studies Association, through an Early Career Grant held by Leslie Mabon. Initial interviews in Yubari were undertaken in 2016 as part of a project into low-carbon energy in southern Hokkaido led by Leslie Mabon and supported by the UK CCS Research Centre.

Mabon, L and Shih, W-Y (in press) ‘Management of sustainability transitions through planning in shrinking resource city contexts: an evaluation of Yubari City, Japan’ Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning DOI: 10.1080/1523908X.2018.1443004


Posted in New Publications, Regional Studies Association Early Career Grant 2017-18, UKCCSRC International Collaboration 2016 | 1 Comment

RSE-MOST Project Work in Taipei, January 2018

In January 2018, we had the first Taipei session for our Royal Society of Edinburgh-Ministry of Science and Technology Joint Research Project. Following on from the Scotland visit last summer, this time it was Leslie’s turn to travel to Taiwan to further our understanding of green infrastructure and its role in climate change adaptation. The purpose of this year’s visit was to build a good understanding of the social, policy and environmental context within which green infrastructure is considered in Taipei, in order to develop a comparable dataset to the material we collected in Glasgow last year. To that end, we undertook both site visits and interview-based research over the course of the week.


First stop was Winchain Consultants, who are involved in part of the urban planning review for Taipei City. Over the course of nearly two hours we learned much about the potential for greening actions in the city to provide socio-economic benefit, and about the challenges and opportunities for greening actions within the policies and regulations in place in Taipei.


Discussion with Wen-Yan Jiang of Winchain Consultants

We then jumped onto the blue and red MRT lines (note: I love the music the trains play when they arrive…) to head to our first site visit, to the wetlands around Guandu Nature Park in the north of Taipei. We availed ourselves of bicycles in order to cover as much ground as possible in the time available, taking in some of the nature park itself, seeing fishing activities at the convergence of the Keelung and Tamsui Rivers, and getting a good chance to observe the biological diversity that is present in this part of the city. For me (Leslie) at least, this was the first time for me to get out of the centre of Taipei, and to see a different kind of ‘nature’ within the city to the very disciplined and managed parks I have been used to so far.


Meeting Po-Hung Liu and team

Thursday brought one of those busy, frantic days that social scientists like me simultaneously love and hate – the double-header interview. Our morning interviewee was Ian Chen of CNHW Planning and Design Consultants, who was involved in developing a green infrastructure plan for Taipei back in 2010 and brought us a different perspective to the more socially- and economically-focused discussion we had heard the previous day. Then it was a dash across town to New Taipei City, where we met Po-Hung Liu, Honorary President of the Taiwan Institute of Landscape Architects. Liu has been heavily involved in trying to bring different sectors together with the aim of progressing urban greening in Taipei, and indeed facilitated the forum at which I ended up being an impromptu speaker in December 2016. Wan-Yu did a terrific job to translate all of Liu’s knowledge into English as we went along, and from a social engagement perspective it was fantastic to hear about initiatives such as Taipei Open Green which aim to increase community participation in greening actions across the city.


At Parks and Street Lights Office, Taipei City

Our final meeting of the week was with the Parks and Street Lights Office of Taipei City Government. As the name suggests, they are responsible for the formal designated parks within the city, and – as they told us during our interview – have the unenviable task of trying to balance a range of societal pressures and development imperatives within the spaces they manage. Clearly we need to analyse our findings before we jump to any conclusions, but it was interesting in our discussion to see how the higher-level rhetoric of citizen participation in Taipei is filtering down to issues such as management of open space.

Other highlights of the week included a chance to catch up with new team member Yi-Chen Huang, who at the time was just about to embark on the bold move of leaving Taiwan to move to Aberdeen and start her PhD under Leslie’s supervision (she has subsequently arrived in Scotland and is settling in well!) Both of us are very much looking forward to having Yi-Chen’s input on this project and others. There was also an impromptu extended opportunity to look at how the green and blue corridors of Neihu and Zhongshan Districts have developed along and near to the Keelung River. It’s been said that despite having several large watercourses, in recent years Taipei and its residents have not had much of a relationship with their rivers – so it was educational to see the steps that have been taken to draw out more societal benefit from these spaces, particularly as regards recreation and provision of corridors for sustainable transportation by bicycle.


View towards Guandu Nature Park

Happily, this trip also continued our run of good fortune. This is now the third consecutive time we have received good news relating to our collaborative research just after Leslie has returned to Scotland from visiting Taipei! This time it is a couple of papers which have been accepted for publication, and as soon as they are out in the public domain we will tell you more!


Fishing vessels and river banks at the convergence of the Keelung and Tamsui Rivers

Originally posted on

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Progressing CCS in Japan – December 2017 Visit

For the past week I’ve been in Japan for a series of carbon capture and storage-related events, largely linked to Japan’s recent successful endeavours in deploying CCS technology in the ‘real world.’ The Tomakomai CCS Demonstration Project, up in Hokkaido in the north of the country, in November 2017 celebrated injecting its 100,000th tonne of carbon dioxide. Regardless of one’s views on CCS or on Japan’s climate policy more widely, it is hard to argue against the fact that in financing, building and delivering a large-scale CCS project on time and securely injecting and storing carbon dioxide, Japan has set an example for pretty much the entire world to follow. Moreover, as well as the technical challenges associated with CCS, the Japan CCS Company has managed to achieve this close to a large urban centre, under a seabed from which Tomakomai’s prized Sakhalin surf clams are harvested, and in a country where there is recent awareness of the links between the sea, seismic activity and energy infrastructure. This is laudable from a project management perspective, and fascinating from a social science point of view.


The first big event was Wednesday 13 December, when I was one of the main speakers at the Future of CCS symposium held in Tokyo by the Japan CCS Company and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to mark the 100,000th tonne of injection into the geological formations under Tomakomai Bay. I shared billing with Prof Toshifumi Matsuoka of the Fukada Geological Institute and Prof Yasuko Kameyama of the National Institute of Environmental Studies, and discussed the findings of the paper on Tomakomai I lead-authored which came out earlier this year in Marine Policy. Now, I would be lying if I said I was not terrified at the prospect of presenting in Japanese in front of 380 people (spread over two rooms, with the people in the second room watching via video link). However, the nerves soon abated as I started to pick out many friendly faces in the audience who I knew from previous research collaboration, seminars, and even participating in my interviews. Getting to smash open a big barrel of Hokkaido sake was my reward for getting through it – although in being joined on stage for the barrel-breaking ceremony by Kirsty Anderson of the Global CCS Institute, clearly nobody in Japan had got the message that giving two Scots a big hammer each and standing them in front of a massive vat of alcohol was A Bad Idea.


It was then an early start on the 14th to jump on a JAL flight up to Hokkaido, for a couple of days’ fieldwork in Tomakomai. Tomakomai – and southern Hokkaido more widely – is one of the case studies for my Regional Studies Association project into just transitions for carbon-intensive coastal regions, so this was a brilliant opportunity to get some extra research done. We drove through the ice and slush to the CCS plant and injection site on the far side of Tomakomai port. When I was last here in 2014 all of this was under construction, so it was fascinating to see the whole thing complete. After 6 years’ research, 9 peer-reviewed papers, and 7 projects with a CCS component, I finally got to see a CO2 capture and injection site for real!


Meeting Akihiko Sasaki, the Vice-Mayor of Tomakomai City

The most important thing for me when coming to Tomakomai, though, is to talk to people and find out about the history, culture and context of the place around which CCS happens. In this regard I was fortunate to be able to speak with the head of the Tomakomai City Chamber of Commerce; the Business Location Promotion Division of Tomakomai City Government; and the Principal of Tomakomai Komazawa University. There was also a fantastic opportunity to meet with Sasaki-san, the Vice-Mayor of Tomakomai City, who had attended the symposium in Tokyo and was keen to hear more about my research and findings. And of course, in-between formal meetings there were ample opportunities to enjoy the wonderful seafood and hospitality of Tomakomai.


Professor Kazuhiro Kawashima, President of Tomakomai Komazawa University

Last activity was giving a lecture at a study group held jointly by the Engineering Advancement of Japan and the Japan CCS Company in Tokyo on Monday 18 December. I spoke about the potential applications of thinking around social licence to operate and social impact assessment to offshore CCS in Japan, and spoke at length – perhaps a little too much so (sorry!) – about the importance of using such tools carefully and reflexively as a means of incorporating societal concerns within decision-making processes. Also presenting were Prof Tomochika Tokunaga of University of Tokyo, who discussed regulatory, governance and ethical issues around long-term geological storage of radioactive waste and their potential applicability to CCS, and Dr Motoko Kosugi of Shizuoka University, who talked us through the theoretical social science state-of-the-art on risk communication and risk governance. What impressed me most about JCCS and ENAA was that in Prof Tokunaga and Dr Kosugi, they had invited two speakers from outside the CCS ‘epistemic community’ who were prepared to speak in a rigorous, critical and theoretically-grounded way about the governance of CCS. I’ve often felt this constructive critique from ‘outside the bubble’ has been lacking in many CCS-related events I’ve been at in the past, and its inclusion is something I’ve long called for in my own work – so it was encouraging and motivating to see it included here.

It’s been a busy week, and I need to thank both the Engineering Advancement Association of Japan and the Japan CCS Company for inviting me and looking after me so well over the course of the week. I’m also very grateful to my collaborator Dr Jun Kita of the Marine Ecology Research Institute, who was crucial to me being able to undertake the initial fieldwork in Tomakomai last year and who joined us in Hokkaido this time too, and to the Regional Studies Association who are supporting this phase of the Tomakomai research and its extension beyond CCS into just transitions. I was also delighted to have my wife Naoko with me this time – she provides so much support behind the scenes in terms of making sure all the translations are spot-on when I submit work for peer-reviewed publication, so I was happy to have a chance to show her my ‘field sites.’ Lastly, as always the biggest thanks of all goes to the people of Tomakomai City for their warmth and support towards not only my research, but also the CCS project as a whole. See you again in January!

Above image: why monitoring of CO2 storage and injection matters – delicious seafood of Tomakomai Bay

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