15 minutes to change the world: people-friendly neighbourhoods for a post-lockdown recovery

Photo by Tom Podmore on Unsplash

What kinds of cities do we want to live in? It’s a question that has taken on increased urgency in the past year. But even before the global pandemic, there was growing concern about how to address the challenges facing the world’s cities, especially the threat of climate change.

Tackling traffic congestion, reducing air pollution, improving sustainable mobility and ensuring easy access to green space and essential services are all significant factors that can advance the quality of life in our urban areas. The lockdowns and other restrictions imposed by governments to contain the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) have thrown these issues into sharper focus.

An alternative vision

There is now a growing consensus that a new road map is needed for the development of liveable cities. This means changing lifestyles so that sociability, sustainability and wellbeing are prioritised – in short, the common good should drive decisions about urban planning.

One of the ideas for promoting this approach is the 15 minute neighbourhood, in which home, education, work, healthcare and other essential services are all within a 15 minute reach by walking or cycling. This is the vision of Professor Carlos Moreno, scientific director of entrepreneurship and innovation at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

In a recent webinar, organised by Solace and Catapult Connected Places, Professor Moreno outlined his concept, where the six functions for city life –  living, working, supplying, caring, learning and enjoying – are all within easy reach, making neighbourhoods not just convenient places to stay, but satisfying places to live.

The concept of the 15-minute neighbourhood contradicts urban planning ideas that have predominated for more than a century, where residential areas have been separated from business, retail, industry and entertainment. Professor Moreno stressed that the new approach requires careful planning and implementation, political will and financial support from local and national authorities, and – essentially – the engagement of citizens.

A rapid, radical transformation

The first wave of lockdowns in 2020 showed that it is possible for radical change in our cities to happen far quicker than we might have ever imagined. In a matter of days, millions of people changed their lifestyles, with many working from home and travelling only locally for essential provisions. Soaring numbers of visitors to parks demonstrated the importance of local green spaces for physical and mental health. And in some UK cities, reduced levels of traffic led to improvements in air quality.

Of course, keeping large sections of the population confined to home has had many negative effects, and lockdowns are not part of the 15-minute neighbourhoods concept. Instead, the opportunity has arisen for an equitable and sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 restrictions by rethinking the way cities work.

Paris: the 15-minute city

As special envoy for smart cities to the mayor of Paris, Carlos Moreno has been influential in the city’s decision to turn miles of roads in the French capital into cycle lanes. Reducing traffic is a key component of the concept, and can help cities achieve their targets for lowering the emissions that every year cause millions of premature deaths and countless more health impacts. In addition, Professor Moreno envisions greater use of remote working to reduce commuting times, as well as opening schools for community activities at weekends. With less time spent travelling to work, shops and healthcare services, people can enjoy a slower pace of life, devoting more time to families, friends and leisure, which in turn can bring multiple health and wellbeing benefits.

Paris’s advanced participatory budgeting scheme is a critical element for ensuring the 15-minute city concept thrives. 10% of the city’s spending is determined by participatory budgeting processes at neighbourhood level, meaning residents have the opportunity to participate in the design and selection of projects to be implemented in their own local area.

A growing interest in living locally

Paris is not alone in attempting to realise the 15 minute neighbourhood vision. Barcelona, Detroit, London, Melbourne, Milan and Portland are all exploring this approach, and it has also been endorsed by the C40 network of cities that are committed to addressing climate change.

In Melbourne, the city’s plan for growth over the next 35 years is guided by the principle of living locally. Its 20-minute neighbourhood plan was launched in 2018, and is being delivered in two stages to test the practicalities of delivering the concept across the city.

Closer to home, the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government has a strong focus on localism, and in a recent webinar, Scotland’s Chief Architect highlighted a 20-minute neighbourhood project in Edinburgh. The city council’s local place plan includes many elements that will be familiar to the proponents of 15 minute neighbourhoods, including new opportunities for cycle routes, food growing and green spaces.

A lifeline or a threat?

Encouraging residents to work, shop and enjoy their leisure time locally will be music to the ears of smaller town centres. Even before the pandemic many local businesses were struggling to adjust to the changing habits of their customers. A resurgence of neighbourhood life could be the lifeline they need.

At the same time, a move towards more localised living could pose a threat to high streets in bigger cities. A recent paper in Covid Economics found evidence that higher levels of home-working has led to the relocation of economic activity from a few densely populated city centres to the suburbs. A further study by Centre for Cities found that in the UK’s 11 largest city centres, spending did not recover last summer when restrictions were eased after the first national lockdown.

Policymakers and planners will be watching these developments with great interest, as they have significant implications for economic activity in towns and cities. If the mass adoption of remote working hardens into a permanent feature, the cafes, restaurants, bars and shops that once depended on a steady stream of office workers could go out of business. Once-bustling city centres in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester and London could turn into ghost towns. But if workers return to their offices in large numbers, the momentum for 15-minute neighbourhoods could be lost.

Final thoughts

The coronavirus pandemic has affected almost every aspect of our lives, but it has also presented the opportunity to rebalance our thinking about how and where we want to live, learn, work and play. The 15-minute neighbourhood is part of that process. As Carlos Moreno has observed:

 “The pandemic has caused us to think about how to move differently, to consume differently, to live differently. We are discovering that by working differently we have more spare time, to have more time to be with our families or friends. We are discovering and appreciating our neighbourhoods much more. This will make us all more engaged inhabitants.”


More from The Knowledge Exchange blog on liveable cities:

Building sights: how offsite construction could help solve the housing shortage

“Offsite construction” by psd is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Long waiting lists, high rents, thousands sleeping rough, millions living in insecure or unsuitable homes and a generation of young people priced out of the market: these are the hallmarks of the UK’s broken housing system.

In England, the government is committed to building 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. But in 2019, the number of new homes amounted to 170,000 – fewer than half of which were affordable homes. It’s a situation that is almost certain to get worse. Housing analysts have suggested that the restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 will mean a 30% reduction in homes delivered.

Local authorities are rising to the challenge of the housing crisis. Between 1999 and 2002, councils delivered just 60 new homes as a consequence of central government housing policy. But in recent years councils have been returning to housebuilding in large numbers. A 2019 RTPI report found that:

“…more than two thirds of local authorities are now involved in directly delivering housing and local authorities are delivering homes in numbers not seen for 20 years.”

In the same year, The Guardian newspaper highlighted some examples of council housing projects:

“Bournemouth is building housing above many of its surface car parks, and has won planning awards for the results. Wigan is transforming tricky former mining sites with an exemplary programme of housing for older people. Exeter has one of Europe’s largest Passivhaus schemes underway, while Liverpool is developing rent-to-buy homes.”

Going modular

But if councils are to succeed in their efforts to deliver more affordable, low carbon housing, they will need to change the way homes are built. Increasingly, prefabricated modular construction is being seen as a way to meet some of the demand for new housing. Built offsite in factories, with fittings included, prefabricated housing offers comfortable, well-insulated homes that can be constructed more quickly than traditional building. Offsite construction can deliver a modern apartment block in half the time that it would take to build using traditional methods, which means that units for sale or rent can start making money more quickly.

An article in the 12 November 2020 issue of MJ magazine reported further benefits, noting that:

“…these homes are delivered with up to 40% less carbon, fewer defects, and less disruption to neighbourhoods where sites are located. Once completed the fact they are made in a factory is not obvious to the passer by or occupant, it is just great housing, beautifully built, with low running costs.”

A shortage of skilled labour presents another reason why the old ways of building homes need to change, as a 2016 review of the construction market highlighted:

“We will not have the labour force to deliver what the country needs by working in those ways, and those ways will not create enough added value for clients or suppliers to allow construction firms to prosper, and make those investments in our people and performance.”

The report demonstrated that prefabricated housing can make a significant difference to satisfying demand:

“Tokyo alone is able to build nearly the same number of homes per year that the UK delivers nationally. This is purely due to the reliance on a different delivery model for single family homes which benefits from the mass market cultural acceptance of pre-manufactured modular housing.”

Housing the homeless

Further evidence that modern methods of construction can work well has come from a project in Cambridge, where six modular homes were installed on a temporary site to house local homeless people. A report by the Cambridge Centre for Housing & Planning Research noted that residents were impressed with the design, space and quality of the modular units, and were keen to be involved in efforts to build a thriving community.

The Cambridge project is especially important in the light of the UK’s large number of rough sleepers and ‘hidden homeless’. In March 2020, more than 14,000 homeless people were housed in England as part of the ‘Everyone In’ initiative to take rough sleepers off the streets during the first wave of the pandemic. The programme was hailed as one of the leading successes of the government’s coronavirus response, but it ended in May and has not resumed during the current lockdown.

The future is modular?

So, could modular construction offer a solution to the UK’s housing shortage? Recent research published in the Journal of Engineering, Design and Technology set out to compare the traditional approach with modular construction, and to assess whether a shift in construction systems offers the potential to alleviate the UK’s domestic housing crisis. The study stressed that more research was needed to provide greater certainty about how modular methods could be more effectively grafted onto the current UK construction practices. However, the authors concluded that:

 “…modular construction promises strategic solutions to the lack of affordable housing currently experienced in the UK.”

In the meantime, recent developments suggest that the prefabricated housing sector seems to be going from strength to strength:

  • A 20,000 sq ft unit will be the manufacturing site for a new modular housing company in Durham, with plans to produce 1,000 modular homes a year.
  • A modular housing developer owned by Ikea has signed a 750-home deal with a housing association in the south of England.
  • Planning consent has been granted for 185 homes to be located in Bristol after they are shipped in from a factory in Yorkshire. Half of the homes will become part of the city council’s affordable housing stock.

The numbers of prefabricated homes are still too low. But if this trend continues, offsite construction might start to have a bigger impact on the UK’s housing shortage. The days of bricks and mortar could be numbered.


Further reading
More from The Knowledge Exchange blog on modern methods of housing:

Why are we still talking about healthy places?

In recent years, there has been a wide ranging debate across the housing, planning, health and infrastructure sectors about the development of healthy places in both regeneration and newly approved projects.

In 2016, Town and Country Planning Journal published an article on building health and wellbeing into the built environment (Town and Country Planning, Vol 85 No 11 Nov 2016, Knowledge Exchange customers can login to view the article here) In 2017 and 2018 the talk was all about healthy towns initiatives, and a Design Council report in 2018 looked at the relationship between healthy placemaking and the impact on our communities. In 2019 the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA) called on members to “reunite” health and planning

It is clear that everyone involved in placemaking agrees building places that promote health and wellbeing for all is of vital importance to our communities, The Covid-19 pandemic brought this into sharp focus, and the idea remains at the forefront of design policy, particularly in urban city contexts. But, over four years after the initial conversations and thought pieces, why are we still talking about it, and what actions still need to be taken to integrate the idea of a healthy place into planning to the extent that it just becomes the norm in the planning and design of our places?

Preventing avoidable disease

The phrase ‘healthy placemaking’ has been defined by Design Council as: “Tackling preventable disease by shaping the built environment so that healthy activities and experiences are integral to people’s everyday lives”.

Public Health England defined healthy placemaking as: “Placemaking that takes into consideration neighbourhood design (such as increasing walking and cycling), improved quality of housing, access to healthier food, conservation of, and access to natural and sustainable environments, and improved transport and connectivity”

Research has shown preventable diseases linked to lifestyle and environment are among the most significant threats to public health. Lifestyle-related conditions like heart disease and cancer, as well as being health problems in their own right, can also contribute to the development of other chronic conditions, exacerbate symptoms and create complications with care which are costly to the NHS.

Creating healthy spaces is not just about encouraging people to live more active lifestyles by facilitating active travel and improving the environment around buildings, although this is a significant part of it. “Healthy places” include approaches to improve air quality, reduce loneliness, allow people to age well in place, promote mental as well as physical wellbeing, reduce deprivation and inequality through projects like housing, infrastructure development, and high street regeneration.

Healthy places also have a preventative role to play in public health management, not just a health improvement role; such interventions are essential to help avert the onset of disease, improve people’s quality of life and reduce health inequalities. And evidence shows the return on investment from public health interventions is high and creates value of different kinds – economic, social and personal.

In short people who live in healthy places, tend to live healthier lives, place less strain on services and “contribute” more to society, both economically through work or spending and socially through community engagement.

Victoria Park, Belfast. Image: Fiona Ann Paterson

Enabling planning practitioners to think about creating healthy places

Research published in 2020 by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) explored local, national and international planning practices that enable the creation and delivery of healthy places. While a lot of research draws attention to the barriers to building healthy places – including a lack of funding, different requirements from developers and conflicting policy priorities – the RTPI report instead sought to identify important challenges faced by planners who try to integrate healthy placemaking principles in their decisions and then offer potential solutions to these in practice. Key themes emerging from the report include a need to improve collaboration, knowledge sharing and the skills of planners.

The report provides case studies looking at: the place standard tool; the livewell development accreditation; connecting communities in Tower Hamlets; health planning in South Worcestershire; and train station district rejuvenation in Grasse, France. It also identifies seven steps to plan for healthier environments

Across the sector there have been calls for planners to be allowed to be innovative, creative and take a “visionary” approach to planning to help make places healthier in order to address the convergence of challenges around public health, the climate emergency, and economic recovery from Covid-19.

How has the coronavirus pandemic changed how we think about healthy spaces?

The lockdowns  imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic have thrown the importance of quality space into sharp focus. Places that facilitate health and wellbeing among the people who live there, and places where the indoor living quality is as important as the outdoor space have become incredibly important.

The pandemic has highlighted what it really means to have a healthy space. It has also demonstrated how wider socioeconomic deprivation and inequality – linked to living conditions as well as other factors – is having an impact on infection and hospital admission rates, with those groups who live in more deprived areas being found to be at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill or being admitted to hospital with Covid-19. 

The 2018 Design council report found in its survey of practitioners that focus was given far more to outdoor space than to indoors, as it was easier and more cost effective to make changes that could produce demonstrable impacts (an increase in cycling, for example). But the pandemic and the increased time we have been forced to spend indoors has encouraged designers and urban planners to think even more creatively about quality space in their developments.

Where now?

Public Health England (PHE) which for many years was a strong voice in the conversations around healthy placemaking has been disbanded and will be replaced by a National Institute of Health Protection. It remains to be seen how, or if this new organisation will fit into the conversation going forward. But reflecting on recent reports on the significant public health crisis facing the UK in the long term, it is clear that the work must continue, driven collectively by those in planning, urban design and public health.


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Guest post: Sustainable cities after COVID-19: are Barcelona-style green zones the answer?

Photo by Kaspars Upmanis on Unsplash

Guest post by Anupam Nanda, University of Manchester

The lockdowns and restrictions introduced to control the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in huge changes to urban life. Previously bustling city centres remain empty, shunned in favour of suburban or rural areas where social distancing is easier and connections to the outdoors are abundant.

The roll out of vaccines provides hope for a partial restoration of normality in cities. However, the impact of COVID-19 could last much longer.

In particular, the pandemic has shown how damaging congestion, pollution and lack of green space can be – including how these factors have contributed to the severity of suffering for city dwellers. We have an opportunity to change city living for the better.

Barcelona offers an example of how city areas can be transformed to reduce pollution and increase access to green space.

The city pioneered the concept of superblocks, first introduced in 2016, as part of green urban planning. Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks. Traffic is restricted to major roads around the superblocks, leaving the streets inside for pedestrians and cyclists.

Recently, further plans have been announced to expand green zones in the city’s central district, Eixample. This is a major expansion of low-traffic zones, giving priority to pedestrians and cyclists to reduce pollution and provide green spaces.

The new plan will cover 21 streets and have space for 21 new pedestrian plazas at intersections. At least 80% of each street is to be shaded by trees in summer and 20% unpaved. A public competition in May 2021 will decide the final design.

The purpose of the plan is to ensure that no resident will be more than 200 metres from a green space.

There are many benefits to creating urban green spaces like these. They include an improvement in air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets, and a reduction in levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) from road traffic. Exposure to high level of NO₂ can lead to a range of respiratory problems.

Green spaces have been shown to improve mental health, as well as lead to a reduction in risk of obesity and diabetes – conditions which significantly increase vulnerability to COVID-19.

COVID-19 has made the case for green urban planning even more compelling. However, these plans can come at a cost.

Barriers to green cities

A particular negative impact of green zones could be a high demand for housing, leading to subsequent rises in property prices. This can lead to gentrification and displacement of local residents and businesses. Care must be taken to make sure that homes remain affordable and urban green zones do not become rich enclaves.

The COVID-19 lockdowns highlighted the difference in living conditions faced by city dwellers. Green initiatives must work for all socio-economic groups, and must not exacerbate existing inequalities.

In addition, while city centres are the usual focus areas for greening initiatives, suburbs and other peripheral areas also need attention. The goal is to reduce carbon dependence in total – not shift it from one area to another, or one sector to another.

The plan should also include steps to make private and public transport completely green. This could include replacing carbon-producing transport system with zero-emission vehicles and providing ample infrastructure such as dedicated lanes and charging stations for electric vehicles.

Cities differ hugely in how they look, shape and operate. One size will not fit all. If other cities choose to follow Barcelona’s model, local issues must be carefully considered. Superblocks work really well in a neat grid system such as in central Barcelona. But many cities do not have a well-designed grid system.

However, the principles of green, environmentally friendly, car-free or restricted-traffic neighbourhoods can be adopted in any city. Examples of schemes include low-traffic neighbourhoods in London, the 15-minute city initiative in Paris, or Manchester’s plans for a zero-carbon city centre.

While adopting such interventions, it is important to keep citizens’ daily needs in mind to avoid adding extra burdens on them. If motor traffic is to be limited, the availability of public transport must be considered, safe infrastructure for walking and cycling as well as adequate road structure for essential services or deliveries.

Significant capital investment is needed to support these plans. The Barcelona plan is projected to cost €38 million (£34 million). Much more will be required if it is to roll out to more areas. Cities in the developing world and poorer countries cannot afford such huge sums. Moreover, COVID-19 has left several cities laden with a huge amount of debt.

Green city initiatives need to be long-term – and created with the support of local people. Recognition of the benefits of green living and informed support of developments will result in positive behaviour changes by the citizens.

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics & Real Estate, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Further reading: more from our blog on tackling air pollution in cities:

 

The year of living differently: reviewing The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2020

2020 has been a year like no other. A microscopic virus – 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair – has dominated, disrupted and redefined the way we live and work.

Although the pandemic is primarily a public health emergency, its effects have been felt in all areas of public and social policy, from economic development and employment to transport and the environment. Throughout this year, our blog has reflected on the impacts of the coronavirus and the restrictions introduced to prevent its spread.

The COVID-19 knock-on

While the coronavirus pandemic has dominated the news headlines, it has also obscured the knock-on effects on the NHS. In October, we reported on the impacts of delays to preventative healthcare measures, such as screening and routine medical care in the form of pre-planned operations for long-term chronic and non-urgent conditions.

As the blog post noted, the impacts have been wide-ranging, including not only delays in care for case of physical ill health, but also for those seeking treatment for mental health conditions:

“Research suggests that incidence of mental illness during the coronavirus pandemic increased. However, the numbers of people accessing services and being referred for treatment have not increased proportionate to this.”

The ‘hidden epidemic’

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, domestic violence had become known as a ‘hidden epidemic’ in the UK. In September, our blog highlighted the unintended consequences of quarantine for domestic abuse victims.

After the UK entered lockdown in March, calls and online enquiries to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse line increased by 25%. Three-quarters of victims told a BBC investigation that lockdown had made it harder for them to escape their abusers and in many cases had intensified the abuse they received.

Despite additional government funding, the local authorities and charities which support victims of domestic violence have been struggling with the financial fallout from the pandemic. Even so,  important partnerships have been formed between local government, educational institutions and third sector bodies to provide safe spaces for women and their children fleeing violence. Among these was an initiative at the University of Cambridge:

St Catherine’s College formed a partnership with Cambridge Women’s Aid to provide over 1000 nights of secure supported accommodation during the lockdown period.

‘Same storm, different boats’

As the recent Marmot review has stressed, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed and deepened many of the deep-rooted inequalities in our society, including gender, ethnicity and income.  It has also shone a light on more recent inequalities, such as the growth of precarious employment among sections of the population.

In July, we looked at the uneven economic impact of the pandemic, focusing on the heavy price being paid by young people, women, disabled people and Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.

Women often work in the frontline of care services and have had to juggle childcare during lockdown. BAME communities are over-represented in key-worker jobs, and so were particularly vulnerable to coronavirus.

And although there has been much talk about ‘building back better’, our blog post drew attention to the observations of Dr Sally Witcher, CEO of Inclusion Scotland during a Poverty Alliance webinar:

“She asks whether indeed we should want to build back, when the old normal didn’t work for a large proportion of people, particularly those with disabilities. Dr Witcher also questions ‘who’ is doing the building, and whether the people designing this new future will have the knowledge and lived experience of what really needs to change.”

The impacts of a pandemic

Many other aspects of the impact of COVID-19 have been covered in our blog:

  • How housing providers have embraced the fluidity of an emergency situation, including tackling homelessness, engaging effectively with tenants and addressing mental ill health.
  • Digital healthcare solutions for those with coronavirus and for the continuity of care and day-to-day running of the NHS.
  • Creating and managing a COVID-secure workplace.
  • How COVID-19 is changing public transport, including an acceleration towards contactless payment and mobile ticketing.
  • The additional challenges of the pandemic facing autistic children and young people.
  • The impact of the coronavirus restrictions on the arts.
  • The role of green new deals in tackling climate change and economic inequality as part of the post-Covid recovery.

Beyond the virus

Although the pandemic has been at the forefront of all our minds this year, The Knowledge Exchange blog has also taken the time to focus on other important issues in public and social policy:

We’ve also taken advantage of the ‘new normal’ experience of remote working to join a number of webinars, and to report back on the observations and ideas emerging from them. Most recently, our blogs have focused on a series of webinars organised by Partners in Planning, which included contributions on how the planning system can help address climate change.

Final thoughts

The health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic are likely to be long-lasting – restrictions on travel, work and socialising will continue into the spring, and insolvencies and unemployment numbers are likely to rise. And the continuing uncertainty over the UK’s new trading relationship with the European Union will generate additional challenges.   

But, as a frequently difficult, often challenging and sometimes distressing year draws to a close, there is cause for optimism about 2021. Vaccines to prevent the spread of the virus have been developed with lightning speed. Across the UK people are already being vaccinated, with greater numbers set to receive the jab in the coming months.

Here at The Knowledge Exchange, we’ll continue to highlight the key issues facing public and social policy and practice as we move towards the post-Covid era.

Season’s greetings

It’s with even greater meaning than ever before that we wish all our readers a happy Christmas, and a healthy, prosperous and happy new year.

Best wishes from everyone at The Knowledge Exchange: Morwen, Christine, Heather, Donna, Rebecca, Scott, Hannah and James.


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Creating carbon conscious places

Last week, we reported on a series of webinars organised by Partners in Planning, a partnership of key organisations and sectors to support Scotland’s planners in delivering successful places.

This week, we’re looking at a further webinar in this series, which focused on the creation of low carbon places.

Planning for carbon conscious places

Steve Malone and Heather Claridge from Architecture & Design Scotland  (A&DS) opened the webinar by describing how A&DS have been exploring how the challenge of climate change can act as a driver towards the creation of low carbon places.

A&DS has been supporting the Scottish Government in implementing its climate change plan at a local level. This recognises that the planning system plays a key role in tackling climate change, and helping Scotland achieve its carbon emission targets.

Over the course of a year, A&DS worked with four local authorities to develop and deliver plans that prioritised climate action. As a result, a number of key principles of a carbon conscious place were identified.

  • A place-led approach
  • A place of small distances
  • A place designed for and with local people
  • A place with whole and circular systems
  • A place that supports sharing (of assets and services)

These principles are closely connected with ideas identified in earlier work by A&DS which explored how placemaking can tackle the challenges of an ageing population.

A&DS further developed this work to imagine the changes that might need to happen to support more carbon and caring conscious places by 2050. Earlier this year, its report Designing for a Changing Climate shared the learning from the year-long exploration into a whole place approach to the net-zero carbon challenge.

The report provided examples of each of the principles in action, and considered what Scotland would look like in 2050 if these principles were adopted for urban neighbourhoods, city centres, towns and rural areas.

Among the ideas highlighted were:

  • rooftops repurposed as usable areas with green space and room for urban growing
  • accessible zero emission public transport connecting city centres
  • local food growing and agroforestry helping support food self-sufficiency and security
  • natural flood defence schemes
  • peatland and woodland restoration to help a rural area absorb carbon and balance emissions

A&DS is now working with local authorities to apply these principles in real places. For example, in Clackmannanshire, the principles are being used to guide development of a mixed use housing site in Alva.

Planning as a circular economy enabler

Later in the webinar, Angela Burke and Ailie Callan from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) considered how the design of places that are conducive to the circular economy can help to tackle climate change.

Since the industrial revolution, the world’s economies have used a linear “take-make-consume-dispose” pattern of growth, a model which assumes that resources are abundant, available and cheaply disposable.

In contrast, a circular economy changes that mindset by designing-out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems. These principles not only apply to resources such as consumer goods and product packaging, but also to land, water, buildings, infrastructure and energy.

Angela and Ailie went on to describe how planning can be an enabler of the circular economy. In Scotland, the planning system is set to change, with the publication of a new National Planning Framework (NPF4), which sets out where development and infrastructure is needed to support sustainable and inclusive growth.

NPF4 will address a number of high level outcomes, such as meeting the housing and wellbeing needs of the people of Scotland and meeting targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Integrating circular economy principles early in the planning process will help to deliver a number of these outcomes, and NPF4 policy will provide the framework to ensure that these principles are integrated into new developments.

Ailie provided some examples of how circular economy principles can be embedded into planning:

  • Brownfield sites can be redeveloped instead of developing new sites and generating higher carbon emissions.
  • Distribution nodes on key transport corridors can enable electric vehicles to carry out last stage of delivery, minimising emissions and reducing traffic.
  • Developing re-use hubs at these distribution nodes can drive down waste.
  • Mobility hubs can ensure that everyone is well connected, not just for public transport, but also cycle paths, routes for mobility vehicles and charging points for electric vehicles.
  • Planning for shops and services locally (perhaps sharing the same premises) will reduce the need to travel outside the local area.

Angela and Ailie concluded with an invitation to anyone interested in partnering with SEPA on developing the circular economy in Scotland.

20 minute neighbourhoods

In the final section of the webinar, the Scottish Government’s Chief Architect, Ian Gilzean looked at 20 minute neighbourhoods. This is not a new concept, but has gained added significance due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

20 minute neighbourhoods are all about living more locally by ensuring people have most of their daily needs met within a 20 minute walk from home. This in turn improves quality of life and reduces carbon emissions.

20 minute neighbourhoods bring together a range of characteristics, including transport, housing, schools, recreation, shopping and local employment. Recent limitations on travel due to the coronavirus have given many of us a lived experience of 20 minute neighbourhoods. But they have also brought into sharp focus the barriers preventing people from accessing work, shops and services close to where they live.

Ian went on to describe the implementation of the 20 minute neighbourhoods concept in Melbourne, Australia. Since 2017 Plan Melbourne has embraced this concept, feeding into the ambition of Melbourne to become a more liveable, connected, sustainable city. While some parts of Melbourne, such as the inner suburb of Fitzroy, already enjoy the facilities that make up a 20 minute neighbourhood, some of the outlying suburbs do not, and Plan Melbourne has been aiming to tackle some of the problems that prevent these places from delivering on the concept.

20 minute neighbourhoods appear to be an idea whose time has come. The pandemic has triggered a rise in remote working, and especially working from home. At the same time, cities have seen significant rises in cycling numbers. The economic impact of COVID-19 is still playing out, but it’s already clear that the recovery of small businesses and local services will be a priority, along with the need to reimagine urban centres.

Ian explained that these factors have all fed into the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government, which has a strong focus on localism. This in turn has generated commitments and policies on town centre and community regeneration, local working hubs and active travel infrastructure, all underpinned by the new National Planning Framework.

Ian concluded with an example of a project in the Wester Hailes district of Edinburgh, where the city council has been developing a local place plan. The plan is making the most of existing assets, such as local canal and rail connections, as well as identifying new opportunities, such as cycle routes, food growing and green spaces.

Final thoughts

This webinar, along with others in the series, provided plenty of useful information about how Scotland is trying address climate change through the planning system, while also taking account of local communities’ needs.

Much more remains to be done if Scotland is to meet its net-zero ambitions, but it’s clear from the initiatives highlighted in these webinars that communities in partnership with local and national government and other stakeholders are working hard to create carbon conscious places.


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How the planning system can help address climate change

The Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan Update is due to be published this month (December 2020), after being postponed from April due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.  The plan will provide an update on the Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan, reflecting the new targets set out in the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019, with the overall aim of reducing Scotland’s emissions of all greenhouse gases to net-zero by 2045. 

In the face of the climate emergency, the target is both admirable and ambitious.  Achieving it will require input from all sectors of the economy and society – from energy, transport, infrastructure to skills, training and innovation. 

A recent series of webinars held by Partners in Planning looked at the ways in which town planning could help play its part by embedding nature-based solutions and green infrastructure planning into the planning process.

In this blog we look at three innovative projects that were highlighted.  They illustrate some of the varied ways in which planning can contribute towards the Scottish Government’s net zero targets and address the wider climate emergency.

Building with Nature: green infrastructure benchmark

Encouraging developers to incorporate green infrastructure and nature-based solutions into new developments is a key challenge, particularly if there is a perception that it may be more time consuming and/or costly to do so.

Building with Nature is a set of wellbeing standards built around the ‘3 Ws’ – water, wildlife and wellbeing.  The standards go beyond statutory requirements, bringing together evidence, guidance and good practice to provide something akin to a ‘how to’ guide for creating places that benefit both people and nature.  The standards are free to access and use, and there is also a paid-for accreditation scheme, with three levels of achievement – design, good, and excellent.

As well as reducing carbon emissions, the standards aim to help support biodiversity, promote flood resilience and support wellbeing through the provision of green space that is both inclusive and accessible to everyone, regardless of age or disability.

The standards are entirely voluntary but many local authorities are now beginning to either refer developers to Building with Nature or incorporate them as requirements in their own plans.

Plans themselves can also become accredited.  Indeed, West Dunbartonshire Council’s Local Development Plan 2, published in August 2020, is the first Building with Nature accredited policy document, achieving the ‘excellent’ rating.

Building with Nature have also recently launched a new national award scheme, with the first winners being Forth Valley Royal Hospital and Larbert Woods.

Green-blue roofs – Meadowbank, Edinburgh

One way that developers can incorporate nature-based solutions into their developments is through the use of green-blue roofs. Green-blue roofs can provide a range of benefits for both people and nature – including surface water management, urban cooling, as well as providing habitats for wildlife and opportunities for people to access nature in the urban environment.  

At present, there is no mandatory policy for green roof infrastructure in Scotland, thus while developers may be aware of the benefits that they have, many do not incorporate them into their plans due concerns about their impact on scheme costs and viability.

These concerns have been addressed in a study of the viability of incorporating green-blue roofs into a mixed-used development at the former Meadowbank Stadium site in Edinburgh, conducted by Collective Architecture on behalf of NatureScot (previously called Scottish Natural Heritage). 

The study highlights the varied range of green-blue roof options available to developers – all with different costs, levels of maintenance, building requirements etc.  Some are suitable for public access whereas others are not.  Blue-green roofs are a combination of both green roofs and blue roofs – where rainwater is retained rather than drained (as with a typical green roof) and released in a controlled manner.

Overall, green-blue roofs were found to be a viable option for the Meadowbank development, freeing up space that might otherwise be used for ground-based SUDS (sustainable drainage systems), and offering a range of potential wellbeing and community benefits.  Blue-green roofs did cause a small uplift in roofing costs. However, as a proportion of the overall construction costs, these were minimal, coming in at around £350 per dwelling.

Retrofitting green infrastructure – Queensland Gardens, Cardonald, Glasgow

If our towns and cities are to become truly carbon neutral, then there will also be a need to retrofit green infrastructure into existing developments.  One such example of retrofitting is Queensland Court and Gardens – a partnership between Southside Housing Association and Glasgow City Council to retrofit green infrastructure designs into two multi-storey tower blocks and the surrounding land in Cardonald, Glasgow. 

The project is part of the wider Green Infrastructure Strategic Intervention (GISI) programme, which as well as contributing to the ultimate goal of achieving a net zero carbon society, seeks to demonstrate how green infrastructure can be used to address some of the key issues faced in urban areas – from declining economic growth, social inequalities, pollution, flooding, noise, multiple deprivation, health problems and limited biodiversity. 

One of the key issues facing the outdoor space at Queensland Gardens is excess surface water, which renders much of the space unusable.  As such, the project has also received funding from 10,000 Raingardens for Scotland.  It plans to turn the rainwater run-off from the tower blocks into a feature that is incorporated into the gardens.  It also plans to expand the current parking facilities, create a shared community green space, and enhance the currently very limited play space for children and young people.

Both the Queensland Gardens and the Meadowbank site developments will be assessed against the Building with Nature standards.

Green infrastructure as part of the green recovery

The coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp focus the importance of having local green spaces that are both easily accessible and inclusive of all ages and disabilities.  It highlighted the importance of nature to the health of society and the world more broadly, along with the urgent need to address climate change.

It also demonstrated that it is possible to create and implement innovative solutions to global crises on a tight timescale, when both the need and will exist.  There are strong calls now for a ‘green recovery’, and it is expected that the imminent Climate Change Plan Update will feature this concept heavily.  Indeed Scotland has already made a number of commitments for a green recovery as part of their 2020/21 Programme for Government, and the findings of the recent Green Recovery Inquiry reinforce its importance.

As the above examples show, embedding green infrastructure and nature-based solutions into the planning system is one way to help achieve Scotland’s goal of becoming net zero by 2045.  By doing so, we can create places and spaces that benefit not only ourselves, but also society and the planet.


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Garden communities – the sustainable dream or car-dependent nightmare?

Rather than being centred on sustainable transport, it looks like garden communities are to become car-based commuter estates just like any other – exactly what the government wanted to avoid.”

This is the conclusion of a recent report from Transport for New Homes, which examined plans for 20 garden communities around England.

The government’s vision for new garden communities, as set out in their 2018 Garden communities prospectus, is for “vibrant, mixed-use, communities where people can live, work, and play for generations to come – communities which view themselves as the conservation areas of the future. Each will be holistically planned, self sustaining, and characterful.”

But rather than the self-contained communities where there is minimal need to travel, the Transport for New Homes report warns England’s new garden communities are at risk of becoming car-dependent commuter estates – exactly what they are supposed to supersede.

Vision vs reality

Sustainable living, with walking, cycling and public transport playing a key role, is central to the vision of garden communities. Indeed, the documentation for each of the communities highlighted “very encouraging” intentions according to the report. Despite these visions, however, almost every garden community examined focused on major road improvements to accommodate the expected huge rise in car use:

  • around half of garden communities studied were associated with new or bigger motorway junctions
  • 90% of garden community plans appeared to be associated with road capacity increases
  • a popular model for garden towns was new estates on a new ring road. This was chosen rather than extending the town along joined up streets for easy walking or cycling into the town centre
  • a number of garden community locations appear to be actually selected to finance a new bypass or other new ‘strategic’ link

The researchers estimated that the 20 communities examined would create up to 200,000 households dependent on car use.

Far from the government’s vision of self-contained communities, “the vast majority of garden communities appeared to be put forward on the basis of fast travel out.”

Clearly, these results are at odds with the intended vision. According to the report, there were two main problems with the plans: building in the wrong location and around the wrong kind of transport.

Opportunity missed?

With the recent recalibration of how people live and work, the need for great places to live is even stronger than ever. The current pandemic has placed a new emphasis on walking and cycling, with the benefits of living more locally coming to the fore. It has certainly accelerated more sustainable and equitable trends – to which garden communities, in the intended sense, are ideally suited.

But while new cycle lanes have been popping up in urban centres along with wider pavements in a quick response to the situation, the planned garden villages were found to be largely unsuitable for walking and cycling as a result of their remote location, layout and lack of safe routes in and out; despite active travel being an aim for almost every case.

Every vision also recognised public transport but were found to fail in delivery. Only one garden community was in walking distance of a station.

A lack of committed funding for place-making, sustainable transport and active travel, it is suggested, “may well mean any transformational potential is lost”.  Could this be a real missed opportunity to move away from the old way of place-making and embrace a new sustainable norm?

Consequences

The report warns that there are several consequences to continuing with the current proposals:

  • layout for cars not pedestrians
  • lack of green environment
  • expensive for those on low incomes
  • local shops and businesses don’t open
  • higher carbon emissions
  • inactive lifestyles; more stress
  • isolation
  • you have to be able to drive
  • parking city, not garden city, with parking taking the place of garden and public space
  • money wasted

Clearly these are undesirable outcomes. It is therefore suggested that continuing along the current path risks putting the garden community visions in jeopardy. But, the report argues, there is another way.

Way forward

It is argued that there is a need for integration of sustainable transport and land use planning so they are no longer treated separately, inhibiting the coordination of new homes along public transport corridors. A change in transport funding is also called for.

The report makes several recommendations to achieve the garden community vision:

  • Complete overhaul of planning so that sustainable transport and new homes come together.
  • Build in the right places for sustainable transport.
  • Make the funding of sustainable transport a priority.
  • Transfer funds for roads to funds for sustainable transport – be modern!
  • Change the way we assess the benefits of transport infrastructure.
  • Streets and pavements; cycle networks – design new places with layouts for pedestrians and cyclists, and public transport routes, stops and stations.
  • Quality low rise flats, mix of houses. More green, less tarmac, less space lost to parking.

Perhaps the government’s proposals for reform of the planning system will help the true garden community vision come to life. Indeed, some of the proposals have been welcomed, particularly in relation to simplifying the system to enable more homes to be built. Others, however, have been criticised with concerns raised over measures to speed up new housebuilding not resulting in well-designed, sustainable places. With the consultation due to close next week, it remains to be seen whether the reforms will ultimately do enough for the garden village ideal to be realised.


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Inclusive streets: from low expectations to big dreams

We’ve written before about the health, environmental and economic benefits of walking, and the importance of making our cities and towns more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists. This was the theme of two recent webinars presented by Living Streets, an organisation that has been campaigning for better walking and cycling environments for almost a century.

The first webinar was presented by Stuart Hay, Penny Morriss and Robert Weetman from Living Streets, who explained that inclusive streets are defined spaces where all members of the community can walk or cycle.

But inclusive streets are about more than accessibility. Many streets and public spaces that might be accessible are not necessarily navigable. They can present social and physical barriers that mean the streets are not delivering equal access for everyone.

Walking Connects

In this context, Penny Morriss highlighted the work which she’s been doing with older people in a project called Walking Connects. A rising proportion of the UK population is over 65, and while many older people remain active, a lack of facilities – seating, shelter, hand rails, public toilets,  pedestrian crossings and well-maintained streets – can hinder to their ability to access services and meet other people.

In one Airdrie community studied by the Walking Connects team, residents found the lack of pedestrian access at the end of their housing complex a significant barrier to accessing the shops, community centre and church.

Robert Weetman of Living Streets noted that this community’s experience was by no means uncommon, and is not confined to older generations.

“We’re not talking about a small number of people not being able to get along a particular street; what we’re talking about actually moves into a large number of people not even being able to get to the end of their own local streets, or even outside of their gate.”

The reasons for this largely rest on the longstanding assumption that everyone in towns and cities wants to get around by car. Today, the need to tackle climate change and the recent improvements to air quality due to the pandemic restrictions, is driving a reappraisal of our car-centric cities. At the same time, local authorities, who are mostly responsible for the design and maintenance of streets, are under greater financial pressure than ever.

Challenging the authorities

The webinar stressed that citizens are not powerless when it comes to challenging councils to improve their streets. Penny highlighted another Walking Connects project in Edinburgh, where a number of tenants in a retirement development had experienced falls because of poor paving. The problem had been reported to the council many times, but residents were repeatedly told that the faults were not bad enough to warrant resurfacing. However, after working with Living Streets to document the number of falls, they persuaded the council to resurface the pavements.

Penny explained that this pro-active approach was vital, but that marginalised groups in the community often felt that their voice didn’t count:

“One of the first things that we need to do is to make sure that they understand it’s okay to ask for an issue that they encounter on a day-to-day basis to be resolved.”

A common message throughout the webinar was the need to bring local people, councillors and road technicians together. As Robert Weetman observed, once that happens communities can drop their low expectations and start to dream big:

“I think that our biggest and in some ways our most difficult priority is to create and communicate a vision of how different our streets could be, and why that would be so much better for everybody.”

People with disabilities: overcoming the barriers

The second webinar included contributions from  Keith Robertson, an advisor to the Scottish Government through the Mobility and Access Committee Scotland, and  Catriona Burness from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), who spoke about the particular barriers faced by people with disabilities when navigating urban streets.

These include temporary road signs, advertising boards, bins and seating. For wheelchair users, blind or partially-sighted pedestrians, this ‘street furniture’ can make a simple journey more like an obstacle course, and can also have serious consequences. Barriers can cause accidents, and if people are deterred from getting out and about, they may experience mental ill health.

Both Keith and Catriona stressed the importance of local authorities engaging with disabled people and disability organisations, not as a tick-box exercise, but to really take their needs into consideration. The results of such consultations can be dramatic.

In Perth, for example, a pedestrianisation project did away with grilles where trees were planted, removing a hazard for wheelchair users and people using canes. At the same time, all of the signs, seats, bins and other items of street furniture were aligned, giving pedestrians unimpeded access along the street. Restaurants, cafes and shops placing advertising boards outside their establishments have to follow these regulations, or face a fine from the local authority.

People with sight loss: the challenges of social distancing

Catriona highlighted the numbers of people in Scotland who are blind or partially-sighted, amounting to over 200,000 people. This figure is likely to rise further over the next decade due to an ageing population and greater prevalence of diseases such as diabetes.

Pedestrians who are blind or partially sighted have found the context of coronavirus especially challenging. Social distancing, which is such a crucial part of preventing the spread of the virus, is very hard for people with sight loss to deal with.

One particular challenge has been the increasing use of ‘floating bus stops’. Councils have been responding to the need for greater social distancing on pavements by creating more pop-up cycle lanes, which in turn has led to bus stops being repositioned from the kerbside to ‘floating’ in-between bike lanes and the road.

For blind and partially-sighted pedestrians, such arrangements make boarding a bus more inaccessible and potentially hazardous. As Keith pointed out, accidents are usually a signal to local authorities that a design isn’t right, but if people with sight loss don’t feel safe going out, there will be no accidents to report, and the situation will be unchanged.

Final thoughts

If there was an underlying message emerging from the two webinars, it was that when it comes to accessible streets, design matters to ensure fair access for all. Badly designed streets can be frustrating, and dangerous, leaving some groups of people feeling excluded. On the other hand, well designed streets can help all of us feel good about getting around, and can especially help people with disabilities feel more independent. The key is to enable engagement between the people who design our streets and those who use them.

There was so much more useful content in both of these sessions, including a discussion on how to raise issues on street accessibility with the authorities who have the powers to make changes.

Living Streets have provided recordings of both webinars, along with transcripts of the proceedings.

Living Streets Webinar One: Video Recording; Transcript

Living Streets Webinar Two: Video Recording ; Transcript


Further reading: more from our blog on accessible streets

Plantech and the Singapore experience

The publication in early August of the government consultation on reforming the planning system in England was accompanied by plenty of soundbites on the need for more efficiency and faster decision-making.

Technology, and digital services, were highlighted (once again) as an area which needs improvement: “Reform should be accompanied by a significant enhancement in digital and geospatial capability and capacity across the planning sector to support high-quality new digital Local Plans and digitally enabled decision-making.”

The consultation report goes on to say that “we think the English planning profession has the potential to become an international world-leader in digital planning, capable of exporting world class planning services around the world.”

Running to catch up

Many countries around the world have already made significant investment in digital planning, both technology and skills, and of these, Singapore is often mentioned as a world leader. While the city state’s administrative set-up gives it some advantages over countries with devolved and fragmented systems of regulation and planning powers, there are still lessons to be learned.

A webinar hosted by the Connected Places Catapult last month allowed staff from Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to share its work on plantech, and in particular how data science is embedded in planning processes and long-term strategic planning. The journey they have been on over the last decade suggests that the UK has a long way to go.

The Singapore approach

The URA’s Digital Planning Lab was set up in 2013 to bring together planners and data specialists to use digital tools to improve planning processes and outcomes. The approach is holistic, with different professions working together to combine insights. This contrasts with the UK, where local authority budget cuts have led to an erosion of the skills base.

The mission of the Digital Planning Lab is to act as a catalyst – to incubate skills and ideas, to accelerate insights and transformation, and to inspire, through innovation and partnerships. There is a strong focus on building skills and capabilities within government, with the Lab running a data analytics immersion programme twice a year, to train cohorts of government staff on how data can be used in their work.

One output of the Lab has been their digital planning tool, ePlanner, which applies data science to urban planning processes. The one-stop inhouse geospatial tool is accessible to staff in over 50 government agencies and brings together information and analytics on population and demographics, land use, mobility, housing types, planning approvals, enforcement action, parking and public consultations and feedback. Data and maps are layered to allow deeper analysis of individual topics while protecting individual data. The tool also visualises existing site approvals and restrictions which may exist based on strategic planning documents.

The ePlanner aims to identify information and workflow gaps, and improve interagency working. The data analysis also enables a more flexible approach to strategic planning. While in most countries the evidence used in long-term planning is drawn from sources such as 10-year censuses, and uses surveys to gather people’s preferences, the Singapore tools allow for much more nuanced and responsive policymaking based on actual behaviour. It also recognises the complex factors which shape how communities use their infrastructure.

Plantech creates better places

The goal of plantech in Singapore is explicitly to facilitate data-informed, people-centric planning outcomes. A goal which planning reforms in the UK can only currently aspire to achieve.

While the challenges are recognised (such as the protection of individual and health-related data), the Urban Planning Lab approaches their work from the perspective of asking ‘how can we unlock the value of data’ – providing evidence-based insight on trends without exposing raw data. By mitigating risk, Singapore has been able to unlock the possibilities that modelling and simulation, and artificial intelligence, can bring to urban planning.


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