Meet the IPM: Interview with Dr Paul O'Hare

Meet the IPM: Interview with Dr Paul O’Hare

Paul O HareDr Paul O’Hare, a Fellow of the Institute of Place Management, is a Lecturer in Geography and Development at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has conducted research on the theme of resilience for almost ten years across a number of funded research projects. This has included work to develop the use of adaptive technologies for flood risk management, and efforts to use urban design to secure crowded public spaces from terrorist attacks.

He recently completed a UK Government (Defra) funded project that examined the development of surveying for property level protection from flooding (Surveying for Flood Resilience in Individual Properties). His current research examines: the contribution that civil society and citizens can make to risk management; insurance, flood vulnerability and maladaptation; and contested expertise in risk governance. From a practical perspective, he currently works with flood-affected localities to identify ways to help communities become more resilient to future flooding.

In the past he has launched guidance documents for citizens and stakeholders hoping to utilise property level protection (www.smartfloodprotection.com ), and has advised local and national government on the complexities of contemporary risk management. He is a member of several professional/ academic networks and regularly contributes to research and seminars uniting academics, practitioners, policy makers and NGOs.


Paul O’Hare, you currently focus your research on issues of resilience, risk and adaptation. Can you tell us more about it?

Paul O’Hare: Resilience is a term that permeates a whole range of contemporary policy and practice. But as a concept it is often poorly understood, or even misused. My current research looks at how strategies to secure resilience plays out in practice. I am interested in how statutory agencies, communities and individuals have divergent interpretations of resilience, and what this means for flood risk management in particular. I have been doing work in flooded communities across the country, not least in Manchester which witnessed severe flooding in December 2015.


You recently formed part of the consortium that advised the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, UK (Defra) on the development of a cohort of surveyors to advise property owners on the use of resilience technologies. What is the challenge that property owners face and what exactly is property level resilience?

Paul O’Hare: Property level resilience refers to adaptive materials and technologies that can be used either to keep water out of a property (dry-proofing) or that can allow a property to flood in a more controlled manner or with limited damage (wet-proofing).

The Defra project was an attempt to identify how surveyors would be able to advise property owners on their flood risk, how they might reduce that risk, and then provide independent advice on product installation and project management.

Although such interventions can help communities and businesses limit the effects of flooding, or avoid being flooded altogether, there are many reasons why people do not integrate them into their properties. In some instances people simply are either unable to afford adaptations, or perhaps do not fully realise the benefits they may bring. Others report that they find the adaptations are too far removed to what they are used to, or what they consider ‘homely’. Some are resistant to the notion that flooding should be managed at the property scale, preferring traditional ‘heavy-engineered’ flood defences. Others still live in hope that their flood was a one-off and that it will not return in their lifetimes.

Even in instances where people do wish to install resilience measures, they face a bewildering array of choice and are often confused regarding the types of measures suitable for their property and personal circumstances. Moreover, there is a sense that resilience installers are not impartial, whilst insurers have also been reticent to reinstate properties in a resilient manner. So, in short, lots of challenges!

The Defra project was an attempt to identify how surveyors would be able to advise property owners on their flood risk, how they might reduce that risk, and then provide independent advice on product installation and project management.


You have worked on issues of crime management and terrorism for the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) and the National Counter-terrorism Security Office. What is the role of a planner in this context?

Paul O’Hare: My first post-doctoral research position looked at how urban design could be used to increase safety and security in public places, particularly with regard to counter-terrorism. We looked at how the security services believed the modus operandi of contemporary urban terrorism was changing, with a greater concern regarding co-ordinated attacks on crowded public places, for instance from car and truck bombs.

“I found that security was often used to trump other legitimate concerns in design processes, and in any case, security features – aesthetic or not – could only ever displace those with malign intentions.”

Those responsible for securing public places resorted to quite blunt instruments to afford protection: bollards, barriers and so on. We looked at how built environment professionals – architects, planners and urban designers – might be able to develop more aesthetically pleasing, or even convivial, alternatives to these measures. This might include the use of water features, trees, planters, seating and so on, that would create stand-off areas, yet that would – we hoped – contribute to a better public realm.

It was a fascinating project, but one that brought quite pressing ethical issues. I found that security was often used to trump other legitimate concerns in design processes, and in any case, security features – aesthetic or not – could only ever displace those with malign intentions.


In 2010 you published an article in the International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, ‘Capacity building for community-led regeneration: Facilitating or frustrating public engagement?’. You have worked a lot on the involvement of communities and other stakeholders in spatial development since. Can you share some of your findings or thoughts on the matter with us?

Paul O’Hare: I have long been interested in efforts to include the public in place-making. My MA dissertation and Ph.D. both looked at public involvement in decision-making and governance, an interest that has now re-emerged in my current work on resilience and flood risk management. The paper you refer to looked at how efforts to facilitate public engagement often, rather ironically, served to restrain the autonomy and independence of community groups. Such externally driven programmes are often located within neighbourhoods, but with little reference to identifying the needs or priorities of residents.

“I’ve recently taken an interest in protest groups that have mobilised to challenge efforts to construct on Greater Manchester’s Green Belt.”

Another paper published in 2008 in Local Environment (“We’re not NIMBYs!” Contrasting local protest groups with idealised conceptions of sustainable communities) looks at how the term NIMBY has been used to neutralise the concerns of local protestsers against large scale planning schemes. I’ve recently taken an interest in protest groups that have mobilised to challenge efforts to construct on Greater Manchester’s Green Belt – again, partly driven by my current work on flood risk management. Some of the organisers of that movement have been also labelled as NIMBY’s, which just seems to be a way to dismiss legitimate concerns of people who feel overlooked in decision-making processes.


What do you think we have to offer to people like you? What do you expect from the IPM and what can you contribute?

Paul O’Hare: I’m a relative newcomer to IPM. But I’ve already been really impressed by how the Institute facilitates networks of individuals across disciplinary and geographical boundaries. The seminars and events I have attended have attracted a fascinating range of speakers and participants. The Institute recognises a third year course I teach on – Contemporary Urbanism and Planning – and have been very supportive of my doctoral students. In that sense, I have appreciated how the network really does live up to its aspiration of creating collaborative and inclusive place-making networks.


The interview was conducted by Ares Kalandides.