In the first part of two blog posts, published on 22 May, Ian Babelon provided examples of good practice in retrofitting social housing. The second part of this blog post looks at estate-wide and area-wide social housing retrofits.
Upscaling social housing retrofits requires learning from individual property retrofits and wider retrofitting programmes. With numbers comes greater complexity. As capacity grows, opportunities for partnerships provide new opportunities to embed retrofit programmes in wider sectoral and place-based strategies. This post considers the role of estate-wide and area-wide social housing retrofits, including how these can benefit from tenant engagement for healthy, inclusive placemaking.
Low-carbon retrofitting measures on Lancaster West Estate at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea have included Energiesprong whole house retrofits at 38 homes, energy-efficiency measures at 367 homes across seven blocks, and testing mechanical ventilation heat recovery systems. The latest measure is the fully carbon-neutral retrofit at Treadgold House. Other measures have included public realm and safety improvements. Along with the extensive resident engagement, the estate has witnessed a deep one-of-a-kind transformation.
However, estate-wide retrofits can be difficult to plan and deliver to a high energy-efficiency standard due to the large up-front costs involved. A mix of whole-house retrofits, fabric-first approaches, redevelopment of poorly designed buildings, and essential scheduled upgrades might be preferable, depending on the context and the heavy cost of building safety compliance.
The acclaimed Passivhaus redevelopment of Agar Grove in Camden, based on the masterplan by Hawkins\Brown, features a mix of solutions that make the estate-wide regeneration more affordable for both the council and residents. These include new council homes, refurbished flats, affordable rental housing, and homes for sale, enabling a tall order of 496 new homes to be delivered in six phases. Besides providing much-needed quality homes to many, the project also acts an exemplar for social and affordable housing in the UK and beyond.
From being an early adopter of the Energiesprong approach to the Deep Retrofit Energy Model (DREeM), enabling energy-efficient retrofits to dozens of social homes, Nottingham City Homes have been among the first in the UK to develop neighbourhood-wide retrofits. Nottingham City Council even tested the innovative use of Low Temperature District Heating along with whole house retrofits for 94 homes in Sneinton, which proved more complex than initially expected.
In Scotland, the Renfrewshire retrofit programme aims for EnerPHit or AECB Retrofit Standard for up to 3,500 homes across eight neighbourhoods. The initiative is part of a £100m housing-led regeneration programme across the local authority. Renfrewshire Council was selected as Social Landlord of the Year 2022 by the Retrofit Academy for its clear strategy to deliver large-scale housing decarbonisation, adopt the PAS2035 framework wherever possible, and for its proactive engagement of residents throughout the programme.
Other noteworthy programmes include whole house retrofits for 150 council-owned flats on the Holt Dale Estate in Leeds, reaching EPC rating A, benefitting residents who were living in fuel poverty. The 3 Cities Retrofit programme is worth following up as it has the potential to retrofit up to 165,000 social homes across the Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton City Councils.
In France, 14 housing associations in Brittany have partnered to leverage the Energiesprong approach for an initial stock of 2,000 social homes, with a potential to extend the experience to 16,000 social homes. In the north of France, the housing association Maison et Cités selected hemp concrete as the most effective material for a progressive roll-out of fabric-first retrofits to 20,000 homes in the former mining region. Both area-wide retrofit approaches were part-funded by the French public investment agency Banque des Territoires.
Residents should be onboard from day one of their property’s retrofit, but they can also actively contribute to wider retrofit programmes. Insight from the Social Housing Tenants’ Climate Jury report (2021) and the Resident Voices in the Net Zero Carbon Journey report both point to the need to educate and actively involve residents from the planning phase to supporting sustainable lifestyles.
One year on, these needs were felt even more acutely in the build-up to COP26. Critically, residents have expressed that perceived contradictions in council-led environmental strategies such as recycling can have knock-on effects on how they perceive the value and effectiveness of retrofits. This implies that efforts toward improving energy-efficiency and reducing waste should be consistent.
Resident-led and national initiatives have included community gardening and the Incredible Edible network. These can provide additional involvement opportunities as well as quality food and care for the neighbourhood. The demand for greener urban spaces, biodiversity and access to wildlife also came strongly in a related report by Orbit and the Chartered Institute of Housing. Initiatives that upscale tenant engagement include recruiting tenants as board members (at Connect Housing) or embedding tenant involvement in the housing provider’s sustainability strategy (at Notting Hill Genesis).
Providers can also encourage residents to contribute to the Together with Tenants Charter led by the National Housing Federation. The organisation Tpas and partners have shared tenant engagement guidance for ALMOs and housing associations that will be useful in seeking to upscale social housing retrofits. In addition, there has been a recent ministerial push encouraging tenants to voice their concerns more readily, and therefore to exercise scrutiny over what may be dismal housing conditions.
Collaboration and cross-sectoral partnerships underpinned by active tenant engagement seem essential to deliver large retrofit programmes while hedging against otherwise deterring risks. Exemplars, in turn, help build a greater ‘can do’ attitude and know-how for the wider housing and property sectors on the road to net zero, including area-wide retrofits.
Ian Babelon is a UX Researcher in Idox.
Further reading: more on decarbonising housing and sustainable living from The Knowledge Exchange blog
In the first of two blog posts, Idox’s Ian Babelon takes us on a tour of some of the best social housing retrofits in Britain, and beyond.
Blog posts on the Knowledge Exchange blog have repeatedly shown the need to retrofit social homes at scale to provide decent, comfortable homes while building capacity for low-carbon homes. The recent Powering Up Britain agenda highlights the long-term economic, environmental and social benefits of retrofitting homes, with the latest government funding opportunities including the second round of the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund (SHDF2) and ECO+. Thankfully, decades of learning in the UK and internationally have led to exemplar retrofits for all types of homes. After considering best practice guidance, this post provides a selection of examples across the UK and beyond.
For example, the Sustainable Traditional Buildings Alliance’s Guidance Wheel helps to visualise and manage the interactions between the different dimensions of retrofits required to implement the landmark PAS2035 retrofit framework.
The Sustainable Renovation Guide by the Scottish Ecological Design Guide (SEDA) also provides excellent technical guidance for retrofitting various types of homes. Airtightness is often essential to achieving good energy performance as it prevents thermal gaps, as detailed in this technical guide.
Industry-leading, on-demand webinars hosted by the Northern Housing Consortium also provide guidance and inspiration for all aspects of low-carbon social housing retrofits, from financing to neighbourhood-wide retrofits. Experience shows that having an airtightness champion in the construction team is also key to successful retrofits.
To make best use of technical and design guidance, having Unique Property Reference Numbers (UPRNs) provide a ‘golden thread’ for housing associations. Being able to accurately identify and differentiate between all properties enables compilation of complete datasets about housing stocks.
The Better Social Housing Review (2022) encourages housing associations to work together to conduct and publish an audit of the UK social housing stock. A clearer picture of all social housing can benefit both individual organisations and the wider industry in tracking progress toward decarbonisation and healthy, affordable homes for all. Recent assessments by the Regulator of Social Housing for council homes in London have further revealed the importance of up-to-date, complete datasets to monitor and guarantee building safety measures. Related benefits can include consistent monitoring of energy performance, environmental health, carbon emissions, and customer experience.
Historic and older homes
Social housing in the UK is often associated with housing construction in the period between 1947 and the 1980s. However, according to existing housing unit statistics in England for 2021, there is a total of 400,000 social homes built in the interwar period, and 273,000 social homes built before 1919. Older homes can be located in conservation areas, which limits options for retrofitting.
In 2019, Southside Housing Association used the EnerPHit retrofitting approach (involving the highest levels of energy efficiency) to pre-1919 tenements on Niddrie Road in Glasgow, with a design by John Gilbert Architects, in collaboration with Strathclyde University. As is often required for older housing, the eight one-bed flats benefitted from internal wall insulation to preserve the sandstone street façades. Natural building products were favoured as much as possible to guarantee indoor air quality and permeability while reducing embodied carbon and energy. Heating was supplied with new Air Source Heat Pumps or energy efficient combi gas boilers, along with mechanical ventilation heat recovery units (MVHRs). The project serves as a demonstration exemplar for “deep” tenement retrofits, and received funding from Glasgow City Council, the commissioning housing association, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council.
In Hamilton, Ontario, the Ken Soble Tower owned by CityHousing Hamilton was nearing the end of its life, having been built in 1967. The 2021 EnerPHit refurbishment featured external-wall and roof insulation, along with Air Source Heat Pumps. Completed in 2021, it is the first EnerPHit retrofit of an apartment tower in North America, providing 146 affordable housing units to older residents.
Back in Glasgow, the Cedars Court high-rise, comprising 314 flats, owned by Queens Cross Housing Association, benefitted from the first of its kind fabric-first EnerPHit refurbishment in Scotland between 2016 and 2019.
Further examples of high-rise retrofits include 528 flats across three tower blocks at Edward Woods Estate (2011-2014) in Shepherds Bush, Hammersmith and Fulham, and retrofits of 291 flats across two tower blocks at Ethelred Estate (2009-2010) in Kennington, Lambeth.
Co-operative social housing
In London, the North Camden Housing Co-operative commissioned a deep retrofit of Carlton Chapel House to EnerPHit standards. The social housing block of 15 flats was built in the 1980s, and was later susceptible to energy losses, forcing residents into fuel poverty. Renovation took place in 2019, and required decanting tenants to temporary accommodation. Collaboration between the construction contractors and the architects was key to achieving airtightness. Residents reported improved air quality, thermal comfort, and less noise after moving back.
The guidance about older and traditional homes is often relevant for social homes in rural locations. Swaffham Prior Heat Network is the first of its kind in the UK, delivering a mix of ground source and air source communal heat to 300 homes, including residents at Sanctuary social homes. The project is the result of collaboration between the Swaffham Prior Community Land Trust, Cambridgeshire County Council and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.
Learning from examples
In seeking to bring new life to dysfunctional buildings, it pays to learn from other projects, including unforeseen challenges. Flagship retrofits such as the low rise flats at Erneley Close in Manchester (2015) and 11-storey housing blocks at Wilmcote House in Portsmouth (2014-2018) revealed structural issues while retrofits were under way. Such technical and financial complexities illustrate inherent risks to retrofitting homes that initial building surveys, however comprehensive, may fail to detect. Decanting residents or allowing them to stay in occupancy during retrofit works can both be a challenging experience. In both instances, however, residents reported significant improvements to living conditions after final completion.
The scale of the retrofit challenge is enormous. This does not mean starting from scratch, however. The wide range of projects cited in this article demonstrate that social housing retrofits can be delivered at scale for nearly all types of homes, apart from structurally unredeemable buildings. It pays, therefore, to learn, and lead, by example.
Ian Babelon is a UX Researcher in Idox. The second of his blog posts on social housing retrofits will appear in this blog on Wednesday 24 May.
How can social housing retrofits help tackle the cost-of-living and climate crises that are currently exercising the minds of landlords, householders, tenants and governments? In this, blog post, Ian Babelon looks at the potential of retrofits for making homes more energy efficient and for futureproofing the built environment.
The benefits and costs of retrofitting
Around 38% of all homes in the UK were built before 1946. As a result, the UK’s housing stock is not only the oldest, but among the most poorly insulated in Europe, leading to higher energy bills and a lower quality of life. At the same time, UK homes account for over 66m tonnes of direct carbon emissions, undermining government decarbonisation efforts.
On many different levels, making Britain’s housing more energy efficient makes sense. Estimates by the UK’s Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) suggest households could save £220-400 in energy bills per year. In addition, retrofitting homes can address fuel poverty, provide decent homes, reduce public health costs, and help deliver decarbonisation targets.
But energy efficiency requires investment. Insight shared by the Greener Futures Partnership shows that it could cost between £13,000 and £25,000 to bring a social home to EPC (energy performance certificate) band C. This does not take into account training and skills requirements to retrofit homes, nor the significant variations in property condition, fabric type, fluctuating costs of construction materials, retrofit design choices, scheduling of renovation works, and availability of construction labour with the right skills. Retrofitting social homes at scale therefore requires working on multiple fronts at the same time.
The consequences of fuel poverty are wide-ranging. The annual cost of treating health conditions associated with cold, damp homes in England amounts to £1.3 billion. Poor housing also affects mental health, can impair children’s learning opportunities, and puts older people at greater risk of strokes and other severe health conditions.
A 2021 National Housing Federation report showed that the UK’s social rented sector has made great progress in tackling fuel poverty (64.3% of housing association homes already have an EPC rating of C or above). But the study also underlined how much more needs to be done. An additional £36bn of investment is required, said the report, to bring the remaining 39% of housing association homes up to a C rating, as well as installing heat pumps and other clean heat technologies in all 2.7 million homes.
Financing challenges and solutions
Social landlords also face significant costs for remediation and building safety improvements that hamper their efforts to retrofit homes and meet national energy efficiency targets. As DESNZ rolls out the second wave of the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, the NHF has called for long-term funding certainty so retrofits can pick up the pace.
Fortunately, more financing opportunities are becoming available for social landlords looking to make their properties more energy efficient, as reported in a report by the Green Finance Institute. These include local climate bonds, leaseholder finance and insurance-backed ‘comfort plans’, such as the Energiesprong approach, which can pay for insulation measures with energy and maintenance savings.
It pays to insulate homes before investing in complementary measures such as renewable energy generation or smart technologies. This ‘fabric-first’ approach is an attractive alternative to the large up-front investment costs for deep, ‘whole-house’ retrofits that may be prohibitive for social housing landlords.
Incremental retrofit approaches can combine initial fabric improvement with scheduled upgrades, such as replacing gas with energy-efficient electric heating and hot water, installing air-source heat pumps (ASHP) or introducing smart home devices.
Strategic planning is essential to avoid piecemeal interventions that might prove more costly and less effective over time. The Social Housing Retrofits for the Future report commissioned by the Greener Futures Partnership highlights the need for cross-sectoral collaboration to tackle technical, financial, legal and customer engagement requirements simultaneously by providing extensive evidence from across Europe and the UK.
LETI, a volunteer network of over 1,000 built environment professionals, has published a Climate Emergency Retrofit Guide for use by social housing landlords, designers and contractors. The guide provides an engaging infographic overview as well as guidance for a range of home archetypes.
… Or building from scratch
Are all poorly performing homes worth retrofitting? So-called ‘hard-to-treat’ and ‘hard-to-decarbonise’ homes (about 2% of all social homes) can be very costly to upgrade. LETI provides a decision aid to determine whether one should retrofit or build anew, to be used in conjunction with other guidance.
A key aspect of this decision is to differentiate between embodied carbon (carbon emitted in making construction materials and during actual construction) and operational carbon (emissions produced during occupancy). All things considered, it is usually more worthwhile to renovate and reuse homes than to knock them down and redevelop them.
As performance increases to meet sector-wide energy-efficiency targets, designing for and monitoring air tightness will become increasingly important to help achieve decarbonisation.
High-performance standards such as Passivhaus ENERPHit are premised on sound air tightness and ventilation to guarantee thermal comfort while reducing energy costs. The Passivhaus Trust provides resources and case studies to help councils, ALMOs and housing associations deliver energy-efficient retrofits and new builds, along with a recent evidence-based research report that makes the case for whole-house, low-carbon retrofits.
The next frontier for retrofitting social housing at scale lies in neighbourhood-wide retrofits that could appeal even more to green finance but would require commensurate public-private partnerships and coordination.
Overall, retrofitting social housing is a win-win for everyone involved. It is good for the environment, the economy, and the people who live in social housing. The up-front costs can be substantial, but the long-term benefits should make these investments cost-effective.
The social housing sector has clearly been taking action to deliver more energy efficient homes, and it’s working with residents, contractors, local authorities and other stakeholders to ensure that the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund succeeds.
Challenges remain, notably concerns about skills shortages. But the prize of warmer homes, affordable energy, a better quality of life and a cleaner planet is well worth the effort of overcoming these obstacles.
Ian Babelon, UX Researcher, Idox
A longer version of this article is available for subscribers to The Knowledge Exchange Information Service. To retrieve it from our online database, use the reference number: B67199.
The benefits of community gardens are almost endless. Evidence suggests that spending time outdoors in green spaces has positive effects on mental and physical health. Community gardens are also social spaces, bringing volunteers from different backgrounds together, which can reduce loneliness and help people of all ages learn more about nature. Community gardens have numerous positive environmental impacts, including improvements to air, soil and water, as well as increasing the biodiversity of plants and animals.
Strong roots, vital functions
Community gardens have their roots in agrarian societies dating back thousands of years. Later, as people moved into cities, many of them transformed plots of urban land into green spaces. These have been especially important for growing food in times of crisis. During World War II, the government’s “Dig For Victory” campaign transformed Britain from a food importer to a largely self-sufficient economy. By the end of the war, 75% of food was homegrown and there were 1.4 million allotments across the country.
During the post-war years, the UK’s reliance on food imports has risen, and by 2020 almost half of our food came from overseas. At the same time, supermarkets have overtaken shops selling local produce, and there has been a steep rise in consumption of processed foods, with subsequent impacts on the nation’s health.
Back to the land
But in recent years, things have started to change. The Covid-19 pandemic underlined the value of green spaces for improving our health and wellbeing. In addition, greater attention to healthy eating, environmental protection and rising food costs has attracted more people to the idea of growing their own fruit and vegetables, herbs and flowers.
Governments have taken note of these trends, and at national and local levels they have introduced measures aiming to make it easier to establish community gardens. One such example is the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act. Passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2015, the aim of this law is to support communities in doing things for themselves. Part 9 of the Act concerns increasing the accessibility of the land to those who wish to grow their own food.
The Act requires every Scottish local authority to prepare and publish its own food growing strategy. These strategies identify land for allotments and other community growing and describe how the authority will meet demand. While preparing their strategies, local authorities have consulted a wide range of stakeholders, including allotment associations, community councils, current allotment holders and existing community gardens.
Planning departments need to be involved in the preparation of food growing strategies, and will also require consultation about consents for community garden projects. But there is a clear shift towards official encouragement of community growing. The Scottish Government’s most recent National Planning Framework specifically mentions the importance of land for community food growing as an integral part of placemaking.
Food Growing Strategies: diverse ideas in action
The food growing strategies published so far demonstrate that Scotland’s local authorities have enthusiastically embraced the responsibilities placed upon them by the Community Empowerment Act.
Scottish Borders Council’s Food Growing Strategy includes ideas on getting started in growing activities, guidance on available support and information about existing community gardens and orchards in the region. It also features case studies of successful community gardens, including the Greenhouse Project in Galashiels, which provides home-grown produce for food parcels distributed to local families. The project also provides live cookery classes for children and recipe bags to support home cooking and healthier meals.
Argyll and Bute Council’s Food Growing Strategy features examples of good practice, including a case study of the Kyles Allotment Group, which was set up after the community purchased Acharossan Forest. The group rents plots to local people who grow a variety of fruit and vegetables, and there is also a community orchard.
Falkirk Council’s Food Growing Strategy explains how the council plans to increase space for allotments and community growing, including using some of the 632 parks and open spaces across the area for new growing sites.
The preparations for Glasgow’s Food Growing Strategy included a series of community engagement meetings across the city at which people were asked to identify any potential growing sites in their area. As a result, the strategy provides a map of existing and potential allotment sites in Glasgow.
The increasing popularity of home-grown food has underlined the shortage of growing spaces. Last year, local authorities in Scotland reported high numbers of people were waiting for an allotment. In Edinburgh, the figure was 2,637, with a similar number in Glasgow. In some council areas the waiting list dated back 10 years.
In response to the significant demand for allotments, the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee launched an inquiry to scrutinise the delivery of local authorities’ responsibilities concerning community growing under the Community Empowerment Act. The Committee published its findings in 2022.
Among the challenges identified by the inquiry was the difficulty in gaining access to land for growing. Some witnesses giving evidence to the Committee expressed frustration about large amounts of vacant land that had the potential as growing spaces being unused by developers. The Committee also repeatedly heard that limited resources in planning departments were holding up applications for new allotments.
Among its recommendations, the Committee suggested that the Scottish Government might explore whether the provisions of Part 9 of the Community Empowerment Act could be extended beyond local authority owned allotments to other sites, such as those offered by the NHS, or to private allotment sites.
Beyond allotments: community growing opportunities
The shortage of allotments doesn’t mean people can’t get involved. Volunteering websites advertise numerous opportunities to join community garden projects. While previous experience is welcomed, most community gardens are just happy to receive help of any kind. And for the volunteers, enjoying the fresh air, meeting new people and learning new skills are just some of the rewards of taking part.
Food poverty, climate change, health inequalities and social isolation are among the big challenges of our age. No-one is suggesting that community growing projects can solve these problems on their own. But in their own modest way, community gardens are improving the lives of individuals, enriching communities and doing their bit for the planet.
The Scottish planning system and planning services are in the midst of a period of significant change at the moment, both as a result of strategic reforms and the transition away from the temporary changes to planning operations which were introduced as a result of the pandemic.
The Scottish Government has completed its public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny of the Fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) and expects to put forward a revised draft for approval to the Scottish Parliament in the autumn.
There is ongoing work to develop the arrangements for the new-style local development plans, which will sit alongside NPF4 as the statutory development plan. Recent months have also seen consultations on the Open Space Strategy and the Play Sufficiency Assessment, as well as the next phase of the review of permitted development rights. The digital transformation of planning programme has also moved into its second year.
At such a busy time within the planning sector, a key resource for planners and planning lawyers is the Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal. Bringing together commentary and analysis from leading professionals, lawyers and academics, the journal explores current developments and case law, and is published every two months.
August 2022 issue
The August 2022 issue has just been published and includes articles focusing on:
NPF4, place and the 20-minute neighbourhood concept
Commentary on the review of the role of incineration in the waste hierarchy
Natural capital in the context of Scottish land use management and the goal of a Just Transition
The circular economy and implications for the waste sector
Each issue of SPEL Journal includes comment on key court cases. Within the August 2022 issue these include the Court of Appeal case relating to private law actions about unauthorised sewage discharges (The Manchester Ship Canal Company Ltd v United Utilities Water Ltd).
Recent developments in environmental planning, law and policy are also covered. The proposed Land Reform Bill continues its progress, with a public consultation underway. There have also been announcements relating to the Scottish Government’s drive to increase hydrogen fuel production capacity. Planning permission was recently granted for Scotland’s first plastic-to-hydrogen facility, which will be constructed in Clydebank, and new funding has been launched to support innovation in the hydrogen fuel sector.
A long tradition of supporting the professions
SPEL Journal (Scottish Planning & Environmental Law) launched over 35 years ago and is one of the leading information sources on land use planning and environmental legislation across the country.
Written by a diverse range of subject experts, SPEL Journal includes accessible commentary on topical subjects and current issues; details of new legislation and significant court cases; expert comment on key planning appeal decisions, government circulars and guidance; as well as notes about ombudsman cases and book reviews.
SPEL Journal is read by decision makers in Scottish planning authorities, planning law practices, planning consultancies, architects, surveyors, civil engineers, environmental managers and developers across Scotland. It is also valued by many outside of Scotland who wish to keep up-to-date with developments.
SPEL Journal is published 6 times a year. An annual subscription is £170. For further details or a sample copy, please contact Heather Cameron at email@example.com.
James Lovelock, the maverick scientist and inventor, died surrounded by his family on July 27 2022 – his 103rd birthday. Jim led an extraordinary life. He is best known for his Gaia hypothesis, developed with the brilliant US biologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s, which transformed the way we think of life on Earth.
Gaia challenged the orthodox view that life simply evolved and adapted to the ever-changing environment. Instead, Lovelock and Margulis argued that species not only competed but also cooperated to create the most favourable conditions for life.
Earth is a self-regulating system maintained by communities of living organisms, they claimed. These communities adjust oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, salinity in the ocean and even the planet’s temperature to keep them within the acceptable bounds for life to thrive.
Just like Charles Darwin before him, Lovelock published his new, radical idea in a popular book, Gaia: A new look at life on Earth (1979). It was an instant hit that challenged mature researchers to reassess their science and encouraged new ones. As my friend and colleague Professor Richard Betts at the Met Office Hadley Centre put it:
He was a source of inspiration to me for my entire career, and in fact his first book on Gaia was a major reason why I chose to work on climate change and Earth system modelling.
Not only did the book challenge the classical Darwinism notion that life evolved and prospered through constant competition and dogged self-interest, it founded a whole new field: Earth system science. We Earth system scientists study all the interactions between the atmosphere, land, ocean, ice sheets and, of course, living things.
Lovelock also inspired the environmental movement by giving his ideas a spiritual overtone: Gaia was the goddess who personified the Earth in Greek mythology.
This antagonised many scientists, but created a lot of fruitful debate in the 1980s and 1990s. It is now generally accepted that organisms can enhance their local environment to make it more habitable. For example, forests can recycle half the moisture they receive, keeping the local climate mild and stabilising rainfall.
But the original Gaia hypothesis, that life regulates the environment so that the planet resembles an organism in its own right, is still treated with scepticism among most scientists. This is because no workable mechanism has been discovered to explain how the forces of natural selection, which operate on individual organisms, birthed the evolution of such planetary-scale homeostasis.
This matchbox-sized device could measure tiny traces of toxic chemicals. It was essential in demonstrating that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmosphere, which originated in aerosols and refrigerators at the time, were destroying the ozone layer. It also showed that pesticide residues exist in the tissues of virtually all living creatures, from penguins in Antarctica to human breast milk.
The money he earned from the electron capture detector gave him his freedom because, as he was fond of telling people, the best science comes from an unfettered mind – and he hated being directed. The detector was just the start of his inventing career and he filed more than 40 patents.
He also wrote over 200 scientific papers and many popular books expanding on the Gaia hypothesis. He was awarded scientific medals, international prizes and honorary doctorates by universities all around the world.
Dr Roger Highfield, the science director at the London Science Museum, summed Jim up perfectly:
“Jim was a nonconformist who had a unique vantage point that came from being, as he put it, half-scientist and half-inventor. Endless ideas bubbled forth from this synergy between making and thinking. Although he is most associated with Gaia, he did an extraordinary range of research, from freezing hamsters to detecting life on Mars … He was more than happy to bristle a few feathers, whether by articulating his dislike of consensus views, formal education and committees, or by voicing his enthusiastic support for nuclear power.”
Jim was deeply concerned by what he saw humanity doing to the planet. In his 1995 book The Ages of Gaia, he suggested that the warm periods between ice ages, like the current Holocene, are the fevered state of our planet. Because over the last two million years the Earth has shown a clear preference for a colder average global temperature, Jim understood global warming as humanity adding to this fever.
Jim did despair at humanity’s inability to look after the environment and much of his writing reflected this, particularly his book The Revenge of Gaia in 2006. But at the age of 99, he published Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence (2019), an optimistic view which envisaged humanity creating artificially intelligent life forms that would, unlike us, understand the importance of other living things in maintaining a habitable planet.
His dwindling faith in humanity was replaced by trust in the logic and rationality of AI. He left us with hope that cyborgs would take over and save us from ourselves.
The UK is failing to enact the policies that would put it on track to reach net zero emissions by 2050, according to a progress report by the Climate Change Committee. The head of this expert body, which advises the government on its climate strategy, described the UK’s record on home insulation in particular as “a complete tale of woe”.
Gas heating in draughty homes is one of the country’s biggest sources of carbon emissions – and a leading cause of poor health and poverty as energy prices remain sky-high. So what would it take to turn this around?
“The transition to net zero emissions is often framed as a race to make new stuff – such as electric vehicles and wind turbines – as fast as possible,” says Ran Boydell, a visiting lecturer in sustainable development at Heriot-Watt University.
“That’s actually the easy part. The hard part will be modifying what already exists – and that includes people’s homes.”
Cavity wall insulation, triple-glazed windows, solar panels, low-carbon heating systems such as heat pumps which run on electricity: all of these things and potentially more are needed to neutralise the contributions to climate change made by 26 million homes (the number of existing homes Boydell anticipates will still be around in 2050). That would eliminate 68 million tonnes of CO₂, which is about 15% of the national total.
“The idea is to ensure that no home emits greenhouse gases by burning fossil fuels for energy and that, eventually, each home could produce as much energy as it uses,” Boydell says.
According to analysis by the Climate Change Committee, the average cost of retrofitting a single home to net zero standard is £26,000. Energy savings would make up for this after 20 years, but most households would struggle to make such a big upfront investment.
“Considering energy efficiency measures purely in terms of financial payback will never stack up,” Boydell says. “They must be considered in terms of carbon payback. Carbon payback is how quickly the reduced carbon emissions from daily life in a net zero home take to make up for the carbon emissions that went into making and building all the different parts.”
A home operating at net zero standard would compensate for the carbon that went into building it after just six years, Boydell estimates. But it’s the responsibility of the government – and not individual homeowners – to juggle these considerations, he says.
“Infrastructure, like roads and railways, is the only stuff people build which counts its payback periods in decades. The government needs to think of a mass retrofit programme for our houses in those terms: as critical national infrastructure.”
Fund, regulate and overhaul
Matthew Hannon and Donal Brown study green policy at the universities of Strathclyde and Sussex. They say that:
“At an absolute minimum, the government should be aiming to install insulation in 1.3 million homes a year – a rate it managed pre-2013.”
To reach that level, Hannon and Brown have four suggestions. First, increase annual funding for retrofitting homes from £1 billion to £7 billion – enough to retrofit 7 million homes by 2025, they claim. Next, shift the burden of raising this money into general taxation and away from energy bill levies which strain the poorest households and inflate the cost of heating homes with zero-carbon electricity.
“Insulating hundreds of homes at a time, neighbourhood by neighbourhood and coordinated by local authorities, could help to retrofit housing deeper and faster than tackling homes one by one,” they say. For this, collaboration with local groups and businesses who know the community well will be key. Hannon and Brown argue the government will also need a separate, well-funded programme to install heat pumps and other low-carbon heating systems, while phasing out support for gas boilers.
Once a national campaign to renovate Britain’s homes to net zero standard is underway, there are certain to be teething problems. The Labour Party offered a comprehensive programme of home insulation at the 2019 election. At the time, Jo Richardson, a professor of housing and social inclusion at De Montfort University, and David Coley, a professor of low-carbon design at the University of Bath, described the obstacles that will need to be overcome.
“The UK construction sector is highly fragmented – and different subcontractors are often responsible for the walls, roof and electricity in a single house. This makes quality control difficult. There’s also a skills shortage, especially when it comes to the detailed knowledge required to build a zero-energy house. And if energy-consuming extras such as underfloor heating or electrically driven windows are added, the energy savings from design may be lost,” they say.
The Climate Change Committee noted that new homes are rarely net zero standard, with 1.5 million built in recent years that will need to be retrofitted. The preferred solution for Richardson and Coley is to mandate each new home to Passivhaus standard, which certifies that it produces as much energy as it uses.
“Passivhaus only works if the right design decisions are made from day one,” they caution. “If an architect starts by drawing a large window for example, then the energy loss from it might well be so great that any amount of insulation elsewhere can’t offset it. Architects don’t often welcome this intrusion of physics into the world of art.”
Increased funding, new regulations and an overhaul of architectural norms will be necessary to roll out zero-energy homes and retrofit existing ones. “That’s a tall order,” say Richardson and Coley. “But decarbonising each component of society will take nothing short of a revolution.”
The world’s governments will this year negotiate a series of targets in response to the global biodiversity crisis that has already led to a massive loss of the planet’s wildlife. While none of the previous round of targets agreed in 2010 have been met, the one that gained the most publicity, and arguably the one we got closest to achieving was target 11. Its aim was that:
By 2020, at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10% of coastal and marine areas … are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas.
These “protected areas” can range from enormous, strictly-protected areas like US national parks, through the heavily-used landscapes of UK national parks, to tiny urban nature reserves. Protected areas can stop or slow many of the forces threatening biodiversity such as habitat loss, hunting and pollution, and have been a mainstay of global conservation for decades.
By August 2020, some 15% of the world’s land had been protected. This was below the target, but there were enough specific commitments in place to drag the world over the line slightly late. In many ways this is an incredible achievement and perhaps the largest and fastest coordinated change in land management ever.
But the devil is in the detail. For protected areas to be effective they need to be in the right place, and big enough to keep populations of wild species alive. Hundreds of tiny reserves separated by inhospitable farmland may help us reach the 17% target, but they won’t stop extinctions. So, how does our current network stack up? Is it enough to stop species going extinct?
Most animals are underprotected
Colleagues and I recently tackled this question in a study now published in the journal PNAS.
We looked at 3,834 species of terrestrial mammals (all those with available data) and estimated how large a population every protected area in the world could theoretically support (technically, we also grouped adjacent protected areas, as animals can move between them). Understanding how many individuals could survive in each area is vital because small populations just don’t last very long: below a certain size they are much more vulnerable to being wiped out by disease, inbreeding, fires, poaching, or even just falling victim to natural fluctuations in numbers.
To do this, we combined global databases on where animal species live and where the world’s protected areas are located, with site and location specific estimates of population density (how many rhinos – or shrews – do you get per square kilometre).
Worryingly, we found that thousands of species do not appear to be adequately protected. Depending on the exact criteria used, we estimated that at least 1,536 species (40% of those we looked at), and maybe as many as 2,156 (56%) had ten or fewer protected populations that were likely to survive in the long run.
These under-protected species were found across all continents, across all species groups we looked at, and included some of the world’s smallest mammals, as well as some of the largest. Perhaps most concerning, 91% of the world’s threatened mammals – many of which are already the focus of conservation efforts – were under-protected, and hundreds of these species appear to have no viable protected populations at all. These species are at serious risk of population declines or extinctions as habitat outside protected areas comes under increasing pressure.
What is more, these numbers represent a best-case scenario. In reality, protected areas are only effective if they are well-managed, and most simply don’t have the resources.
Our work suggests that what matters is not the total percentage of the world that is protected, but whether protection is in the right places and whether protected areas are large enough, or well enough connected to other areas, to support populations that will survive in the long term. If not, then they are just delaying the inevitable, and species will continue to be lost from them, whether or not targets have been met.
Expanding or relocating the world’s protected areas comes fraught with very real risks to human wellbeing. These areas are based on stopping people from doing things: from chopping down trees, from hunting certain species, from mining, or from farming.
This is what makes them so valuable to biodiversity, but imposes a huge cost on the local population. Many protected areas have a history of colonialism, forced removals, and the impoverishment or disenfranchisement of local and particularly indigenous people. Any future expansion has to be fair to these people.
Expansion is also only going to be possible if we reduce human demand for land. Protected areas are going to be ever more important as growing human consumption puts unprotected land under increasing pressure.
But they are like treating the symptom of a disease, and we also have to treat the root cause. Without rapid shifts towards healthier, plant-rich diets, reductions in food waste, and sustainable yield increases, there simply won’t be enough spare land to protect.
The world’s biodiversity is in serious trouble, and our current system of protected areas appears unlikely to save it. To prevent a wave of extinctions in coming decades, we need to greatly reduce humanity’s global footprint and to couple this with protected areas that are well managed, well located and large enough.
Over the past two years, the coronavirus pandemic and the cost of living crisis have eclipsed the UK’s chronic housing shortage. But the housing challenges of 2019 are still with us in 2022, and in many ways they have worsened. According to the housing charity Shelter, over 17 million people are living in overcrowded, dangerous, unstable or unaffordable housing.
There’s no single solution to Britain’s housing emergency. But one idea that’s gaining increasing attention is co-housing.
A London School of Economics report has given a good definition of co-housing:
“A co-housing group is formed by a community of people typically with similar needs and interests. Co-housing is owned by the group and usually contains private rooms or houses with communal areas such as living rooms and kitchens, where people will come together to share meals and spend time together. The residents are responsible for the management and maintenance of the site, and they are run in a non-hierarchical way, giving all residents an equal say in how they are organised.”
The modern co-housing movement began in Denmark in the 1970s, and has since spread to other European countries, including Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands. There is now a growing number of co-housing projects in the UK, and although these are small in scale, they are pointing the way to alternative models of housing, and also to addressing other social issues, such as isolation and loneliness.
The promises of co-housing
The proponents of co-housing suggest that it has multiple benefits for residents:
affordability: by pooling resources such as cooking, childcare, and household expenses, co-housing residents can cut costs;
security: co-housing provides safe spaces for residents to live and socialise;
sustainability: sharing resources increases efficiency and reduces waste;
community: co-housing residents make decisions together, and co-housing can also reduce the chances of isolation.
The multiple faces of co-housing
There is no single template for co-housing. Some projects have a mixture of generations, singles, couples and families, while others focus on the needs of particular communities. In the United States, intergenerational co-housing projects have brought together retired people, families and foster children. Another scheme, in Berlin, has been designed for older gay men, but also welcomes older lesbian women, trans and inter persons, as well as younger LGBTQ+ people.
In 2016, the UK’s first co-housing project for older women opened in Barnet, north London. The New Ground scheme has been successful in developing a mutually supportive community of women over the age of 50. In addition, New Ground has worked to encourage policy makers, planners and housing associations to recognise the social and economic benefits of co-housing, and to respond to the demand that exists for senior co-housing.
Because co-housing is often seen as being reserved for communities who are affluent and predominantly white, Housing 21, a leading provider of retirement properties for older people, has recently launched a co-housing initiative with a focus on older Black and Asian people of modest financial means.
Tackling isolation: how co-housing can address loneliness
The communal nature of co-housing makes it a natural fit for people who are isolated and lonely. This was one of the themes of a recent webinar hosted by Housing LIN. One of the participants was Kath Scanlon, a researcher from the London School of Economics, who highlighted her work exploring the links between loneliness and participation in community-led housing.
Kath’s research has underlined the importance of social connection with neighbours and sharing spaces with others as ways of preventing loneliness:
“Broadly, we found that the most tight-knit places, where members knew and trusted each other most, performed best as supportive communities… Emotional loneliness was countered by fostering meaningful relationships and ‘belonging’ through physical proximity, sharing similar values, a reciprocal commitment and care, looking out for and supporting each other.”
A resident’s perspective
One of the most engaging and powerful contributions to the Housing LIN webinar came from Alison Cahn, who has been a resident at Lancaster Cohousing scheme since 2012.
Alison was one of the first residents of the scheme, which is an intergenerational co-housing community of households in the village of Halton, three miles from Lancaster in the North West of England.
The Lancaster scheme was designed by the people who live there. It consists of private homes, community facilities and shared outdoor space. Shared facilities include a laundry, food store and a car share scheme.
As Alison explained, the scheme is an eco-housing community, designed to make sustainable living easy. The homes are built to Passivhaus standards, which means they use about 15% of the energy to heat compared to conventional housing. Electricity comes from the scheme’s own microgrid. And if Alison needs anything, from a drill to a tent, she can borrow it from her neighbours. Overall, the scheme is estimated to save around 540 tonnes of CO2 every year (a single tonne of CO2 is equivalent to a 500 m3 hot air balloon).
Alison also highlighted the social aspects of co-housing. The scheme has been designed to enable residents to meet and interact. As well as sharing facilities, the residents get involved in communal activities, such as art, camping and wild swimming. They also work together and make decisions on the future development of the scheme.
Alison watched her mother grow old alone, and was determined that this shouldn’t happen to her. She feels supported by her neighbours, something that was especially important when her husband fell ill. Alison also spoke very movingly about another resident called Roger, who found support from the co-housing community in the final weeks of his life. As she explained: “Roger said he came to this co-housing scheme to die, but he didn’t. He actually came here to live.”
The pitfalls of co-housing
While Alison was keen to stress the attractions of co-housing, she also described the challenges. “Different people need different levels of social connections. Not everyone is keen to spend much time with their neighbours, and some prefer their privacy.” While decisions are taken together, reaching a consensus can take time, with general meetings sometimes getting heated. “Some bitter conflicts have fractured relationships, and some people have left.”
And although co-housing can reduce isolation, some residents have the impression that it will solve all their problems – “We’re neighbours, not carers or psychotherapists.”
As things stand, co-housing schemes in the UK are too small to tackle the enormous challenges of the country’s housing shortage. But existing schemes demonstrate the great potential of this model of housing. And with more support from housing associations and local authorities, co-housing in the UK could really take off.
It was thanks to an imaginative collaboration between Hanover Housing Association and the Older Women’s Co-Housing group that the New Ground co-housing scheme became a reality. The housing association financed purchase of the land and construction of the properties, and the homes were presold or pre-let by the co-housing group before construction started.
Co-housing isn’t for everyone. It requires commitment from residents to participate in the management of a scheme, and to sacrifice some of their privacy for the benefit of their neighbours. This model of housing presents particular challenges, some of which might be hard to overcome. But the rewards of co-housing can be substantial.
Or, as Alison Cahn puts it: “When it works, it’s awesome.”
Answer: the vehicles on our streets, primarily the not-so-humble passenger car.
Despite the (slow) migration to electric-powered cars, consumer trends are making driving even more wasteful and unequal. A recent analysis found the emissions saved from electric cars have been more than cancelled out by the increase in gas-guzzling Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs). Around the world, SUVs alone emit more carbon pollution than Canada or Germany, and are causing a bigger increase in climate pollution than heavy industry.
While cars are sometimes necessary for people’s mobility and social inclusion needs – not least those with disabilities – car-centric cities particularly disadvantage the already-marginalised. In the UK, women, young and older people, those from minority communities and disabled people are concentrated in the lowest-income households, of which 40% do not have a car. In contrast, nearly 90% of the highest-income households own at least one car.
So the driving habits of a minority impose high costs on society, and this is especially true in cities. Copenhagen, for example, has calculated that whereas each kilometre cycled benefits society to the tune of €0.64 (53 pence), each kilometre driven incurs a net loss of -€0.71 (-59p), when impacts on individual wellbeing (physical and mental health, accidents, traffic) and the environment (climate, air and noise pollution) are accounted for. So each kilometre travelled where a car is replaced by a bicycle generates €1.35 (£1.12) of social benefits – of which only a few cents would be saved by switching from a fossil-fuelled to an electric-powered car, according to this analysis.
Reducing car use in cities
Half a century ago, the Danish capital was dominated by cars. But following grassroots campaigns to change policies and streets, including replacing car parking with safe, separated bike lanes, Copenhagen has increased its biking share of all trips from 10% in 1970 to 35% today. In 2016, for the first time, more bicycles than cars made journeys around the city over the course of that year.
But while many other car-limiting initiatives have been attempted around the world, city officials, planners and citizens still do not have a clear, evidence-based way to reduce car use in cities. Our latest research, carried out with Paula Kuss at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies and published in Case Studies on Transport Policy, seeks to address this by quantifying the effectiveness of different initiatives to reduce urban car use.
Our study ranks the 12 most effective measures that European cities have introduced in recent decades, based on real-world data on innovations ranging from the “carrot” of bike and walk-to-work schemes to the “stick” of removing free parking. The ranking reflects cities’ successes not only in terms of measurable reductions in car use, but in achieving improved quality of life and sustainable mobility for their residents.
In all, we have screened nearly 800 peer-reviewed reports and case studies from throughout Europe, published since 2010, seeking those that quantified where and how cities had successfully reduced car use. The most effective measures, according to our review, are introducing a congestion charge, which reduces urban car levels by anywhere from 12% to 33%, and creating car-free streets and separated bike lanes, which has been found to lower car use in city centres by up to 20%. Our full ranking of the top 12 car-reducing measures is summarised in this table: https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/NDMp4/12/
The inequality of car use
Cars are inherently inefficient and inequitable in their use of land and resources. On average, they spend 96% of their time parked, taking up valuable urban space that could be put to more beneficial uses such as housing and public parks. In Berlin, car users on average take up 3.5 times more public space than non-car users, primarily through on-street parking.
And it is overwhelmingly richer people who drive the most: in Europe, the top 1% by income drive nearly four times more than the median driver, accounting for some 21% of their personal climate footprint. For these highest emitters, climate pollution from driving is second only to flying (which, on average, generates twice as many emissions).
Prioritising cars as a means of transport also favours suburban sprawl. City suburbs typically possess larger homes that generate higher levels of consumption and energy use. North American suburban households consistently have higher carbon footprints than urban ones: one study in Toronto found suburban footprints were twice as high.
Electric vehicles are necessary, but they’re not a panacea. Since cars tend to be on the road for a long time, the migration to electric vehicles is very slow. Some studies anticipate relatively small emissions reductions over the coming decade as a result of electric vehicle uptake. And even if there’s nothing damaging released from an electric car’s exhaust pipe, the wear of car brakes and tyres still creates toxic dust and microplastic pollution. However a car is powered, can it ever be an efficient use of resources and space to spend up to 95% of that energy moving the weight of the vehicle itself, rather than its passengers and goods?
COVID-19: a missed opportunity?
Our study assesses urban mobility innovations and experiments introduced before the pandemic was declared. In response to COVID-19, travel habits (to begin with, at least) changed dramatically. But following large reductions in driving during the spring of 2020, road use and the associated levels of climate pollution have since rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels. Indeed, in Sweden, while public transport use declined by around 42% during the first year of the pandemic, car travel declined by only 7% in the same period, leading to an overall increase in the proportion of car use.
While entrenched habits such as car commuting are hard to shift, times of disruption can offer an effective moment to change mobility behaviour – in part because people forced to try a new habit may discover it has unexpected advantages. For such behaviour to stick, however, also requires changes in the physical infrastructure of cities. Unfortunately, while European cities that added pop-up bike lanes during the pandemic increased cycling rates by a stunning 11-48%, we are now seeing a return to car-centric cities, with extra car lanes and parking spaces once again displacing cycle lanes and space for pedestrians.
Overall, the opportunities to align pandemic recovery measures with climate targets have largely been squandered. Less than 20% of government spending on pandemic measures globally were likely to also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The extent to which workers resume driving to their offices is another key issue determining future car use in cities. Thoughtful travel policies to reduce unnecessary travel, and opportunities for faraway participants to fully participate in meetings and conferences digitally, could slash emissions by up to 94% – and save time to boot. Those who work remotely three or more days per week travel less overall than their peers. But long car commutes can quickly wipe out such emissions savings, so living close to work is still the best option.
No silver bullet solution
The research is clear: to improve health outcomes, meet climate targets and create more liveable cities, reducing car use should be an urgent priority. Yet many governments in the US and Europe continue to heavily subsidise driving through a combination of incentives such as subsidies for fossil fuel production, tax allowances for commuting by car, and incentives for company cars that promote driving over other means of transport. Essentially, such measures pay polluters while imposing the social costs on wider society.
City leaders have a wider range of policy instruments at their disposal than some might realise – from economic instruments such as charges and subsidies, to behavioural ones like providing feedback comparing individuals’ travel decisions with their peers’. Our study found that more than 75% of the urban innovations that have successfully reduced car use were led by a local city government – and in particular, those that have proved most effective, such as congestion charges, parking and traffic controls, and limited traffic zones.
But an important insight from our study is that narrow policies don’t seem to be as effective – there is no “silver bullet” solution. The most successful cities typically combine a few different policy instruments, including both carrots that encourage more sustainable travel choices, and sticks that charge for, or restrict, driving and parking.
So here are the 12 best ways to reduce city car use:
1. Congestion charges
The most effective measure identified by our research entails drivers paying to enter the city centre, with the revenues generated going towards alternative means of sustainable transport. London, an early pioneer of this strategy, has reduced city centre traffic by a whopping 33% since the charge’s introduction by the city’s first elected mayor, Ken Livingstone, in February 2003. The fixed-charge fee (with exemptions for certain groups and vehicles) has been raised over time, from an initial £5 per day up to £15 since June 2020. Importantly, 80% of the revenues raised are used for public transport investments.
Other European cities have followed suit, adopting similar schemes after referenda in Milan, Stockholm and Gothenburg – with the Swedish cities varying their pricing by day and time. But despite congestion charges clearly leading to a significant and sustained reduction of car use and traffic volume, they cannot by themselves entirely eliminate the problem of congestion, which persists while the incentives and infrastructure favouring car use remain.
2. Parking and traffic controls
In a number of European cities, regulations to remove parking spaces and alter traffic routes – in many cases, replacing the space formerly dedicated to cars with car-free streets, bike lanes and walkways – has proved highly successful. For example, Oslo’s replacement of parking spaces with walkable car-free streets and bike lanes was found to have reduced car usage in the centre of the Norwegian capital by up to 19%.
3. Limited traffic zones
Rome, traditionally one of Europe’s most congested cities, has shifted the balance towards greater use of public transport by restricting car entry to its centre at certain times of day to residents only, plus those who pay an annual fee. This policy has reduced car traffic in the Italian capital by 20% during the restricted hours, and 10% even during unrestricted hours when all cars can visit the centre. The violation fines are used to finance Rome’s public transport system.
4. Mobility services for commuters
The most effective carrot-only measure identified by our review is a campaign to provide mobility services for commuters in the Dutch city of Utrecht. Local government and private companies collaborated to provide free public transport passes to employees, combined with a private shuttle bus to connect transit stops with workplaces. This programme, promoted through a marketing and communication plan, was found to have achieved a 37% reduction in the share of commuters travelling into the city centre by car.
5. Workplace parking charges
Another effective means of reducing the number of car commuters is to introduce workplace parking charges. For example, a large medical centre in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam achieved a 20-25% reduction in employee car commutes through a scheme that charged employees to park outside their offices, while also offering them the chance to “cash out” their parking spaces and use public transport instead. This scheme was found to be around three times more effective than a more extensive programme in the UK city of Nottingham, which applied a workplace parking charge to all major city employers possessing more than ten parking spaces. The revenue raised went towards supporting the Midlands city’s public transport network, including expansion of a tram line.
6. Workplace travel planning
Programmes providing company-wide travel strategies and advice to encourage employees to end their car commutes have been widely used in cities across Europe. A major study, published in 2010, assessing 20 cities across the UK found an average of 18% of commuters switched from car to another mode after a full range of measures were combined – including company shuttle buses, discounts for public transport and improved bike infrastructure – as well as reduced parking provision. In a different programme, Norwich achieved near-identical rates by adopting a comprehensive plan but without the discounts for public transport. These carrot-and-stick efforts appear to have been more effective than Brighton & Hove’s carrot-only approach of providing plans and infrastructure such as workplace bicycle storage, which saw a 3% shift away from car use.
7. University travel planning
Similarly, university travel programmes often combine the carrot of promotion of public transport and active travel with the stick of parking management on campus. The most successful example highlighted in our review was achieved by the University of Bristol, which reduced car use among its staff by 27% while providing them with improved bike infrastructure and public transport discounts. A more ambitious programme in the Spanish city of San Sebastián targeted both staff and students at Universidad del País Vasco. Although it achieved a more modest reduction rate of 7.2%, the absolute reduction in car use was still substantial from the entire population of university commuters.
8. Mobility services for universities
The Sicilian city of Catania used a carrot-only approach for its students. By offering them a free public transport pass and providing shuttle connections to campus, the city was found to have achieved a 24% decrease in the share of students commuting by car.
9. Car sharing
Perhaps surprisingly, car sharing turns out to be a somewhat divisive measure for reducing car use in cities, according to our analysis. Such schemes, where members can easily rent a nearby vehicle for a few hours, have showed promising results in Bremen, Germany and Genoa, Italy, with each shared car replacing between 12 and 15 private vehicles, on average. Their approach included increasing the number of shared cars and stations, and integrating them with residential areas, public transport and bike infrastructure.
Both schemes also provided car sharing for employees and ran awareness-raising campaigns. But other studies point to a risk that car sharing may, in fact, induce previously car-free residents to increase their car use. We therefore recommend more research into how to design car sharing programmes that truly reduce overall car use.
10. School travel planning
Two English cities, Brighton & Hove and Norwich, have used (and assessed) the carrot-only measure of school travel planning: providing trip advice, planning and even events for students and parents to encourage them to walk, bike or carpool to school, along with providing improved bike infrastructure in their cities. Norwich found it was able to reduce the share of car use for school trips by 10.9%, using this approach, while Brighton’s analysis found the impact was about half that much.
11. Personalised travel plans
Many cities have experimented with personal travel analysis and plans for individual residents, including Marseille in France, Munich in Germany, Maastricht in the Netherlands and San Sebastián in Spain. These programmes – providing journey advice and planning for city residents to walk, bike or use (sometimes discounted) public transport – are found to have achieved modest-sounding reductions of 6-12%. However, since they encompass all residents of a city, as opposed to smaller populations of, say, commuters to school or the workplace, these approaches can still play a valuable role in reducing car use overall. (San Sebastián introduced both university and personalised travel planning in parallel, which is likely to have reduced car use further than either in isolation.)
12. Apps for sustainable mobility
Mobile phone technology has a growing role in strategies to reduce car use. The Italian city of Bologna, for example, developed an app for people and teams of employees from participating companies to track their mobility. Participants competed to gain points for walking, biking and using public transport, with local businesses offering these app users rewards for achieving points goals.
There is great interest in such gamification of sustainable mobility – and at first glance, the data from the Bologna app looks striking. An impressive 73% of users reported using their car “less”. But unlike other studies which measure the number or distance of car trips, it is not possible to calculate the reduction of distance travelled or emissions from this data, so the overall effectiveness is unclear. For example, skipping one short car trip and skipping a year of long driving commutes both count as driving “less”.
While mobility data from apps can offer valuable tools for improved transport planning and services, good design is needed to ensure that “smart” solutions actually decrease emissions and promote sustainable transport, because the current evidence is mixed. For instance, a 2021 study found that after a ride-hailing service such as Uber or Lyft enters an urban market, vehicle ownership increases – particularly in already car-dependent cities – and public transport use declines in high-income areas.
Cities need to re-imagine themselves
Reducing car dependency is not just a nice idea. It is essential for the survival of people and places around the world, which the recent IPCC report on climate impacts makes clear hinges on how close to 1.5°C the world can limit global warming. Avoiding irreversible harm and meeting their Paris Agreement obligations requires industrialised nations such as the UK and Sweden to reduce their emissions by 10-12% per year – about 1% every month.
Yet until the pandemic struck, transport emissions in Europe were steadily increasing. Indeed, current policies are predicted to deliver transport emissions in 2040 that are almost unchanged from 50 years earlier.
To meet the planet’s health and climate goals, city governments need to make the necessary transitions for sustainable mobility by, first, avoiding the need for mobility (see Paris’s 15-minute city); second, shifting remaining mobility needs from cars to active and public transport wherever possible; and finally, improving the cars that remain to be zero-emission.
This transition must be fast and fair: city leaders and civil society need to engage citizens to build political legitimacy and momentum for these changes. Without widespread public buy-in to reduce cars, the EU’s commitment to deliver 100 climate-neutral cities in Europe by 2030 looks a remote prospect.
Radically reducing cars will make cities better places to live – and it can be done. A 2020 study demonstrated that we can provide decent living standards for the planet’s projected 10 billion people using 60% less energy than today. But to do so, wealthy countries need to build three times as much public transport infrastructure as they currently possess, and each person should limit their annual travel to between 5,000 kilometres (in dense cities) and 15,000 kilometres (in more remote areas).
The positive impact from reducing cars in cities will be felt by all who live and work in them, in the form of more convivial spaces. As a journalist visiting the newly car-free Belgian city of Ghent put it in 2020:
The air tastes better … People turn their streets into sitting rooms and extra gardens.
Cities need to re-imagine themselves by remaking what is possible to match what is necessary. At the heart of this, guided by better evidence of what works, they must do more to break free from cars.
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