February 2005


Project funders: This research was funded by the Environment Agency. Introduction

This report contains an assessment of perceptions of sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) and river management approaches as held by the public and by staff working within relevant stakeholder organisations. It provides information on public understanding and acceptability of the systems, the influence of SUDS on property values and the effectiveness of educational activities in influencing public opinions. It also identifies links between environmental theory, environmental ethics and sustainability, using SUDS as an example, and explores and defines the meaning of the terms ‘amenity’ in relation to SUDS.

Background to research

Stormwater management is becoming increasingly important in urban areas due to the apparent higher frequency of flooding incidences and the increased need for runoff collection and treatment to mitigate against diffuse pollution impacts. Watercourse management, in combination with Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS) can provide appropriate solutions for heavily urbanised areas. Unfortunately, the social impacts of stormwater management technologies, although of major importance, have often been ignored. Unless the needs of affected local parties are taken into account, national policy objectives to develop sustainable communities and achieve social and environmental justice are unlikely to be met. The public perception of construction is becoming a matter of increasing importance both in the UK and internationally since socio-economic parameters are expected to be taken into consideration in the planning and application of all relevant projects. This research programme aims to match the relevant legislative goals with society’s actual needs.

Many local authorities and other stakeholders recognise the importance of public involvement in planning, which should, in theory, provide several practical advantages. First, where the public are properly informed, opportunities for misconceptions should be minimised, with the effect that unfounded negativity within communities should be avoided. Second, where communities become involved in planning, this should foster shared responsibility between the relevant authorities and the public. Finally, by engaging with the planning process, members of the public can demonstrate their contribution to society and can play an active role in decision-making. When the voice of the local community is heard and respected, this engenders the very real sense that it can contribute to the success of a programme.

Aim and objectives of research

The overall aim of this three-year research project was to assess public attitudes towards the application of stormwater management techniques. The cases examined related to stormwater management techniques applied within residential areas, and in particular to the application of SUDS, mainly ponds, and river management schemes. Perceptions of SUDS in the UK (principally ponds) were investigated at a wide range of locations. In addition, the research investigated different river management techniques and approaches adopted by relevant authorities in three heavily urbanised European cities, Glasgow, London, and Athens.

Key findings and recommendations

The report shows the importance of public awareness and participation in planning when new methods and techniques are to be implemented within urban areas. Recommendations are made with respect to public and professional attitudes to improve the public acceptability of new and modified stormwater management systems. The research shows that members of the public hold strong views as to what they like or dislike about SUDS and water management installations that have been constructed in their local area. This was found not to be dependent on familiarity with the techniques in question, and was often true in cases where low levels of public awareness of SUDS and requirements to treat stormwater were demonstrable.

The amenity, recreational value and aesthetics of new schemes seem to be of major importance in determining public acceptability, while function, efficiency, and maintenance are primarily important in areas facing flooding problems. Other key findings are that there is a general preference for sustainable urban water management and for river restoration schemes compared with more conventional, ‘hard engineering’ approaches, such as culverting of rivers. This preference was expressed both by members of the public and by professionals involved in planning and implementation.

Recommendations for uptake

The results of this research are likely to be of use to staff based in local authorities (particularly planners), environment agencies and water utilities, and to other researchers. The outcomes will also be of relevance to developers and consultancies active in urban construction. The methods utilised within this project can be seen as a way of understanding perceptions relating to stormwater management, and the results help to highlight the types of construction that should be more readily accepted by the public.

The research also shows that the provision of information about stormwater management in appropriate formats can influence attitudes even on sensitive issues such as safety - an approach that relevant authorities can use to enhance the acceptability of new schemes. Consequently, these results can be used in support of arguments for the need to publicise and inform the public about environmental policies and practices (such as proposed stormwater management schemes) prior to implementation, particularly where the public may currently possess low levels of awareness.

Key words: stormwater management, SUDS, river management, public perception, public involvement, urban planning, community engagement, community planning, green space, open space.

Copies of this report are available from the Foundation, in electronic format on CDRom at 20.00 + VAT or hard copy at 25.00, less 20% to FWR members.

N.B. The report is available for download from the SNIFFER Website