Guest post | Mixing it up in Midtown Tampa

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Midtown Tampa is the kind of instant city that 20 years ago I would’ve raved about. It’s another great example of The Urban Experiment.

This is a mixed-use, walkable development that has been created out of whole cloth west of downtown, near the airport. It’s a sort of second generation version of these types of projects, and measurably better than the first generation.

Before I describe it further, though, it’s interesting to trace a brief history of apartment communities in the US.

Not long ago, not far away

In America, renting an apartment has been a choice of a minority of households since the New Deal incentivized home ownership. About 1/3 of households today are renters, though early in the twentieth century it was close to 2/3. I won’t comment on if that was good or bad policy. It’s just to note the context, note the incentives and how we’ve changed.

Apartments were most commonly rented in small buildings in that previous era. They were the Missing Middle types so often discussed, and highlighted very well by Dan Parolek of Opticos Design. Yes, there were larger buildings as well, and a wide variety of SROs, apartment hotels and boarding houses. But most of what housed people were ancillary apartments, duplexes, triple-deckers, fourplexes, etc etc. This was very common for middle-class people, virtually all over America.

As we became wealthy, single family ownership became all the rage, egged on by financing incentives and regulatory changes (zoning). At the same time, larger capital flows became more dominant in real estate, and the nature of apartment living began to change. Apartments increasingly were built in larger “complexes” of 100 or 200 units all at one time in one location. In order to make apartment living an attractive alternative to home ownership, and not just for the poor or those without choices, developers began adding “amenities” such as pools and common green spaces. Those were the sorts of things not even contemplated in the “Missing Middle” era. Back then, an apartment was just a place to live in a neighbourhood, no different than the house next door or around the corner. The “amenities” were often in public parks.

As time went on, the arms race for amenities ramped up. Soon were added fitness centres, spas, covered parking, valet services and more. Newer apartment complexes today are often touted as “luxury apartments.” In addition to the amenities, they also tout granite counter-tops, stainless steel appliances and whirlpool tubs in the units. Going after the renter by choice market has necessitated this push to go ever more upscale and out-class the competition. That’s not surprising, it’s just a certain element of markets and competition at work.

The walkability factor

Now enter the 2000s, and the slow but noticeably growing interest in urban living. In some cities, the newly thriving commercial districts, walkable to many apartments, became a new, sexy amenity. Many smaller developers smartly capitalized on this with renovations of historic buildings, loft conversions and some new urban infill. They helped create an urban market that had some of the new amenities renters (and some home owners) were looking for. Their buildings didn’t have pools or covered parking, but they had cool bars and restaurants to walk to, art galleries, lively streets and more things that appeal to a certain part of the population.

The folks who deploy big investment capital naturally noticed this change. And they didn’t want to miss out on the trend. For over a decade, every healthy market has seen an influx of large “luxury apartment” buildings of about 200 units in urban areas, complete with all the amenities they’re used to providing in suburban locations. You guessed it – the pool, the fitness center, covered parking, etc etc.

Again, I’m not passing judgment. This is simply an example of how development happens in modern America. In many cases, these larger entities deploy tens of millions of dollars to buy and upgrade buildings, build new ones and create portfolios of hundreds and hundreds of apartments. It’s very smart business. Some of the end results can be excellent, some very mediocre, but nearly all have been well received in the marketplace. Urbanist snobs like me might ask questions, but clearly the people renting the apartments are responding positively.

Enter Midtown Tampa

Midtown Tampa is simply another in the latest version of this phenomenon. It’s a brand new place, by different accounts, either 12 or 30 years in the making.

The apartments are very well appointed, the amenities are first-class. It also includes fantastic eating and drinking options, some retail, a Whole Foods and new office space. It truly is an “instant city” in the sense it has so much of what someone might need as part of a daily or weekly routine in one compact location. Despite the Florida heat, you can walk from your apartment indoors to the gym, where you can work out in perfect air conditioned comfort. This is the new, 21st century apartment complex.

Midtown has the trendiest new bar in town, and it looks like the kind of place I’d enjoy spending too much time in. It has a “signature scent.” Yes, that’s actually a thing. It’s not a cheap place at all, and not intended to be. The rents are about $3 per square foot. That’s the top of the market in Tampa, and in many similar markets in the US. You can do the math on what a simple, 900 square foot two bedroom apartment costs.

Everything in this development is impeccably managed. They do everything well that our cities do poorly. Trash and cleanliness, security, parking, and public space management are all incredibly well thought-through and executed. It gives people who advocate for privatization of city governance great ammunition.

So again, I’m not saying this is BAD. I think there’s much to admire and like. It’s just that this is another example of how we only produce this kind of development now. It’s either large single-family subdivisions on the edge of the city, or mega-investment “instant cities.” There’s nothing in between. It’s not just that the Missing Middle buildings are often zoned out of existence, it’s that the entire ecosystem of finance, acquisition, construction and more seems to make it virtually impossible to do again.

There’s no space in our system for the kind of change that gave us Chicago, or even my city. The professionalization of everything has created this predicament where the entire system pushes for bigger and more complicated projects and efforts of all kinds. This is not a “find a magic policy” problem. It’s the direct result of decades of policy, all made with good intentions and responding to constituents, but quietly damaging our systems piece by piece.

This isn’t healthy for our cities, and it’s especially not healthy for a democratic society. In this system, there seems to be little opportunity for people to build for themselves, to build wealth for themselves, and create the kinds of “messy” places that urbanists like myself most admire. The only option is to do it “sub-rosa” as Johnny Sanphillipo would say. And he’s right. That’s exactly what happens in the real world, often outside the view of the local authorities.

I have no objection to Midtown Tampa at all. In fact, it’s quite well done in many ways. But this simply cannot be the only solution to the development of our cities. We’ve got to unleash the swarm, as I like to say, or else all the current problems we fret about will only get worse.

Kevin Klinkenberg has worked as an urban designer, architect and planner. His blog – The Messy City – looks at ways to use urban design and development to make people’s lives healthier, wealthier and happier.

Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on urban development

Decarbonising our buildings: heat pumps or hydrogen for the future of heating?

In October, the Scottish Government released the Heat in Buildings Strategy: Achieving Net Zero Emissions in Scotland’s Buildings. The strategy presents the approach to achieving the target for net zero emissions from Scotland’s buildings by 2045 and is a key component of the government’s ambitious climate change targets for wider society.

In the same month, the UK Government also unveiled its eagerly awaited Heat and Buildings Strategy. This includes similarly inspired aims, such as the phasing out of all new fossil fuel based heating system installations by 2035.

The coinciding release of the strategies means that the journey to decarbonisation is gradually becoming clearer to the consumer. Both governments have indicated their ambitions to make housing greener.

However, they also recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all to decarbonising the tens of millions of homes with mains gas boilers. This transition will be hugely complex, most likely requiring multiple technologies and approaches.

Industry contest heating up

The major players in the UK’s domestic heating industry – believed to be worth an estimated £17 billion – are already moving to secure their role in line with the new government plans and commitments.

In the future, there will be little place for the out-of-favour gas boiler. Traditional boiler manufacturers are aiming to evolve and align their products for long-term security,  whilst the manufacturers of technologies in their infancy, such as heat pumps, are presented with an opportunity to reform the industry for good.

It’s led to the cottage heat pump industry facing off against the established big gas companies’ development of hydrogen ready gas boilers.

Heat pumps the main contender

Whilst no quick fix technology is currently available to replace boilers, heat pumps are undoubtedly a viable frontrunner. The electric devices are steadily growing in government promotion and consumer popularity, as sales more than doubled in 2021 to give the industry its best ever year.

And, as a key feature of the Heat and Buildings Strategy, homeowners in England and Wales will be offered subsidies of up to £5,000 from April 2022 as an incentive to convert their gas boiler to a heat pump.

Heat pumps extract energy from a lower temperature source such as the ground or air and increase it to an appropriate temperature for a heat source in the home – via a compressor and a circulating structure of liquid or gas refrigerant. This heat can either be directly blown into the property or transferred into the central heating and hot water systems.

The selling point of heat pumps is their potential to greatly reduce carbon emissions if they are powered by low carbon electricity, which much of the UK now is. A new air source heat pump can lower a home’s carbon emissions by over 23 tonnes over 10 years.

Whilst relatively novel, the technology behind air source heat pumps is well established with evident positives. They are typically safer than combustion systems, have a very long lifespan with little maintenance and can double up as an air conditioner during the summer months.

Despite the UK Government and Climate Change Committee (CCC) pushing heat pumps as a blueprint for decarbonising, they are not free of concerns and complications.

Heat pumps are expensive to buy and install upfront and, similarly to boilers, the cost can vary. According to the Energy Saving Trust, an air source heat pump will generally cost around £3,000- £4,000 for an average sized house pre-installation and around £7,000-£13,000 installed – raising concerns about affordability and the average consumer’s willingness to go green.

They are, however, very efficient once installed. With an average efficiency of 250%-350%, a heat pump is likely to save you money, compared to an old gas and oil-fired boiler or electric heating. In well-insulated homes, heating bill savings of as much as 60% can be achieved.

Sufficient insulation is a critical pre-requisite to heat pump success. Commenting on the release of the Heat and Buildings Strategy, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas described placing heat pumps in Britain’s poorly insulated homes as like “using a teapot full of cracks: its leaky, its inefficient and it’s a waste of money.“

The UK’s housing stock is among the most poorly insulated in Europe and the current insulation of an ageing stock, like Glasgow’s Victorian tenements, poses a real barrier to the mass roll-out of heat pumps. Whilst heat pumps are suitable for older properties, consumers will need to commit to a considerable amount of insulation upgrades and home disruption to realise their benefits.

Hydrogen

An intriguing alternative that is in the developmental stages to replace gas is the use of hydrogen, the most abundant element in the natural world.

Hydrogen is already being heavily researched as a fossil fuel alternative in transport, and support for its role in heating is growing in popularity.

A study by the Institution of Engineers and Technology (IET) found that there is no clear reason as to why hydrogen gas cannot be seriously considered as a clean and safe alternative on the UK grid. Similar to heat pumps, hydrogen has the potential to be entirely renewable with no carbon emissions.

Hydrogen is also attractive as it requires minimal disruption in terms of new appliances and installation in the home. Consumers would use a hydrogen ready boiler that works almost identically to a traditional boiler. Likewise, the UK’s existing gas pipe system is well placed to make the switch due to the ongoing systematic replacement of old, unsuitable iron pipes over the last 20 years.

However, creating a new national network of hydrogen supply to the country’s homes would be a monumental and extremely expensive challenge that has never been done before. Concerns also exist around the extraction of hydrogen at this scale, as it is likely to be extracted from methane.

The extraction process emits carbon emissions which must be contained and stored through carbon capturing. Carbon capture projects of this scale do not currently exist and the idea is still under development, raising concerns around greenhouse gas emissions as a by-product of hydrogen extraction.

Final Thoughts

It is clear that the challenge of reducing building emissions is no longer just about grand intentions and targets. Whilst these are important to commit to, focus must now turn to ironing out the practicalities of how these will be achieved.

At the moment, the only established technology able to deliver clean heating is the heat pump. Yet, the UK has the worst heat pump sales and second worst installation record in Europe for a country its size. Technology such as hydrogen has potential but is still in the very early stages with many unknowns.

The UK must speed up investment in these industries to meet ambitious targets, with more detail, support and incentives for consumers.


Further reading: more on energy efficiency and decarbonisation from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

Grey to green: can green spaces create equity and wellbeing in post-COVID cities?

As 2021 draws to an end, much of the world is slowly emerging towards post-pandemic life. Focus is shifting from response to recovery. Governments, activists and academics are arguing for a green recovery – a one-off opportunity to truly incorporate climate change objectives, sustainability and equity into future development.

Cities served as the frontline to the pandemic and will continue to do so in efforts to transition towards a sustainable recovery. Building the cities of the future was the focus of a recent NESTA webinar in conversation with Daisy Narayanan, Senior Manager of Placemaking and Mobility at the City of Edinburgh Council. It highlighted the importance of creating urban environments that put people first for healthy, safe and sustainable communities.

Opportunities for cities

Narayanan argued that positives can be taken from COVID-19, as it inspired collaboration across sectors and communities whilst proving the responsiveness and adaptability of traditional systems. She believes that this mindset should be harnessed going forward to facilitate meaningful changes and progression within our cities for everyone.

Describing herself as a ‘relentless optimist’, she stated, “I think there is something about this moment in time where there is a real kind of desire to move forward, in a way that changes how things used to be, into what things need to be or should be. I think there is a lot of excitement around shaping that together.”

Narayanan went on to talk about the opportunities she sees for transforming our public spaces with collaboration across planning, transport and economic development. She is excited by the potential of concepts such as the ‘20-minute neighbourhood’ and its growing presence within city planning around the world and in her own city of Edinburgh.

More broadly, she is excited that citizens are recognising the importance of living well locally and that community wellbeing should be inherent to placemaking.

The inequality of green space

Whilst positives can be drawn from collaboration during the pandemic, it also magnified how divisive our cities’ environmental issues can be. Pollution, congestion and dwindling green spaces compounded the health and social challenges for many of those living in urban areas.

With most inside amenities forced to close during periods of lockdown, city dwellers turned to parks for exercise and socialising in unprecedented numbers. However, urban green spaces proved to be unequal in distribution. Socioeconomic status is the most likely determinant to green space accessibility and quality, and access is typically limited to the more scenic neighbourhoods with higher average incomes.

The benefits of urban green spaces to an individual’s health and wellbeing are well documented, with associations between the presence of green spaces, greater quality of life and decreased risk of excess mortality. There is growing research suggesting that city populations without the provision of green spaces in the UK had typically higher instances of mental health issues, such as COVID-related anxiety and isolation.

Of course, the provision of green spaces is only one of a number of factors highlighted in discussions around equalities, health and well-being in urban areas. However, the pandemic exposed the barriers to accessing the potential value provided by such spaces which could continue to reinforce inequalities.

Can a green integrated approach to transforming our cities tackle inequality and promote wellness in the post-COVID city?

Lessons from Milan’s green placemaking

During the webinar, Narayanan briefly touched upon how Milan is a commendable example of a city making really big changes to its public spaces for the benefit of its citizens.

The city has impressive commitments for using nature-based solutions to increase resilience towards future environmental and health crises, whilst stimulating an equity-based approach to tackling climate change.

The Mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala, committed his city to green urbanism before the pandemic and has since campaigned for efforts to be increased due to the unequal challenges created in cities.

He stated, “The green and just recovery that is needed to create more sustainable and healthier cities sees urban nature as a key element for building back better I have been clear that any recovery in my city, in Italy and for Europe, must be rooted in these principles of equity and climate action.

Sala aims to plant three million trees across Milan by 2030 to tackle climate change and to halt the trend of deteriorating air quality. At the core of this strategy is the transformation of derelict land in deprived neighbourhoods into 20 high quality urban parks.

The city government is providing for residents to have trees planted in their private gardens and upon flat rooftops, whilst greenery is being incorporated into car parks and on the sides of office blocks.

Integrating green spaces, food supply and equity, the city’s growing number of community gardens and allotments are often situated upon apartment block rooftops. Residents can grow and collect food whilst local restaurants are encouraged to use ingredients from the nearby streets. Locals have also lauded the social spaces that these gardens have become, as users can collaborate and educate each other through gardening.

Perhaps the most symbolic project in Milan’s transition is the Bosco Verticale or ‘Vertical Forest’- two residential apartment blocks which have been almost completely covered with trees, perennials and shrubbery. Designed by architect Stefano Boeri, the 80m and 112m high buildings have the equivalent vegetation of 30,000 square metres worth of woodland upon only 3,000 square metres of concrete.

Consisting of hundreds of plant species of various shapes and colours, the project is a popular, living landmark throughout the year. Not only an appealing addition to the Milan skyline, the urban vegetation has been a remarkable success – lowering temperatures, encouraging 20 new bird species into the area and absorbing 30 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year.

The towers demonstrate the multiple benefits that can be achieved from small-scale integrated approaches to increasing green spaces. The concept is already being replicated in cities around the world.

If successful, it is believed that Milan’s vast increase in vegetation has the potential to absorb an additional five million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, whilst significantly decreasing the presence of pollutant particles in the air associated with cancer and respiratory diseases.

Concluding thoughts

Milan’s transformation is exemplary of a city that is learning from previous vulnerabilities, using urban space to directly promote citizen wellbeing whilst tackling climate change.

As Narayanan argues, all cities now have the opportunity to put people’s needs and wellbeing at the centre of future urban spaces. Whilst citizens and authorities often both want to achieve attractive, sustainable and healthy places, she argues that citizen voices get lost in consultation.

As a step to progressing away from this, she says: “Consultations should be more like conversations. Discussions need to be done respectfully, evidence-based, data-based and using people’s stories and life as the basis for change.”


More from The Knowledge Exchange blog on placemaking and liveable cities:

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Celebrating success in planning research: winners of the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence 2021

The winners of the annual Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) Awards for research excellence were announced on 8 September at an online ceremony hosted by the RTPI. 

The RTPI Awards for Research Excellence celebrate high quality, impactful spatial planning research carried out by chartered members and accredited planning schools from around the world.

For a seventh year, The Idox Knowledge Exchange has been pleased to sponsor three of the Awards categories – the Planning Practitioner Award, the Student Award, and the Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence.

The Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence

Hannah Hickman MA, MSc, MPhil, MRTPI, senior research fellow at the University of West England, was announced as the winner of the Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence.

Ms Hickman’s research explored the under-researched and poorly-understood area of post-consent – the journey of a development from the point of permission through to delivery and on-going management. In particular it evidenced a worrying decline in design quality occurring at this point. It identified some of the causes, and considered what local authorities might do to address this decline.

In the same category, Professor Jo Williams, of University College London, received a commendation from judges for her book ‘Circular Cities: a revolution in urban sustainability.

Early Career Research

Dr Meadhbh Maguire MRTPI PhD MSc MA, McGill University, School of Urban Planning.

This project considered the use of survey data in planners’ decision making processes. It found that survey methods ae heavily used within planning but are often influenced by political contexts.

Commended: Jianting Zhao, University of Hong Kong.

Planning Practitioner Award

Antony Rifkin BCom MCRP Dip Urban Design MRTPI FRSA, Allies and Morrison

Mr Rifkin’s ‘Complex City: London’s Changing Character’ project made the case for character-based densification and provides recommendations for local authorities and cities attempting to meet growth demands while preserving local character.

Commended: Colin Robinson, Lichfields Planning

Student Award

Nicole Collomb BA (Hons) MSc, University of Brighton, department of architecture and design

Nicole Collomb was handed the Student Award for her research into the effectiveness of green factor policies, in which she identifies a need for robust evidence base for these policies to be successful.

Commended: Samuel ‘Nepo’ Schrade, University of Brighton

Also announced at today’s ceremony were the two recipients of the two £5,000 grants from the Practitioner Research Fund.

The winners of the grants are:

  • Oscar Wong for the project: ‘Strategic legacy planning for mega-events to achieve sustainable development goals: critical lessons learnt from London Olympics 2012 and Rio 2016’
  • Timon Moss for the project: ‘Regional community wealth building in Scotland’.

An exceptionally high standard

Dr Wei Yang FRTPI, RTPI President, said: “After receiving many brilliant entries for this year’s awards, the RTPI is now delighted to announce the stand-out projects across our four categories and recipients of the Practitioner Research Fund.

“I would like to congratulate all the winners and those who were shortlisted. The quality of submissions was exceptionally high this year, and we thank all the entrants for their submissions.

The RTPI is grateful to all applicants for sharing their fresh and innovative work. The awards give us the opportunity to celebrate the best and brightest work in the sector which is vital in driving the profession forward.

I would like to extend our great appreciation to the awards sponsors, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group and Idox Knowledge Exchange.

The awards would not be possible without our excellent judges, who have volunteered their time to review all of the entries in their categories and we would like to thank you all for your continued support for the research awards.”

John McLaren, Head of Business for Grantfinder and The Knowledge Exchange at Idox said:

“Idox is very pleased to be continuing our relationship with the RTPI and supporting the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence for another year”.


Further information about the  2021 RTPI Awards for Research Excellence, including the winners, judges and sponsors are available here.

You can also read our guest blog featuring the winner of the 2016 Sir Peter Hall Award, Dr Paul Cowie from the University of Newcastle, about the impact of winning the award for the Town Meeting project, which used theatre to engage communities in planning.

Guest post: One-minute cities could put the world on your doorstep

Image: Lundberg Design

The concept of a 15-minute city, where everything you need for daily life is within a quarter of an hour walk of your front door, was already giving city planners something to think about before COVID-19 . But as neighbourhoods, and the people living in them, grappled with multiple lockdowns throughout 2020, the idea really gained traction.

Nowhere more so than in Paris, where the mayor, Anne Hidalgo, made it the centrepiece of her successful 2020 re-election campaign. Hidalgo’s aim was to create self-sufficient communities throughout the city, where everything is a short walk or bike ride away.

In Sweden, they are tightening the time frame even further. A one-minute city pilot called Street Moves aims to “reclaim the streets” from cars by creating numerous pop-up public amenities, with the overall intention of giving the public a say in what’s on their doorstep.

It is hoped the government-backed initiative will be picked up by municipalities across the whole country, but can such a hyper-local proposition really work on a national scale?

For Street Moves project manager, Daniel Byström, who works for ArkDes – the architecture and design think-tank leading the project – the pilot is trying to inspire new ways of approaching urban development rather than attempting to offer instant wholesale change.

“The ambition is to get a spread [of streets across Sweden], with different municipalities being able to make their own intervention,” says Byström. “However, I think many of the municipalities in Sweden are not ready to do it themselves, so for me the central part of the project is not the physical outcome by itself, but more to showcase an approach for how we can work with urban planning, urban development and street development.”

Image: StreetMoves / Daniel Byström

Under the plans, a kit of modular wooden street furniture has been designed, which can be slotted into an area the size of a car parking space. These kits have been designed to be flexible depending on the needs of the area – an important point in terms of scaling up the initiative, since it’s not claiming to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Rather it aims to add genuine value to an area.

Five streets have been piloted since the project’s launch last September, including three in Stockholm and one in both Helsingborg and Gothenburg, with more on the way.

So far, they have created new bench space, picnic tables, planters and e-scooter parking but Byström says this is just the beginning. In the next step, we will look for more sophisticated solutions [based] around smart cities, such as infrastructure for charging electric cars and scooters.”

He says the one-minute city initiative – which has been funded by Vinnova, the Swedish government’s innovation agency – is also about giving the public more ownership over their streets, with residents being involved early on in the design process.

This resident involvement is getting positive results so far, with ArkDes claiming that 70% people surveyed about the Stockholm projects were positive. They also saw a 400% increase in the movement of people on the streets around each unit.

When coupled with the aftermath of COVID-19, this offers an exciting proposition to “reactivate” Sweden’s streets and make cities more resilient and adaptable to change, Byström adds.

“One of the things that you can see, for example, with growing digitalisation and people working from everywhere, is open-air shared office space, so it could be anything and that is the beauty of this initiative.”

The flexibility of the scheme could prove crucial when considering if this could be scaled up on a national level. Cities across Sweden will be looking for ways to bounce back in new and innovative ways after the pandemic and this could play an important role in that process. One-minute cities could also prove to be a crucial pillar in the success of Sweden’s goal for 2030 that “every street in Sweden is healthy, sustainable and vibrant.”

Our thanks to RICS for permission to republish this article which first appeared in Modus in July 2021.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on urban areas

Cycle-friendly societies: lessons from the Dutch and the Danes

The Netherlands and Denmark have become synonymous with high numbers of cyclists and extensive cycling infrastructures. In Denmark, 9 out of 10 people own a bike, while the Netherlands has an estimated 16.5 million bikes in a country of 17.3 million people. Both countries have developed impressive cycle networks and have integrated cycling infrastructure into wider transport planning.

But the prevalence of cycling in these countries didn’t happen overnight – or by accident. Campaigning, urban planning, political support and investment all had roles to play in making the Netherlands and Denmark such great role models for bike-friendly societies.

A historical perspective

In the first decades of the twentieth century, as in other parts of Europe, cyclists in Denmark and the Netherlands were in competition for road space with horses, trams and growing numbers of cars. In Denmark during the 1920s and ‘30s there was a long-running debate on how to accommodate cyclists on Danish roads. Initially, a painted line to separate cyclists from other traffic was suggested. But a high number of accidents pushed Danish planners towards a separate cycling infrastructure, which has grown into the widespread network Denmark has today.

In the Netherlands, taxation funded a national network of cycle tracks across the country.  But after the Second World War, the rise of motor vehicles confined cyclists to the margins, with some cycle paths removed to widen roads for cars. The city of Rotterdam, destroyed during the war, was rebuilt with a plan that put the automobile at its centre, with people commuting by car from the new suburbs.

This decline in cycling also happened in other European countries. In the UK, the 15% of all trips taken by bike in 1950 had plummeted to just 1.3% of trips in 1975. But in the 1970s, popular protests took place in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands against motorway expansion, triggered by steep oil price rises and a growing environmental movement. This backlash persuaded urban planners that more consideration needed to be given to cyclists, pedestrians and public transport. Since then, national and local governments have prioritised policies to make cycling safer, more convenient and more attractive. As one study has noted:

“Instead of catering to ever more motor vehicles by expanding roadways and parking facilities, Dutch, German, and Danish cities have focused on serving people, making their cities people-friendly rather than car-friendly, and thus more liveable and more sustainable than American, British, and Australian cities.”

Cycling today in Denmark and the Netherlands

In the Netherlands today there are 35,000km of cycle paths, while Denmark has 12,000km. In both countries, traffic calming measures have restricted or banned cars on residential streets and have imposed speed limits. There are extensive bike parking facilities – the Dutch city of Utrecht, for example, is building a further 30,000 bike parking spots as part of a ten-year infrastructure plan.

Integration with public transport networks complements the efforts to encourage more people to get on their bikes – in the Netherlands, 50% of all public transport trips begin with a bicycle ride. From an early age, Dutch, German and Danish citizens are taught how to be safe cyclists and to make motorists aware of other road users.

Prioritising cycling ensures that cyclists can get around quickly and safely. In Copenhagen, electronic systems coordinate traffic lights to recognise bikes instead of cars, which means cyclists travelling at a speed of 20km/h find that they hit green lights all the way into the city in the morning, and back again at the evening rush hour.

Could it happen here?

With decades of cycle-centric planning and investment, Denmark and the Netherlands are miles ahead of the UK. But one of the few positives emerging from the coronavirus pandemic in this country has been a resurgence of interest in cycling. During the 2020 lockdowns, some UK cities created pop-up bike lanes, and bike sales soared by 63%. A wave of new cyclists took to the streets, with many feeling safer in the saddle than on crowded public transport.

But with traffic now returning to pre-lockdown levels, cycling campaign groups are worried that the momentum may be lost. As Keir Gallagher of Cycling UK told the BBC:

“If measures aren’t taken now, then unfortunately a lot of those people who have discovered cycling are going to be lost and people are going to return to their cars if they don’t feel safe.”

As Denmark and the Netherlands have demonstrated, infrastructure is a vital factor in persuading more people to take up cycling. One UK city that’s been working hard to improve its cycling infrastructure is Cardiff. In 2017, Cardiff Council launched a 10-year cycling strategy, which aims to make walking or cycling the first choice for short trips within the city. Working with transport planners and civil engineers, the council has identified five primary route corridors for cycleways, connecting major destinations, existing communities and strategic development sites across the city. In the coming years, over 30km of segregated cycle routes will radically improve Cardiff’s cycling infrastructure. Clearly, Cardiff’s efforts are paying off: last year, the city came top in a poll to be named Britain’s best cycling city.

The road ahead

The rewards of cycling for individuals and for wider society are numerous. Cycling causes almost no noise or air pollution and consumes far fewer resources than automobiles. It’s also good for physical and mental health and is much more affordable than other modes of transport.

The economic impacts of cycling are also considerable. A 2015 study by the University of Birmingham highlighted a number of benefits: cyclists visit local shops more regularly than drivers; property values of homes in cycle-friendly areas are higher; cycling to work leads to lower staff turnover and fewer sick days; and facilities allowing children to cycle to school save on the public cost of school travel.

With governments now aiming to build back better, fairer and greener, perhaps there’s never been a better time to learn lessons from our neighbours on how to be a cycle-friendly society.


Further reading: more on sustainable transport from The Knowledge Exchange

Are smart cities at risk from hackers?

From traffic lights to bins, across the world, internet-connected technology is being integrated across all manner of everyday city infrastructure. Smart city technology can provide cities with real-time information which can be analysed to offer insights into how people interact with the city. These insights can be used to make cities operate more efficiently and ensure that cities are responding to the changing needs of their citizens. 

However, like any internet-connected device, smart city infrastructure runs the risk of being targeted by bad actors who wish to disrupt the operation of city life. 

This blog post explores the extent to which smart cities are vulnerable to attack by hackers and considers the steps that can be taken to prevent them from being compromised by nefarious actors. 

Connected and vulnerable

It’s an unfortunate fact of our increasingly more connected lives that as we connect more devices to the internet, we provide hackers with more opportunities to access our devices, compromise our networks, and gain access to personal information. In recent years, as we have added more Internet of Things (IoT) devices to our home networks, such as smart lightbulbs and thermostats, there is a chance we may be weakening the overall security of our networks. Experts have warned that these small IoT devices may not have the necessary level of sophisticated defences required to protect them from attack. 

Naturally, as these devices normally perform relatively inconsequential tasks (such as turning on a lamp) and don’t tend to host a great deal of personal data, many consumers do not consider the danger they could pose if compromised. Research has found that hackers may be able to gain access to entire home networks through hacking a single IoT device. This can enable hackers to access other connected devices, such as a phone, which holds a large amount of personal data. This can allow hackers to steal personal data, covertly spy on unknowing users, and gain access to email/social media/bank accounts. 

Therefore, as more small-scale infrastructure is connected to the internet, hackers will have more opportunities to take advantage of devices with lax security. In the context of smart cities, these vulnerabilities may be able to gain access to systems that operate critical city infrastructure. 

Smart city vulnerabilities

A key component of the development of smart cities is the fostering of a network of interconnected devices which cover a wide variety of city activities and functions. Through collecting and analysing this data, cities will be able to improve the way they operate in real-time and better respond to the needs of citizens. As such, smart city technology will have to be integrated into systems as simple as a streetlight and as complex as the public transit system. 

As previously discussed, IoT devices have varying levels of protection against hackers, and this is no different in the context of the smart city. Research conducted by UC Berkley found that small smart city infrastructure, such as CCTV systems and traffic lights, were more vulnerable to attack than more significant infrastructure, such as smart waste and water management systems. Vulnerabilities at any point of a network can allow hackers to gain access and potentially to compromise a more critical part of city infrastructure. 

Recently published guidance from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) indicated that smart cities are a target for hackers, and warned that if systems are compromised there may be “destructive impacts”. For example, if a hacker can gain access to a smart traffic management system, they may be able to take the system offline and create traffic gridlock across a city. This would cause mass disruption and prevent people from moving around, which could result in threats to public safety. As a result, ensuring smart cities are protected from bad actors will be crucial as more city infrastructure is integrated into smart internet-connected systems. 

Protecting the smart city

Although smart cities will undoubtedly be a target for hackers, several actions can be taken to protect them from attack, and mitigations can be put in place to protect the wider smart city network if a single device is compromised. Ensuring that smart cities are designed with security at their core is vital. Adding on security at a later date will be ineffective and experts believe a “bolt-on” approach may pose more of a security risk. 

Guidance from the NCSC sets out the importance of understanding who is supplying the infrastructure and being aware that some companies may have links to foreign governments who may wish to gain access to UK systems for nefarious purposes. 

Key steps that the NSCS advise should be taken to protect the smart city include:

  • Understanding the goal of the smart city and potential unforeseen impacts.
  • Examining the threats posed to the smart city.
  • Setting out the governance of smart city cybersecurity and ensuring staff have the correct skills.
  • Understanding the role of suppliers in the delivery of smart city infrastructure and cybersecurity.
  • Being aware of relevant legal and regulatory requirements (particularly surrounding data protection).

Final thoughts

The development of smart cities may provide opportunities to create cities that are more efficient and responsive to the needs of citizens. Unfortunately, as more infrastructure is connected to the internet, hackers are provided with more opportunities to disrupt systems and harvest personal data. The levels of disruption and data will undoubtedly make smart cities an attractive target for bad actors.

Therefore, to reap the benefits of the smart city, it will be vital that security is at the core of the development of the smart city, and that local authorities ensure they have a clear understanding of who is responsible for cybersecurity. 


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Better housing for older people means better lives for all

“Sheltered Housing – MVRDV” by KJBO is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Housing is at the heart of a good quality of life. This is especially true as we get older, when health and wellbeing, independence and end-of-life care can all be greatly enhanced by decent housing.

Four recent reports have underlined the importance of good housing for older people, and the wider benefits for society.

Housing with care: progress and problems

The Commission on the Role of Housing in the Future of Care and Support  (CRHFCS) was established last October by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE). The new commission aims to produce a blueprint to enable greater choice and availability of housing and support for people aged 65 and older who may find it difficult to live independently at home, or who choose to live somewhere which provides more support options. The Commission will focus on five key areas: care homes; retirement communities; retirement housing; supported living; and the Shared Lives schemes.

The first report of the CRHFCS highlights progress made since the Commission on Residential Care 2014 (CORC) reported its findings in 2014. There have been some positive developments concerning the take-up of more new technologies in care settings, such as telehealth, telecare and smart home devices to help people maintain their independence.

Progress has also been made on age- and dementia-friendly housing design. And the report commends the Housing our Ageing Population Panel for Innovation (HAPPI) reports for raising awareness of housing specifically designed for older people.

However, little progress has been made on CORC’s recommended expansion of the market to give greater choice of housing with access to care. Options remain limited, especially for those struggling to pay for accommodation.

The CRHFCS sets out some initial policy proposals. These include planning reforms to make it easier to build retirement community housing, and improved information and advice to support informed decision-making for older people seeking housing with care and support facilities.

The Commission’s final report will appear in the summer, when it will make recommendations about the future shape of housing that facilitates care and support.

Needed: a clear vision about housing for older people

The findings from the CRHFCS report are echoed in another report, published in April by the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research. The Cambridge report identifies numerous constraints to supply, investment and demand in the market for specialised housing for older people. 

One of the study’s key findings  is that retirement community development is unviable in many areas outside of London and the South East of England.

“Coupled with the fact that the majority of house moves made by older people are relatively local, this constraint to supply reduces housing options for those living elsewhere in the country, particularly home owners who do not qualify for assistance with housing costs. Unless the viability of retirement community development can be improved and the supply of mid-range retirement properties be raised, these households will have very little choice around moving in later life.”

Among the recommendations in the Cambridge report are calls for national government to provide a clear vision about housing for people as they age:

“For example, greater clarity is required around the joint priorities of ‘downsizing’ and ‘ageing in place’, and how these priorities can be best implemented at the local level.”

The report also recommends that local authorities should give priority to housing for older people, through the creation of clear strategic and local plans and guidelines for developers:

“Collaboration between local authority planning, social care, health and housing teams could allow for better planning around retirement housing. For example, retirement housing may make savings possible within health and social care budgets.”

The Cambridge report encourages housing providers to diversify the retirement housing offer, and to gain a better understanding of preferences of different older people:

“Rather than drawing on stereotypes of old age, providers face the challenge of recognising older people as a complex and heterogeneous group of consumers with diverse aspirations.”

Closing the generational divide

According to a report by the Intergenerational Foundation (IF), England now has two housing nations: the first is older, well-housed, often well-off, with space to work and self-isolate; the second nation is younger living in cramped flats or shared homes with little or no access to outside space.

The IF says that the pandemic has exacerbated housing inequalities between the young and the old, and observes that “…while younger generations have lost their jobs, their homes and even their mental health during COVID-19, older generations have stockpiled space.”

The report also highlights a rise in the number of second homes as a consequence of the pandemic.  There are now 5.5 million second homes in England – a 50% increase between 2011 and 2020 – most of them owned by older people.

Space inequality has also increased. Owner-occupied homes have a third more space on average than privately rented homes, and almost double the space as social housing.

Like the previously mentioned reports, the IF calls for market failures on retirement housing to be addressed. It recommends reform of stamp duty to encourage downsizing, and reforms to the planning system both to give a greater voice to the homeless and badly housed and to encourage developers to build more retirement homes.

Making a house a home: impacts of poor-quality housing

While some older people enjoy the benefits of good housing,  there are substantial numbers of people aged 50 and older living in poor-quality accommodation.

A report by the Centre for Ageing Better (CfAB) has found that living in cold, damp housing, or homes in a state of disrepair can increase the risk of illness and accidents. Poor housing also has wider impacts: first-year NHS treatment costs for over-55s living in the poorest quality housing are estimated at £513m.

But there are barriers preventing older people from making the improvements that would help them live healthier, more independent lives. These include a lack of finance and uncertainty about where to find trustworthy information about home improvements.

The CfAB report calls for a  wider range of financing options, including government grants and loans, to help older people adapt their homes. It also recommends clear signposting and advice to support informed decisions about home improvements, as well as initiatives to raise awareness about the impact of poor quality homes on health and wellbeing.

Final thoughts

The number of people aged 65 and over is set to rise from 12 million to more than 20 million by 2030. While poor quality housing presents risks for older people, age-appropriate housing can keep them healthy, help them to live independently and reduce the need for social care.

These reports highlight important issues that must be addressed not only to support older people, but to advance the radical changes needed to fix Britain’s broken housing market. Better housing for older people is better for us all.


The reports highlighted in this blog post have recently been added to The Knowledge Exchange (TKE) database. Subscribers to TKE information service have direct access to all of the abstracts on our database, with most also providing the full text of journal articles and reports. To find out more about our services, please visit our website: https://www.theknowledgeexchange.co.uk/

Further reading: more on housing for older people on The Knowledge Exchange blog

Britain’s town centres: down, but not out

Image: Mayfield development, Manchester (U+I plc)

Town centres have taken a battering in the past year, with many shops and services forced to close during lockdowns and growing numbers of stores going out of business.

But even before Covid-19, UK high streets were already under pressure. Economic recessions, rising business rates, higher rents, the growth of online shopping and development out-of-town retail parks have left Britain’s town centres struggling to survive.

Last month, Planning magazine brought together a panel of experts to discuss the future of town centres. Among the issues considered were trends affecting town centres, how demand for town centre property is changing post-pandemic and how developers are responding to changes in market demand and planning laws.

The bigger picture: online shopping and working from home

Jennet Siebrits, head of CBRE UK’s research team, gave a helpful overview of two key trends affecting town centres.

In the past decade, e-commerce has seen a dramatic increase in activity. Since 2011, the value of online shopping has mushroomed from £23 billion to £58 billion –a 158% increase. But in 2020, even that figure was eclipsed, with the value of e-commerce rising to £84 billion – a 44% increase in just one year. The evidence from the first national lockdown suggests that this step change is here to stay.

The impact of this, along with the Covid-19 restrictions, has been grim for town centre stores. Over 11,000 shops closed in 2020, and while not all of those closures were due to online shopping, it’s clear that e-commerce has been a real driver of this.

Jennet suggested that, as the restrictions ease, it’s likely that supermarkets, along with in-store health and beauty and DIY stores will continue to attract customers. But other sectors will have to come up with innovative ways to lure consumers off their iPads.

Jennet also highlighted the increased move towards home working. Once people return to their workplaces, it’s likely that many will ask to continue working from home, at least for part of the working week.

The rise in home working may also affect demand for residential property, with more people moving further away from city centres. This could have a knock-on effect for ancillary services like coffee kiosks and sandwich bars, with local town centres capitalising on the losses experienced by city centres.

The legal perspective: changes to planning laws

David Mathias, a specialist planning solicitor at Shoosmiths law firm described some recent planning law changes that have particular relevance to town centres.

Since the demise of Woolworths in 2008, more and more UK department stores have been closing down, leaving big gaps on the high street. In future, it’s likely that many property developers will want to convert from retail to residential.

Until recently, permitted development rights for conversion to residential only applied in a limited set of commercial uses. But the UK government has announced new permitted development rights in England enabling greater flexibility on conversions without the need for planning permission. These will go ahead in August, subject to certain conditions.

In addition, further legislation on expansion of permitted development rights introduced last summer allows the construction of an additional storey on freestanding blocks and buildings on a terrace to create additional housing, and the demolition of buildings built before 1990 and construction of new dwellings in their place.

The government has argued that these changes will help to revive town centres, although others believe easing planning rules for developers will have the opposite effect. 

The developer’s perspective: re-imagining Manchester

Martyn Evans from the U+I Group offered his view of how developers are responding to changes in market demand and planning. He did so using U+I’s development at Mayfield in Manchester.

Located next to Piccadilly railway station, in the centre of the city, this 24 acre-site is being redeveloped from derelict railway land. A consortium of Manchester City Council, Transport for Greater Manchester and London & Continental Railways (LCR), along with U+I, has been working to regenerate the area, with the first buildings due for completion next year.

Right from the start, the consortium focused on the importance of creating a place where people want to live, work, rest and relax. One important feature of the development is a seven-acre park. Although it was planned into the scheme years ago, this green space has become all the more significant in the past year.

Image: Mayfield development, Manchester (U+I plc)

The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of green space as a vital part of city living, both for physical health and mental wellbeing. Such spaces not only attract workers, residents and visitors, they also increase the value of developments. And because decisions about commercial property are increasingly being taken by HR teams rather than finance departments, the wellbeing benefits of workers’ surroundings are being taken more seriously. In short, understanding quality of place gives developers more of a competitive edge. 

The local authority perspective: managing change

To conclude, Michael Kiely from the Planning Officers Society looked at what local planning authorities can do to help sustain town centres.

Michael described some of the planning tools local authorities can use, including strategic planning, masterplanning and local plans. But with recent changes in planning laws, including the use classes order, Michael argued that policies such as Town Centre First may be ineffective.

However, local authorities can still make a difference, through partnerships with other stakeholders, such as land owners and Business Improvement Districts (BIDS), and the use of intervention and compulsory purchase powers.

In closing, Michael suggested the need for a licensing or permitting regime to manage and curate activities so that they do not cause harm and town centres can thrive.

Future perspectives: rethinking town centres

A £150m project to revamp London’s Oxford Street signals that high streets are already re-imagining themselves as leisure-focused and “experiential shopping” centres. And the Mayfield site in Manchester has the potential to transform a part of the city centre that has been underused for decades.

These are just two examples of the planning community working together to help sustain town centres. Britain’s high streets face substantial challenges, but this interesting discussion suggested there are good reasons to optimistic about the future.

A recording of The Future of Our Town Centres discussion is available to watch on-demand at the Planning magazine website.


Further reading: more on town centres from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Idox supports RTPI Awards for Research Excellence 2021

Idox is pleased once again to be supporting the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence for 2021.

These awards recognise and promote high quality, impactful spatial planning research from RTPI accredited planning schools and planning practitioners in the UK, the Republic of Ireland and internationally.

The 2021 Awards competition is now open and there is still plenty of time to enter – the deadline for entries is 17 May 2021.

About the Awards

The RTPI Awards for Research Excellence are intended to:

  • recognise the best spatial planning research from RTPI accredited planning schools;
  • highlight the implications of academic research for policy and practice;
  • recognise the valuable contribution of planning consultancies to planning research; and
  • promote planning research generally.

The award categories are:

  • Early Career Researcher Award, aimed at researchers at the beginning phase of their academic careers;
  • Student Award, for students who are working towards or have recently completed a non-research university degree;
  • Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement, which recognises high-quality research that is likely to make an immediate impact beyond academia;
  • Planning Practitioner Award, open to non-academic planning practitioners and organisations conducting valuable research with the potential to inform planning policy and/or practice.

Idox: supporting the planning profession

As the UK’s leading provider of planning and building control solutions to local authorities, Idox actively engages with issues affecting the planning profession. And here at the Knowledge Exchange, we see our core mission as improving decision making in public policy by improving access to research and evidence.

This is the seventh time that Idox has given its support to the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence, and we will once again be sponsoring the Planning Practitioner Award, the Student Award, and the Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence.

Winners in 2020

In 2020, the Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence was awarded to Professor Anthony Crook from the University of Sheffield and Professor Christine Whitehead from the London School of Economics for their research looking at how far ‘unearned increments’, particularly those arising with planning permission, should be taxed for the public good.

Jacob George of Newcastle University won the Student Award for his research into the much-debated permitted development right for office-to-residential conversions, focusing uniquely on its social impacts in a city in northern England.

The Planning Practitioner Award for 2020 went to Lucia Cerrada Morato and Becky Mumford of the Place Shaping Team at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets for their research exploring the lives of residents living in high density and tall buildings.

The Early Career Researcher category was won by Dr Hannah Budnitz from the University of Birmingham,  with Professor Lee Chapman, also from the University of Birmingham, and Dr Emmanouil Tranos from the University of Bristol. Their research found that by proactively addressing the accessibility of non-work destinations, planners can help telecommuters travel more sustainably.


Further details on the award categories, application guidance and entry forms, are available from the RTPI here. The closing date for applications to the awards is 5pm on Monday 17 May 2021.

The winners of the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence 2021 will be announced at an awards ceremony, to be held virtually by Newcastle University on the afternoon of Wednesday 8 September 2021.