Farrell review: Jonathan Smales on sustainability in the built environment

The Farrell Review

In his contribution to Sir Terry Farrell’s independent Review of Architecture and the Built Environment, Jonathan Smales discusses sustainability in the built environment.

The headlines:

  • Sustainable built environments in cities are better for us and better for the economy; they are radically affordable and will drive remarkable innovation; they should be at the heart of politics and business
  • Cities are the principal human habitat – improving cities and delegating powers to cities is one of the quickest ways to a dynamic low carbon economy
  • Education and training in cities, urbanism and strategic sustainability is woeful and must be improved
  • City streets and suburban transport networks need a bold overhaul for healthy, low carbon movement – it will save £billions and greatly improve the quality of most people’s lives
  • Urgent need to enhance city government borrowing and tax raising powers so that they can invest and innovate for the good of their economies and citizens, but need to work through public/private partnerships
  • Smart grids connected to big regional and national grids in cities not local renewables
  • Carbon taxes are both essential and will improve our global competitiveness
  • City neighbourhoods must be intensified and the suburbs re-purposed with more and higher building (still human scale) mixed-use centres, local energy generation and food production

Read Jonathan’s full submission here.


A new movement in planning – Neil Murphy’s The New City lecture

Suburbia

This is a transcript of  Neil Murphy’s The New City lecture given on Monday 11th February 2013 at Cambridge University Department of Architecture. The New City lecture series runs until 5th March, details of upcoming lectures can be found here.

Planning is the process by which societies mediate space.  It determines what can be built where, to what purpose and under what conditions.  As last week’s session explored, the forms that human settlements take have profound implications for our environmental impacts. It is not that lives lived in dense cities are intrinsically sustainable enough or that those lived in suburbia are intrinsically otherwise, but that the propensity of people to consume energy and resources falls as their proximity to one another rises.  Conversely, there seems – up to a point – to be a positive correlation between urban density and scale and people’s propensity to be economically productive and culturally active.  Both these observations are neatly captured in David Engwicht’s observation that “[c]ities are an invention to maximise exchange (culture, goods, friendship, knowledge) and minimise travel.” i

Today I will talk about land-use planning, which is a process and a profession very much to the fore in public policy discourse in this country at present, chiefly owing to the mounting crisis caused by a failure over decades to build enough houses to meet rising demand.  I will review some of the current lines of argument in planning before setting out some ideas on how it might be re-purposed as the midwife of the New City; the former mainly in relation to this country but the latter, I hope, with a wider applicability.

I want to start by suggesting that planning is in a bit of a funk. This is illustrated by the current debate over housing delivery, in which planning is carrying the can for our social failure to build enough new houses so consistently for so long that there are several million households without suitable accommodation and even the most basic starter home is priced out of reach of many people, especially the youngii, and especially in the country’s economic hotspots.  The consensus is that the planning system is primarily, if not wholly, responsible on the grounds of, one way or another, restricting the effective supply of development land.  Beyond this basic premise, however, views diverge into two principal schools of thought.

First is a growing critique coming mainly from economists on the political leftiii.  This holds, in simple terms, that planning is not sufficiently responsive to price signals and does not allow enough development, particularly housing, in the places where market forces left alone would have it.  The result is that property prices are higher than they should be, especially in or close to areas of great economic opportunity, like the commuter belt around London, or here in Cambridge; and that many people are therefore forced to live in places or in circumstances that they do not like or that materially disadvantage them as well as, at a societal scale, stifling economic growth; a phenomenon that may be compounded rather than mitigated by the ploughing of vast public resources into regenerating northern industrial towns in the name of ‘market failure’.  Ethically, the planning system and sacred cows like Green Belt policies are seen as defending the interests of insiders at the expense of outsiders; the preservation of Home Counties landscape and property to the cost of the migratory poor.  From this perspective, the primary challenge to planning is to let more development go where developers want to put it, and to tax the profits for progressive ends.

The critique from the right, given voice by some in the present government, is more focused on the perceived qualitative failings of planning.  Too much emphasis in the planning system on targets for building set nationally or regionally; policy prescription on matters such as development density, social mixing and car parking restraint; and too much “pig ugly” development in the words of the present planning ministeriv have made people resistant to development near where they live.  Localise planning choice, these critics say; allow people more influence over the nature and form of development – and even bribe them with a share of the proceedsv – and consent for building will follow.

There are problems with both these versions of events, but I shall focus briefly on the former because it presents a clearer intellectual challenge to planning and a more direct and, arguably, honest attempt to tackle the underlying problem of supply.  Although I personally think there should be more use of economics in planning, it is important not to over-emphasise planning restraints on land supply as a cause of stunted growth.  We need to consider patterns of land ownership in many parts of the country that make it especially easy and attractive for landowners to seek rents from speculation, aided by an almost non-existent system of property taxation; and the role of the volume housebuilding industry, the dominance by a few big firms and ‘current trader’ business model of which stifles innovation and diversity and make supply much more vulnerable to economic fluctuations than it needs to be – something I shall return to shortly.  Equal concern should attach to our failure to price transport, especially roads, properly such that there is effectively a subsidy to sprawl.  And we need to better understand why the market under-values in the short-term spatial qualities that could add economic value in the long-term, such as compactness and permeability, which planning is, in theory, well-placed to obtain.   In other words, we have to look not just at how to use more land but how to use it more efficiently.

But these quite different critiques both, in the end, reflect a wider societal scepticism about the value and efficacy of professional planning, and a resurgent faith in the market to do a better job of allocating land resources, with planners cast as the regulators.  Although some would argue that the marketisation of land-use has not yet gone nearly far enough, it has been extended by recent reforms.  When the draft National Planning Policy Framework was published in 2011, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the professional body for planners, complained that it “fail[ed] to set out a vision” and was focused on a “response to market demands rather than… truly sustainable development”vi.  But, for all the professionals’ wailing, it became government policy all the same.

In 1990, Mark Tewdwr-Jones wrote that:

“Planning has been reduced to a bureaucratic regulatory process in which the political has been down played in the interests of organisational efficiency.  The “vision thing”, the concept that gave birth to town planning as a professional activity in the early years of the twentieth century, has been lost, partly as a consequence of legislative fiat, a New Right determination to standardise and commodify planning as a public service, and individual planners’ recalcitrance.  Town planning is no longer a political and professional activity; it is rampant technocracy, shared between public and private sectors.”vii

One can see the current discourse as evidence that a problem described over 20 years ago has reached its apogee.  How did this come to pass? Tewdwr-Jones hints at the role played by a political ideology antipathetic to the very idea of vision, but I would highlight three other factors lying deep in the psyche of planning at play.

First, the fact that town planning as an ideal and a profession first found its voice in advocacy of garden cities and a theorisation of the English romance with villages, small towns and countryside meant that it was always vulnerable to the perversion of its ideals by forces that drew on the folk wisdom of garden cities as idealised environments, and turned what was essentially a truth about collective prosperity into an illusion about personal choice.  One such force was the car, and I will let Bruce deal with that.  Another was the volume housebuilder.  Housebuilders have a highly evolved narrative in which whatever they provide is what the market wants, is aspirational, and any failings are beyond their control.  Take this from Nick Rogers, design director of Taylor Wimpey, in response to the planning ministers Nick Boles’s accusation that developers are “lazy”:

“We build homes that people want to buy and create places that people want to live in… No one sets out to design bad buildings or places, but sometimes things happen to prevent a good outcome. This certainly happened pre-crash when the combination of high demand, lack of developable land and government policy, drove density of development to a level where, sometimes, the result was poor design.”viii

As I have mentioned already, housebuilding has many of the characteristics of an oligopoly: a market dominated by a small number of large firms.  And the truth is that, like all oligopolists, housebuilders do not necessarily build what a truly competitive market would want but what it is expedient to produce.  Except on the odd ‘flagship’ project where they make a show of doing something a bit different, theirs is a mass market model of increasingly standardised designs arranged in identikit inward-looking layouts, usually with an assumption if not an outright requirement of car ownership. Because they typically finance construction with expensive short-term debt, national housebuilders are beholden to the ability to sell what they build quickly to owner-occupiers such that a house becomes ‘product’, not an enduring asset and still less an element of ‘town’.  When, as now, low wages and a shortage of mortgage finance silts up the demand, supply halts.  This process embodies the reduction of human habitat to the tiniest range of possibilities, with the result that nearly a third of people, according to a study by the RIBA, would consider buying a house build in the last ten years only as a last resort.ix

As Sir Peter Hall has put it:

“this is not an argument against suburbs, but against a particularly kind of proto-suburban development loved by the housebuilders: low density houses on the edges of a small town somewhere in southern England, clustered into a cul-de-sac, giving onto a distribution road, which all too easily gets gridlocked, and it does not produce anything like a decent bus service.”x

Yet the appropriation by housebuilders of the language of suburban aspiration, combined with their dominance of the land market, has cowed planners to such an extent that strategic planning in many places has been reduced to refereeing between one ‘stunning development’ in a field on the edge of town, or another.  The way that the planning system understands viability has been skewed to the housebuilder model, with planners under growing pressure to subjugate the long term needs of infrastructure and social housing in their areas in order to bail out the builders’ silted-up model of rapid debt-driven turnover.  What we are seeing is a spatial form of Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex”, the subjugation of mediation in the public interest to the interests of producers.  (What is profoundly ironic about this, incidentally, is that the modern planning profession and culture for all its rhetoric about placemaking would struggle to allow something as bold and beautiful as Edinburgh New Town or Georgian Bath to be built in the countryside.  It would be seen as overdevelopment, too dense and insufficiently respectful of its ‘setting’, its streets failing to meet adoptable highways standards and its parking provision recklessly out of kilter with the needs of the modern families.)

Second, when visionary planning returned to our great cities in the postwar period it did so at a difficult time.  In my own home city of Newcastle upon Tyne the great period of visionary planning in the 20th century under T. Dan Smith coincided with the relatively brief period in which the Corbusian ideal of the ville radieuse gained popular traction over municipal housing design and the progressive planning wisdom became that cities must be comprehensively re-planned to accommodate the motor vehicle in the city, through the building of urban motorways and the segregation of people and traffic.  The mythology, not to mention the grim legacy infrastructure, of that era bears a heavy responsibility for the antipathy of many people today to ‘visionary’ municipal leadership and their scorn and cynicism towards planning as a social institution.  People forget that, in the same city, it was the incredibly bold collaboration – some might say collusion – between city planners and the single-minded developer Richard Grainger that created the Georgian wonder that is Grainger town and arguably England’s finest neoclassical street. Oh, for some of that particular kind of planning arrogance today.

Third, planning always had a problem managing the innate complexity of urbanism, so, over time, became accustomed to managing it out.  This was Jane Jacobs’s great criticism of planning: well-founded concerns about sanitary conditions in late 19th Century industrial cities that became misdirected as an assault on the qualities of density and intricate mixes of uses that made cities engines of economic output and social life, to be replaced by the “marvels of dullness”xi she saw the rise of zoning and a preoccupation with landscape bringing to bear.  Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities remains a revered text among planners, but the spatial expression of economic intent in our cities today is not the mixed-use neighbourhood with its close-grained interplay of activity but the landscaped business park: gleaming sheds in fields of car parking.   At the very least, these strange forms reflect the triumph in planning of short-term cost-driven business interests over long-term value-based economic ones: today’s wish for cheap rents, compliant workers and easy commutes made possible at the cost of tomorrow’s dense interplay of urban life, its ability to sustain ‘different freedoms’ and its propensity to innovate in the space between buildings.  But one might go further and agree with Tom McDonagh, who writes that

“modern capitalism, the bureaucratic society of consumption, is here and there beginning to shape its own setting. This society… is building the terrain that accurately represents it, combining the conditions most suitable for its proper functioning, while at the same time translating in space, in the clear language of organization of everyday life, its fundamental principle of alienation and constraint.”xii

So where do we go from here?

What seems clear is that planning has confused ends and means: mediation of space has become the objective, without any clear sense of the ends that mediation is trying to achieve. In the middle of the road, you get knocked over.  The logical outcome of this malaise is a continued shift towards ever more market-led approaches to land use that might eventually fix our housing shortage but which will under-provide cogent settlement patterns and discount too heavily the factors that will make places competitive, sustainable and socially just in the long-run.

Instead, I’d like to suggest a different scenario, one that gives planning its mojo back and invites a new era of planning visionaries to step up and confront the needs of the New City.  (I know that arguing for more power for planners in a room full of architects is unlikely to go down well, but bear with me.)

First, we need more and smarter planning, not less.  We need to vex less about the shortage of land and more about the shortage of good urban places that foster exchange, human contact and create long-term economic and social possibilities rather than restricting development to a narrow interpretation of present day needs and norms.

Specifically, we need to plan and re-plan our settlements in coherent units of compact, walkable, mixed-use urbanism.  Paul Murrain is likely to discuss this in detail next week, so rather than going into what these units are let me instead focus on the planning implications.  Chiefly, it means that we will no longer think of meeting housing needs in terms of fifty or a hundred homes in the next field, but in how we create and support well-resolved, well-served and well-connected mixed-use neighbourhoods of two thousand or more homes.  The precise spatial, connective and urbanistic strategy will depend on the situation, but this is a principle that works equally well in dense urban contexts, the outward growth of existing settlements and brand new places whether urban or suburban.  The rules that attach to these places will not be governing minimum car parking and the separation of uses but such things as the permeability of space, the accessibility of everyday human needs and the importance of street, block and plot to urban coherence and adaptability.

Within this there is certainly a place for substantial new settlements in areas of high aggregate demand.  It is simply not tenable to think that the housing needs of the London megaregion, for example, can be met wholly within existing urban boundaries or in the relatively few places where there is neither profound social and political antipathy to development nor planning-imposed constraints like green belt.  What matters is that, where such settlements are planned, they justify their existence by replacing cherished landscape with efficient, well-functioning and beautiful townscape.

But we need a differentiated approach for places whose long-run trajectory is more stable or declining, bearing in mind that a radical increase in supply in areas such as the greater south-east is likely to exacerbate the fragility of population trends in these areas.  In our former industrial towns and cities there is, it seems to me, a long-term strategic choice to be made. On the one hand there is compactness, proximity and the reuse of land and infrastructure; the urban footprint managed to best create the productive urban conditions that come with density and urban connectivity in the hope that our cities can create from their own bases of knowledge and creativity the self-sustaining, value-driven economy – the ideopolis – of the future. On the other, more of our present civic diffidence perpetuating the market-driven flight to the periphery and locking our cities further into a model of cost-driven competition.

Second, to support this spatially-driven model we need a new understanding of the physical forms and typologies that can produce superb, highly-functioning urbanism while meeting the needs and expectations of households and businesses, transforming the present antagonism between public and private interests and realms into symbiosis.  What are the housing forms that can deliver spacious family homes and a desire for a garden at 50, 60 dwellings to the hectare or more while making wonderful townscape? How do we integrate workplaces large and small and reconcile the outward-facing needs of companies in an urbanism that values face-to-face contact and exchange as the basis of long-term economic wellbeing? Over to you architects…

Third, as a logical corollary of this truly spatial approach to planning I personally think – and I emphasise these views are mine and not those of my employer – we need a revolution in the way that land is treated, one that sees it primarily not as a private asset but as a common and wholly finite resource, discourages speculative rent-seeking by landowners, helps to break the short-termist housebuilder model’s stranglehold on supply and enables development to go in the right place rather than where the field boundary happens to be.  In simple terms, planning authorities, not landowners, should decide what land is required to achieve cogent units of urbanism and have the right to acquire that land for compensation equivalent to no more than its current use value.  And they should become progressive town-builders, the Richard Graingers of our age, their curation of the land in the public interest giving them an in-built incentive to demand a whole-life, whole society approach to the use of land and to orchestrate urban designers, architects, engineers and the multiplicity of statutory agencies and interest groups that operate in urban space to produce urbanism capable of adapting to changing economic and social forces and getting better with age.

Finally, we need our planners to rediscover a role as educators and promoters of a social understanding of space.  Indeed, if none of the other possibilities come to pass – and who would bet on any political leader showing the vision and leadership to tackle vested interests in land dating back to the Domesday book? – we need this more than anything.  Planners have to be the ones who will point out to people who want an eighth of an acre for their house or endless free parking outside their office what would happen to our cities, our lives, our planet if everyone wanted that and got it.  Land, space and wonderful environments are collective goods – and that is why the New City needs a new movement in planning.



i Engwicht, Towards an Eco-City

ii See for example National Housing Federation, Home Truths 2011

iii See for example Cheshire, Urban Containment, Housing Affordability and Price Stability – Irreconcilable Goals, SERC 2009

iv “Boles criticises ‘pig ugly’ housing scheme”, www.planningresource.co.uk, accessed 10th February 2013

v “Communities to be given cash to back development”, www.insidehousing.co.uk, accessed 10th February 2013

vi “Draft NPPF a ‘missed opportunity’ says RTPI”, www.planningresource.co.uk, accessed 9th February 2012

vii Mark Tewdwr-Jones, 1999, quoted in Peter Hall, Cities of Tomorrow.

viii Via www.taylorwimpey.co.uk, accessed 9th February 2013

ix RIBA The Case for Space.  31% of people would not consider buying a home built in the last ten years, or would only consider it as a last resort.

x Sir Peter Hall, lecture to AiH Estate of the Nation conference, 24th May 2000

xi Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities

xii McDonagh, Situationists and the City


A new movement for The New City – Bruce McVean’s The New City lecture

CPH bikes

This is a write up of Bruce McVean’s The New City lecture given on Monday 11th February 2013 at Cambridge University Department of Architecture. The New City lecture series runs until 5th March, details of upcoming lectures can be found here.

A brief (and over simplified) history of transport and the city

Cities have always been shaped by transport, while the planning and design of cities impacts on transport choices. The first cities were inherently walkable – the primary mode of transport was people’s feet and cities were necessarily compact in size and form as a result.

Public transport allowed cities to grow well beyond a size that would allow a person to comfortably walk from one side to the other. The expansion of train, tram, bus and tube lines helped suburbia spread, but the component parts of suburban growth remained walkable – homes needed to be within walking distance of train stations, tram stops, bus routes, shops and services. Today we’d say that cities were expanding through ‘transit orientated development’.

Mass private transport came in the form of the bicycle, which enabled people to travel further for journeys not served by public transport, bringing new personal freedom of movement that helped whet the appetite for the even greater freedoms promised by the car.

Aspirations towards car ownership were matched with aspirations towards home (and garden) ownership. After the Second World War rising car ownership freed developers from the need to provide easy access to public transport. Shops and services no longer needed to be within walking distance. Aggressive lobbying by car manufacturers, government investment in road building, and changes in planning policy and development economics all helped fuel the rise of the car as the transport mode of choice.

Now those who live in suburbia have little choice but to drive – trapped in a vicious cycle of car dependency as the separation of land uses continues to place jobs and services beyond the reach of those on foot, while low densities make the running of decent public transport nigh on impossible – and most people looking for a new home have little choice but to buy in suburbia.

Of course, it wasn’t just suburbia that was being shaped by the car. In existing urban areas perfectly functional buildings and even neighbourhoods disappeared under the wrecking ball to provide the road and parking space necessary to bring the car into the heart of the city.

The problem with cars

The negative impacts of our love affair with the car have long been acknowledged. As have the difficulties of trying to do anything meaningful to address them. In 1960 the Ministry of Transport commissioned a team led by Colin Buchanan to look at the problem, resulting in the publication of Traffic in Towns in 1963. 50 years on the project steering group’s famous acknowledgement that, “We are nourishing at immense cost a monster of great destructiveness. And yet we love him dearly…” still rings true.

Undoubtedly many people still aspire to car ownership, or view owning a car as essential to maintaining a high quality of life. And who are we to deny them? Engines keep getting more efficient and electric cars will help wean us off carbon dioxide emitting toxic fossil fuels. What about those self-driving cars we keep hearing so much about? Aren’t they going to use road space so efficiently that congestion will be a thing of the past, along with crashes? Perhaps, but what kind of city do we want to live in? One where everyone zooms about in their own metal box, completely removed from their fellow citizens? Ask anyone how they think their city can be improved and the answer is unlikely to be more cars – self-driving or otherwise.

Technology may soon address the problems of the internal combustion engine and the contribution that car travel makes to carbon emissions and air pollution; but technology alone can’t solve the myriad of other negative impacts of car dependency that are neatly summarised in the diagram below from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s report The Urban Environment. Tackling carbon emissions and air pollution is an essential task, but it’s not the only task – the big villain isn’t the internal combustion engine, it’s the car. As Taras Grescoe argues in Straphanger, “The automobile was never an appropriate technology for [cities]. As a form of mass transit for the world, it is a disaster.”

Part of the reason it is a disaster is that there is an inherent unfairness built into a car dominated transport system. This is an issue that I feel gets too little debate and I would urge everyone to read the Sustainable Development Commission’s excellent report Fairness in a Car-Dependent Society. The chart below, taken from the report, highlights how the better off travel the most. As the report notes, the widespread availability and affordability of car travel has brought many benefits, but these have been obtained at a substantial price, and one that falls most heavily on the poorest and most vulnerable in society, i.e. the ones that travel, and therefore benefit, the least.

Similarly, it is those too young or old to drive that are most likely to be killed or seriously injured on our roads (see chart below, again taken from Fairness in a Car-Dependent Society). To borrow a phrase from RoadPeace’s Director, Amy Aeron-Thomas, “We may share the road, but we don’t share the risk.” That risk is unacceptably skewed towards what transport professionals call ‘vulnerable road users’ and everyone else calls pedestrians and cyclists. Responsibility for minimising those risks must by extension fall on those who have the potential to do most harm – motorists, or what transport professionals should perhaps call ‘dangerous road users’.

While no one is looking to restrict individual freedom of movement that freedom must, as the SDC argue, “be exercised without unduly compromising the rights of others to live free from the negative impacts that travel imposes.” Even when driven carefully and slowly cars dominate our streets and impose themselves on other users. They’re bulky and everyone knows their potential to harm. Add speed to the equation and they own the street completely. As Ian Roberts and Phil Edwards argue in The Energy Glut (another must read), “Possession combined with brute force make up ten-tenths of the law.”

The possession of road space by cars, and the actual and perceived danger that comes with it, means that many people are discouraged from walking unless absolutely necessary and would never contemplate cycling. Statistically walking and cycling may be low risk activities – and the health benefits certainly far out way the risks – but no amount of statistics can change the often unpleasant and at times frightening experience of trying to negotiate a street network that has been engineered around the needs of the motorist.

Given this situation it should come as little surprise that the majority of people are failing to meet the minimum recommended amount of physical activity required to maintain a healthy weight – at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity five times a week. The costs to the NHS of the UK becoming an increasingly obese nation are widely reported, but the health benefits of being physically active go much further, for example helping to prevent some cancers, improving recovery rates and contributing to our mental wellbeing. As Liam Donaldson when Chief Medical Officer stated, “The potential benefits of physical activity to health are huge. If a medication existed which had a similar effect, it would be regarded as a ‘wonder drug’ or ‘miracle cure’.”

Humans have evolved as mobile animals and it’s unlikely we’ll ever evolve into sedentary animals. We’ve also evolved to love energy dense fatty and sugary food. Policy all too often focuses on trying to get people to consume fewer calories while neglecting the huge potential benefits of creating a built environment that makes it easy and attractive for people to incorporate physical activity into their daily routine through the way they travel. Yet only by doing that will it be possible to get the whole population active, something that can’t be achieved by exhorting people to join the gym and hoping that Olympic and Paralympic success in 2012 will inspire mass take up of organised sport.

Of course, humans have also evolved as social animals, but as Appleyard and Lintell discovered in 1972 the car can limit our social lives. Their classic study looked at the correlation between the traffic volume on a street and the relationships between neighbours on that street. The result was perhaps unsurprising; those streets with the heaviest traffic were also the ones where least people interacted with their neighbours.

The social life of cities is about more than being on first name terms with your neighbours or even nodding terms with those you meet when you pop to the shops. As Jane Jacobs noted in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “Lowly, unpurposeful, and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth may grow.” Cities exist to allow people to socialise – people love to be around and to watch other people – how then can we make sure our streets are places where people want to spend their time and our cities are great places to live, work and play?

So what’s to be done?

We need to begin by redefining the car’s relationship with the city – shaping cars and driver behaviour to suit cities, not cities to suit cars. As Jeff Speck argues in The Walkable City, “The automobile is a servant that has become a master… Relegating the car to its proper role is essential to reclaiming our cities for pedestrians.” This doesn’t mean banning cars outright, although that may be appropriate in some instances, but rather reminding people that when they drive into the city they and their car enter it as guests.

Research by Sustrans and Social Data in 2004 estimated that a car is essential for approximately a third of journeys, such as those that involve moving heavy and bulky loads or travelling beyond cycling distance on a journey that’s not served by public transport. I suspect that figure could come down in time as people adjust their lifestyles and habits, but the fact remains that the convenience and flexibility that the car can provide means it will always be around in one form or another.

We must, however, begin to address some of the inherent inefficiencies built into a car dominated transport system. Cars take up a lot of space – a precious resource in any city – and most of the time they’re occupying that space without even moving. As Tom Vanderbilt points out in Traffic, cars spend 95% of their time parked. They’re also expensive to own – even before you put any petrol in the tank you have to buy a car and pay Vehicle Excise Duty and insurance. If a car is only essential for a third of your journeys, why would you need or want to own one?

Wouldn’t it be better to use a shared car and in the process have access to a range of vehicles suited to the job in hand – a van for moving furniture, a people carrier for kids birthday parties and a convertible sports car for that romantic weekend in the country? Of course it would, and it’s no surprise that car clubs and pay-as-you-drive schemes are a growth industry. At Beyond Green we call it ‘car freedom’ – freedom from car dependency and the costs of car ownership, but freedom to access a car when you need one.

If the private car’s time is up, the age of the bicycle is just beginning. Bikes, the ultimate form of private urban transport, are space efficient, genuinely zero emissions, healthy, sociable, affordable and fun. They can reach the parts of the city that public transport can’t and many urban journeys are of less than five miles – a distance that can be covered by any reasonably fit person on a bike in about 30 minutes.

If cities are to realise the potential of the bike as a form of mass transit then they must be welcoming to cyclists of all ages and abilities. As New York’s transport commissioner Jeanette Sadik-Kahn notes, “You can wish people onto bikes, but you won’t get them onto bikes unless you provide a safe network.” Creating that network demands reducing traffic speeds and volumes on all streets and building segregated cycle lanes where traffic speeds and/or volumes remain high enough to require them.

As noted above, space in cities is a precious commodity and a highly contested one too, but capacity must to be found to allow the reallocation of road space to bikes and buses. Congestion charging in London and elsewhere has been proven to be very effective at reducing traffic volumes. Price differentials can be used to incentivise switching to smaller, cleaner cars, but to be as effective as possible a charge should apply to all vehicles. Schemes must also be actively managed to remain effective through expansions, fee increases and changes to incentives.

Spare road capacity created by reduced traffic volumes can be reallocated to create improved conditions for pedestrians and cyclists and improve the reliability of public transport. That reallocation is essential to prevent traffic levels rising again after initial falls as motorists consider driving on less congested roads to be convenient enough to warrant the cost of paying the congestion charge – a version of induced demand.

The reallocation of space away from the car will help restore city streets to their proper function as places for people and activity as well as traffic. Streets are complex places, where the conflicting demands of many users must be balanced. On many streets the balance is currently tipped in favour of keeping motor vehicles moving at the expense of other users. Temporary street closures of all varieties, from the wonderful Playing Out Project in Bristol to Bogota’s much imitated Ciclovia, have an important role to play in helping people imagine a different future; one where the balance is tipped in the other direction, putting the needs of residents, shoppers and workers above the needs of the passing motorist.

Temporary closures can become permanent over time. Each summer for the last ten years Paris has closed a section of the expressway on the banks of the Seine so that it can be turned into an urban beach, the Paris Plage. 2.5km of that expressway is now set to be permanently converted into a pedestrian boulevard. New York, meanwhile, has been piloting much quicker conversions, most famously at Times Square and along Broadway. Paint, planters and bollards are used to mark out new public spaces and trial potentially controversial schemes that may otherwise never get off the drawing board – sometimes it’s better to seek forgiveness than ask permission.

A similarly light touch approach may also be the most effective way of improving a city’s public transport network. Talk of improving public transport often turns to discussion of light rail, subways, trams and other infrastructure heavy solutions. The costs associated with such schemes can mean they’re never delivered, while the potential of improving relatively cheap bus services is often overlooked, wrongly in my opinion. As Enrique Penalosa, Mayor of Bogota between 1998 and 2001, and the man responsible for delivering that city’s impressive TransMilenio bus rapid transit network, argues, “Bus-based systems are the only public transport which can reach all areas of a [city], regardless if a few subway lines are built.”

Whatever the eventual public transport mix, the system needs to be as easy to use as possible, preferably with an integrated ticketing system. Deutsche Bahn’s BahnCard 25 is perhaps one of the best examples, allowing users to travel at discounted rates on national rail services, to switch seamlessly between all modes of public transport in Berlin and to access bike and car share schemes. Smart phone apps are also making planning journeys even easier, removing much of the uncertainty that can put people off travelling by public transport.

If public transport is to effectively serve suburbia then we must begin to think about how suburbs might be remodelled to break the cycle of car dependency. Post-war suburbs will need to go through a gradual process of densification, particularly around new neighbourhood centres and along routes that might become public transport corridors, and suburban streets need to once again become great places to walk and cycle. Any new development on the fringes of our cities must be built upon the principles of walkable neighbourhoods, safe and enjoyable cycling for all, good public transport and ‘car freedom’.

Back to the future

All of the above ideas and initiatives (and the rest that there hasn’t been time to mention), must be brought together in an integrated sustainable transport strategy. Too often transport policy leaps from project to project, many of them capital intensive big infrastructure projects, without being informed by a coherent vision of how a city’s transport system should serve the city into the future.

Cities must look backwards as well as forwards when setting that vision. In Makeshift Metropolis Witold Rybczynski argues that while history does not have all the answers, we must to keep one eye on the past as we move into the future, “The next city will include much that is new, but to succeed it cannot ignore what came before. Linking the past with the present, and seeing the old anew, has always been part of our improvised urban condition.” It’s easy to fall under the spell of new technology or twiddle our thumbs while we wait for a technological silver bullet like self-driving cars to solve our problems, but much of what is required to establish a sustainable urban transport system and move cities away from car dependency has been around for a long time.

In 1950 fewer than two million private cars were licensed in Britain – 1 car to 20 people. Is that an appropriate level to be aiming for in the not too distant future? I think it probably is, with many of those cars being shared rather than privately owned. That doesn’t mean turning the clock back to 1950, today’s technology means that reduced car ownership doesn’t have to limit accessibility to jobs, services or leisure activities.

As you may have noticed the brief history of transport and the city that I started this lecture with was incomplete. Since the 60s and 70s many cities have been redefining their relationship with the car – particularly in the Netherlands and elsewhere in northern Europe. Cities in the UK and the US are starting to catch up, albeit slowly and through the delivery of individual projects and initiatives rather than as part of a comprehensive strategy.

So a ‘new movement’ has already started, but given the urgent need to address the social, economic and environmental impacts of car dependency it needs to quickly gather momentum. Copenhagen has been in the process of transforming itself for 50 years, it still has some way to go and other cities that are just beginning the process don’t have the luxury of time.

We must move as quickly as possible towards achieving the ultimate goal – a liveable city that is served by a resilient transport network. A network that will help the city respond to the challenges of climate change and peak cheap oil while improving quality of life and reducing inequalities. To paraphrase that great observer of city life William H Whyte, urban transport systems must help cities assert themselves as good places to live.

 

 


North Sprowston and Old Catton Outline Planning Application

120930 DAS COVER v low res

The Outline Planning Application (OPA) for North Sprowston and Old Catton was submitted to Broadland District Council on 23 October 2012. All parts of the OPA are available to view and download below.

The Design and Access Statement provides an overview of our proposals, with further detail provided by the Supporting Statements. The Environmental Statement, Transport Assessment, Health Imapct Assessment and Town Centre Impact Assessment detail the possible impacts of our proposals and suggest actions to mitigate those impacts where necessary.

Broadland District Council are currently consultaing on the OPA, details of how to comment are available here (Application no. 20121516).

Our responses to frequently asked questions on the NS&OC application can be found here (PDF).

Application Covering Letter

Design and Access Statement

Supporting Statements

1. Green Instrstructure Statement

2. Statement of Community Involvment

3. Sustainability Statement

4. Planning Support Statement

5. Housing Statement

6. Social and Economic Development Statement

7. Safe and Inclusive Design Statement

8. Lighting Statement

9. Public Transport Statement

10. Framework Travel Plan

11. Energy and Utilities Statement

12. Water Statement

13. Waste Management Statement

14. Minerals Safeguarding Statement

15. Airport Safeguarding Statement

16. Delivery and Management Statement

Environmental Statement

Volume 1: Main text and figures, Chapters 1-5

1. Introduction and assessment methodology
2. Proposed development
3. Development programme and construction
4. Planning policy and land use context
5. Ecology

 

Volume 1: Main text and figures, Chapter 6

6. Landscape and visual

Volume 1: Main text and figures, Chapters 7-16

7. Archaeology and cultural heritage
8. Transportation
9. Air quality
10. Noise and vibration
11. Soil conditions, groundwater and contamination
12. Water reources and flood risk
13. Socio-economic
14. Cumulative impacts
15. Residual impacts and conclusions
16. Glossary and abbreviations

Volume 2: Technical appendices 1-4

Volume 2: Technical appendices 5

Volume 2: Technical appendices 6

Volume 2: Technical appendices 7-9

Volume 2: Technical appendices 10-13

Volume 3: Non-technical Summary

Transport Assessment

Report appendices A-C

Report appendices D-G

Health Impact Assessment

Town Centre and Sequential Impact Assessment


North Sprowston and Old Catton Outline Planning Application public exhibition

NS&OC OPA exhibition small

A public exhibition to present Beyond Green’s Outline Planning Application for North Sprowston and Old Catton was held at the Sprowston Diamond Centre on Saturday 6th and Sunday 7th October 2012.

More than 230 people visited the exhibition over the course of the weekend. We would like to thank everyone who attended and were delighted to have the opportunity to discuss our proposals with so many local residents.

The exhibition can be downloaded using the links below. Please note that for best results the exhibition boards should be printed at A3.

Part 1

1.1 Introduction
2.1 Our proposals
3.1 Strategic context
3.2 Site opportunities and constraints
4.1 Design principles
4.2 Design evolution
5.1 Layout, structure and land uses
5.2 Use and activity

Part 2

6.1 Travel, transport and parking
6.2 Connections, access and streets
7.1 Green infrastructure
7.2 Green infrastructure

Part 3

8.1 Character and identity
8.2 Character and identity
8.3 Character and identity
9.1 Infrastructure and utilities
10.1 Towards delivery

A higher resolution version of the key features plan is available here.

 

 


The draft National Planning Policy Framework: sustainable development “where practical”

NPPF draft

The draft National Planning Policy Framework was published for consultation on 25th July.  It purports to replace around a thousand pages of planning policy statements and guidance (PPSs and PPGs) with a single document of fewer than sixty pages; itself an achievement of sorts, even if the notion – which the government has hardly discouraged – that the rest was all unnecessary waffle or pernickety detail dreamed up by over-zealous bureaucrats is a bit fanciful (in democracies, you usually get the regulation you vote for).

Ministers heralded a “simpler, swifter system that is easier to understand”, but the document immediately provoked strong views from lobby groups.  The National Trust assailed what it saw as a prospectus for “unchecked and damaging development”, whilst the Chair of the Major Developers Group, Sir Stuart Lipton, professed himself “delighted with the results”.  The RTPI, seldom on the side of less planning, complained that the Framework “fails to set out a vision” and is focused on a “response to market demands rather than… truly sustainable development”.  It also pointed to the apparent contradictions between a nationally-mandated presumption in favour of sustainable development and the primacy of locally-led development plans.  The government admitted that a likely consequence of the NPPF is more planning applications ending up at appeal.

As sustainable developers, Beyond Green rejects both the brute ‘development as growth’ view advocated by the house- and shed-builders and the ‘sustainability as conversationism’ position of the Trust, CPRE and others.  We acknowledge the ineluctable need for millions of new homes and workplaces, most of them in the economic orbit of London and the Greater South East and many of them on greenfield sites.  But we also take seriously the law (not policy, not target: law) which says the UK must cut its carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 and now, says Mr Secretary Huhne, by 50 per cent by 2025.  Since only the most simplistic response to this challenge holds that the scale of change necessary can be achieved through energy engineering solutions that purport to ‘decarbonise’ existing human behaviour, we have to change how we live. And how we live is substantially governed by where we live: for example how, and how much, we move about; our propensity to have active communitarian or passive dormitory lifestyles; how much of our income gets recycled locally to sustain interesting, prosperous mixed-use places; and where our food comes from.  Planning has dire track record in this regard: PPS1 said in 2005 that “[s]ustainable development is the core principle underpinning planning”, but a reduction in the rate of car-bound, poorly-integrated, land-use- and resource-inefficient housing estates and business and retail parks springing up around the country has not been noticeable; nor, as yet, is there a single ringing example of the kind of compact, fine-grained, mixed-use sustainable urbanism that must form the basic framework for truly sustainable lives. Will the NPPF make a difference, and, if so, for better or worse?

First, it’s not a revolution.  There is no national spatial vision, or sense that there is a role for planning in leading or even supporting efforts to tackle the disparity across Britain, within and across regions, between where people live and where the work and industry is.  Was anyone expecting one? No, us neither. For all the renewed emphasis on planning positively and determining priorities locally, planning in England is to remain an essentially regulatory, bean-counting activity.  There will now, generally, be one keystone local plan in each area rather than endless plan documents – a sound move, surely, even if a little platoon of neighbourhood plans reduces the net bureaucratic saving – but the job of the local plan will essentially be to referee privately-advanced development proposals.  Planners will still not really plan.

There is a new focus on viability and deliverability, mainly through ensuring that “development identified in the plan should not be subject to such a scale of obligations and policy burdens that their ability to be developed viably is threatened”.   Although recognition of the existence of viability as an issue for the planning system is welcome, there is a risk that this policy serves to transfer to the general public the burden of developers’ bad land deals: most developments that are unviable, especially on greenfield sites where the need for new infrastructure to be delivered through planning obligations is typically greatest, involve the developer having paid too much for the land.  For sustainable development, landowners need to learn to take their return out slowly and allow decent upfront investment in a place that will generate value: the risk is that this policy gives succour to shallow speculators.

The document sets out ten “core principles” which constitute a succinct statement of how planning ought to work.  There are flaws – “in considering the future use of land, planning policies and decisions should take account of its environmental quality or potential quality regardless of its previous or existing use” sounds like it has been written to create work for lawyers – but on the whole they make very good sense.  Planning should undoubtedly be plan-led; planning that takes account of “market signals such as land prices, commercial rents and housing affordability” – i.e. meeting demand, not some fuzzy, lesser notion of ‘need’ – is long overdue; and who could argue that “planning policies and decisions should always seek to secure a good standard of amenity for existing and future occupants of land and buildings”? And, from a sustainable development point of view, all the key hooks are here: planning should “make effective use of land [and] promote mixed use developments”; should “actively manage patterns of growth to make the fullest use of public transport, walking and cycling”; should “enable the reuse of existing resources”; and should “improve health and wellbeing for all”.

One is inclined to ask, why go on? Given the element of never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width implicitly attached to the NPPF’s performance metric, could one not say that these ten principles over three pages alone might be sufficient to ensure an end both to scattered piecemeal housing developments in stupid places and silly rules preventing development in sensible places just because the locals find the landscape agreeably bucolic and the astronomical value of their homes congenial? With a few tweaks isn’t more development, in proper places almost what is captured, simply and clearly, in those principles? And isn’t it what sensible people want?

Part of the strange genius of English town planning, however, is that principles are never quite what they seem when translated into policy detail. It turns out, for example, that a ‘core principle’ of “actively manag[ing] patterns of growth to make the fullest use of public transport, walking and cycling” entails, or is at least wholly consistent with, weakening controls on the level of car parking provision in new developments and dropping the ‘town centre first’ test for office developments, making it easier to build out-of-town-business parks.   At one level, this just seems deeply cynical: the appropriation of the language of sustainability to sugar-coat a new era of sprawl.  At another, though, it’s just classic planning fudge: why have a ‘town centre first policy’, from which people can then chisel out exceptions, in the first place? Why not let the principle speak literally, and for itself, since such active management of growth would obviously – wouldn’t it? – direct as much of it as possible to town centres where opportunities for walking and cycling are by definition at their fullest? Business parks are part of the landscape of 1980s-style cost- rather than value-driven competition and growth-as-displacement and are utterly at odds with the development of sustainable settlement patterns and of industries properly rooted in place, culture and society.  There is no compelling reason – other than laziness, stupidity or greed – why workplaces can’t be provided as an integrated part of walkable mixed-use places (or what might in the past have been called ‘towns’).  And if more people can walk or cycle to work then what’s the problem with parking restraint, given that it is widely understood as the backbone without which ‘softer’ programmes to encourage sustainable travel tend to wither?

A second interesting angle is the treatment of landscape and open space.  Reflecting its deep, uniquely anti-city heritage, town and country planning in England has always had a dysfunctional relationship with townscape, treating it as something that inherently ‘harms’ landscape and thus seeing humans and their habitat as creatures apart from, and ‘harmful’ to, nature.  By accident or design, the aesthetic poverty and built-in obsolescence of the vast majority of postwar development, which has coincided with the growth of the town and country planning industry, has deepened public prejudice against development and for the protection of the ‘natural’ landscape.  No wonder the National Trust and CPRE, whose interests have been served so well by planning’s self-perpetuating culture of kneejerk conservationism, are up in arms at the NPPF’s emphasis on a presumption in favour of sustainable development: it looks as though power in planning might, at last, be redistributed from property-market insiders, keen to protect their corner of Jerusalem from vulgar new-build, to outsiders, keen not to share a house with their parents until they are 37.  Another focus for ire is the abandonment of Labour’s target for building on previously-developed land.  We have sympathy with this concern, but pretending that housing shortages in the Greater South East can be tackled by building houses on former pit-heads is even more disastrous for the northern cities where a crudely-applied ‘brownfield-first’ policy has been an engine for sprawl and population decentralisation as it is in the south where it has been used to oppose sensible urban expansion of the most pressured towns and relieve the accumulated backlog of housing demand across the London megaregion.

But, on closer inspection, one wonders what the fuss is about: the NPPF seems highly unlikely to lead to the urbanisation of Britain’s greenest pastures.  It makes great play of the retention and protection of the green belt, and although greater local discretion is proposed over green belt reviews it does not take Machiavelli to conclude that the politics of the green belt are, in most places, going to go strongly against even the smallest incursions.  The “great weight” previously given to maintaining the landscape in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty is preserved, while there is a new designation of Local Green Space, which looks likely to enable locals to succeed in protecting favoured sites from development where they may, using the Village Green legislation, previously have failed. Indeed, there is an express invitation to planning authorities to “identify land which it is genuinely important to protect from development, for instance because of its environmental or historic value”.  And the core principle that “planning policies and decisions should take account of [land’s] environmental quality or potential quality regardless of its previous or existing use” sounds like an open invitation to oppose almost any development on landscape or amenity grounds.

And what of the sustainability vs growth debate? If there is an inherent conflict between sustainability and growth, there is little doubt on which side the NPPF sits.  The definition of sustainable development on which it is officially based is the widely-accepted 1987 Brundtland Commission version: “[s]ustainable development means development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Elsewhere, however, are hints of a more neoliberal worldview: “[a] positive planning system is essential because, without growth, a sustainable future cannot be achieved”.  The suggestion that sustainability is seen as a function of growth, rather than a precondition for long-term prosperity, is confirmed by the use throughout the document of a magic caveat. It appears eight times in the document, and in six cases applies to environmental matters.  So (my italics):

  • Where practical and consistent with other objectives, allocations of land for development should prefer land of lesser environmental value…”
  • “Local planning authorities should prefer applications for retail and leisure uses to be located in town centres where practical…”
  • Where practical, encouragement should be given to [transport] solutions which support reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and reduce congestion…”
  • “Planning strategies should protect and exploit opportunities for the use of sustainable transport modes for the movement of goods or people. Therefore, developments should be located and designed where practical to: accommodate the efficient delivery of goods and supplies; give priority to pedestrian and cycle movements, and have access to high quality public transport facilities; create safe and secure layouts which minimise conflicts between traffic and cyclists or pedestrians; incorporate facilities for charging plug-in and other ultra-low emission vehicles; and consider the needs of disabled people by all modes of transport.”
  • Where practical, particularly within large-scale developments, key facilities such as primary schools and local shops should be located within walking distance of most properties.”

Why “where practical”? Why, if essential to good planning, effectively optional? Why, if the site is a sensible one for the development proposed, would it not be practical? Is it unduly cynical to suggest that where practical are the magic words that will allow development under the NPPF to be just as unsustainably, carbon-generatingly crap as it is now?

So, in conclusion, here are the three questions the government needs to address:

  1. If the presumption is genuinely in favour of sustainable development, why the knowing and antediluvian omission from the policy acquis of sustainable policies on parking and office development – unless the aim is to create the impression of change while allowing the devil to lurk in the detail?
  2. How are you going to reconcile the admirable commitment to meeting demand with the deep deference to vested interests embodied in the multifarious landscape protections embodied within the plan? Is it growth only for the grimmer parts of the Home Counties and for places that don’t really need it?
  3. If short is good and you really mean your commitments to cutting carbon and presuming in favour of sustainable development, why not ten simple, uncaveated principles that capture its essence? You’ve done a reasonable first draft.

 


“Agriculture is not like any other business, it beats to the drum of biology”

CT

This was successful writer and biologist Colin Tudge’s key message at last night’s launch of his book, ‘Good Food for Everyone Forever’ hosted by the Gaia Foundation.

To an audience of leading NGOs and interested parties, Colin spelled out the key challenge of our time; the gap between with is possible and what actually happens with food production today.

What actually happens can be summarised with a few alarming facts: 1billion people are currently undernourished whilst another billion are over-nourished (i.e. obese), over half of all our species are in danger of extinction and more than 500million people are being forced off the land as we seek to industrialise and privatise our food supply.

For Tudge the fault lies largely with the “powers that be”; policymakers, chief scientists and the commercial food industry, who use crude science to polarised the debate into one of the ‘serious, industrialist, rational and scientific’ majority versus the ‘romantic, nostalgic and elitist’ few. He compares this majority thinking to the Enlightenment age, where the idea that man could control nature was born and came to form the dominant paradigm. The recent Foresight Report published by the government’s chief Scientist, Sir John Beddington, is a chief example of this, since it operates within the neoliberal system that must price everything, be competitive, and maximise costs.

Whilst Tudge is calling for nothing less than “a people’s takeover of the farming supply”, he’s no romantic. As a scientist himself, his facts are founded and he’s not apriori against any ‘new’ technologies such as GM crops. The problem is, he says, it’s thirty years since they came on the scene they have yet to product anything of “unequivocal value”. “Except perhaps, virus resistant Papaya”!

The answer to this he says is simple; “create farms that designed to feed people”. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Colin argues however that this is far from how we currently farm the neoliberal dominated industrialised world; where the principal concern is to increase efficiency, increase profit margins and increase yield, rather than feed the population. Capitalism could serve nature, but neoliberalism cannot; in an inelastic food market it is easy to feed everyone, “that’s why we waste 50% of our grain on livestock”.

Farms must be designed to imitate nature, from their resilience and minimal input requirements (i.e. organic as default– but not necessarily certified so), to their biologically diverse and complementary systems. The peak for mixed farms answering to this description was the 1950s, and since then farms have got bigger and better at producing single crop yields with fewer staff and input costs. However, worldwide c. 70% of all food is produced on small mixed quasi organic farms, and this absolutely can feed the world, Tudge declares. Far from the Malthusiasn dilemma we’re made to feel trapped in, Tudge sites the convenor of the recent and widely heralded IAASTD report that shows the world’s farmers are producing enough food to feed 14 billion people.

If we had a good food culture, like Italy for example, we would not be in the state we are in now. There are murmurings of a revival, but nothing substantial enough yet to achieve the ‘Agrarian Renaissance’ he is calling for. We shouldn’t get confused, however, between ‘self sufficiency’ and ‘self reliance’. Whilst the latter is both possible and advisable, the former is neither, since it would inevitably lead to the collapse of many tropical markets. The answer therefore is to “combine self reliance with fair trade”. This is the winning combination.

In his new book, Tudge sets out the steps for this ‘people’s takeover’, including a transition from growing your own to becoming a part time farmer, and he also directs us towards the Campaign for Real Farming, which he founded with his partner, Ruth West.


Smart Growth and the two paradigms in government that could be one…

green growth

“Anything that cuts the cost of filling up the car is good for our customers, good for us” said Ian Cheshire, Chief Executive of Kingfisher applauding Wednesday’s budget – neatly highlighting contradictions or even conflicting paradigms at the heart of government policy.

Going for growth, aided by relaxed town and country planning provisions is the order of the day. But how can this be squared with the admirable trinity of localism, the desire to become or at least be seen to be the greenest government ever, and with the acknowledged need to restructure the economy for the long term, rather than just grow it at any cost?

Just in case anyone was worried about a drift back to the days of Nicholas Ridley in the 1980s, relax because, unlike with Ridley who delighted in blowing smoke in the face of environmentalism, there will be a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. There is Gummerian vision and sense in Greg Clark’s insistence on this so one awaits the essential details with interest. I for one look forward to seeing total carbon footprints and budgets for every local planning authority and hard-nosed business plans – with associated growth potential – for their fulfilment.    

Meanwhile, B&Q, one of Ian Cheshire’s businesses has won awards for its championing of greener products and supply chains and good for them. But its out-of-town business model relies on climate-changing, cut-price fuel to access its customers. Churlish observation or serious point? Personal transport is responsible for an average of c.19% and rising of our carbon footprint and this source of emissions has been growing fast. Now my fear is that with relaxed planning for businesses there will be even more edge of, or out-of-town businesses thrown up in a hurry with less red tape, less interference from costly, growth-killing planning bureaucrats.

All of which will result in more need to travel, more congestion, more costly infrastructure, more carbon, more climate change, less compact towns and cities and poorer neighbourhoods. Britons have become so reliant on our cars that drivers spend, on average, more than one working day (10 hours) every week driving with just 3.7 hours spent walking and 4.6 hours socialising with friends and family. Still, if it makes you happy

Households will become even more car-dependent, in the end their daily bills will rise and those  least well off in our society and who can least afford to travel will be further disadvantaged. As a counterpoint to this if the number of cycling trips returned to 1995 levels by 2015, the savings in health, pollution and congestion would be around £500 million. If trip levels were at Copenhagen or Basel levels…we’d be both richer and replete with well-being.     

And still, Canute-like George Osbourne stands before the inexorable tide of rising oil prices and reaffirms our national vows to the old economy. It is a popular decision of course but ultimately a misadventure. Growth, Growth, Growth is the wrong message. Shrill and a little too desperate even for these straitened times it further infantilises politics and in a small but significant way undermines the nobler and exciting aims of citizenship and the Big(ger) Society espoused by the other paradigm in government.

Those in government – and elsewhere – who are looking at the bigger picture and trying to reconcile real and pressing needs of improving wellbeing and halting environmental destruction are asking what kind of growth should we be aiming for? Where ought we to shape growth towards? How can reinforcing policy initiatives across government that get the shoulder to the wheel or a restructured, long-term, people-based economy be created?

We need a new economy not based on oil and hugely expensive, not to say discomfiting, energy insecurity. Not any old growth, anywhere and at any cost. We need better towns and cities which are lively and full of activity, mixed in use and brimming with social interaction at the neighbourhood level, with most of our daily needs accessible by foot or by bike, not car-based sprawl; we need to create far better public realm so that we can have greater shared experience and contact so that we can grow society, overcome difference, reduce the barriers to and super-charge social mobility. We need new entrepreneurs, family businesses, mould-breaking investors and talents – viscerally commercial and viscerally social – with corporate shared value at their heart, providing services and crafting added value goods that, German-style will turbo-charge the more vibrant, sustainable economy.   It will cost a lot less in the end.   

Smart growth anyone?           

Jonathan Smales


Life Between buildings vs Localism

Neil-Murphy-180x135

To round off 2010, Neil Murphy reflects on the state of planning for the kind of places that make for good lives.

Life Between buildings vs Localism

 Inspired, as one invariably is, by a short trip to Copenhagen earlier this month – yes, they really do sit under blankets in their masses and sip beer at pavement cafes in the winter sunshine – I’ve been re-reading Jan Gehl’s masterpiece Life Between Buildings.  First published in 1971 and unarguably the original handbook of public realm design and planning, it’s a joy of gin-clear prose and vivid imagery whose purpose, perhaps paradoxically, is to present a series of essentially simple and prosaic general rules on the configuration of public spaces to facilitate opportunities to “meet, see and hear others”.

One of many compelling things about LBB is what it doesn’t feel the need to say explicitly by way of preamble: that the very purpose of cities and towns is to facilitate human contact and exchange, and that the quality and intensity and variety of opportunities for contact – and their democratising and levelling effects on city society – are not just factors marking out the good city from the merely serviceable, but the defining ones.  That vigorous urban public realm signifies civilisation at its most evolved is simply taken as read.  And thus the system of rules – on integrating land uses, on the proportioning of buildings in relation to space, on the dimensions of spaces, on the activation of fronts and the treatment of edges, and on a host of other facets and details of the public realm that are simultaneously intricate and quite uncomplicated – operates as a practical manual for the creation of wonderful and, not incidentally, sustainable cities.  Copenhagen, which has been Gehl’s laboratory for over four decades, bears testament that those rules work.

In Britain, as with many things Gehl’s ideas and rules have been assimilated into planning and design culture and practice, selectively implemented and otherwise co-opted into a narrative of the status quo.  There have been some wonderful ‘projects’, the revitalisation of Grainger Town in Newcastle being a personal favourite, but the systemic thinking about and shaping of relationships between public space and human behaviour at scales from citywide to neighbourhood which Gehl invites and arguably demands has been missing.  Meanwhile, the obligatory commitment to ‘high quality public realm’ has become a mainstay of major development proposals, sometimes with genuine intentions but more often than not value-engineered out of the final product and so resulting in more of the same (i.e. dreck).

On one level this half-heartedness is surprising. British town and country planning does love its rules, and if I’d been running the regeneration show at a big city councils I’d have been tempted to adopt Life Between Buildings in its entirety as a supplementary planning document (non-planners: these make developers do stuff they otherwise wouldn’t).  As a sort-of economist rather than a planner or designer, it’s also a mystery to me that cities seeking to reinvent themselves as sustainable knowledge economies based on high-value industry and creative enterprise haven’t, generally, grasped the absolute centrality of intensive life between buildings to the sparking and exchanging of ideas as well as of goods and services. The physical manifestation of attempted economic progress has more often been the shiny shed in the sculpted parkland – fine for each individual business decamping from the city centre, because rents are cheap and workers are mobile, shuttling in their cars between housing estate and business park and supermarket/retail park/entertainment complex, but not exactly conducive to the inspiration or accident of the urban moment, of even just to dreaming and co-conspiring over a pint after work.  But what’s good for business is good for the economy, right? Well, only up to a point, and in a week in which an influential Tory thinker, Nick Boles, has welcomed the prospect of a period of “chaos” in planning, it’s worth remembering that the co-ordination and mediation of private action for the public good – i.e. deciding what that point is – is fundamentally what urban planning is for.  Life Between Buildings embodies that noble profession in its most refined form.

But on another level, it isn’t surprising at all.  British town planning is getting a kicking at the moment, not least from the government whose Localism Bill constitutes, in my view, an all-out assault on the idea of professionalism and rules in the shaping of space and place and turns it over to, essentially, folk wisdom.  A probable consequence, particularly in those areas of highest demand, of the Bill is that such development as does take place will have to be low on density, high on green space and as close as possible in design to a vernacular arcadia, real or imagined.  At precisely the time when demographic trends, deficit mania, climate crisis and growing realisation of the vulnerability of our mobility-obsessed transport systems argue for a compact, land-efficient, integrated and urbane approach to planning and development we are about to move in precisely the opposite direction.

But, to some extent, British planning as a culture and a profession has only itself to blame.  It has allowed itself to become a sterile, technocratic, rather smug endeavour, as detached from the urgent arguments for planning and re-planning places for sustainability imperatives as it is from popular disgruntlement with the imposition of landfill housing on the Home Counties.  While nimbys just say no and idealists run around with their copies of Gehl, planners continue to allocate ‘employment land’ by the hectare and debate whether 40 per cent is the right amount of green space in an eco-town.  High quality public realm by all means, but only with “realism” about the private car.  Sustainability? We’re all about the Code for Sustainable Homes (and did we mention that greenspace?), but let’s not get too carried away with the bikes and the local food production and the not-having-Tesco.  Urban intensity and life between buildings… well, steady on, Brits don’t want to live like Parisians (who would…) and people in Copenhagen are, like, genetically different…

Of course, I hugely generalise and unfairly caricature, but as a newcomer to the planning world (but a longstanding worker in and on cities), I can’t help but feel that if you planned a new city from scratch today based on the dominant planning mores, you would probably end up with something between Swindon and Milton Keynes, maybe with a little pocket of Manchester in the middle.  That’s not, at least not to everyone, a self-evidently bad outcome, and people living in MK famously love it with their customary passion, but the bottom line is that it reflects the ambitions of neither those advocating place-making that actively shapes human behaviour for environmental sustainability, economic vitality and general social wellbeing, nor those who see development as threat.  And so, rather than being brokers of the classic British muddle and compromise as some would argue, planners are finding out that in the middle of the road, you get knocked over – and in this case it’s Mr Pickles who is exercising his right to the road now that his colleague Mr Hammond has ended the ‘war on the motorist’.

From Life Between Buildings to the Localism Bill: how unseasonably depressing! So, for those of us who believe in the power and importance of planning, what’s to be done? Well, being public-spirited types, in 2011-12 we at Beyond Green will be issuing a series of topic papers setting out some principles and specific policy ideas on the basis of which a future progressive government (or even a local elected mayor?) might enable planning to get on its bike, rediscover its mojo and retake its rightful place as an arbiter between different freedoms in a world facing profound and incontrovertible environmental and socioeconomic challenges.  We haven’t got it all mapped out fully, but we’ll start in Jan/Feb with people-first planning on why and how to plan on the first principle of life between buildings, and follow up with specific pieces on catchment-based land-use planning, the sustainable movement economy, whole-life communities and green infrastructure (what not how much).

We’re lucky enough to be working with Gehl Architects on our proposals for a sustainable urban extension in Broadland north of Norwich, so we’ll try and bring to these pieces some applied and current insights on how to bring life between buildings to new neighbourhoods.  Hopefully these pieces will be useful contributions to a debate on the future of planning which urgently needs to take place.

Happy Christmas. 


Broadland project team

Beyond Green Developments is pleased to announce the team for its latest project in Broadland.

In-house experts will be joined by an international and local team of professionals to help create an authentically sustainable new community to the north of Norwich.

Broadland project team – 30th November 2010