Every Housing Crisis Has a Silver Lining

Matthew Coombes

The Shanghai Tower (centre) is one of the most eco-friendly buildings in the world, with rooftop wind turbines and dual-layered insulation (Photo: Gensler)

Since 1997, there has been an increase of 72 per cent in households waiting for social housing, and now, more than 1.8 million households are currently waiting in privately rented homes for social housing. This would not be an issue in continental Europe, where the average rent is nearly half of what it is in Britain, and where even for smaller sums of money, our European cousins are more secure, as they are less likely to be subjected to short tenancies. The greed of private landlords is forcing hard working citizens to be pushed further away from the dream of ever owning their own home.

But our political parties have it wrong. Obviously, we do need to start building more social and affordable housing to remove households from the grip of landlords. Yet it is no longer as simple as slapping some bricks and mortar together on an empty piece of land. The world’s challenges are changing, and our housing, our communities and our cities need to adapt to them.

Since the Conservative party loosened planning regulation, across the country our greenbelt land is being threatened to accommodate urban sprawl. Our greenbelt land is essential as it boosts the economy by promoting urban regeneration and keeps housing and business close to services and transport links. Critics will blindly argue that greenbelt land is the only land left to build on, but recent research shows that there are enough derelict brownfield sites to build 1.5 million homes. The greenbelt land has more than an economic value; it is there for those Sunday morning walks or trips away. It is a source of peace and quiet from our ever increasing chaotic lives.

High-density urban areas can prevent the sacrifice of our nation’s beauty by containing urban sprawl. High-density housing typically consists of blocks of flats and tower blocks, but we need to step away from the ugly blocks of flats that blemish our urban areas. A huge range of eco-friendly technology and the innovative architecture is now available to create space-efficient, attractive, affordable social housing. It is happening across the world, and we should follow and take the lead. It will be a slow journey, but the government should only allow the building on brownfield sites in cities. On these sites, the government should set out planning regulation to encourage builders to provide as many homes on that site as possible, but maintain high living standards.

Our biggest hurdle, however, is climate change, and it will not disappear anytime soon. Carbon dioxide levels are continuing to reach record levels. Even though promising to ratify the Paris agreement is a step forward, the British government must aim for the previously set EU targets and go even further to reduce carbon dioxide and emission levels. By taking a leading role in creating low carbon cities, it can provide a high standard of living with minimal environmental impact.

Our surrounding natural environments, which provide many essential ecosystems and act as carbon sinks, need to be protected. High density housing can ensure this, but it also offers the population the choice to live a more sustainable life. Almost everyone knows how they could reduce their carbon footprint, whether it is walking to school or work, or perhaps using less water. Sadly, it is just not realistic for people to walk a 55 minute commute to work, or pay for expensive water recycling systems. However, if your home was just around the corner from your workplace and all your other amenities, you would begin to walk more, and become less reliant on the cars and transport which devour fossil fuels and pour out carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Without cars everywhere, a pedestrianised and friendly city can bloom.

Of course, not everything will be next door to each other. This is where public transport comes into play. In our future cities, public transport will be the bloodstream of our economic generators. In Masdar City, the dream high density and eco-friendly city situated in Abu Dhabi, they have a system of magnets embedded in concrete roads to create a track for pods to carry humans and freight across the city — nothing dissimilar to what we could see in our own cities. People will have no reason to loathe public transport either, as in the long term they will be the only vehicles on roads, making them quicker and more reliable.

A diverse range of renewable energies would be essential to sustain life and industry in our cities. Cost has always been a barrier to renewable energy, but now that costs of renewable energy technologies are falling, the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is possible. Admittedly, some fossil fuels may be needed to prevent power shortages, but as technology advances and we perfect renewable energies, fossil fuels will not be needed.

The future development of our cities will not be easy, as major planning issues will materialise and huge investment in infrastructure will be needed. These problems will not be solved overnight, and for that reason our political parties should not avoid discussing the future of our cities simply because it will be time consuming and will not bring them the short-term benefit that will win them elections. In post-Brexit Britain, we need to act with foresight. By building affordable and social housing with cutting-edge architecture, planning and technology, we can meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, and start to solve the short-term and long-term issues our cities and our country face on the whole.