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:

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:

 

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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Guest post: How working from home could revitalise rust belt cities

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Michel Serafinelli, University of Essex

For years, we have been promised a work-from-home revolution, and it seems that the pandemic has finally brought it to pass. In April this year, at the height of the first wave of coronavirus, 47% of people in the UK were working from home, the vast majority of them doing so because of the pandemic. In a sense this is overdue: the work-from-home potential for UK employees is 32%; in France, Germany and Italy between 24% and 28%.

This structural transformation has the potential to at least partially undo another transformation from the previous century. With the decline of manufacturing in the United Kingdom after the 1970s, some cities – incuding Hull, Sheffield, Bradford and Stoke-on-Trent – entered a spiral of high unemployment and out-migration that has lasted to this day. This trend is echoed in other “rust belt” cities such as Saint-Etienne in France, Wuppertal in Germany and the American city of Detroit.

The rise of teleworking could end that spiral – if the right conditions are met.

The changing workplace

It’s unlikely that telework will end when the pandemic does – we will instead probably see workplaces encouraging a mix of in-office and home working. Some organisations may start asking workers to be in the office for only two to three days per week, while others may opt for a “conference model” (that is, a few consecutive days or a week per month for all employees).

This does not mean the death of big cities. London will probably stay attractive and innovative thanks to its very strong initial advantage. San Francisco and Seattle in US, Munich in Germany and Amsterdam in the Netherlands will all remain hubs for knowledge workers. Scholars believe face-to-face still rules when it comes to creativity, and such cities provide an environment that is conducive to innovation.

But rust belt areas are cheaper and can attract skilled workers to regularly spend more time there once the pandemic is over.

A busy street in Soho, London.
London will not lose its appeal. christo mitkov christov/Shutterstock

The job multiplier effect

How can formerly deprived cities thrive after the pandemic? To understand the potential for revitalisation of rust belt cities, we can invoke the job multiplier effect. This is where the presence of skilled workers helps create other jobs through increased demand for local goods and services. For example, after their day on Zoom (at home or in a local co-working space), skilled workers will want to go out. In this way they support a barista, a waiter, a chef and perhaps a taxi driver. Some will decide to renovate the house they live in, and ask a local architect. Once or twice a week they go for yoga. They may need a dogsitter when they travel.

This is not the only mechanism that could help with local revitalisation. Some of the people regularly spending more time in rust belt areas would be entrepreneurs, and we may see new business creation, as they seize new opportunities in industries such as culture, renewable energies, tourism, quality agro-food or handicraft.

In principle, therefore, our increased ability to work from home could lead to new growth opportunities.

Will it work?

But there are important caveats. Not all rust belt cities will be able take advantage of the post-pandemic world. After all, there were large differences in labour market performance after the 1970s, when the aggregate number of manufacturing jobs started to decline.

In the UK, both Middlesborough and Slough had 44% manufacturing employment in 1970. But their experience was vastly different in the three following decades, with Middlesborough employment declining by 13% per decade and Slough employment growing by 12% per decade. Places such as Norwich and Preston in the UK, Bergamo in Italy, and San Jose in the US were traditional manufacturing hubs that nonetheless performed well in the decades that followed the start of manufacturing decline in their countries.

To understand why we may see large differences across different cities again with the rise of working from home, we first have to think about differences in what economists call human capital endowments – this relates to the skills of the workforce in a particular place. For example, if locality A has a greater share of the workforce with a university degree than locality B, it has a higher human capital endowment and is more likely to recover from industrial decline.

The skill level of the workforce is important for the task of local reinvention – in our research team’s analysis of the reinvention potential for cities, we used the share of the workforce with a university degree as a proxy for this. To distribute these advantages across the board, scholars studying declining areas have called for measures aimed at boosting training and facilitating the assimilation of knowledge and innovation.

Another important challenge is the digital divide – the gap in speeds between areas with privileged access to the internet and the rest of the country. In the UK this is more than just a gap between urban and rural parts of the country – inner-city areas in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham are also left behind. A large reduction of this gap was important for job creation before COVID-19 – it should be a top priority now.

An overhead shot of a woman typing on a laptop at a table.
The UK’s digital divide affects cities too. marvent/Shutterstock

Local amenities also play a role. For skilled workers with family ties in a specific area, once they decide to regularly spend more time outside London, the choice of location is often pretty clear. For skilled workers without such ties, factors such as the cultural and recreational activities on offer in a new city become important, especially since they are used to a vibrant selection in London.

Overall, rust belt areas in Western economies face some opportunities for regeneration with teleworking, but there are also several important challenges. To maximise the potential for success, governments should consider measures that boost training, investment in high-speed broadband and improve transportation links between these cities and London.

These kinds of investments would help smaller cities such as Middlesborough, Hull and Stoke-on-Trent take advantage of the new opportunities presented by telework. Otherwise Manchester and, to some extent, other larger cities such as Birmingham and Liverpool could be the winners, among the rust belt, in the post-coronavirus work-from-home economy.

Michel Serafinelli, Lecturer in Economics, University of Essex

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


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Guest Post: Will coronavirus be the catalyst for lasting air quality improvements?

By Freddie Talberg

‘Unprecedented’ has been the word of the moment as we find ourselves living through a health pandemic, the likes of which most of us have never seen before.

Who would have thought, even last month, that we would be faced with school closures, panic buying and huge bailouts of the economy that make Boris Johnson’s government look like Clement Attlee’s?

We will not know the long-term impact of this pandemic for months, maybe even years, but in the short-term as business braces for a bumpy ride ahead and our health system prepares for its most pressurised moment since the founding of the welfare state, we can look for some glimmers of light in the darkness.

In both China and Italy, there have been significant and immediate reductions in levels of air pollution in response to government lockdowns to tackle the virus outbreak. Research suggests a 25% drop in energy usage in the former that could see a 1% decline in its carbon emissions by the end of the year. In Italy, the vision of Venice’s canals running clear puts into perspective how quickly a reduction in human activity can positively improve air quality.

Looking around London, you can see the impact of full-scale lockdown just days in. Almost no traffic on the streets, and the number of people entering the city centre significantly down. This is reducing the public’s exposure to harmful particulates and other sources of air pollution, as it is in New York, where lockdown measures were implemented last week; early research shows carbon monoxide emissions down 50% on this time last year.

We should be careful about the conclusions that can be made from this. These positive environmental effects are down a significant government intervention that has essentially shut down all economic activity in response to a major public health emergency. These measures are going to take a toll on our wellbeing and can in no way be considered a sustainable solution.

But it makes me wonder. Can we possibly balance economic and social wellbeing whilst having a meaningful impact upon pollution levels in our cities? We will not be able to see the long-term legacy of this pandemic for years, but we should think about what we want it to be.

In my opinion, if one thing emerges above all else as the one thing we learn from COVID-19 and the lockdown measures it has enforced, is that we must reconsider certain aspects of our lives that we deem necessary and the long-term impact that our actions have on air quality. Seeing how much more vulnerable those with underlying health issues, including chronic lung conditions, are to the coronavirus says so much about the importance of good air quality.

We have to emerge from this crisis with a completely different attitude on how we tackle air quality issues and how we protect lung health.

The excellent quality open source data, such as that provided by the European Space Agency showing Italy and by NASA showing China, allows us to monitor the impacts of lockdown measures and track air pollution in real-time. This sort of tracking has to continue  once restrictions are lifted and include specific remediations, in order to prevent a spike in pollutive activity.

Families are going to travel to visit loved ones not seen for months across the country and the world, or they will take that holiday they had to cancel. Businesses meanwhile will look to make up for lost time and industrial production will ramp up. ‘Flatten the curve’ has been the government’s motto around coronavirus, and should be the world’s motto regarding emissions after this is over.

We therefore must have practical solutions in place. Taking control of emissions is difficult at the best of times, but technology can be used to help companies track their emissions levels and act on air quality, on a scale that works for them – it is not just a job for the world’s largest space agencies.

EMSOL for example, provides businesses with real-time, specific, actionable evidence about emission breaches delivered straight to their mobile. So, they can pinpoint the problem the moment it becomes a problem, and take specific steps every day to improve air quality.

It may not seem the priority right now but this pandemic does not change that we are in an ongoing climate crisis. COVID-19 is forcing us to ask fundamental questions about how we live our lives, and it is a wake-up call for London and big cities around the world about the importance of good lung health.

When all this is over, I hope to see our political and business leaders make the legislative changes necessary that mean we can track and reduce our pollution levels for the long-term.

Freddie Talberg, CEO and co-founder of Emsol

Our thanks to Air Quality News for permission to republish this article.


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Guest post: Three things I’ve learned in my local coffee shop

By Steve MacDouell

If you were to walk into my neighbourhood coffee shop, you’d see the usual suspects: Joey, a body and mind professional, who would be talking to someone about Finnish saunas, metal music, and the human condition; Arielle, the local city councillor, who would be conversing with her constituents about their ideas and hopes for the neighbourhood; Alexis, a writer, who would be sipping an americano, plugging away at her book, and scrolling through funny dog gifs; and Brittney, Jen, and Emily, three friends who, on a weekly basis, come together to talk about the joys and complexities of life all the while trying to keep their pre-school aged children occupied. This coffee shop, like many others, is a place where people are invited to sit, to catch up on some email, and to, potentially, encounter a few of their neighbours — all while enjoying a hot, caffeinated beverage.

Third places — that is, places where people can enjoy the company of others outside of their workplaces and homes — are critical to the well-being of our neighbourhoods. From public parks and libraries to pubs and playgrounds, these places are impacting our localities in both subtle and significant ways. For our communities to thrive, we need third places where ideas can be shared, where everyone is welcome to belong, and where relationships, over time, can be fostered. Ray Oldenburg, urban sociologist and author of The Great Good Place, emphasizes the importance of these kinds of places in this way:

“Most needed are those ‘third places’ which lend a public balance to the increased privatization of home life…Though a radically different kind of setting from the home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends…They are the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy.”

After a few years of sitting in the same coffee shop, I’ve come to realize that third places have much to teach us about our neighbourhoods and the people we share them with.

In the spirit of celebrating the third places in our cities, here are three things that I’ve learned in my local coffee shop:

People want to linger in places where they can be seen, heard, and known

There is something about your local barista knowing your coffee order that grounds you in a place. It’s one of the small, subtle ways that I started to feel like a character in the story of my neighbourhood. This vague familiarity would go on to spark brief conversations between the staff and I, which led to more robust exchanges around our unique interests, our vocational endeavours, and our shared hopes for the neighbourhood. They began to introduce me to other locals in the shop which led to more conversations and to a broader network of connection. Additionally, the shop is small, so sharing tables with my neighbours became a normal practice. At times, these shared table experiences sparked meaningful interactions, and at other times, it just led to more spilt coffee. As weeks turned into months, strangers became friends, a sense of community started to be formed, and feelings of familiarity began to take root.

It’s often within the relational ecosystem of a local coffee shop that we encounter the people we’ve actually shared close proximity with for a long time. We start to put names to faces that we’ve seen in passing, and we begin to feel a little more noticed ourselves—which taps into our human longing to know others and be known by others. In this sense, coffee shops provide far more than local economic benefits and enjoyable products; they offer a space where trust can be formed — and where hospitality can be extended — between neighbours. While turning up, sipping coffee, and being open to connection seems like a small act, the cumulative impact of doing so can’t be quickly dismissed.

People long for places where contextual ideas—for the common good of the neighbourhood—can be inspired

The collision of humanity that occurs in a local coffee shop has a way of catalyzing ideas that, if leveraged well, can go on to improve the well-being of our neighbourhoods. This occurs, in part, because the individuals who spend time in these places will have some sense of the contextual opportunities that exist locally and because the social nature of a coffee shop can lend itself to a high concentration of neighbourly interactions. Over the years, spending time in my local coffee shop has opened up different collaborate engagements with my neighbours: from cocktail nights, dinner parties, and social clubs to playgroups, TED-style events, and tactical urbanism projects. The seeds of these ideas were planted and cultivated through ongoing conversations over lattes and laptops.

The local impact that can come out of a coffee shop is nothing new; historically, these places have played a key role in shaping the social, political, creative, and intellectual pursuits of cities. Take, for example, the coffeehouses of London in the 1670s. The open, political dialogue that occurred in these places was subversive enough that it caused nervousness in the powers that be, so much so that Charles II tried to have them shut down. If you were looking to be involved in political dialogue during the French Revolution, you could find it in a Parisian café, and if you were an anti-Communist dissident in Prague after the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, you could conspire with kindred spirits at Café Slavia. Some, like German sociologist and philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, have even gone on to argue that the coffeehouses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries helped lay the foundation for the liberal Enlightenment.

While revolution might not break out in our local coffee shops, these important places still inspire dialogue, ideas, and collaboration, all of which can go on to make a tangible impact on neighbourhoods and cities.

People are attached to the places that they experience with all of their senses

Over the past few years, I’ve taken a number of road trips across the United States. Whenever I’m in a new city, I try to sit in a few local coffee spots to taste their product, to meet a few locals, and to get a sense of what’s happening in the neighbourhood. While I’ve enjoyed some great coffee and met some interesting people along the way, I’ve always felt like a visitor in these places—and this makes sense. The coffee tastes a little different than what I’m used to; the aesthetic, while often similar, is not quite the same as my local coffee shop; and the people are friendly, but I’m not connected to their stories in the same way that I am to those of my neighbours. Visiting these places is always a welcomed experience, but it never quite feels like home.

The hours I’ve spent in my local coffee shop have increased my level of attachment to my neighbourhood and the people who inhabit it—which, over time, has made me less likely to dream of being somewhere else. While I love to travel, being elsewhere has made me more appreciative of the people and the places that are familiar, reminding me of just how much I continue to receive within the ordinary rhythms of life in the places I call home.

Third places play a critical role in the strength, resilience, and interconnectedness of our cities. Whether your third place is a coffee shop, a community centre, or a local McDonald’s, spending time in these places can move us toward the people, the stories, and the opportunities that exist all around us. While these places will not solve all of the urgent problems that our cities face, the tangible benefits that they offer our communities should be celebrated.


Steve MacDouell is a professor at @FanshaweCollege in London, Ontario, and a senior community fellow at @TheGoodCityCo, a civic organisation that creates projects to help citizens take greater ownership over the places they call home. Steve also writes posts on community formation, place and neighbourliness. This post originally appeared on Steve’s own blog.

Shared Prosperity Fund – greater productivity and inclusivity for Scottish cities?

new bridge glasgow

There are many questions surrounding the UK’s departure from the European Union, not least on the future of funding.

In Scotland’s regions and cities, EU Structural Funds have provided significant additional funding to support economic development for many years. The current structural funds programme is worth about €10.7 billion to the United Kingdom and up to €872 million to Scotland across the seven-year budget period which ends in 2020. The Funds were originally created to help rebalance regional social and economic disparities. With regional inequality a dominant feature of the current economic landscape, and the potential of Brexit to further exacerbate this inequality, continued investment to address this is vital.

The UK Government has made no commitment to continue with the EU Structural Fund approach following exit from the EU and has instead proposed to introduce a domestic successor arrangement – the Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF). The objective of the SPF is to “tackle inequalities between communities by raising productivity, especially in those parts of our country whose economies are furthest behind.” This objective is widely welcomed. However, as yet there has been no formal consultation on the new Fund and no detail on how it will operate.

Nevertheless, it had been suggested in recent research from the Core Cities Group on Scottish cities that despite the significant contribution from Structural Funds over the years, the proposed SPF could be an opportunity for greater productivity and inclusivity.

Success of EU Structural Funding

The two major EU Structural Funds utilised in Scotland are the European Social Fund (ESF), focusing on skills and jobs, and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), which focuses on correcting regional imbalances.

Over £134m per annum is being invested in economic development in Scotland through these funds over the current programming period, which is supported by a significant amount of match funding, largely from the public sector. According to the Scottish Government, the total funding will be around €1.9 billion.

The Scottish Cities – the collaboration of Scotland’s seven cities (Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness Perth, and Stirling) – and city regions have already successfully invested in each of the four Scottish Economic Strategy priorities (innovation, investment, inclusive growth and internationalisation) and the UK Industrial Strategy’s five foundations of productivity (ideas, people, infrastructure, business environment and place).

Some examples of projects include:

Research suggests that the ending of such funding poses a risk to organisations and the positive economic impact gained, as illustrated by reductions in funding in other areas of the UK.

Limitations

Despite the successes that have been achieved through the use of Structural Funds, the approach is not without its limitations. As argued by the Core Cities report, the approach to managing, overseeing and using the funding has become more bureaucratic and cumbersome. Particular issues highlighted include:

  • increasing centralisation of funding and decision-making;
  • the requirement to provide match-funding at an individual project level becoming increasingly problematic due to public sector budget cuts;
  • monitoring, compliance and audit requirements have become increasingly onerous;
  • in the current programme period, the role of the Managing Authority has become more transactional, with little engagement at the project development stage;
  • eligibility rules restrict what can be funded, with some important elements of economic development no longer able to be supported e.g. new commercial premises, transport infrastructure, which can limit the benefits from other Structural Fund investment (such as business growth and employment creation on strategic sites);
  • the system does not encourage innovation, with high levels of risk aversion amongst programme managers, and a high degree of risk for project sponsors if project delivery does not proceed as planned – a particular issue for projects working with the most disadvantaged groups and those with complex needs.

The report argues that these factors have had the effect of limiting the achievements of the Funds, such as preventing some organisations from applying for funding, which in turn has made others wary about applying. This has led to projects being designed to meet the funding criteria rather than maximising benefits, resulting in too much time and effort on administrative activities rather than those which will have an impact on the economy.

As such, it is suggested that the introduction of the SPF affords an opportunity to change this.

Opportunity for change

According to the report, there is an opportunity to move away from the limitations of the Structural Fund programme approach to more effective arrangements that will increase productivity and contribute to a more inclusive economy. There is scope to increase the funding available through the SPF, reduce bureaucracy and become more responsive to local need.

It is suggested that there is potential for SPF investment in the Scottish Cities to deliver an economic dividend of up to £9bn as productivity increases, producing higher wages at all levels in the workforce, and contributing to a more inclusive economy overall.

Given that Scotland’s performance on some of the key economic indicators is likely to be taken into account when allocating SPF – GVA per job and per hour worked, employment rate, deprivation levels – the report also contends that there is a case for a greater share of the SPF for Scottish Cities. It argues that significant SPF investment in these areas “…will increase competitiveness and tackle inequality, as set out in Scotland’s Economic Strategy, as well as contributing towards the objectives of the UK’s Industrial Strategy, raising productivity and reducing inequalities between communities”.

The report warns that “Scotland will not make significant progress towards a more inclusive economy and society without addressing the deprivation challenges in the Scottish Cities.”

It is recommended that:

  • the SPF should use a transparent, needs-based allocation system;
  • the SPF budget should not be determined by previous levels of Structural Funds, and should be significantly increased; and
  • the Scottish Cities must be closely involved in the design of the SPF.

Final thoughts

There appears to be wide consensus for providing a replacement for EU Structural funding. Most organisations that have commented on the proposed SPF also agree that the level of funding should at least be maintained at its current level.

The concerns in Scotland, and indeed the other devolved legislatures, is the impact the SPF might have in devolved decision making powers currently exercised under EU Structural Funding.

The Scottish Cities have made clear their views on the proposed SPF and the Scottish Government has also launched its own consultation on how the Fund might work for Scotland.

Only time will tell whether the UK Government will take these comments on board, and indeed whether the opportunity for change will be realised at all.


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Reading the city: wayfinding is about more than getting from A to B

On-street-signage-system2

Bristol: legible city. Image: Chris Bahn

Wayfinding has been variously described as:

  • spatial problem-solving
  • systems that assist people to find their way from one place to another
  • a way of helping people engage seamlessly in a built environment

An effective wayfinding system consists of signs, maps and other visual clues to help guide people to their destinations. But as well as providing directions, good wayfinding systems can also promote health and wellbeing, tourism and economic development.

Way back wayfinding

The first recorded use of the term ‘wayfinding’ was by urban planner Kevin Lynch in his 1960 book ‘The Image of a City’. But wayfinding has been around as long as people have been on the move. In the ancient world, people learned to navigate by reading signs in nature, such as the sun and ocean currents. When the Romans built thousands of miles of roads, they also created stone markers to show destinations and distances. Later, the development of the motor car required street signs and road markings. More recently, wayfinding designers have been applying their skills for pedestrians and cyclists in cities, and in places with complex navigational challenges, such as airports and hospitals.

The benefits of wayfinding

Effective wayfinding systems have environmental social and economic benefits. Signage can inform pedestrians and cyclists about the availability of safe routes, and convey information about distance. Wayfinding signs can also act as visual prompts to encourage people to walk or use more sustainable forms of transport. And wayfinding signage may persuade people to explore urban areas, visit attractions and make use of local services such as shops and cinemas.

Uncovering the legible city

Beyond their directional functions, wayfinding systems can be used for creating a sense of place and showcasing an area’s unique history. In recent years, urban planners, designers and architects have been working with communities to develop Kevin Lynch’s idea of ‘the legible city’.

Bristol led the way with a network of direction signs, on-street information panels, printed walking maps and public arts projects. The project created a consistent visual identity, countering impressions of Bristol as a collection of fragmented, undefined and unmemorable places.

Interpretation-Panel-Historic-Queen-Square

Bristol: legible city. Image: Chris Bahn

Bristol’s Legible City project is now entering a new phase, including a major upgrade of on-street map units to incorporate high-quality illuminated mapping, and the integration of communication equipment into the map units to provide visitors and residents with useful data about the city’s streets and spaces.

Journey narratives

Bristol’s pioneering approach has been adopted by other cities, including London, Glasgow, Manchester, Moscow and New York, as well as smaller cities such as Inverness. Some have used wayfinding as part of a wider strategy. Vancouver, for example, is fostering a walking culture, and so its wayfinding system is geared towards ensuring people make smart transportation choices. Meanwhile, in Moscow, a wayfinding system for the city’s metro stations is part of its efforts to create a world-class transportation system.

London’s Legible City project set out not only to provide directions, but to engage with pedestrians by using storytelling as part of the design process. The project team studied how people interact with their environment, and considered their different cultural backgrounds and the kinds of information they need for navigation. The designers also identified distinct environmental and architectural features to create a wayfinding system that was unique to London, and that created ‘journey narratives’ for different types of user, from ‘strollers’ to ‘striders’.

Selective wayfinding

While wayfinding systems are gaining ground, there are some concerns about who runs them and who they are aimed at. As writer and urban historian Leo Hollis explained to The Guardian:

“If the legible city only maps shopping malls, car parks and the police station, this seriously reduces what the city has to offer. This can make parts of the city invisible to the visitor. Someone somewhere has made an arbitrary decision that tourists don’t want to go there, or that place is too dangerous so it should be avoided.”

It’s important that communities – and particular groups within the community –are considered in the process of developing wayfinding systems. In areas with an ageing population, for example, urban planners need to bear in mind the particular needs of older people when designing wayfinding systems.

Wayfinding to Playfinding

Having made its presence felt on city streets, wayfinding has also moved into airports, hospitals, schools and shopping malls. The Dongdaemun Design Plaza in the South Korean capital of Seoul, has 37 shopping malls and 35,000 shops. The wayfinding system for this complex space involves a high level of digital and smart media, with distinctive pathways for shoppers, tourists, design professionals and leisure groups.

Some designers have found inventive solutions to help people navigate interior spaces. At Tokyo’s Narita Airport, for example, the main concourses were redesigned to mimic a running track, the lanes printed with wayfinding symbols directing passengers to departure gates. The idea, celebrating the forthcoming Olympic Games, takes wayfinding into the realm of what is known as ‘playfinding’, where information and directions converge with fun and memorable experiences.

Wayfinding into the future

Increasingly, mobile applications, digital displays and other wireless technologies are being integrated into the ‘furniture’ of wayfinding systems. In some, mobile apps use QR (quick response) codes on street signs to provide more detailed historical information.

But with so many of us now using maps on smartphones to navigate cities, some are questioning the value of physical signage systems. And as Google moves into mapping the interiors of museums and other public buildings, the shift towards technology seems irresistible.

Even so, proponents of wayfinding argue that focusing on an app can rob pedestrians of the full sensory experience of walking – the sights and sounds, colours and smells of a neighbourhood, the texture of the surfaces, and how the surroundings make them feel.

So, although navigation from one location to another has never been easier, it’s worth remembering that there’s more to wayfinding than simply finding your way.


Further blog posts on urban living include:

Smart cities aim to make urban life more efficient – but for citizens’ sake they need to slow down

Sometimes you want to take it slow. Fabrizio Verrecchia/Unsplash. , FAL

Guest post by Lakshmi Priya Rajendran, Anglia Ruskin University

All over the world, governments, institutions and businesses are combining technologies for gathering data, enhancing communications and sharing information, with urban infrastructure, to create smart cities. One of the main goals of these efforts is to make city living more efficient and productive – in other words, to speed things up.

Yet for citizens, this growing addiction to speed can be confounding. Unlike businesses or services, citizens don’t always need to be fast to be productive. Several research initiatives show that cities have to be “liveable” to foster well-being and productivity. So, quality of life in smart cities should not be associated with speed and efficiency alone.

The pace of city life is determined by many factors, such as people’s emotions or memories, the built environment, the speed of movement and by the technologies that connect people to – or detach them from – any given place. As cities around the world become increasingly “smart”, I argue that – amid the optimised encounters and experiences – there also need to be slow moments, when people can mindfully engage with and enjoy the city.

Cities provide an environment for people to move, encounter, communicate and explore spaces. Research shows how these experiences can differ, depending on the pace of the activity and the urban environment: whether fast or slow, restless or calm, spontaneous or considered.

“Slow” approaches have been introduced as an antidote to many unhealthy or superficial aspects of modern life. For example, the slow reading movement encourages readers to take time to concentrate, contemplate and immerse themselves in what they’re reading – rather than skim reading and scrolling rapidly through short texts.

Similarly, the international slow food movement started in Italy as a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant on the Spanish Steps in Rome, back in 1986. Then, in 1999, came the “cittaslow movement” (translated as “slow city”) – inspired by the slow food movement – which emphasises the importance of maintaining local character while developing an economy which can sustain communities into the future.

Orvieto, Italy – home of the cittaslow movement. Shutterstock. 
Slow cities arise from grassroots efforts to improve quality of life for citizens, by reducing pollution, traffic and crowds and promoting better social interaction within communities. They must follow a detailed set of policy guidelines, which focus on providing green space, accessible infrastructure and internet connectivity, promoting renewable energy and sustainable transport, and being welcoming and friendly to all. Slow cities can create opportunities for healthier behavioural patterns – including pausing or slowing down – which allow for more meaningful engagement in cities.

These guidelines present a clear road map for city governments, but there are also ways that local people can promote a slow city ethos in fast-paced cities throughout the world. For example, in London, artists and activists have organised slow walks to encourage the general public to meaningfully engage with urban spaces, and show them how diverse their experiences of the city can be, depending on the speed of movement.

Slow and smart

Trying to put people’s concerns at the heart of smart city policies has always been challenging, due to the lack of creative grassroots approaches, which enable citizens to participate and engage with planning. And while technology has been able to give citizens instant access to a wide range of data about a place, it is rarely used to improve their actual experience of that place.

Getting smart cities to slow down could give citizens the means to explore the urban environment at a range of different paces, each offering a distinctive experience. To do this, architects, artists and urban planners need to look beyond the ways that technology can give instant access to information, services and entertainment – whether that’s video game lounges, or recharging and navigation pods in airports and stations.

Instead, they must recognise that technology can create platforms for citizens to immerse themselves and engage meaningfully in different experiences within the urban environment. For example, technology-based installations or projections can tell stories about people and places from other times, which enrich people’s experience of the city. Artificial Intelligence and machine learning can offer new ways to understand cities, and the way people function within them, which could help give human behaviour and experience a significant place in smart city planning.

Slow and smart cities could take the best of both approaches, helping citizens to connect with the history, present and future of a place, emphasising local character and building a sense of community, while also making use of the latest technology to give people greater choice about whether they want to speed up or slow down.

This would not only enhance efficiency and productivity, but also ensure that technology actively helps to improve people’s quality of life and make cities better places to live. It may sound idealistic, but with the range of advanced technology already being developed, ensuring cities are slow as well as smart could help people live better, more meaningful lives long into the future.The Conversation


Guest post by Lakshmi Priya Rajendran, Senior Research Fellow in Future Cities, Anglia Ruskin University

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

Why not read some of our other articles on smart cities:

Climate change: we can reclaim cities from the car without inconveniencing people

This guest blog was written by Richard Kingston, Professor of Urban Planning and GISc, University of Manchester and Ransford A. Acheampong, Presidential Academic Fellow in Future Cities, University of Manchester.

Since the 1920s, the car has revolutionised the way people travel; eliminating the constraints of distance while offering a personal, fast and convenient way to get from one place to another. Cities have been designed and built to make space for cars, and many cities which existed centuries before the advent of the car reshaped their streets to accommodate it.

The car, along with investments in major road infrastructure, has allowed people to live further away from city centres. The result has been that residential settlements can sprawl out over large areas – a perfect example is US surburbia. Yet people’s dependence on cars poses a major threat to public health and the environment.

It is estimated that there are more than a billion cars in the world. As well as driving up energy use, contributing to more than 70% of C0₂ emissions in the transport sector and reducing air quality, cars are also responsible for increasing obesity and chronic illnesses and killing more than 1.25m people around the globe every year in traffic accidents.

Cities around the world are taking steps to reduce the dominance of the car, to benefit residents and the environment. Of course, big changes in urban planning and individual behaviour are likely to take decades to accomplish. But while there’s no one plan which can work for every city, there are a few ways that authorities can reduce people’s dependence on cars, and reclaim space for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport.

1. Introduce car-free zones and charges

Car-free zones and charges are increasingly being adopted in cities around the world. These areas, which deter or restrict car use, can range in size and nature. In some cities, such as Copenhagen and Brussels, cars are entirely banned from parts of the city centre.

Other cities have instituted partial bans: for example, in Madrid, cars not belonging to residents are banned from the heart of the city. The entire city of Ghent, in Belgium, is car-free – but public transport, taxis and other permit holders may be allowed to drive through the city at up to five kilometres per hour. Elsewhere, like in central London, charges are applied to drivers entering during peak hours or using polluting vehicles.

To make these restrictions work, it’s crucial for city authorities to gain public support for them. The 2008 attempt to introduce what would have been the UK’s largest congestion zone in Greater Manchester was rejected in a referendum by 79% of voters on a 53.2% turnout. A number of opposition groups, involving businesses, residents and leaders of councils, mobilised to defeat the plan.

Many did not support the proposals in Manchester because they did not feel adequately consulted. Perhaps experimenting first at a much smaller scale, in the city centre, and gradually expanding to other parts of the city would also help people to accept the proposals.

2. Provide public transport alternatives

Many people living in suburbs or on the outskirts of cities might view restrictions on cars negatively, as a source of inconvenience or even a loss of freedom. An obvious way to address these concerns is to provide people with reliable, flexible and cost-effective public transit.

Adequate investments in public transit today will provide benefits in the long term. For example, evidence shows that there is an overall decreasing trend in car use in many cities across Europe, the US and Australia. A number of factors explain this trend, including the provision of public transit, having more older people who tend to drive less and the rise in fuel prices.

What’s more, young people today – especially young men – are delaying learning to drive and are less likely to own a car, compared to the generation before them. If fewer people are going to drive, then the public transport of the future needs to be affordable and accessible for both young and old.

3. Reshape the city

Significant progress towards reducing car use will be made by addressing underlying factors through urban planning. We need to build high density, mixed-use developments with affordable housing and excellent green spaces. We need to offer people the opportunity to live closer to shops, employment and recreation, thereby promoting “active” travel such as walking and cycling.

There are examples of planned and ongoing urban developments across the globe, including Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates and The Great City in China prioritising walking and public transit over cars, as well as experimenting with electric and driverless vehicles. These new developments are aiming to provide basic services within walking distance, create safe spaces for people to walk and provide public transit that uses clean energy.

Cities such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Malmo and Utrecht are reallocating road space from motorised to non-motorised transport and investing in new cycling infrastructure. It should not be unthinkable to have protected cycle highways connecting suburban communities to their city centres, as has been the case for cars for many decades.

So, there are a number of ways by which cities could significantly reduce car dependence and ultimately become car-free. But such policies must aim to change behaviours, as well as reshape the built environment. Both inner city and suburban residents must be able to access reliable public transport.

Above all, people want to be heard and involved in designing interventions that directly affect them. If people can own the vision and understand the benefits of the car-free city, then nothing will stand in the way of reclaiming the city from the car.


Guest post written by Richard Kingston, Professor of Urban Planning and GISc, University of Manchester and Ransford A. Acheampong, Presidential Academic Fellow in Future Cities, University of Manchester.

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