I began a journey in the past year and a half, fuelled partially by curiosity and partially by necessity. I was curious about how we live, in particular within towns and cities. Why do we inherently like some places and yet feel indifferent to others, when on the surface they appear to provide the same opportunities for work and leisure? Why does where you live affect your likelihood of being obese, lonely or of dying early? It was a necessary journey because after years of nodding along to alarming reports from climate scientists around the world, I felt like I had to finally take some action.
‘Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.’ Steve Jobs
I want to take you through the different ways that good urbanism will save the world. There are, of course, many people with more experience and knowledge in each individual area than myself. However, it is often said that you learn best from someone two steps ahead. I hope I can bring together some of what I have learnt from my last two years of (continuing) discovery. More importantly I aim to take a bird’s-eye-view of the issues and consider a wider field of interests than the single issues presented by campaigners, charities and house-builders.
I also want to write to as wide an audience as possible, without slipping into identity politics or political bias. To solve the many problems we need to bring together left, right and centre. That means taking a collaborative approach, meaning, yes, we need to address the concerns of all involved, from mamils (Middle age men in lycra) to cabbies.
Why urban planning?
If anyone is truly serious about tackling the environmental, socio-economic and health issues of today we must look at how we actually use the land we inhabit. Where we live, how we get around and our impact on the environment are intrinsically linked. I chose to focus on urban planning after discovering the sheer number of social, economic, and environmental impacts that it has on our daily lives.
Below are eight key impacts that arise from how we design and plan urban environments. I welcome any further categories that I may have missed!
Climate change — The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that we have to take ‘urgent and unprecedented action’ to keep the warming to 1.5℃ compared to pre-industrial levels. They estimate we have just 12 years to reduce emissions significantly or the 1.5℃ trigger will be breached. People living in cities and towns use the least energy and resources per individual than those in suburban or rural locations. Embracing urban living is the best way to house our population sustainably.
Air pollution — King’s College London report that up to 36,000 premature deaths a year in the UK alone can be attributed to air pollution. (This is in comparison to 78,000 deaths attributed annually to smoking as of 2016.) Greater use of sustainable and active transport requires that cities are not planned around cars. This will greatly reduce air pollution.
Obesity/physical health — Estimates show that more than 30,000 deaths a year are caused by obesity in the UK alone. Good urban planning is necessary to put walking, cycling and active travel at the heart of how we move around the city. The greater the density with which we live, the shorter the distances can be between destinations and our homes, meaning we do not have to travel long distances by car or public transport. Putting the benefits of physical health to one side, if we reduce the amount of transportation by road traffic we will inherently reduce road traffic deaths (1,800 per year), assuming we integrate active travel safely through slow speeds, segregated cycle-paths and traffic-free zones.
Housing supply — We have a shortage of housing in the South East of England, especially in London. Yet we also have a desire to protect natural environments and precious greenbelt area. The simple solution to this is to increase the population density in existing towns and cities. To many that will conjure up images of Shanghai and New York high-rises, however the most space efficient way to densely house people is through mid-rise, 4–6 story terraced housing. The square km with the highest density in the UK is, in fact, the London neighbourhood of Maida Vale(c21,000 people/km²), where mid-rise housing dominates. Compared to the continent our towns and cities are sparse. Barcelona and Paris, both mid-rise cities, have areas with greater than 50,000 people/km². Both are cities deemed liveable and on a human scale.
Isolation — Particularly prevalent in the older generation, isolation can be greatly reduced by offering people a chance to live in walkable (including mobility aids) neighbourhoods. This means creating housing in central town and city locations that is accessible and attractive to older generations. There are far too many people trapped in remote suburbs or unwalkable housing estates that are no longer able or willing to drive. This leaves then isolated and reduces the amount of social interactions that can lead to good mental health.
Inclusivity/Accessibility — It seems to be the opinion of some that every person with a disability wants to have a door-to-door service. I don’t know if this is true and I will endeavour to ask and use data to find out. I suspect that in reality wider pavements and easy to use public transport allow easier and drastically cheaper mobility for the majority of people with mobility impairments. It is crucial to improve accessibility on our public transport. Moreover, for the times when a door-to-door service is crucial, less road traffic would mean a more efficient service anyway.
Improved performance of cities — This can include economic performance and a city’s ability to attract talent. TFL (Transport for London) research shows that you can increase retail footfall when focused on healthy, living streets. Cyclists and pedestrians spend more and you can get a greater number through the door!
Greater beauty — This is both an impact and a solution. A more attractive town and city is a benefit in itself and can also greatly enhance the lives of residents. People will walk more if the streets are more interesting, this means attractive and engaging building fronts and no more long straight industrial sides of shops and warehouses in town centres. We need human scale architecture not buildings that look impressive from a plane window only when flying in to a city.
I will focus on these topics in future blogs to dive deeper into how they are affected by urban planning and most importantly what solutions urban planning can offer. I’d love to start a conversation with anyone and everyone who’s interested in these problems and get your views.