Painting the Town Green: The temporal evolution of low-carbon practices in UK eco-developments

Lead Research Organisation: UNIVERSITY OF EXETER
Department Name: Geography


Research concerned with decarbonising the UK energy system has traditionally been focused on the innovation and diffusing of low carbon and energy efficient technologies, with far more limited attention given to how people actually live with, adapt to or re-purpose new systems and devices. As such, social science engagement with energy, and specifically heat, transitions has failed to adequately account for how technologies are critically shaped by (and in turn shape) everyday routines, social practices and social interactions, and the institutional arrangements through which they are diffused.

The production and supply of heat is a key element in the UK transition to a low carbon energy system (Rudd, 2015). This project takes the case of off-grid district heating to explore how low-carbon heating systems, and associated physical and institutional transformations, impact on the ways domestic energy users conceptualise and engage with heating infrastructures, and with what consequences for energy demand.

The case study will be Exeter's Cranbrook residential development. East Devon District Council, Devon County Council, the South West of England Regional Development Agency, and the Homes and Communities Agency worked with a major utility (E.ON) to facilitate the establishment of a CHP district heating system for Cranbrook. The district heating scheme has been operational since October 2012. The plans for Cranbrook are to develop up to 6,000 dwellings over a 15 year period. Some 700 homes have been built, with around 500 currently occupied.

Drawing on three, mixed-method, phases of data collection: i) key stakeholder interviews ii) community survey (n = 500) iii) repeat householder interviews (20 households) the project will:

i) explore routine domestic interactions with a low carbon heating system

ii) explore how the socio-technical features of a low carbon district heating system (e.g. infrastructure components, market arrangements) impinge on everyday social practices, values and relationships, and what this means for (changing) patterns of energy consumption

iii) draw theoretical conclusions for the social, technological and institutional configuration of low carbon energy transitions


10 25 50

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/N509656/1 30/09/2016 29/09/2021
1772099 Studentship EP/N509656/1 30/09/2016 14/05/2021 Jane May Morrison
Description So far, although I am still conducting my research and have not concluded this project, I'm developing a valuable energy case-study of a unique UK eco-town (Cranbrook). Cranbrook was originally intended to feature a unique set of low-carbon features, such as it's EON District Heating System, greener transport alternatives (i.e. two train stations), walkable local businesses, zero-carbon housing, reduced parking to encourage bicycle use, extra green spaces and wildlife corridors, solar PV on the comunity centre roof, and other features. However, Cranbrook is evolving even as it's being built. Government policies have changed during the building process, public opinion has seemed to shift, and builders/developers' willingness to fund low-carbon features has fluctuated. These are still changing, even now, as the latter stages of the town are being built. The net result is that Cranbrook has far fewer eco features than originally planned. My detailed case study is finding the exact reasons why this has happened, and thus how this might be prevented in future. An additional aspect I'm finding out alongside this is how well certain eco features do or don't work - for example, what's public opinion on limiting parking spaces? Would UK citizens favour eco home designs like Passivhouses IF they'd had the choice, as originally planned at Cranbrook? Are citizens willing to shop locally, IF the town is designed to make this easier (again, as originally planned n Cranbrook)? I use a Practice Theory framework to examine the Cranbrook situation, which means I look at the bigger long-term picture of citizens' everday eco practices, instead of focusing too much in isolation on 'blaming' individual citizens for not changing their personal behaviours to make eco choices. Basically, my research supports the idea that true low-carbon changes come through the landscape, government, society and culture shaping new everyday habits for everyone, NOT through individualistically persuading citizens one-at-a-time to change their behaviour in isolation.
Exploitation Route I hope that there are policy implications from what I'm finding. These could be useful in designing new laws and policies around green energy, low-carbon housing and transport, and social policies that affect everyday habits (e.g. shopping, driving, doing laundry).

Other academics in the social sciences using Practice Theory frameworks might also find the research useful. There's high interest in studying everyday 'green' practices in this area, with a view to finding the best ways to encourage the general public to take up good eco habits and help the environment. Adding to the literature helps grow the body of research about the best ways to change public practices.

Nobody has ever done a case study of Cranbrook before, so it's unique in the literature, and there are very very few UK 'eco towns', especially ones designed from scratch like Cranbrook. Studies of it could serve as guidance for future eco building projects (which will hopefully be virtually ALL new building projects, given that the UK must meet international decarbonization targets in line with the Paris Climate Accord for 2050).
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Energy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description My research has not yet been completed and my thesis is not fully written yet (I still have a year of my award to go) but in future I believe that developers, architects and urban planners looking at low-carbon planning might find the results useful too. It is valuable to know more about the public reception of low-carbon design features - whether e.g. a Passivehouse building design will be well-recieved by the general public or whether there will complaints and dislike of it.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Construction,Energy
Impact Types Policy & public services