Access denied: planning for the disabled-access city

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that over 1 billion people are living with some form of disability worldwide – that’s about 15% of the world’s total population. And, with trends in life expectancy and the prevalence of chronic health conditions on the rise, the number of disabled people living in cities is expected to only increase in the coming years.

Despite this, many cities remain unfriendly and widely inaccessible to their disabled populations.

Those with physical disabilities can be presented with barriers built into the smallest details of manoeuvring around the city, which could be seen as trivial and unobtrusive to the average able-bodied commuter.

From impassable steep kerbs, to sandwich board-cluttered streets, to shops and restaurants without lifts- – the makeup of the typical streetscape is lined with potential obstacles and restrictions. Moreover, for people who are neurodivergent or learning disabled, a bustling urban environment can cause harm through sensory overload, anxiety and stress.

Transport is another everyday aspect of city living where disabled people can feel excluded.

In many big cities, the metro is the most convenient way to travel. A recent study found that only 31% of London Underground stations are accessible by wheelchair or mobility scooter from street to platform. Considering that a number of those still require staff assistance and ramps to board trains, the number of fully accessible stations is even less. Another study found that similarly poor access exists across the world’s major metro systems.

Disabled people commonly report that accessibility worries can be a major deterrent to engaging in public spaces that are unfamiliar.

“I must always be thinking about accessibility in the back of my head” says Grace, in a Guardian article where readers with a disability share their experiences of city access. “The barriers start before a trip begins” adds Stef, talking about autistic-unfriendly travel.

Discussing New York, Lucy describes how accessibility barriers can make her feel excluded in her own city: “I often end up feeling like a second-class citizen who doesn’t even appear in the thoughts of city planners”.

Numerous studies have found that disabled people are less likely to work or socialise in areas with poor accessibility. Moreover, cities are losing out on economic benefits from inaccessibility-– the ‘purple pound’ (signifying the spending power of disabled tourists) was estimated to be worth around £250bn in the UK pre-pandemic.

Whilst disabled access is rising in prioritisation amongst city and transport planning, there is undoubtedly still a long way to go in many cities. But there are also some good examples of cities taking action to make their spaces accessible to all.

Opening up Chester’s ancient streets

The first British city to win the coveted European Access City Award, Chester is now regarded as the UK’s most accessible city. Famous for its Roman heritage, the city pledged to make its many tourist sites fully accessible for disabled people–a sizeable challenge, considering the city’s ancient streets and medieval walls.

Chester has implemented fully accessible, wide passageways with tactile paving and added handrails above the walls and famous Chester Rows, which were previously only accessible by steps. Narrow and secluded walkways have now been connected by 17 wheelchair access points. In addition, there are disabled access focused tours, access guides, signs and online information platforms.

Transport has been revamped, as council policy requires all public buses and licensed taxis to have wheelchair access, induction loops and colour-contrast handles. The council has also committed to including a specifically designed Changing Places toilet in all new developments, adding to the numerous facilities already deployed in busy spots.

The successful implementation of an extensive access plan has not been quick, but is rather the results of Cheshire West and Chester Council’s long-term commitment to improving disability inclusion. The council has had a designated access officer since 1991 and a disability forum of 16 organisations that actively promote accessibility in new developments – such as the multi-million pound Storyhouse arts centre that has received accolades for its standard of access.

Chester’s award has seen the city become a model to other city governments from across the world, who are now visiting the city for inspiration. “We’ve had them from Dublin to Israel, they want to see how it’s done”, says Graham Garnett, Chester’s previous access officer.

Accessible route mapping in Seattle

Primarily designed for commuters in vehicles, most online routing maps can be unhelpful for people with limited mobility, lacking detail on hills, steep kerbs and access points. Aiming to rectify this, however, is the University of Washington’s Taskar Center for Accessible Technology, who have designed the AccessMap platform for the hilly city of Seattle.

AccessMap allows users to receive tailored routes dependent on customised preferences, such as only showing sloped pavements or limiting the incline of streets. As platforms such as Google Maps currently don’t take such factors into account, AccessMap will provide the user with an alternative route that is not based upon journey time or distance, but rather on safety and ease of access.

The map even uses recent data from the Seattle Department of Transportation to accommodate for real-world conditions on pedestrian pathways, such as a construction site or potentially hazardous surface conditions. In addition, the developers are aiming to turn the platform into an open street map, where users and volunteers can create up-to-date entries about the conditions they encounter.

The research team behind the project want to use their development to provide the toolkits and instructions to create similar maps in other cities. They have identified 10 urban areas in the US with the potential to replicate successful platforms, such as New York, Boston and San Francisco.

Final thoughts

Chester’s motivation in becoming fully accessible is exemplary of a city that is leading the way in disability inclusion, ensuring that it is inherent to city government planning. Likewise, the mapping project in Seattle shows how alternative tools can enhance the experiences of disabled people.

But although these examples are encouraging, they are exceptions. As long as planners fail to acknowledge the needs of people with disabilities, most of our cities will remain, in effect, no-go areas for a substantial section of society.


Further reading: more on diversity and inclusion from The Knowledge Exchange Blog:

Co-housing: the promises and the pitfalls

Over the past two years, the coronavirus pandemic and the cost of living crisis have eclipsed the UK’s chronic housing shortage. But the housing challenges of 2019 are still with us in 2022, and in many ways they have worsened. According to the housing charity Shelter, over 17 million people are living in overcrowded, dangerous, unstable or unaffordable housing.

There’s no single solution to Britain’s housing emergency. But one idea that’s gaining increasing attention is co-housing.

A London School of Economics report has given a good definition of co-housing:

“A co-housing group is formed by a community of people typically with similar needs and interests. Co-housing is owned by the group and usually contains private rooms or houses with communal areas such as living rooms and kitchens, where people will come together to share meals and spend time together. The residents are responsible for the management and maintenance of the site, and they are run in a non-hierarchical way, giving all residents an equal say in how they are organised.”

The modern co-housing movement began in Denmark in the 1970s, and has since spread to other European countries, including Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands. There is now a growing number of co-housing projects in the UK, and although these are small in scale, they are pointing the way to alternative models of housing, and also to addressing other social issues, such as isolation and loneliness.

The promises of co-housing

The proponents of co-housing suggest that it has multiple benefits for residents:

  • affordability: by pooling resources such as cooking, childcare, and household expenses, co-housing residents can cut costs;
  • security: co-housing provides safe spaces for residents to live and socialise;
  • sustainability: sharing resources increases efficiency and reduces waste;
  • community: co-housing residents make decisions together, and co-housing can also reduce the chances of isolation.

The multiple faces of co-housing

There is no single template for co-housing. Some projects have a mixture of generations, singles, couples and families, while others focus on the needs of particular communities. In the United States, intergenerational co-housing projects have brought together retired people, families and foster children. Another scheme, in Berlin, has been designed for older gay men, but also welcomes older lesbian women, trans and inter persons, as well as younger LGBTQ+ people.

In 2016, the UK’s first co-housing project for older women opened in Barnet, north London. The New Ground scheme has been successful in developing a mutually supportive community of women over the age of 50. In addition, New Ground has worked to encourage policy makers, planners and housing associations to recognise the social and economic benefits of co-housing, and to respond to the demand that exists for senior co-housing.

Because co-housing is often seen as being reserved for communities who are affluent and predominantly white, Housing 21, a leading provider of retirement properties for older people, has recently launched a co-housing initiative with a focus on older Black and Asian people of modest financial means.

Tackling isolation: how co-housing can address loneliness

The communal nature of co-housing makes it a natural fit for people who are isolated and lonely. This was one of the themes of a recent webinar hosted by Housing LIN. One of the participants was Kath Scanlon, a researcher from the London School of Economics, who highlighted her work exploring the links between loneliness and participation in community-led housing.

Kath’s research has underlined the importance of social connection with neighbours and sharing spaces with others as ways of preventing loneliness:

“Broadly, we found that the most tight-knit places, where members knew and trusted each other most, performed best as supportive communities… Emotional loneliness was countered by fostering meaningful relationships and ‘belonging’ through physical proximity, sharing similar values, a reciprocal commitment and care, looking out for and supporting each other.”

A resident’s perspective

One of the most engaging and powerful contributions to the Housing LIN webinar came from Alison Cahn, who has been a resident at Lancaster Cohousing scheme since 2012.

Alison was one of the first residents of the scheme, which is an intergenerational co-housing community of households in the village of Halton, three miles from Lancaster in the North West of England.

The Lancaster scheme was designed by the people who live there. It consists of private homes, community facilities and shared outdoor space. Shared facilities include a laundry, food store and a car share scheme.

As Alison explained, the scheme is an eco-housing community, designed to make sustainable living easy. The homes are built to Passivhaus standards, which means they use about 15% of the energy to heat compared to conventional housing. Electricity comes from the scheme’s own microgrid. And if Alison needs anything, from a drill to a tent, she can borrow it from her neighbours. Overall, the scheme is estimated to save around 540 tonnes of CO2 every year (a single tonne of CO2 is equivalent to a 500 m3 hot air balloon).

Alison also highlighted the social aspects of co-housing. The scheme has been designed to enable residents to meet and interact. As well as sharing facilities, the residents get involved in communal activities, such as art, camping and wild swimming. They also work together and make decisions on the future development of the scheme.

Alison watched her mother grow old alone, and was determined that this shouldn’t happen to her. She feels supported by her neighbours, something that was especially important when her husband fell ill. Alison also spoke very movingly about another resident called Roger, who found support from the co-housing community in the final weeks of his life. As she explained: “Roger said he came to this co-housing scheme to die, but he didn’t. He actually came here to live.”

The pitfalls of co-housing

While Alison was keen to stress the attractions of co-housing, she also described the challenges. “Different people need different levels of social connections. Not everyone is keen to spend much time with their neighbours, and some prefer their privacy.” While decisions are taken together, reaching a consensus can take time, with general meetings sometimes getting heated. “Some bitter conflicts have fractured relationships, and some people have left.”

And although co-housing can reduce isolation, some residents have the impression that it will solve all their problems – “We’re neighbours, not carers or psychotherapists.”

Final thoughts

As things stand, co-housing schemes in the UK are too small to tackle the enormous challenges of the country’s housing shortage. But existing schemes demonstrate the great potential of this model of housing. And with more support from housing associations and local authorities, co-housing in the UK could really take off.

It was thanks to an imaginative collaboration between Hanover Housing Association and the Older Women’s Co-Housing group that the New Ground co-housing scheme became a reality. The housing association financed purchase of the land and construction of the properties, and the homes were presold or pre-let by the co-housing group before construction started.

Co-housing isn’t for everyone. It requires commitment from residents to participate in the management of a scheme, and to sacrifice some of their privacy for the benefit of their neighbours. This model of housing presents particular challenges, some of which might be hard to overcome. But the rewards of co-housing can be substantial.

Or, as Alison Cahn puts it: “When it works, it’s awesome.”

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

Further reading: more on housing from The Knowledge Exchange Blog

Community funding reigns supreme in Jubilee celebrations

By Bonnie Thomson

This year, Her Majesty the Queen will observe her 70th year on the throne – making her the first British monarch in history to reach a Platinum Jubilee. Celebrations will take place across the UK, with most concentrated on the Platinum Jubilee Central Weekend from 2 to 5 June 2022. Street parties, concerts and community lunches are just some of the initiatives planned on a local and national scale to mark the milestone, with a mixture of traditional and unconventional tributes set to take place. Taking just one example from Bradford, Councillor Sarah Ferriby said of the activities in her area:

“There are events planned for people who are experiencing homelessness, isolation or loneliness, there are dementia friendly events and intergenerational and intercultural events all reflecting the diverse communities of our district and the Queen’s Commonwealth. There really is something for everyone.”

The rich programme of events has largely been made possible by the multitude of funding opportunities, both large and small, on offer to community organisations throughout the country.

Diverse grants for diverse projects

The National Lottery has been perhaps the most significant provider of community funding for the Jubilee, offering more than £22 million through a range of schemes supporting everything from creative arts enterprises to preservation of local green spaces. According to a recent update, the National Lottery Community Fund (NLCF)’s Platinum Jubilee Fund has given awards to a wide variety of innovative projects, including a beekeeping initiative in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, an intergenerational skill-sharing platform in Argyll and Bute, Scotland, and a programme of sporting events for those with acquired brain injuries in Worcestershire, England. The same update reports that, according to NLCF research, over half of all UK adults are likely to join in with celebrations in their local area. This marks the Jubilee as a monumental opportunity for the voluntary and community sector to create new, and strengthen existing, community networks in their areas of operation.

As well as these opportunities from larger funding bodies, many local councils throughout the UK have offered funding streams aimed at supporting community events in their neighbourhoods. Breckland Council has given almost 30 grants to local community groups and associations for activities such as picnics, quizzes, all-day parties and arts exhibitions, while the Scottish Borders Council has funded a range of projects including a 50s-themed party and the creation of a breeding facility for the ‘iconic’ Scottish red grouse. In Northern Ireland, Lisburn & Castlereagh Council has awarded funding to a total of 91 organisations in the area, highlighting the vast appetite for local celebrations and inclusive community activities.

Opportunities for last minute ideas

For community groups still looking for a chance to get involved, funding may still be available in their local area. For example, Richmondshire Council is offering grants from its Platinum Jubilee Festivals and Events Fund until September 2022, for projects which can take place at any point during 2022. Similarly, Harborough Council is offering grants to secure or develop capital assets across the district as a lasting commemoration of the Queen’s legacy until the end of July 2022.

Also armed with £5 million of National Lottery funding, Sport England’s Platinum Jubilee Activity Fund is still accepting applications for projects which involve physical activity as a means of tackling inequalities and engaging communities. Speaking on the fund, Tom Hollingsworth, CEO of Sport England, said:

“As part of the celebrations of an unprecedented anniversary, we’re excited to be able to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee with a fund designed to help people to come together and get moving.”

Priorities for the programme include introducing those who are less active to new sports and activities and removing barriers to participation in areas of deprivation. Full guidance is available here.

Creating a legacy that endures

Despite the diversity of concepts, the common thread throughout all funded activities and programmes which have been offered is a sense of connection-forging, which has the potential to extend far beyond the Jubilee. Founded on local knowledge and the goal of understanding community needs, the charitable sector is key to fostering longevity in relationships, and ensuring the feeling of commonality created during these celebrations does not dissipate.

By harnessing the momentum which has been generated this year, community-focused initiatives could thrive to an even greater degree. With funding on Grantfinder covering the Jubilee and so much more, there is ample opportunity to take inspiration from the activities taking place in June 2022 and carve out even more new avenues for community-building.

Image: Photo by Kai Bossom on Unsplash

GrantFinder and the Knowledge Exchange are part of Idox Funding and Information Services. GrantFinder is the leading funding database in the UK covering local, national, and international sources of funding. For further information about funding highlights, services and resources from GrantFinder, visit our website.

Further reading about funding on The Knowledge Exchange blog

“All the lonely people” – tackling the epidemic of loneliness

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the UK was already experiencing what had been described as an ‘epidemic’ of loneliness.  The various lockdowns and social restrictions that were put in place to reduce the spread of the virus have exacerbated this already troubling situation.

Indeed, according to recent research by the Mental Health Foundation, 1 in 4 UK adults (25%) have felt lonely some, or all of the time, over the previous month; and 1 in 4 UK adults (25%) felt ashamed about being lonely.

With the huge impact this can have on mental health, it’s no surprise the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week was loneliness.

In its new report, “All the lonely people”, published as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, the Mental Health Foundation explores the clear links between loneliness and mental health, looking at what it’s like to be lonely, the causes, consequences and the groups of people who are more likely to experience severe and enduring loneliness.

All the lonely people

Through sharing the stories of nine individuals who often or always feel lonely, “All the lonely people” highlights the circumstances, situations and life events that can increase our risk of loneliness. It also investigates how well people understand loneliness and suggests ways that we can respond as individuals and across society.

While it is acknowledged that anyone can feel lonely, there are a number of risk factors that can increase the chances of severe and lasting loneliness that can impact mental health:

  • Being widowed
  • Being single
  • Being unemployed
  • Living alone
  • Having a long-term health condition or disability
  • Living in rented accommodation
  • Being between 16 and 24 years old
  • Being a carer
  • Being from an ethnic minority community
  • Being LGBTQ+

The health and financial impact of loneliness

Loneliness can have a huge impact on health, life expectancy and mental wellbeing. Research has shown that loneliness can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder. Moreover, it has also been found to be more harmful than obesity. Not only does this have implications for individuals but also for wider society and the economy.

Recent government research estimated that the wellbeing, health and work productivity cost associated with severe loneliness (feeling lonely “often” or “always”) on individuals was around £9,900 per afflicted person per year. Other research has estimated that loneliness costs UK employers between £2.2 and £3.7 billion a year and that an estimated £1,700 per person (2015 values) could be saved over 10 years if action could be taken to reduce loneliness.

Given the significant health impacts and associated costs, the Mental Health Foundation report argues that preventing the development of loneliness should be a key priority and that a greater awareness of the risk factors and triggers needs to be created.

Public understanding but stigma remains

In terms of public understanding, the report asserts that the public has a good understanding of the link between loneliness and mental health. However, there is still significant stigma surrounding loneliness. Of the adults surveyed, 76% thought ‘people often feel ashamed or embarrassed about feeling lonely’. Only 29% of respondents agreed that ‘people who feel lonely are likely to talk about it, if they get the opportunity’. And people who experience loneliness themselves were more likely to recognise this sense of shame.

This stigma makes it difficult for people to talk about due to fears of discrimination or prejudice. Stereotypes about loneliness also still persist which can lead to some lonely people being overlooked. The findings show that despite the public’s understanding, there is a tendency to overlook certain at risk groups such as students, carers and LGBTQ+ people. People also tend to overestimate the link between loneliness and ageing or living in rural areas.

The survey found that people tended to believe that older people were more likely to feel lonely than younger age groups – 63% thought that being older (over 65) might contribute to someone feeling more lonely, whereas only 12% of respondents identified that being younger (aged 16-25) might contribute to someone feeling more lonely. This contradicts recent ONS data, which found that there were higher rates of reported loneliness among younger age groups.

Similarly, people tended to believe people living in rural areas would be more likely to experience loneliness (40% of people thought that living in a rural area could contribute to loneliness, compared to just 23% for living in a city). However, once again, the evidence suggests the opposite, with people living in urban areas reporting higher levels of loneliness than those in rural areas.

The report notes that stereotypes such as these can inhibit people from recognising and responding to their own loneliness, further exacerbate existing stigma and potentially limit the support offered to those who feel lonely.

Broader awareness

The report argues that a wider understanding of the factors that can lead to severe and enduring loneliness is needed to successfully combat the stigma and stereotypes associated with loneliness.

The stories of the individuals who experience loneliness demonstrate just how complex it is and how difficult it is to spot those who may be ‘lonely in a crowd’. It is therefore also important to understand the different barriers to connection for different people. These can be practical (lack of time, access to transport), structural (discrimination or prejudice) or emotional (lack of confidence, anxiety).

The report argues that a broader awareness of these factors could help people to stop blaming themselves for being lonely, encourage creative ways of supporting people and enable tailored support being developed for groups who are particularly at risk of long-term loneliness.

Previous research has also highlighted the importance of tailored approaches and developing approaches that avoid stigma.

Tackling loneliness

While highlighting what individuals can do to help combat loneliness, the Mental Health Foundation also highlights the need for action on the different barriers to connection if it is be tackled long-term. To this end, it has identified five UK-wide policy recommendations to address loneliness in society:

  • taking a strategic approach to loneliness;
  • developing the community resources needed to tackle loneliness;
  • building a greener lived environment that supports social contact;
  • supporting children and young people with interventions in education settings;
  • ensuring that everyone has access to digital communication technology, and the skills to use it, and respecting preferences for non-digital forms of communication.

Each of us can play a part too. By sharing stories of loneliness and shining a spotlight on the issue, we can all help to promote wider awareness and break the stigma of loneliness.


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Could recent backlash crash the not-so-smart city?

In May 2020, Google-affiliated Sidewalk Labs abruptly cancelled its smart city vision for Toronto’s waterfront, citing that “unprecedented economic uncertainty” created by the pandemic had made the project unachievable.

Named ‘Quayside’, the venture proposed a 12-acre development of sleek apartments and neighbourhood amenities that heavily incorporated data and technology into urban design and residents’ daily living.

Including an underground delivery system and ice-melting heated roads, the futuristic plan aimed to turn Toronto into the world’s first truly ‘smart city’.

Yet, the Quayside development faced fierce criticism before it could even get underway.

Planned for the heart of the development was the harvesting of an extensive flow of data, amassed by studying millions of residents’ daily movements through sensor-laden streets and buildings.

However, critics saw a darker side to Sidewalk Labs, fearing that residents’ data would be stored and used by Google. Such fears only intensified after a series of publicised data breaches at Big Tech companies.

US businessman Roger McNamee described the project as “the most highly evolved version to date of surveillance capitalism”, warning that Google would use “algorithms to nudge human behaviour” for corporate interests.

Despite Sidewalk’s assurances that the data collected wouldn’t be shared with third parties, Toronto city council members began to voice official concerns. A National Research Council report stated that Canada was in danger of becoming a “data cow” for foreign tech companies.

After years of a controversial public debacle that played out in court rooms and street protests, the proposals were eventually abandoned altogether.

An industry slowing down

The story of Quayside’s defeat perhaps has greater implications for the future of smart city culture. Toronto has coincided with numerous high-profile examples of downscaling in grand smart city projects across the world, such as Songdo in South Korea and the ill-famed Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.

In fact, the overall trend of the smart city sector is declining, as the regions with the most smart-city deployments have seen large drop-offs in new developments. For instance, the number of new projects in Europe increased year-on-year to a peak of 43 in 2016- yet fell to just 17 in 2020.

Likewise, data suggests that the major suppliers to government smart city projects have considerably weakened their influence on the sector. Since 2016, companies such as Cisco Systems, Vodafone and Telensa have greatly reduced the number of new developments that they are undertaking, whilst there are numerous examples of backtracking throughout the industry.

In late 2020, Cisco Systems announced that the company was scrapping its flagship smart-city software altogether. Such instances suggest at least a slowing down in production ventures or perhaps even a full-on shift in company priorities.

So, why is the smart city bandwagon beginning to falter?

Not ‘smart’ enough post-pandemic?

Whilst the privacy backlash movement that finished off Quayside is exemplary of existing privacy concerns before Covid-19, the pandemic may have further compounded the barriers faced by the smart city.

The hard-hitting financial implications and uncertainties created by the pandemic have presumably put ambitious smart city projects on the back burner, as city governments re-align their priorities towards economic recovery.

They’ve [smart city technology providers] all seen the challenges and the opportunities in this pandemic moment, says Nigel Jacob, co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, a civic-innovation research lab in Boston. “I think they are still struggling and looking at their product portfolio and looking to see what value they can add. I do think the field has shifted.“

Jacob suggests that the pre-Covid landscape of smart city promotion has ultimately shifted, a viewpoint that is echoed throughout the industry. Many believe that the pandemic has forced city governments and citizens to re-evaluate their priorities of what needs to be achieved through urban areas.

David Bicknell, principal thematic analyst for GlobalData, arguesSmart cities had their time. They are no longer about glossy, sensor-driven metropolises.“  He adds, “The impact of the pandemic and climate change now means smart cities cannot just be ‘smart’ – they must be resilient and sustainable, too.”

It could be argued that there is now a greater focus for citizens in creating tangible outcomes in their communities on the key issues of climate change, health and social equity.

Whilst the potential for technology to contribute to driving change in these areas is undoubted, the idea that a smart city business model should just be about the city getting smarter is difficult to uphold in the landscape of post-pandemic finances.

With the exception of climate change issues, the traditional smart city does not look to tackle the big issues that have really been reinforced by the pandemic, Jacob argues.

Privacy concerns here to stay

The pandemic also introduced a new array of concerns surrounding data collection. Contact tracing apps, biometric vaccine passports and temperature scanning as a condition to entering premises have added fuel to the fire of privacy issues that people are now encountering.

Added to this, some academics worry that whilst these technologies have been accepted into day-to-day life under unprecedented measures, it leaves open the possibility of such platforms being manipulated for more sinister purposes in the future.

And, with the numerous high profile legal cases surrounding Facebook, Amazon and Google’s privacy policies now regular features in the media, the public is certainly more aware in its understanding of privacy issues since the Quayside story.

Final Thoughts

Despite how strongly opposed many residents were to the Toronto Quayside development, it is clear that the integration of sensors, scanners and cameras into city living is here to stay. And there are undoubted benefits of smart technologies that are already evident in cities throughout the world- from intelligent LED street lighting to data-driven traffic control systems.

However, for the potential of smart technologies to be truly realised and accepted by the public, the smart city must be re-aligned to fit the privacy conscious post-pandemic world.


Further reading: more about smart cities on The Knowledge Exchange Blog

Digesting diet and health: the challenges of eating well

Diet-related health problems are rarely out of the news. That’s because so many illnesses and diseases are the result of poor diet. There’s no shortage of suggestions for improving our diet, and for educating all of us on the benefits of eating well.

Policymakers are also concerned about this issue. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHS has been under greater pressure than ever, and government has been keen to address diet-related health problems.  

Examples of this include the most recent legislation to add calorie labelling to  restaurants and takeaways, which has been controversial. The new rules for England make it a legal requirement for large businesses with more than 250 employees, including cafes, restaurants and takeaways, to display calorie information of non-prepacked food and soft drinks.  The Scottish Government is consulting on similar proposals.

Sugar and salt taxes

Another example of regulations directed towards diet-related health problems would be taxes on sugar and salt in foods. There have been suggestions to either tax all foods based on their salt content, or specific foods which are classed as “high” in salt.

A sugar tax – the Soft Drinks Industry Levy – was introduced in April 2018 by the UK Government. It was later reported that consumers had bought 10% less sugar through soft drinks, which will also have lowered risks of obesity, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

A report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies in 2021, looked at the impacts a tax on added sugar and salt could have on purchases of food both at home and out of the home in the UK. The report found that a salt tax could potentially see a decrease in risks of coronary heart disease and strokes.

In addition, the study suggested a salt tax could reduce the number of NHS treatments for obesity-related conditions, resulting in  lower NHS costs. The report also indicated an increase in overall economic output due to a healthier workforce.

However, there may also be less welcome consequences. A ‘snack tax’ has been estimated to potentially add as much as £3.4billion a year to families’ shopping bills. Introducing such a tax during the current cost of living crisis would add greatly to the financial stresses being experienced by households across the country.

Counting the calories

Displaying the number of calories in meals on menus has long been proposed as a way to tackle obesity and health issues, as so many people are unaware of just what is in the food they order. Public opinion is extremely divided on this subject, with some being in favour of this extra measure to help them when eating out if they wish to make healthier choices.

However, adding calorie information to menus may have undesirable effects. 1.25 million people in the United Kingdom have an eating disorder, and the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have increased this number as more people struggle with mental illness and increased stress.

Beat, a UK-based eating disorder charity, has highlighted  that calorie labelling exacerbates eating disorders of all kinds. In addition, pushing a “diet culture” could send the wrong messages about eating rather than embracing a more positive approach towards food.

A further  study by the British Medical Journal reported only a small decrease in calories purchased when trialling calorie labelling in three chain restaurants in the United States. The researchers also found that after one year, that reduction diminished.

Meeting in the middle?

Another suggestion that has been discussed is tackling health-related inequalities, and understanding why certain groups are more vulnerable to these issues than others. For example, the House of Commons library has reported that in England people living in the most deprived areas were 9% more likely to be overweight or obese than those in the least deprived areas. The briefing also reported that  children in the most deprived areas of England were twice as likely to be obese.. More education focusing on not only what is healthy food, but how to be healthy with fewer resources could help reduce such inequalities.

Final thoughts

From tooth decay and high blood pressure to cancer, eating disorders and mental ill health, there are significant health and wellbeing impacts resulting from unhealthy eating habits. These issues also have serious consequences for healthcare services.

As we’ve seen, legislation has already been introduced to tackle diet-related health problems. But it’s likely that government will have to consider further measures to ensure that the food that we eat is both good for individuals and for wider society.

Further reading: more on food and nutrition from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Regaining momentum: can Mobility-as-a-Service get back on the road?

When we last wrote about it in 2019, Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) appeared to be on the threshold of transforming the way we get around. An innovative MaaS project had already taken off in Finland, and pilot projects in Sweden and the UK were trialling the advantages of bundling together different transport modes into a single service.

But more recently, some of the high hopes behind MaaS appear to have faded, with some questioning whether the concept needs a reboot.

The benefits of MaaS

The big idea behind MaaS is that anyone can use their mobile device to plan, manage and pay for a journey, selecting from a menu of transport options – such as buses, trains, ride-hailing and bike sharing services.

For passengers, MaaS promises greater freedom of choice. In addition, MaaS has the potential to help support government policy objectives, such as promoting active lifestyles, reducing traffic congestion and improving the air quality of our cities. For transport providers, MaaS could generate new business and cost savings. Research published in 2020 found that transport-related energy consumption can be reduced by up to 25% by allowing travellers unbiased choice of mode of transport for each trip.

Putting the brakes on MaaS

In spite of its appealing possibilities, the momentum driving MaaS seems to have stalled. Reluctance by drivers to give up their cars, the contractual and technical complexity of combining multiple transport modes into one service, and the challenge of getting private companies and public services to work together have all hindered the development of MaaS.

In Finland, once the shining example of MaaS in practice, the operation of the platform has been overshadowed by a conflict over ticketing apps between the country’s leading MaaS provider and Helsinki’s local transport authority. Elsewhere, private sector-led MaaS initiatives have run into financial difficulties.

Debunking the myths about MaaS

Despite these setbacks, MaaS still has its champions. Last month, in a webinar hosted by Intelligent Transport, Sohejl Wanjani and Ulrich Lange from German technology firm Siemens responded to some of the arguments that are often put forward against public transport authorities developing MaaS solutions.

A new platform requires a new app
While it’s possible to build a new app solely for MaaS functions, existing apps can be expanded, meaning users don’t have to have multiple accounts and payment methods.

Building a new MaaS project is too big for us
Two options are open to providers: start with one service provider, offering a fully integrated service (planning, booking and paying for trips within the MaaS app) and later add additional service providers; alternatively, start with several service providers, and offer only planning and booking, but not payment.

Most users rely on Google Maps. We can’t do better than that
The key to a successful MaaS system is data, and transport authorities are rich in data about usage of their services. MaaS systems can use real time data that Google does not have, and can integrate ticketing and booking for all modes of transport. In addition, transport authorities can generate income from their own datasets, adapted to local circumstances. Once passengers are assured of the integrity and quality of the data, they are more likely to use the service.

A good example of this is Denmark’s Rejseplanen. This nationwide mobility platform was launched in 2007, and has since achieved more than 5 million downloads. In Denmark, this app is used more frequently than Google Maps, and its extensive data set continues to drive its popularity. Today, Rejseplanen includes information not only for rail, bus and metro services, but also cycle hire and even domestic air services.

Upgrading to a MaaS platform is not financially viable
As cities introduce measures to reduce traffic congestion, it should now be clear that the need to tackle climate change is driving a shift away from private vehicle use to shared modes of transport that are healthier for people and for the planet. MaaS can contribute to climate-friendly travel, while helping transport providers achieve their strategic goals – generating additional revenue streams, increasing passenger usage and creating new mobility services.

Last year, Renfe, the national railway company of Spain, signed a contract with Siemens to develop a nationwide MaaS platform that will allow users to plan, book and pay for trips in a single application. The system will integrate different modes of shared and public transport, such as train, bicycle, metro, bus, car sharing, and scooter services. Renfe clearly sees MaaS as a viable concern; it expects the new service to generate a 4% increase in train travel, 650,000 new customers, and €156m in additional revenue.

MaaS on the move

MaaS is by no means a lost cause. Last month, a research study estimated that the worldwide market for MaaS would grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 36.8% over the next five years.

Meanwhile, Berlin’s Jelbi service is currently the world’s largest MaaS solution, bringing together public transport, bike sharing, e-scooter, taxis and ridesharing services, as well as offering 12 “Jelbi Stations” where users can rent, return and recharge a range of different vehicles.

Last year, Pittsburgh’s mayor unveiled its own MaaS programme. Move PGH is a partnership between the city’s public transport authority and an assortment of carpooling, car rental, e-scooter and bike sharing enterprises.

Final thoughts

MaaS is still in its infancy, and it’s too early to be sure of its future direction. While its proponents present a seductive vision of car-free cities, cleaner air, clearer streets and almost unlimited choices for passengers, the reality may be very different.

A 2020 study questioned the assumptions surrounding MaaS, and argued that, while MaaS has strong potential for increased mobility, there are also “…unanticipated societal implications that could arise from a wholesale adoption of MaaS in relation to key issues such as wellbeing, emissions and social inclusion.”

With MaaS at a crossroads, it will be worth revisiting this issue to assess its progress.

Further reading: more on travel and transport from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Transport – Idox

Idox’s transport solutions support traffic management and the delivery of real-time passenger information across all modes of transport. Through the use of new digital technology, we help traffic managers and local transport authorities to harness data and inform the design of smart transport systems that ease congestion on existing networks. Further information here

Guest post: 12 best ways to get cars out of cities – ranked by new research

By Kimberly Nicholas, Associate Professor of Sustainability Science, Lund University

Question: what do the following statistics have in common?

A stretch of the Champs-Élysées around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris is due to be pedestrianised by 2030. Shutterstock

Answer: the vehicles on our streets, primarily the not-so-humble passenger car.

Despite the (slow) migration to electric-powered cars, consumer trends are making driving even more wasteful and unequal. A recent analysis found the emissions saved from electric cars have been more than cancelled out by the increase in gas-guzzling Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs). Around the world, SUVs alone emit more carbon pollution than Canada or Germany, and are causing a bigger increase in climate pollution than heavy industry.

While cars are sometimes necessary for people’s mobility and social inclusion needs – not least those with disabilities – car-centric cities particularly disadvantage the already-marginalised. In the UK, women, young and older people, those from minority communities and disabled people are concentrated in the lowest-income households, of which 40% do not have a car. In contrast, nearly 90% of the highest-income households own at least one car.

So the driving habits of a minority impose high costs on society, and this is especially true in cities. Copenhagen, for example, has calculated that whereas each kilometre cycled benefits society to the tune of €0.64 (53 pence), each kilometre driven incurs a net loss of -€0.71 (-59p), when impacts on individual wellbeing (physical and mental health, accidents, traffic) and the environment (climate, air and noise pollution) are accounted for. So each kilometre travelled where a car is replaced by a bicycle generates €1.35 (£1.12) of social benefits – of which only a few cents would be saved by switching from a fossil-fuelled to an electric-powered car, according to this analysis.

Reducing car use in cities

Half a century ago, the Danish capital was dominated by cars. But following grassroots campaigns to change policies and streets, including replacing car parking with safe, separated bike lanes, Copenhagen has increased its biking share of all trips from 10% in 1970 to 35% today. In 2016, for the first time, more bicycles than cars made journeys around the city over the course of that year.

View of central Copenhagen, Denmark
Bicycles rule the centre of Copenhagen following campaigns to replace parking with safe bike lanes. Shutterstock

But while many other car-limiting initiatives have been attempted around the world, city officials, planners and citizens still do not have a clear, evidence-based way to reduce car use in cities. Our latest research, carried out with Paula Kuss at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies and published in Case Studies on Transport Policy, seeks to address this by quantifying the effectiveness of different initiatives to reduce urban car use.

Our study ranks the 12 most effective measures that European cities have introduced in recent decades, based on real-world data on innovations ranging from the “carrot” of bike and walk-to-work schemes to the “stick” of removing free parking. The ranking reflects cities’ successes not only in terms of measurable reductions in car use, but in achieving improved quality of life and sustainable mobility for their residents.

In all, we have screened nearly 800 peer-reviewed reports and case studies from throughout Europe, published since 2010, seeking those that quantified where and how cities had successfully reduced car use. The most effective measures, according to our review, are introducing a congestion charge, which reduces urban car levels by anywhere from 12% to 33%, and creating car-free streets and separated bike lanes, which has been found to lower car use in city centres by up to 20%. Our full ranking of the top 12 car-reducing measures is summarised in this table: https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/NDMp4/12/

The inequality of car use

Cars are inherently inefficient and inequitable in their use of land and resources. On average, they spend 96% of their time parked, taking up valuable urban space that could be put to more beneficial uses such as housing and public parks. In Berlin, car users on average take up 3.5 times more public space than non-car users, primarily through on-street parking.

And it is overwhelmingly richer people who drive the most: in Europe, the top 1% by income drive nearly four times more than the median driver, accounting for some 21% of their personal climate footprint. For these highest emitters, climate pollution from driving is second only to flying (which, on average, generates twice as many emissions).

Prioritising cars as a means of transport also favours suburban sprawl. City suburbs typically possess larger homes that generate higher levels of consumption and energy use. North American suburban households consistently have higher carbon footprints than urban ones: one study in Toronto found suburban footprints were twice as high.

It’s also clear that road traffic levels swell to fill the size of the roads built – yet traffic planning routinely ignores the fact that this “induced demand” exaggerates the benefits and underestimates the costs of building more roads.

Electric vehicles are necessary, but they’re not a panacea. Since cars tend to be on the road for a long time, the migration to electric vehicles is very slow. Some studies anticipate relatively small emissions reductions over the coming decade as a result of electric vehicle uptake. And even if there’s nothing damaging released from an electric car’s exhaust pipe, the wear of car brakes and tyres still creates toxic dust and microplastic pollution. However a car is powered, can it ever be an efficient use of resources and space to spend up to 95% of that energy moving the weight of the vehicle itself, rather than its passengers and goods?

COVID-19: a missed opportunity?

Our study assesses urban mobility innovations and experiments introduced before the pandemic was declared. In response to COVID-19, travel habits (to begin with, at least) changed dramatically. But following large reductions in driving during the spring of 2020, road use and the associated levels of climate pollution have since rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels. Indeed, in Sweden, while public transport use declined by around 42% during the first year of the pandemic, car travel declined by only 7% in the same period, leading to an overall increase in the proportion of car use.

Commuter traffic in Stockholm
Commuter traffic in Stockholm in November 2021. Sweden has seen an overall increase in its proportion of car use during the pandemic. Shutterstock

While entrenched habits such as car commuting are hard to shift, times of disruption can offer an effective moment to change mobility behaviour – in part because people forced to try a new habit may discover it has unexpected advantages. For such behaviour to stick, however, also requires changes in the physical infrastructure of cities. Unfortunately, while European cities that added pop-up bike lanes during the pandemic increased cycling rates by a stunning 11-48%, we are now seeing a return to car-centric cities, with extra car lanes and parking spaces once again displacing cycle lanes and space for pedestrians.

Overall, the opportunities to align pandemic recovery measures with climate targets have largely been squandered. Less than 20% of government spending on pandemic measures globally were likely to also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The extent to which workers resume driving to their offices is another key issue determining future car use in cities. Thoughtful travel policies to reduce unnecessary travel, and opportunities for faraway participants to fully participate in meetings and conferences digitally, could slash emissions by up to 94% – and save time to boot. Those who work remotely three or more days per week travel less overall than their peers. But long car commutes can quickly wipe out such emissions savings, so living close to work is still the best option.

No silver bullet solution

The research is clear: to improve health outcomes, meet climate targets and create more liveable cities, reducing car use should be an urgent priority. Yet many governments in the US and Europe continue to heavily subsidise driving through a combination of incentives such as subsidies for fossil fuel production, tax allowances for commuting by car, and incentives for company cars that promote driving over other means of transport. Essentially, such measures pay polluters while imposing the social costs on wider society.

City leaders have a wider range of policy instruments at their disposal than some might realise – from economic instruments such as charges and subsidies, to behavioural ones like providing feedback comparing individuals’ travel decisions with their peers’. Our study found that more than 75% of the urban innovations that have successfully reduced car use were led by a local city government – and in particular, those that have proved most effective, such as congestion charges, parking and traffic controls, and limited traffic zones.

But an important insight from our study is that narrow policies don’t seem to be as effective – there is no “silver bullet” solution. The most successful cities typically combine a few different policy instruments, including both carrots that encourage more sustainable travel choices, and sticks that charge for, or restrict, driving and parking.

So here are the 12 best ways to reduce city car use:

1. Congestion charges

The most effective measure identified by our research entails drivers paying to enter the city centre, with the revenues generated going towards alternative means of sustainable transport. London, an early pioneer of this strategy, has reduced city centre traffic by a whopping 33% since the charge’s introduction by the city’s first elected mayor, Ken Livingstone, in February 2003. The fixed-charge fee (with exemptions for certain groups and vehicles) has been raised over time, from an initial £5 per day up to £15 since June 2020. Importantly, 80% of the revenues raised are used for public transport investments.

Other European cities have followed suit, adopting similar schemes after referenda in Milan, Stockholm and Gothenburg – with the Swedish cities varying their pricing by day and time. But despite congestion charges clearly leading to a significant and sustained reduction of car use and traffic volume, they cannot by themselves entirely eliminate the problem of congestion, which persists while the incentives and infrastructure favouring car use remain.

2. Parking and traffic controls

In a number of European cities, regulations to remove parking spaces and alter traffic routes – in many cases, replacing the space formerly dedicated to cars with car-free streets, bike lanes and walkways – has proved highly successful. For example, Oslo’s replacement of parking spaces with walkable car-free streets and bike lanes was found to have reduced car usage in the centre of the Norwegian capital by up to 19%.

3. Limited traffic zones

Rome, traditionally one of Europe’s most congested cities, has shifted the balance towards greater use of public transport by restricting car entry to its centre at certain times of day to residents only, plus those who pay an annual fee. This policy has reduced car traffic in the Italian capital by 20% during the restricted hours, and 10% even during unrestricted hours when all cars can visit the centre. The violation fines are used to finance Rome’s public transport system.

4. Mobility services for commuters

The most effective carrot-only measure identified by our review is a campaign to provide mobility services for commuters in the Dutch city of Utrecht. Local government and private companies collaborated to provide free public transport passes to employees, combined with a private shuttle bus to connect transit stops with workplaces. This programme, promoted through a marketing and communication plan, was found to have achieved a 37% reduction in the share of commuters travelling into the city centre by car.

5. Workplace parking charges

Another effective means of reducing the number of car commuters is to introduce workplace parking charges. For example, a large medical centre in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam achieved a 20-25% reduction in employee car commutes through a scheme that charged employees to park outside their offices, while also offering them the chance to “cash out” their parking spaces and use public transport instead. This scheme was found to be around three times more effective than a more extensive programme in the UK city of Nottingham, which applied a workplace parking charge to all major city employers possessing more than ten parking spaces. The revenue raised went towards supporting the Midlands city’s public transport network, including expansion of a tram line.

Norwich city centre, Norfolk.
Norwich reduced car commuters by nearly 20% with its workplace travel plan, including swapping car for bike parking. Shutterstock

6. Workplace travel planning

Programmes providing company-wide travel strategies and advice to encourage employees to end their car commutes have been widely used in cities across Europe. A major study, published in 2010, assessing 20 cities across the UK found an average of 18% of commuters switched from car to another mode after a full range of measures were combined – including company shuttle buses, discounts for public transport and improved bike infrastructure – as well as reduced parking provision. In a different programme, Norwich achieved near-identical rates by adopting a comprehensive plan but without the discounts for public transport. These carrot-and-stick efforts appear to have been more effective than Brighton & Hove’s carrot-only approach of providing plans and infrastructure such as workplace bicycle storage, which saw a 3% shift away from car use.

7. University travel planning

Similarly, university travel programmes often combine the carrot of promotion of public transport and active travel with the stick of parking management on campus. The most successful example highlighted in our review was achieved by the University of Bristol, which reduced car use among its staff by 27% while providing them with improved bike infrastructure and public transport discounts. A more ambitious programme in the Spanish city of San Sebastián targeted both staff and students at Universidad del País Vasco. Although it achieved a more modest reduction rate of 7.2%, the absolute reduction in car use was still substantial from the entire population of university commuters.

8. Mobility services for universities

The Sicilian city of Catania used a carrot-only approach for its students. By offering them a free public transport pass and providing shuttle connections to campus, the city was found to have achieved a 24% decrease in the share of students commuting by car.

Catania, Sicily
Catania achieved a 24% decrease in the share of students commuting by car. Shutterstock

9. Car sharing

Perhaps surprisingly, car sharing turns out to be a somewhat divisive measure for reducing car use in cities, according to our analysis. Such schemes, where members can easily rent a nearby vehicle for a few hours, have showed promising results in Bremen, Germany and Genoa, Italy, with each shared car replacing between 12 and 15 private vehicles, on average. Their approach included increasing the number of shared cars and stations, and integrating them with residential areas, public transport and bike infrastructure.

Both schemes also provided car sharing for employees and ran awareness-raising campaigns. But other studies point to a risk that car sharing may, in fact, induce previously car-free residents to increase their car use. We therefore recommend more research into how to design car sharing programmes that truly reduce overall car use.

10. School travel planning

Two English cities, Brighton & Hove and Norwich, have used (and assessed) the carrot-only measure of school travel planning: providing trip advice, planning and even events for students and parents to encourage them to walk, bike or carpool to school, along with providing improved bike infrastructure in their cities. Norwich found it was able to reduce the share of car use for school trips by 10.9%, using this approach, while Brighton’s analysis found the impact was about half that much.

11. Personalised travel plans

Many cities have experimented with personal travel analysis and plans for individual residents, including Marseille in France, Munich in Germany, Maastricht in the Netherlands and San Sebastián in Spain. These programmes – providing journey advice and planning for city residents to walk, bike or use (sometimes discounted) public transport – are found to have achieved modest-sounding reductions of 6-12%. However, since they encompass all residents of a city, as opposed to smaller populations of, say, commuters to school or the workplace, these approaches can still play a valuable role in reducing car use overall. (San Sebastián introduced both university and personalised travel planning in parallel, which is likely to have reduced car use further than either in isolation.)

12. Apps for sustainable mobility

Mobile phone technology has a growing role in strategies to reduce car use. The Italian city of Bologna, for example, developed an app for people and teams of employees from participating companies to track their mobility. Participants competed to gain points for walking, biking and using public transport, with local businesses offering these app users rewards for achieving points goals.

There is great interest in such gamification of sustainable mobility – and at first glance, the data from the Bologna app looks striking. An impressive 73% of users reported using their car “less”. But unlike other studies which measure the number or distance of car trips, it is not possible to calculate the reduction of distance travelled or emissions from this data, so the overall effectiveness is unclear. For example, skipping one short car trip and skipping a year of long driving commutes both count as driving “less”.

While mobility data from apps can offer valuable tools for improved transport planning and services, good design is needed to ensure that “smart” solutions actually decrease emissions and promote sustainable transport, because the current evidence is mixed. For instance, a 2021 study found that after a ride-hailing service such as Uber or Lyft enters an urban market, vehicle ownership increases – particularly in already car-dependent cities – and public transport use declines in high-income areas.

Cities need to re-imagine themselves

Reducing car dependency is not just a nice idea. It is essential for the survival of people and places around the world, which the recent IPCC report on climate impacts makes clear hinges on how close to 1.5°C the world can limit global warming. Avoiding irreversible harm and meeting their Paris Agreement obligations requires industrialised nations such as the UK and Sweden to reduce their emissions by 10-12% per year – about 1% every month.

Yet until the pandemic struck, transport emissions in Europe were steadily increasing. Indeed, current policies are predicted to deliver transport emissions in 2040 that are almost unchanged from 50 years earlier.

Local buses in the Swedish city of Lund, home of the Centre for Sustainability Studies. Shutterstock

To meet the planet’s health and climate goals, city governments need to make the necessary transitions for sustainable mobility by, first, avoiding the need for mobility (see Paris’s 15-minute city); second, shifting remaining mobility needs from cars to active and public transport wherever possible; and finally, improving the cars that remain to be zero-emission.

This transition must be fast and fair: city leaders and civil society need to engage citizens to build political legitimacy and momentum for these changes. Without widespread public buy-in to reduce cars, the EU’s commitment to deliver 100 climate-neutral cities in Europe by 2030 looks a remote prospect.

Radically reducing cars will make cities better places to live – and it can be done. A 2020 study demonstrated that we can provide decent living standards for the planet’s projected 10 billion people using 60% less energy than today. But to do so, wealthy countries need to build three times as much public transport infrastructure as they currently possess, and each person should limit their annual travel to between 5,000 kilometres (in dense cities) and 15,000 kilometres (in more remote areas).

The positive impact from reducing cars in cities will be felt by all who live and work in them, in the form of more convivial spaces. As a journalist visiting the newly car-free Belgian city of Ghent put it in 2020:

The air tastes better … People turn their streets into sitting rooms and extra gardens.

Cities need to re-imagine themselves by remaking what is possible to match what is necessary. At the heart of this, guided by better evidence of what works, they must do more to break free from cars.


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

Further reading: more on air pollution from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Young carers: sacrifice and support

While there has been a lot of conversation about the vulnerable over the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, and rightly so, there has not much attention given to the people who care for them, particularly the young people who do so. Young carers carry a lot on their shoulders, and this has only been increased with the impact of the pandemic affecting those they love. However, we also need to look out for these young people and give them the support they deserve.

Issues faced by young carers

Young carers are faced with many challenges due to their position and this can depend on the carers, their age, the level of care they give and who they care for. A report on siblings of disabled children from the UK charity Sibs found that the particular young carers they engaged with tended to not get as much attention and support from their parents because of their sibling needing more urgent care. Even something as simple as going out to play centres or restaurants must be adapted to fit the disabled sibling, with the carer sibling rarely getting their own choice.

Young carers have also been found to be at more risk of mental health problems than others, particularly if the person they are caring for is a parent with a mental illness or a history of substance misuse.  A study from Scotland found that young carers, much like adult unpaid carers, were more likely to have physical health issues such as tiredness, backache and bad diets in addition to reporting worry, stress, anxiety, depression and resentment. They were also found to have significantly lower self-esteem and feelings of happiness than non-carers.

Impact of pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted young carers greatly. Sibs reported that a lot of parents felt their carer children were extremely worried about contracting the virus and giving it to their sibling, or bringing it into the household if their family were shielding or vulnerable. Others also reported their child withdrawing from friends, either because of shielding or simply because they were uncomfortable socialising outside of their household. Sibs also noted cases where siblings would become the object of their disabled sibling’s anger or frustration.

In addition, a lot of activities and support groups normally put into place for these specific carers, in order to give them attention and opportunities to enjoy life outside of their role as a young carer, were cancelled due to COVID-19, and left many young carers at home, where they were often ignored if their sibling or parent needed additional support.

Other young carers have had to take on a range of duties, including shopping for their families or taking care of their home or other siblings. A lot of these young people have had to balance this with continuing their education from home and dealing with having their lives outside of the home cut off due to social distancing and isolation. This is on top of the general struggles of growing up as a child and adolescent. Izzy, a 12-year-old interviewed by a study from the Centre for Research on Children and Families, said she felt her entire life was “being a mini adult, but it’s not a pick and choose the time sort of thing.” 

Support

There have been a range of support services for young carers across the United Kingdom. Young carers groups have been found to be a great resource to help find other young carers and share some of the issues that affect them with people who understand. These groups  are also important as an outlet outside of their role in the family home, providing support  solely for  young carers. Even during the pandemic, some groups were able to schedule calls for young carers which provided them with interaction just for them, and something to look forward to each week at home.

However, many young carers remain “hidden” from services, either out of choice or because they have been ignored. Some simply don’t know about support groups or services, or have been found to not consider themselves ‘carers’. Instead, they  view their lives as “normal” or doing something that’s “expected” of them. Others may be afraid of the stigma their particular situation may bring them, and therefore want to be perceived as the same as their fellow students.

Final thoughts

The pandemic has pushed conversation and debate towards how we care for the most vulnerable in our society, and hopefully will lead to improvements in our attitudes towards care. However, this also has to extend towards unpaid carers, and particularly the young people who often shoulder invisible labour at the expense of their childhood.

Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on carers

Breaking barriers and engaging with future planners

A recent survey by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) in July 2021 aimed to gauge UK public awareness of the planning profession. The results suggested a significant disconnect between the public perception of planning, the scope of professions in the industry and the impact that planning has on society.

While 73% of respondents claimed to understand the job description of planners, only 32% recognised that planning can support future recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and only 37% believed that planning can influence the wider issues of climate change and the environment.

Victoria Hills, chief executive of the RTPI called the results ‘shocking’. However, they are perhaps the consequence of inclusivity challenges that the planning sector has failed to address for a number of decades.

Equality in the planning sector

Historically, the profession has been notorious for being dominated by middle-aged and older men. While an increasing number of younger women joined the profession in the 1990s and 2000s, recent years have seen a reversing trend away from the progress made towards gender equality in the sector.

Likewise, the number of overall students choosing to embark on planning-related degrees has remained low, despite there being a high demand for planning professionals. A town planning degree is in the top four postgraduate subjects for employability within six months of graduation and poses a respectable average starting salary, suggesting young people are being deterred for reasons beyond career motivations.

Overcoming the obstacles

So why are young people so seemingly disengaged with planning and how can barriers be broken?

Helen Hayes, a former town planner and the current Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, believes one glaring issue is the urgent need for a more diverse workforce in the profession. It is not just about needing an influx of numbers; people entering the profession need to be from all sections of society.

Only an estimated 2% of UK town planning officers are under 25 and just 19% are aged 25-34. As for ethnicity, 97% of planning officers are white.

Moreover, the 2020 RTPI Women and Planning research paper found that the majority of female respondents had faced gender related barriers to professional advancement in planning, and that workplaces overwhelmingly reflect ‘masculine’ cultures and norms of behaviour.

In recent years, the RTPI has committed to a long-term strategy to address diversity issues and entered a partnership with the BAME Planners Network. Initiatives such as these are welcomed but it is argued that they need to be supported by educational measures in diverse schools and universities.

In a 2015 issue of The Planner magazine, young professionals working in the industry were asked for their views of how to successfully engage young people with the planning profession. An obvious theme was to improve young people’s understanding of planning as a known career –  teaching them to associate it with places, shaping the everyday and solving commonplace issues.

Raising awareness: not just home extensions

Those within the industry believe that there is a concerning lack of awareness of how planning as a discipline is related to a wide remit of shared issues in society, from building valued places to solving the housing crisis and tackling climate change. “Planning needs to be properly championed. Ask a young person about what planning means and they think about home extensions and dormer windows”, says Rupy Sandhu, one of the young planners featured in the issue.

Helen Hayes further emphasises the issue, saying: The young people I speak to have an excellent grasp of local issues, and a passion to make a difference. But for the most part they have no idea that their knowledge and interest could, with training, translate into a rewarding career as a planner”.

It is perhaps evident that young people are passionate about such issues, but they need to be empowered.

Routes into planning

In The Planner’s Career Survey 2018/19, an overwhelming majority of respondents suggested offering more work experience placements and attending colleges and schools to be the most effective vehicles for engaging young people.

There is increasing attention to offering alternative routes into the planning profession outside of going to university. The RTPI currently offers a chartered town planning apprenticeship and a town planning assistant apprenticeship. Local councils are increasing the number of town planning apprenticeships at their organisations and private planning firms are also known for offering apprenticeships and work experience.

For instance, private firm Barton Willmore engaged with University of West of England Bristol students looking for new ideas through live planning challenges, leading to students later joining the firm on placements and work experience. The notion of ‘inviting in by reaching out’ is certainly a viable and rewarding route for both students and planning organisations, creating long-standing professional relationships.

The RTPI facilitates an ambassadors scheme which offers RTPI members the chance to speak at schools and universities about the planning profession, and the RTPI Trust also offers bursaries such as £2,000 of support to BAME and disabled undergraduate planning students.

Final thoughts

Taking a step back from the low-level engagement of young people with the profession, there is an argument that true representation will not be achieved unless there is an agenda for the reform of the top-down nature of the planning system and its practices.

Helen Hayes suggests that there should be a removal of the red tape and needless bureaucracy” in moving towards transparent and well-informed decision making, in which the views of diverse communities and groups should be reflected.

Perhaps genuine engagement and consultation with under-represented groups, such as young people, will help to inspire a new generation of planners to enter a progressive and equitable profession.

Image: Photo by Brandon Nelson on Unsplash


Further reading: more about the planning profession on The Knowledge Exchange Blog