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Should Environmental Impact Assessments be called Environmental Impact Assessments?

Sweco authors: Dr Tanja Groth & Rebecca McLean


Environmental Impact Assessments. These have been around since the 1960s and are commonly known as those huge reports that nobody reads…..quite depressing. They inform the planning decision making process and all interested parties about what ‘impacts’ a development may have. The virtues of EIA are strong and when the principles of EIA are applied properly, the process can hugely influence and benefit projects, clients, design and outcomes. Some positive decisions may not be immediately apparent with regards to benefits but the value of these should not be underestimated and can provide significant benefits for future generations.

The problem is not with the concept of EIA’s – it is that the name now seems out of date. The name Environment is perhaps misleading and we believe focuses the mind on the traditional environment (flora, fauna, landscape, geology and sometimes people) but doesn’t reflect some other elements that are integral parts of any environment and therefore should be central in any assessment. Health, Wellbeing, Social Cohesion, Economic Health…these are all hugely influenced by the design of developments and projects but are not very well represented by the word Environment. Indeed, should the report not be named a Liveability Impact Assessment, one that determines how this project will influence how people/animals/flora live in this local area, identifying positive and negative elements and then this assessment can be used to try and improve projects. This could also look at Smart Cities and focus more on enhancement and the future than the assessment of hard and soft environmental features…the opportunities are endless.

Why does it matter? Over 55% of the global population now live in urban areas (4.2 billion in 2018), and they generate 80% of GDP and use 70% of the world’s energy. By 2050 more than 68% of the global population will be living in cities, with a lot of increased urbanization expected particularly in Asia and South America. In addition to accommodating an increase in population size, cities must also cut back on emissions, improve the health and wellbeing of their citizens, attract and retain businesses and be resilient to environmental and human threats. Within a UK context, cities are experiencing a more modest growth but struggling with significant budget costs and still needing to meet all the goals outlined above. Urban planners must consistently help cut costs and still deliver on the strategic objectives targeting energy security, fuel poverty, health and well-being and attract businesses and innovation.

Within this context, is the traditional EIA still fit-for-purpose? Urban planners are increasingly framing urban development within the context of Smart Cities, Future Cities, 15 Minute Cities, Liveable Cities, Sustainable Cities or Resilient Cities – all aimed at delivering a space where citizens can enjoy the highest possible quality of life coupled with the most efficient use of resources.

Naturally, there are any number of consultancy-developed tools available which can help support decision-making to deliver visions of flourishing, sustainable cities. Use of these tools usually means yet another set of requirements which must be met in order to receive planning permission. That’s not what we are proposing here. We want to stimulate a wider debate with Government, Cities and our Competitors to revisit how the existing EIA is set up and what can be done on a collaborative basis to redefine the core concept to ensure it addresses not just the traditional environment but also the key social factors that make e.g. access to green spaces or well-lit streets core to a comfortable, happy urban environment.

To join the debate or discuss Environmental Impact Assessments (while the industry still calls them that), contact Rebecca Mclean or Tanja Groth – who can also talk you through our new digital reporting tool, designed to streamline the process in a more efficient and sustainable way.