DEGREE – The Dynamic Evolution of natural capital in response to blue/green infrastructure interventions.


The natural capital and ecosystem services concepts are a popular way of describing the multiple benefits we get from the natural environment. Although urban expansion/intensification impacts on natural capital and the multiple benefits available to the urban population, it is recognised that blue/green infrastructure systems (e.g. rain gardens, swales, ponds etc.) can at least reduce these impacts. While ecosystem services knowledge is already in use in urban planning, especially the multiple benefits from blue/green infrastructure systems, there is still need for natural capital assessments at the relevant scales to inform planning decisions and outcomes.

The aim of this PhD is twofold:
1. to investigate how different blue/green infrastructure investment pathways and future land use change scenarios affect the dynamic evolution of natural capital and secondly; and,
2. to compare the technical suitability location of blue/green infrastructure to where the multiple benefits from such intervention systems are needed the most (demand areas) in a locality as identified by local stakeholders.
Working with key stakeholders such as local authorities, planning agencies, developers and local communities, this research will demonstrate natural capital assessments in practice. This will be based on case studies focussing on natural capital changes associated with existing urban expansion / intensification plans and different blue/green infrastructure investment pathways. Such an assessment will also aid planners and decisions makers to understand the interdependency between the natural environment, economy and society in the planning process. When undertaken as part of wider environmental assessments, natural capital assessments could ensure that natural capital is considered alongside built, financial, social and human capital in sustainable urban development.

1. Cortinovis, C and Geneletti D, 2018 . Ecosystem services in urban plans: What is there, and what is still needed for better decisions. Land Use Policy, 298-312.
2. Lennon, M., & Scott, M. 2014. Delivering ecosystems services via spatial planning: Reviewing the possibilities and implications of a green infrastructure approach. Town Planning Review, 85(5),
3. O’Donnell, E, Thorne, C, Ahilan, S, Arthur, S, Birkinshaw, S, D Butler, Dawson, D, Everett, G, Fenner, R, Glenis, V, Kapetas, L, Kilsby, C, Krivtsov, V, Lamond, J, Maskrey, S, O’Donnell, G, Potter, K, Vercruysse, K, Vilcan, T, and Wright, N, 2020. The blue-green path to urban flood resilience, Blue-Green Systems 2 (1), 28-45.
4. Arthur, S, 2020. Performance of blue–green treatment trains and sustainable drainage system ponds in trapping and retaining sediment, Blue–Green Cities: Integrating urban flood risk management with green infrastructure, ICE Publishing.


The PhD student will be expected to undertake original research on natural capital assessment and develop novel techniques and approaches which can be applied in practice. Understanding of natural capital and blue/green infrastructure systems requires biophysical knowledge on the elements of these concepts and approaches as well as a recognition of the multiple benefits provided to local communities more suited to social sciences. In this regard the potential PhD candidate will tackle this challenge from both angles based on an integrated methodological approach (mixed research methods). Tasks such as mapping natural capital areas, locations of multiple benefit provision areas and blue/green infrastructure systems for example, will be complemented by knowledge of beneficiaries of these multiple benefits and stakeholder prioritised benefits.

There is growing interest in using practically applicable analytical tools that link the natural environment and society. A wide range of tools have recently been developed to analyse ecosystem services, natural capital and green infrastructure (see: This PhD study will for example utilise tools such as the Natural Capital Planning Tool (NCPT) to assess the impact of proposed housing developments on natural capital and ecosystem services, and a GIS based analysis will be used to evaluate current and future natural capital spatiotemporal changes associated with different blue/green infrastructure investment pathways. Fieldwork will be undertaken to case study sites for activities such as verifying the natural capital maps, stakeholder consultations. A 3 month student placement will also be arranged with the Local Authority in the case study areas for an in depth understanding of the project focus and data collection.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Agree detailed aims & objectives, literature review, data collection, training/workshops and progress meetings.

Year 2

Literature review, data collection, data analysis, training/workshops and progress meetings.

Year 3

Literature review, data analysis, training/workshops and progress meetings.

Year 3.5

Progress meetings, dissemination & thesis writing.

& Skills

As part of the PhD programme at Heriot-Watt University, the student will be offered training and development opportunities. It is anticipated that over the course of the PhD study, the student will develop knowledge skills and expertise to undertake independent research in his/her field or future employment in policy or practice.

The student’s training needs will be identified within the first year of study. These will be compiled into a training and development plan tailor made to the specific student needs and skills set. As part of annual progress monitoring, training undertaken will be recorded and discussed with the student.

To develop key skills and expertise such training and skills development will broadly be on:
1. Subject specific training e.g. GIS, use of natural capital assessment analytic tools etc.
2. Research methods training e.g. qualitative or mixed research methods etc.
3. Development skills training (including professional and transferable skills) e.g. academic writing, publishing, presentation skills, viva training and stakeholder engagement etc.

References & further reading

1. Arthur, S, Krivtsov, V, Allen, D, Ahilan, S, Guan, M, Haynes, H, Sleigh, A, Wright, N, Blue-green infrastructure-perspectives on water quality benefits, 2019, CIRIA
2. O’Donnell, E, Thorne, C, Ahilan, S, Arthur, S, Birkinshaw, S, Butler, D, Dawson, D, Everett, G, Fenner, R, Glenis, V, The blue-green path to urban flood resilience, Blue-Green Systems, Vol 2, No 1, 28-45, 2020, IWA Publishing
3. Krivtsov, V, Birkinshaw, S, Arthur, S, Knott, D, Monfries, R, W, Kirsty, C, Derek, C, David, B, Peter, K, David, Flood resilience, amenity and biodiversity benefits of an historic urban pond, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Vol 378 No 2168, 2020, The Royal Society Publishing.
4. Arthur, S, Performance of blue green treatment trains and sustainable drainage system ponds in trapping and retaining sediment, Blue Green Cities: Integrating urban flood risk management with green infrastructure Pages 65-76, 2020, ICE Publishing.

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