Ask the experts

1.How can we meet building control’s airtightness requirements?

We finished a self-build last year and we’re only now getting round to applying for a completion certificate. Building control requires a Q50 airtightness result between 5 and 7. Our test has come in at a much better 2.79 – which we’re told is too good! I’ve been informed that it’s not as simple as just inserting a couple of vents and that we may have to strip plasterboard from the walls and remove the seals from the joins between the walls and floor. In the house plans, the SAP calculations state a figure of 7 for the Q50. Unfortunately, due to disputes, we parted ways with the architect before the end of the project. Do you know of a less drastic way of getting the Q50 figure up to 5?  

I’ll confess that this sort of situation is new to me and I’ve had to ask my professional contacts for their take on it. It seems a real shame to have to take retrograde action when a house has been built to such impressive standards, but it points out the perils of working to high levels of airtightness without professional guidance. I’m wondering if parting with your designer at a crucial stage has led to this situation, because no architect I know would have sanctioned building to this standard without specifying a mechanical ventilation and heat recovery (MVHR) system to maintain the levels of fresh air required inside the home. As you have no doubt discovered, retrospectively installing MVHR is expensive and disruptive, which is why it needs to be considered during the early design stages. My building control friend Paul Kalbskopf has suggested discussing the possibility of installing stand-alone units with building control.

2.Can I move my neighbour’s electricity supply?

I recently bought a steading (with planning permission to convert it to a house) and I need to re-route my neighbour’s electricity supply, which currently runs over the top of the building. Previously, both our properties were under joint ownership, before being sold off. I contacted SSE and they quoted £7,500 to bury the cable. Do I have any legal ammunition in my favour that I can use to persuade my neighbour to bear some of the cost?

I am afraid that this enquiry is most suited to a lawyer, as you are questioning the right of your neighbour to have electric cables running above your property. My own view is that, if this was being proposed now, you would have every right to prevent your neighbour from negotiating an overhead supply across your land to service their dwelling. However, you have recently acquired the steading with the overhead line already in position. One would assume that consent must have been agreed as a result of both properties being in common ownership. I would suggest that you have no right of recovery for the cost of moving these services underground but you may be able to appeal to the good nature of your neighbour for a contribution. My own experience with utility companies is that their fees are generally negotiable and if you feel their quoted sum is too high, I would tackle the matter directly with them as it may lead to a reduction.

3.What’s the best way to appeal a planning refusal?

We’ve recently had our planning application denied. We disagree with the reasons the council gave and are hoping to appeal the decision. Has anyone had any experience with appeal companies? Is it best to go with a business that uses town planners or a law firm that specialises in this area?

It is advisable to seek professional advice with an appeal, as it is very much the option of last resort. Who is best to go to depends on the nature of the case, but generally planning lawyers come into their own where the issues are complex  and not ease like putting a baby in a double stroller for infant and toddler and there are legal matters to consider. For most appeals concerning new dwellings, or alterations to existing ones, consultants (who may be chartered town planners or planning and development surveyors) are the best choice … Read the rest of article

Ambitious Endeavour

Jessica and Ron Spelton are keen to self-build, but would also like to make some money from the exercise. One way to achieve this, perhaps, would be to buy a larger plot, subdivide it into two or three and then sell on the other segments, possibly having put in services to add value. It’s a great plan, but finding the right site is proving tricky. Could a small paddock owned by some of the couple’s friends, which forms a gap between houses, suit their purpose?

The plot

The land sits just outside a large village. It’s on the junction of two lanes, each with a scatter of detached homes fronting them. It’s flat and there are a few trees on the road boundaries. It’s otherwise free of any obvious impediment to building – except for a small electricity pylon right at the back of the plot and one on the road frontage.

The houses on each side don’t have any significant upper-floor windows overlooking the site. The neighbouring properties’ boundaries comprise a close board fence and an evergreen hedge, both providing a high degree of privacy for their gardens. The site is about 0.2 hectares (roughly half an acre) so would fit the bill for, say, three good sized plots of land.

Planning basics

The key question for Ron and Jessica is whether, as a matter of principle, they could get planning permission for houses on this land. It’s close to a village with a school, shops, pubs and a bus route.

However, it does form quite a prominent gap in the street scene that allows views through to the attractive countryside beyond. There has been quite a bit of new residential development nearby, but closer to the settlement centre and with better pedestrian links.

Here, the relatively narrow lanes have no pavement and they’re not lit – both factors that are sometimes considered significant by local authorities. Ron and Jessica’s investigations thusfar have revealed that the site is outside the village development boundary, set out in a rather ancient (12-years-old) Local Plan (LP). Also, the land is not in any specially- designated area, such as green belt or an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB). So, does the old LP policy still carry weight and, if so, are there any ways around it?

Planning details

Closer inspection of the LP situation reveals that the council is in the process of bringing out a new plan – albeit that process has only recently started, with a consultation draft currently available for public scrutiny. This document extends the old development boundary, but not quite as far as the plot, which remains in the countryside for policy purposes.

Ron and Jessica could ask their friends who own the plot to comment on the draft plan, and suggest that the development limits be extended to include their land so it could be used for self-build purposes. Meanwhile, a look at the council’s annual monitoring report reveals that it cannot currently show whether it has a five-year housing land supply.

This is not uncommon where old Local Plans are under review. The new strategy, when adopted, will plug the gap. In the meantime, government planning guidance dictates that current housing policies relating to the supply of new houses should be considered out of date, and so carry little weight.

This, in turn, means that new development that’s sustainably located (which means it’s accessible to facilities and public transport) can sometimes be permitted in locations where it would otherwise be ruled out. The Speltons have therefore picked a good time to look at this piece of land, as there’s potential of getting permission now, or of shifting the policy goal posts to make it possible to build in the future.

Planning conclusions

Sites like this are hard to gauge. There are plenty of examples of similar, relatively remote plots gaining permission, and other sites in similar locations being refused. Generally, it’s a very mixed bag and locally, the council’s approach appears inconsistent. One way to clarify the position would be for Ron and Jessica to get pre-application advice from the council.

They don’t need to own the site to do this, but the process would … Read the rest of article

Plumbing and Period Homes

Mains utilities supplies are relatively new in the grand scheme of things, and the majority of older houses were built without bathrooms, running water or plumbed-in waste. What’s more, warmth was provided via open fires rather than modern boilers and other tech. So any refurbishment is likely to involve making significant upgrades to the plumbing and heating installation.

As modern facilities (and homeowner expectations) developed during the 20th century, washing zones were fitted into spaces that had formerly been used as bedrooms or cupboards, or added via extensions – often rather inconveniently located on the ground floor. Today, upstairs bathrooms are the norm. Most of us are keen on additional showers, ensuite bathrooms and wetroom-style zones, too.

Ally that to the increased size and complexity of kitchens, not to mention near-universal central heating, and it’s easy to say why there’s been a dramatic increase in the amount of plumbing required in homes both new and old. Here’s what you need to consider when approaching this part of your project.

Protecting the building

When you’re dealing with plumbing issues or new work, you need to think about all the factors that could affect the house. Water leaks have the potential to cause significant damage to a period home and compromise the character that drew you to the property in the first place. For instance, it’s not a good idea to install a new bathroom directly above a space that features fine plaster ceilings or painted decoration.

Similarly, if you’re retrofitting a wet zone, it’s best to choose a room that doesn’t feature important original detailing (such as a fi replace, panelling or intricate plasterwork) unless you’re sure these can be kept undisturbed by the works. In particular, think about how you’re going to route all the associated pipework for a practical result that minimises physical and visual damage to the character of your house.

You may be aware that listed building consent (LBC) can be required for internal works on listed properties. You shouldn’t need specific permission if you’re simply replacing the fittings and/or refurbishing an existing kitchen or bathroom.

However, if you’re integrating a new bathroom, increasing the size of either of these rooms or carrying out any structural work, you will need LBC. Installation and renewal of pipework and the associated plant (tanks, pumps, boilers etc) is more of a grey area and will generally depend on the degree of disruption and impact on the building’s fabric. At any rate, you should always seek specific advice from your local authority’s conservation officer before proceeding.

Care must be taken when stripping out any old plumbing installations. Pipework should be drained to avoid pouring large quantities of water (which is likely to be filthy) over sensitive parts of the building. Physically removing any redundant material can cause damage to the fabric around it, so if it’s not visible it may be better to leave it in place.

Running pipework

Old buildings present major challenges when trying to find routes for services. There are often few natural or convenient conduits because such things did not need to be considered when the house was built. The main issue when it comes to the plumbing installations is fitting the supply and waste pipes – but it’s important to remember that a lot of modern plumbing equipment requires wiring as well.

In reality, a large project will probably involve electrical work anyway and it’s usually best if the two aspects proceed hand in hand. Renewing the pipework will usually involve completely removing the existing system and replacing it with new runs beneath the floorboards and within the walls. When it comes to the installation, you and your plumber should think about where the pipes will run and make sure they won’t damage important features or structural elements, such as plasterwork, beams or details in adjoining rooms.

You should also look to make new services easy to reach and removable, as plumbing and wiring have to be regularly maintained and periodically replaced. If you’re dealing with pipes that run under timber floors, take care when lifting the boards. Avoid cutting into beams or joists if possible; where this must be done, don’t notch the tops of … Read the rest of article

How To Get Value For Money: On Yourself Build

Understanding the reality of what it costs to build your own home is vital if you’re to enjoy a successful project. For a few lucky people, money is not much of an obstacle and they can indulge their every whim on spectacular design, top-quality materials and every technological innovation under the sun.

I don’t meet too many of them, though. Setting a budget and sticking to it is essential if you’re to achieve the house you want at a price you can afford. In truth, most aspiring self-builders I speak to have limited funds – and they’re likely to be asking a lot of the cash they do have. Sometimes too much, in fact. Here are a few of the steps you can take to keep your spending on track.

Build cost basics

The most common question I get asked in this game is “how much does it cost to self build a new house?” Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to answer with any accuracy.

Recently I’ve taken to replying with another question: “what does it cost to buy a new car?” The reason for this is that the variables are similar. You can buy a basic car for under £8,000 but it won’t be much to write home about. Similarly, you can build a small house using budget materials for under £1,000 per m 2 but you’re not likely to see Kevin McCloud knocking on the door any time soon.

It is a fact that if you want all the bells and whistles on either, it’s going to cost considerably more to buy or build. So you need to decide which parts of your project are essential and which elements are nice to have. The cost of constructing your new home will increase in proportion to the amount of risk that you are happy to pass on to others. For this reason, the cheapest route is to do as much of the work yourself as you possibly can.

But only 7% of projects are completed in the literal sense of self- build – largely because most of us don’t have the time or the skills to undertake things on a truly do-it-yourself basis. The next rung in terms of cost would be to manage the project yourself, hiring the individual trades and sourcing materials as required.

Employing a general builder to do the work and run things on your behalf would represent another step up. There are regional variations to account for too – the south-east of England is notoriously expensive, for instance. There are more stockbrokers than there are builders around this part of the country, a supply-and-demand issue that drives the prices up. The other key factor to consider is quality.

Using basic materials and fitting bog-standard kitchens and bathrooms will help to keep costs down, but the result won’t be very inspiring. Most self-builders are looking for something a bit better in terms of size and fit-out than what’s on offer from the mass-market developers – so they’re keen to upgrade materials and finishes. However, caution is needed, because falling in love with a particular piece of expensive designer hardware can add thousands to your budget and will subsequently require you to make compromises elsewhere to make up for the overspend.

The build cost table (below) was put together by my Build It colleague, architect Julian Owen. It’s based on experience rather than theory and I think it gives a good flavour of what to expect based on various levels of quality and size of home. The price scales are based on the idea of using a reputable general builder, and I currently use these rules of thumb myself at the early stages of a project when I’m estimating the likely costs.

There’s also a great resource online at www.self-build. and if you’re a little further ahead with your scheme, you might want to get a more detailed breakdown by using the Build It Estimating Service. Visit to find out more.

Simplicity rules

If you want to get maximum space for your money, then the most cost-effective option will be to build a square box with a low-pitched gabled roof. The big housebuilders churn … Read the rest of article

Insulating a new masonry home

Although there is a great deal of current debate about Building Regulations not changing fast enough to keep up with modern efficiency demands, the rules regarding external wall insulation are an exception. Gone are the days of simply picking an outer brick and an inner block and adding in some arbitrary cavity insulation; today, the process is a fine (and very calculated) art.

Cavity wall principles

Having two layers of brickwork with a space between them is known as cavity wall construction. This method was first introduced in the early 20th century as a way to provide better protection against penetrative damp and to help keep the inside of walls dry, so you can keep your funiture like your wooden shelf or best rated mattress dried without worrying them getting wet.

Dense concrete blocks started to be used for inner cavity layers after the Second World War, with lighter weight blocks (with air insulation) introduced in the 1960s and 1970s. A decade later and insulation started to be introduced into the cavities.

Today, thermal (air-concrete) blocks are made from pulverised fuel ash (PFA) and sand, plus a cementitious binder (lime/cement) and raising agent, which allows the mix to rise in its mould. They are lightweight and easy-to-handle, plus there’s minimal conductivity (which makes them relatively good insulators). Different thicknesses and strengths can be produced.

Increasing strength usually also ups the density, which reduces conductivity (so it’s less insulating, but offers better thermal mass). Good performance can be achieved with all these blocks; it’s about choosing the right overall wall makeup. Achieving the threshold U-value of 0.30 W/m 2 K is straightforward. Most big developers would do this with 300mm-thick walls, consisting of a 100mm external facing brick, a 100mm internal thermal block and a choice of insulations in the cavity gap.

This sits comfortably on a 600mm foundation (with 150mm safety margin on either side). In practice, you’ll want better U-values, which means you’ll need to increase the insulation thickness and/or opt for a more substantial internal block skin.

Alternatively, using a specialist insulation known as Cavity Therm will allow you to keep a 300mm wall thickness (more on this later). Blocks are bought from builder’s merchants and each retailer generally has their own favourite supplier. Shop around until you get the product you want from the trader that has the best supply arrangements – 100mm-thick lightweight blocks bought in a bulk order are likely to cost in the region of £15-£20 per m 2 .

Thin-joint systems

A neat way to improve performance is to go for thin-joint. The blocks used are basically the same (albeit larger). The main difference is that a thin layer of adhesive grout is used to bond the units together instead of the standard 10mm mortar bed.

Normally, the sand and cement mortar paste makes up roughly 7.5% of the wall; and as it’s a highly conductive material, it reduces thermal efficiency. By comparison, the thin joint option makes up closer to 1% of the wall face, meaning a more insulated and airtight system.

Porotherm blocks might suit any self-builders keen on a more natural product. Made from clay, the hollow core of these units mean they can be used as either inner or outer skins; alternatively, they can form a single, monolithic solid wall. While these unit’s credentials may be more ecological, Porotherm blocks are more conductive than concrete units (with a K-value of 0.29 W/m 2 K in comparison to 0.11 W/m 2 K).

Insulation options

The main choices are large rigid-foam PIR (polyisocyanurate) boards; EPS (expanded polystyrene) sheets; or mineral wool – the generic term for rolls or semi-rigid batts of fibreglass or rockwool.

EPS and mineral wool have similar K-values, whereas PIR is significantly better. Insulation can be added to the wall cavity in two ways. One option is to partially fill the gap, leaving at least 50mm clear.

The other is to fully fill the void; however, this isn’t recommended for very exposed locations (on the coast, for example) and any facing brickwork wouldn’t be allowed to have recessed mortar joints, which could affect your choice of external finish.

You can fully fill the cavity with a … Read the rest of article

Wrong side of the river ( part 2)

There’s also the pollution. “Every bit of dirt that we have to take off the site and throw away is expensive, because it’s contaminated with metals and other things,” says the environmental scientist Justin Reel of RK&K, who leads mitigation and hydrological planning for the project. “But for the low-level type of human interaction we’re proposing, with a fairly thin cover we can use it on the site effectively. If you don’t have frequent, regular, intended exposure, these contaminants aren’t super bad. Where we do anticipate frequent soil contact, like our upland islands, we are planning for a cover over top of any native soil.”

 A single strategy

But resolving the polluted soil problem will be complex. “It’s one thing to clean up an area for humans. But if you’re bringing burrowing animals in, or shellfish,” a more stringent standard might be required, says Marian Young, the president of the remediation consultancy BrightFields. Scarfone quips, “For the amount of remediation we need, all the earthworms in the world aren’t going to be able to do.” Normally, he says, “for projects like this, you cap it. But here, we want to re-create a functioning system.”

This spring, the future park was cleared of dense Phragmites. The resulting open, savanna-like vista gave a delightful hint of how it might eventually look—or feel, anyway, because it has yet to be sculpted and engineered.

Added water storage capacity and created habitats that can resist recruitment of invasives like Phragmites will both be achieved with a single strategy, lowering the site to alter the hydrology and establish “a different water regime than we have right now, which is very irregular and storm driven,” Reel says.

When there is a flush of stormwater from the residential neighborhood, it will collect in a forebay, to let sediment settle, and then will cross the site through a winding network of channels and ponds. These eventually converge on a short, straight connection from the park to the river that is partly open ditch and partly pipe.

At the river, the flow, as it is currently, will be controlled by a self-regulating tidegate. An open flow to the Christina and its tides was considered. That would promote the wetland’s naturalization and its connection to fisheries. But properties surrounding and contiguous to the park are low-lying.

The park “could be potentially completely full of tidal inundation,” Reel says, “and flood all our neighbors around the edges of the site.” But the tide gate creates other problems. Young explains that when stormwater is filling the park while simultaneously “the river is high, the gate will be closed and make a big lake. You have to have the stormwater holding, but the plants can only stand it for a certain amount of hours.”

Meanwhile, enticing fish to travel in from the river through the pipe, to populate the new habitat, is also a problem, but maybe illumination inside the pipe will attract them. The ditch and pipe connection, however, doesn’t even belong to the city. “Where it outfalls back into the wetland is probably the most contaminated part of the project,”—a PCB dump, Scarfone called it. “It’s a point source. Every time water flushes over here and back into the river, it picks up some of that.”

Remediation is obligatory, “which requires destabilizing some of these edges, and they’re owned by other people.” There’s a gas station on one side and a property development company’s offices on the other. “It’s one challenge after the other that fascinates you and makes a project super exciting.”

Reel says, “I’m normally engaged in wetland habitat creation and restoration as a compensatory project for some permit. In those situations, we try to find the nicest, most natural site we can get our hands on. I don’t normally do it in the middle of an urban situation, right next to a neighborhood, or incorporate urban stormwater into the site.”

The economic reverberations of new parks are well documented. “When government spends in an area, it sends a message,” says Jeffrey Flynn, Wilmington’s director of economic development. “We’re hoping this $40 million investment drives private in vestment” in housing and new commercial activity—specifically “space that is not … Read the rest of article

Wrong side of the river ( part 1)

The Christina River is a tributary of the mighty Delaware estuary, close enough to the ocean that it is tidal. It meanders through Wilmington like a wobbly M. Most of the city sits on the north shore. As long as anybody can remember, the lowerlying south side has experienced periodic inundation; 90 percent of it is within the 100-year floodplain. The first European settlers, being Dutch, were undaunted.

They built dikes and ditches there, and grew salt hay for fodder. Iron mills, coal yards, tanneries, and other nastiness arrived on the south shore throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, mostly located along the river’s edge. Mean-while, in the marshy center of the M, according to an 1893 newspaper item, there were eight or 10 “flower farms,” the largest named Rushland Gardens.

A street grid was platted for this whole river-bound southern piece of Wilmington, but only a sliver of it, a neighborhood called Southbridge, was ever developed. In 1900, when the city’s total population was nearly 77,000, about 3,000 people lived south of the Christina.

Many were recent immigrants, and some were African Americans with deep local roots; the first independent black Christian church in the United States, the Union Church of Africans, had been founded there by a former slave in 1813.

Today, industry in South Wilmington appears to consist largely of auto junkyards and storage lots for disused trailers and shipping containers.

Recently there’s been some growth—a shopping center with a supermarket, and a waterfront town house and apartment-tower complex built along the northwestern edge, facing over the Christina to downtown and the city’s thriving Riverfront redevelopment district.

Half a mile east, though, across the wetland, Southbridge feels like an isolated village. Its population has dwindled to about 1,500, nearly all of whom are African American. But it’s a place with a certain integrity. Many families have lived there for generations.

Nearly half the homes are owner occupied. There is an active and effective neighborhood association. Still, it floods. Now there is a plan to transform the marshy center into South Wilmington Wetlands Park. It’s not exactly a new proposal. A 2006 neighborhood plan offered a description that still applies: “Create a Central Park located to the immediate west of Southbridge.

Use this park as the lungs of the neighborhood. Its wetlands should be cleaned up and improved for flood retention.” But flooding is not the neighborhood’s only challenge. Southbridge is more or less surrounded by brownfields left over from those 19th and early 20th century heavy industries.

Near by jobs are few. It’s a food desert, with public health issues typical of underserved urban communities with an industrial past. The park vision has been enhanced since 2006, with a plan for added street connectivity around the wetland, and with realizations that a cross park trail will link the neighborhood directly to the shopping center and groceries.

The park could be an engine of investment, not only for Southbridge, but also for all the nearby underused properties. That could mean infill for new residents and businesses, and new jobs. Another added dimension: The concept of how to handle the wetland itself has been taken far beyond the basics of cleanup and water retention. The source of the flooding, aside from low elevation and inexorably rising tides, is an overwhelmed combined sewer system.

Unresolved, this situation alone could render South-bridge unlivable. Clarence White has owned a body shop and used car business in Southbridge for some 55 years. Recalling a recent daylong, heavy rainstorm, he said, “That last flood, it came up my steps.

When the wind is blowing it looks like a river in the street, with whitecaps. It used to be just rain and river water, but now, some of these houses, they say their basements fill up with sewage.” People describe sewage bubbling up through manholes. Third-generation resident Marilyn Dryden remembers her father, who was born in 1922, describing the floods of his childhood.

She suggests that the city’s occasional efforts to clear storm drains or do other infrastructure work seemed to shift the inundation from one part of the neighborhood to another, adding further unpredictability. “You may think … Read the rest of article

New Protocols Will Ensure The Genetic Diversity Of Threatened Trees

In what may be one of the largest tree conservation efforts in recent history, a team of environmental scientists from nine botanic gardens, arboretums, and environmental conservation agencies, as well as international collaborators in the Dominican Republic and Belize, is working to preserve and increase the genetic diversity of the country’s living tree collections. Launched in October 2016, the ambitious, three-year project is a form of insurance for endangered species.

Maintain the genetic diversity

“Zoos often have to exchange animals to maintain good genetic diversity across the population. Gardens are just starting to realize they have to manage plant collections in the same way,” says Patrick Griffith, the executive director of the Montgomery Botanical Center in Coral Gables, Florida, who is leading the effort. “We want to know what is the right number of plants to grow in botanic gardens if you want to maintain the genetic diversity of these plant populations.

With support from a $439,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, researchers are collecting and analyzing DNA samples of endangered or threatened woody plants across a broad phylogenetic spectrum, including oaks, magnolias, palms, cycads, and Hawaiian alula (Brighamia insignis).

From Puerto Rican forests where magnolias are routinely poached to eroding Hawaiian cliffsides only accessible by helicopter, a total of 1,600  specimens will be collected in the wild, says Sean Hoban, a conservation biologist at the Morton Arboretum outside Chicago, who is involved in the study. These will be compared with samples from curated living collections to determine the number of species that botanic gardens need to maintain, individually and collectively, to capture the full range of a species’s diversity.

Many of the trees being studied, such as the buccaneer palm, are attractive, charismatic species whose ornamental value has contributed to their threatened or endangered status, Griffith says. “Many of these wild plants were dug up and used in landscaping throughout the Caribbean.

When you pull these plants out of the wild and grow them in isolated locations, you don’t contribute to reproductive populations,” he says. Even popular house plants such as the alula can have high conservation value because they are so genetically similar, often grown through trade cuttings and clones, says Murphy Westwood, the director of Global Tree Conservation and a scientist at the Morton Arboretum, who is involved in the project. That’s one of the reasons this research is so vital for tree conservation.

An online portal

Current living collection protocols, lacking scientific rigor, capture only about 40 percent of the genetic diversity found in each species, leaving these populations vulnerable to threats such as climate change, drought, and insect predation.

Westwood says she is particularly excited about plans to develop an online portal, similar to those used by zoos, through which reproductive and geo graphic data about seeds, leaf cuttings, and pollen exchanged among gardens can be carefully tracked. These plant specimens then can be shared among botanic gardens and grown in captive breeding programs before being reintroduced into the wild. “We need to prioritize plants that aren’t backed up and know where there are genetic gaps,” Westwood says, “to inform collecting in the future.”… Read the rest of article

In Britain, Anglo-saxon Place-names Hold Hydrological Clues

One of the joys of travel, even of armchair travel, is the discovery of euphonious place-names. I’ve driven through both Humptulips, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and Quonochontaug, in Rhode Island, and in both cases, these names, which I find flow off the tongue, flow in another way, too. Each describes the place’s hydrological characteristics.

Humptulips, in the tongue of the Chehalis Tribe, tells that it is “hard to pole” a canoe through the river, which follows a convoluted course that includes fast, narrow torrents. Quonochontaug (Narragansett for “at the long pond”) is along a string of broad, placid coastal lagoons.

The guide that indigenous names can provide to landscape qualities and to human interactions with landscape may be followed any-where such names have not been erased by the conquest of colonialism. This is no less true in Britain, where four universities—Leicester, Southampton, Nottingham, and Wales—have joined forces under a grant from the Leverhulme Trust for a two-year study of place-names called “Flood and Flow.”

In Britain, an extra dimension to the record of place-names provides a set of clues to how particular land-scapes might respond to global warming in the near future. In the period between 700 and 1000 AD, temperatures in the British Isles rose rapidly after a cold phase that began in 400 AD.

Modern map holds a hydrographic key

Extreme weather and an abundance of precipitation in this time is a historic parallel to our present-day situation, and thus the Anglo-Saxon names have once again become meaningfully descriptive of their sites. Not only is this helpful, but a great many of Britain’s present place-names were devised in precisely this period. Though few written records remain from this time, even a modern map holds a hydrographic key to possible futures that have been written in the past.

Some of these names have particular poignancy. Muchelney, in the Somerset Levels, was cut off during the extreme winter floods in 2013–2014. Muchelney means “big island.” Communities along the River Swale in Yorkshire have increasingly frequent opportunities to find out that its name derives from Old English swalwe, meaning “gush of water.” The River Trent, meanwhile, is “the trespasser.” Richard Jones at the University of Leicester is the principal investigator for “Flood and Flow” and a specialist in medieval landscapes.

He published the paper “Responding to Modern Flooding: Old English Place-Names as a Repository of Traditional Ecological Knowledge” in the Journal of Ecological Anthropology in 2016.

He says the project’s aims fit within a larger understanding of indigenous naming. “Place-names are used by all indigenous, aboriginal, and First Nations peoples to communicate information about the local presence, behavior, and characteristics of water,” he says. “For these communities, such names helped them to share and pass on the traditional ecological knowledge gained through generations of observation of the flood and flow of water through their home grounds. As such, such names act as active makers of place rather than the passive markers of space they have become in the modern western mind.”… Read the rest of article

Minneapolis Pilots A More Equitable Way To Fund Park Improvements

With its chain of lakes and acres of open space, Minneapolis has a nationally lauded park system. But as of 2015, its smaller neighborhood parks faced a capital investment backlog of more than $100 million, a shortfall that translated to aging structures, walkways full of potholes, and soccer fields that had been ground into mud.

Vina Kay, the executive director of the Minnesota-based advocacy organization Voices for Racial Justice, says one can see an ugly pattern in which parks are in the worst shape. “If you were to go on a visual tour, you would see that some parks are more run-down than others and that those parks are most often in low-income communities of color,” Kay says.  In response, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board recently developed what its members hope is a more equitable system of park priorities.

Residents feel comfortable

Last year, a team of landscape architects, planners, and data analysts, among others, spent months wading through census numbers and neighborhood-scale maps to get a detailed view of where better parks were most needed.

They crafted a funding formula based on a scoring system that weighs a number of factors, including safety and life span of equipment, neighborhood crime rates—an indicator of whether residents feel comfortable even going to their local park—and demographics, particularly whether a park is located in a racially concentrated area of poverty.

Adam Regn Arvidson, FASLA, the park board’s director of strategic planning, participated in the working group. He says the demographic criteria were driven by outreach and codified by a city ordinance agreeing to boost neighborhood park funding by $11 million annually over 20 years. “The one thing we heard from the community loud and clear was that almost everyone would support additional funding, but they wanted to make sure that the funding we got didn’t continue to perpetuate racial and economic disparities,” he says.

The group determined that neighborhoods where 40 percent or more of the population had a family income of less than 185 percent of the federal poverty threshold—and where 50 percent or more of residents were people of color—would receive the highest score in that category, thus bumping up their funding priority.

Many of the top numbers in that category appeared in North and South Minneapolis, where local government had historically clustered public housing and built freeways that slashed property values. Including the demographic criteria in the formula was intuitive, but a park management analyst, Linden Weiswerda, also part of the working group, says that other metrics required more critical thinking, such as crime rates. “We decided not to use total crime because we were really interested in perceived risk,” he says.

High-profile crimes against people

He explains that high-profile crimes against people, such as assault, are more likely than, say, auto theft to influence “whether you believe it’s safe for your kids to ride their bike around.” The formula calls for neighborhoods with more than 10 crimes “against persons” per 1,000 residents to receive the highest score. For Kay, of Voices for Racial Justice, the metric’s creation is a hopeful start.

But she cautions against relying solely on a “clear-cut, analytical, almost mathematical system” for addressing something as complex as structural racism. Trust for the park board has worn thin among Minneapolis’s communities of color over the years. This spring, the local NAACP called for a boycott of all board meetings and park activities because of what its members see as discrimination in the organization’s hiring structure.

“I have sat at tables with park board staff who have really come a long way in their commitment to racial equity…and they’ve put themselves in vulnerable positions to do that,” Kay says. “At the same time, in a system that’s Adam Regn Arvidson, it’s not fast enough.”… Read the rest of article