This post is copied over from a new collaborative blog which will be launched soon – stay tuned for more details…
I’m just back from Taipei, where Dr Wan-Yu Shih and I were continuing to develop our collaboration. It was during this trip that I had the idea to set up a new blog to catalogue our collaborative activity, so it is perhaps quite fitting that this is the first post.
We may study urban heat together, but June’s exertions taught me this is a phenomenon I (as a northern Scotsman) am still learning to handle first-hand. I was therefore delighted to find much more agreeable temperatures during this visit to Taiwan’s capital. With the temperature in Aberdeen being minus 4 degrees when I left home, though, I did struggle a bit with the twenty degrees-plus temperatures awaiting me in the sub-tropics.
Our main mission during this stay was to present the latest results of our work at GSDI 15, the international Global Spatial Data Infrastructure conference which this year was held in Taipei. Wan-Yu and I have been working on a pilot study to integrate environmental- and social-science data to assess heat risk across Taipei Metropolis. For my part, this has involved engaging with census data collected for Taipei City to assess drivers of vulnerability to urban heat. We have then been working together to understand how to integrate this with the remote sensing and physical exposure assessments, and – perhaps more importantly – unpacking what all of this means for urban planning and social policy in Taipei.
As a social scientist from a qualitative background, I have to admit I have come to spatial analysis with a healthy scepticism about numbers and visualisations of vulnerability. I am particularly concerned about whether assessing risk across space in this way deflects our attention away from the underlying social and political processes which make some communities more vulnerable to hazards in the first place. I am even more concerned still about whether visualising and mapping vulnerability in this way puts citizens at risk of further marginalisation or stigmatisation. It was therefore a relief to find a good number of presentations at GSDI from a social science and ethics perspective, addressing exactly these questions. With this being a relatively new area for me, I tried my best to attend as many sessions as I could, learning how other researchers assess urban heat and how different people try to integrate the less tangible or quantifiable societal dimensions of climate risk into their work. Plus, there were some downright interesting talks on topics as broad as how the Taiwanese bullet train system uses GIS, and how the Taiwan Roadkill Observation Network operates.
Our second mission for my time in Taipei was to continue our engagement with practitioners and policymakers. In this regard there was a big and slightly terrifying surprise. Wan-Yu had been invited to participate in a greenspace forum held by the Parks and Street Lights Office of Taipei City Government, and was able to arrange for me to attend as well. The forum was held in a light and airy building in the city centre, decked out with big maps and models of greenspace in Taipei. Present were a number of key academics involved in greenspace and planning in the city, as well as NGOs and civil society representatives. The format was very familiar to me from my collaboration on coastal issues with Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology – big sheets of paper, marker pens and post-it notes. An excellent and well-proven way to synthesise a range of viewpoints and draw out key planning (and indeed research) needs.
The first of the afternoon’s three sessions dealt with flooding, and consisted of a presentation followed by panel discussion. I should at this juncture point out that the entire event was conducted in Chinese. This was fine during the presentations was I was at least able to read the slides due to my Japanese ability, but the discussions were a bit more difficult to keep up with. After the break, the second session dealing with urban heat followed the same lecture-discussion format, including Wan-Yu as a key panelist talking about her recent work. It was some time around this point that I was informed that I would be one of the discussants for the third session, on societal concerns. Now being a discussant is a little challenging if one does not understand the full content of what one is supposed to be commenting on, but with Wan-Yu interpreting for me and some recent work I’d undertaken in Taipei to draw on, we managed fine. For my part, I drew participants attention to the importance of understanding carefully where vulnerable populations are located (and how to reduce vulnerability) before intervening in the built environment; the importance of involving citizens themselves in greenspace planning; and the need to wrap up technical or planning interventions within a broader programme of social policy and welfare measures designed to reduce inequality and unequal exposure to climate risk in the first instance.
Apart from the formal activities, we managed a lot of writing and even more discussion about what we are going to do next. And of course, all of this was powered by Taipei’s delicious coffee (I think we managed a different coffee shop every day) and Taiwan’s equally delicious cuisine. When I go somewhere to do research I very rarely switch off, so in the cooler temperatures I very much enjoyed wandering around and taking in some of Taipei’s greenery and greenspaces for myself. Plus, through excellent coincidence I was able to catch up with Yi-Chen Huang, a former MSc student of mine who did some terrific work on environmental values conflict in the Meiliwan area of eastern Taiwan.
This trip was possible thanks to a generous grant I received from the Robert Gordon University Foundation, and I am extremely grateful to my university’s alumni and benefactors for their support. Now it’s my turn to make sure I repay the university by passing the experience onto my students (through teaching materials and case studies) and the wider academic community (through publications and funding).
It’s certainly been a busy first year of collaboration. We are just about done with 2016, but is 2016 done with us?