Managing Environmental Change at the Fringe: Reconnecting Science and Policy with the Rural-Urban Fringe

This is a project funded in 2011-12 by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of the RELU initiative (Rural Economy and Land Use Programme: Award number RES-24-25-0016). For more information contact the Project Director, Alister Scott, or visit our Twitter feed.

The spaces where countryside meets town are often among society's most valued places, yet arguably lack sufficient understanding and integrated management within the UK.


Alister Scott has presented a case study on integration within research project teams, using the experience of this RELU project on avoiding preconceptions about stakeholder roles, as part of an LWEC (Living with environmental change) Knowledge Exchange meeting.

What are we doing?
  • This interdisciplinary project undertook research to inform future policy and practice across the UK addressing management issues concerning environmental change within the rural-urban fringe.
  • Initially, social and natural science concepts of spatial planning and ecosystem services have been explored to create a theoretical lens to identify and evaluate management issues and needs. From these, strategic principles are proposed and applied within two rural-urban fringe case study areas and incorporating local stakeholders' perspectives. A project monitoring evaluation component also assesses research team learning and impact on resulting work practices.
  • Collectively, these outputs will promote an integrated and spatial model for rural-urban fringe management, and signpost further research addressing the environmental change agenda.
How did we do it?
  • A unified team of academics, practitioners and professionals committed to sustainable management and planning across both urban and rural and social and natural science boundaries has worked together to harness their collective experience and knowledge to create a better model within which strategic planning for the rural-urban fringe might flourish.
  • Our approach allows academic and policy specialists to work collectively throughout the research process, crossing traditional rural/urban and natural/social science boundaries, to share knowledge and experience incorporating the latest theoretical and policy contributions from spatial planning and ecology as they relate to environmental change.
  • All results will be disseminated through reports, papers, real/virtual conferences, the project website and podcasts. The project's final report is available on the Publications page; and a major 30,000-word paper has been accepted for publication in Progress in Planning for 2013.

Report summary and findings

The rural-urban fringe (RUF), the space where countryside meets town, is amongst society's most valued and pressured places. However, in policy and decision-making it remains largely forgotten, lacking sufficient understanding and evidence for integrated management.

This research re-discovers the RUF set within more positive, inclusive and proactive agendas for management. Here, the focus was on assessing the implications of policy and decision-making processes and outcomes for the sustainability of the RUF. Our assessment tool was a framework uniquely fusing ideas within the Ecosystem Approach (EA) and Spatial Planning (SP) to provide an improved lens within which to view the RUF.

A research team was established involving academics, policy advisors and practitioners working collectively across professional, disciplinary, scalar and sectoral boundaries. Three cross-cutting themes emerged from the fusion of SP and EA ideas; Connections, Time and Values. These concepts were unpacked within eight themed workshops and two RUF site-based visioning exercises which formed the primary data for the project.

Key Findings

Re-discovering the RUF

  • The RUF needs to be re-positioned as an opportunity space based on assessments of the needs of the people, place and environment within the RUF itself.
  • The rural aspects of the fringe need to be considered more explicitly in policy and decisions rather than imposing urban expansion models.

Reconnecting the urban and rural divide

  • Agendas, policy frameworks and goals tend to be pursued separately across the urban and rural institutions creating a marked policy and practice ‘disintegration’.
  • The ideas of SP and the EA are jargon-heavy. Our cross-cutting themes of Connections, Time and Values allow professional sectors and publics to engage, interact and participate more effectively within more inclusive and understandable concepts and language.

Improving connections by crossing boundaries

  • The RUF is an ‘edge’ space crossing many boundaries with a complex pattern of explicit and hidden connections. This requires unpacking within and across RUF spaces. Working across multiple scales (national, landscape, local and neighbourhood), sectors (e.g. landscape, nature conservation, economic development) and actors (e.g. planners, developers, environmentalists, communities) is key, yet demands significant changes in work practices and tools to deliver more joined-up responses.

Adapting for the long term

  • Policymakers often fail to learn from the past when planning for the future. Here, the lack of adequate resources to capture institutional and human capital is significant. For example, research undertaken on the RUF for the Countryside Agency (2000-2006) was only available through personal copies of a project officer.
  • The RUF is a transitory space, defined within short-term thinking but requiring more long term policy and investment opportunities. However, learning from new and experimental approaches is key when planning for uncertainty with partial evidence.

Managing contested values

  • The RUF is valued differently by different people and those values need to be unpacked using monetary and non-monetary approaches. There is a danger that, in decision making we only value what can be easily measured, as opposed to measuring what people really value.