Every month we will profile an Early Career Researcher working in urban research, and our first guest is Ryan McNeilly Smith, a full-time PhD student at the BASC Lab, University of the Sunshine Coast. Ryan is a planner and urban designer working across research and practice. In his PhD, he is investigating bioclimatic urban design and urban microclimates. His research has a real-world focus on the development of urban design policy solutions to mitigate extreme heat health-risks in Queensland. Ryan’s professional and research interests sit at the intersection of land-use planning and urban design, resilience and disaster management. With experience in government and private practice, Ryan also holds a position with a planning, resilience and adaptation advisory firm.
Below is a bit more about Ryan’s work and insights into the ECR life.
Your research in keywords?
Urban climate; Bioclimatic design; Urban heat; Heatwaves; Policy development
Why is your research important?
Urban heat island is a well understood phenomena, where urban areas experience warmer temperatures compared to their rural surroundings. Increasing ambient temperatures and heatwave frequency will only exacerbate the pre-existing urban heat issues we experience in our built environment and public spaces. Urban planning and design have a critical role in mitigating urban heat issues and adapting to a warming world. However, urban climates and extreme heat are rarely drivers of planning and urban design decision making. Ensuring that our built environment policies consider this is a key avenue to improving the types of planning and design outcomes we see in our cities, towns and growth areas. Where my research comes in, is in understanding these tensions in a Queensland context. Then developing pathways to improve our urban planning and design policy in Queensland to achieve better urban climate outcomes.
What ultimate goal/key issue is your research contributing to achieving/addressing?
There is an inherent complexity in planning and design for urban climates, as they can be influenced by a wide array of factors; and current urban planning and design policy in Queensland does not adequately consider urban climates. My research seeks to address this by using sociotechnical systems methods to comprehensively understand these factors individually and the interrelationships between them – both at a physical level and policy and systemic influences. This provides the research a foundation to then understand and model current and future directions of urban planning and design policy, focusing on factors which influence urban climates, using microclimate computational simulation methods. Thinking longer term, I would hope that the findings and recommendations from this research amplify conversations about how we, as urban practitioners, consider urban climates in our policy and practice; and potentially drive policy changes which enhance urban heat and heatwave consideration in planning and design policy creation and development assessment.
What is your research ‘top-tip’?
My tip would be to foster a working environment that suits you. I have found that to be really important, particularly over the past two years with COVID. It helps me stay productive and makes my time working as pleasant as it can be. That looks different for everyone – for me, at home, my stand-up desk is a godsend. Plus, access to natural light and a fresh breeze. Take the time to understand how you work best.
What is your best/favourite research story?
Not a story as such, but an aspect of the research process which I enjoy. The moments when I have started exploring new data and things start to ‘click’ or fall into place. Another is when connections between disparate elements of the research emerge. I find those moments rewarding, reinvigorate me and remind me why I am doing this work.
What is the biggest challenge you face in carrying out your research?
Before embarking on my PhD research, a key focus for me was – and continues to be – ensuring that the outcomes have application to planning practice and policy creation, as that is where the decisions which can have the greatest influence on heat outcomes get made. In my case, I have maintained part-time employment with a consultancy firm to keep that practical connection with policy development and practice. Managing the competing interests which can sometimes arise can be challenging – and it no doubt keeps me busy – but I’ve experienced real value in maintaining this connection; with many opportunities to cross pollinate ideas and knowledge between my two roles.
What has been your proudest achievement in your research to date?
In 2021, my Honours research project from the previous year was awarded Queensland’s Award for Planning Excellence in the Tertiary Student Project category by the Planning Institute of Australia. It is now a finalist for a national award, to be announced in May. This research investigated the current approaches to extreme heat in urban planning and design practice in South-East Queensland. The research found extreme heat is not adequately addressed in current policy or planning practice, with lower levels of awareness of the issue among planners compared with colleagues in architecture and urban design. This research laid the ground work for my current PhD project.
Recent/best publications (or publications you are most proud of?)
I am hoping to have research from my Honours project and early PhD research published in the coming months. Watch this space!
Anything else you’d like to share?
At the Planning Institute of Australia’s upcoming national Planning Congress in May, I will be co-presenting a workshop – along with my BASC Lab colleagues – on a selection of the sociotechnical methods we use to understand our complex urban problems.