Guest post | Mixing it up in Midtown Tampa

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

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

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

Not long ago, not far away

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

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

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

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

The walkability factor

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

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

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

Enter Midtown Tampa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest post: If we all choose the fastest mode of travel in a city, the whole city gets slower – and more congested

The more people choose the fastest route by car, the more congested a city becomes. Alexander Popov | Unsplash, FAL

Rafael Prieto Curiel, UCL and Juan Pablo Orjuela, University of Oxford

People in cities often choose how to travel based on how long it will take. In recent years, navigation apps such as Google Maps and CityMapper have enabled people to decide between various modes of transport by seeing which one most quickly gets them where they want to go.

Cities of course have long dedicated a disproportionate amount of space to cars. Although in some parts of the global north – and in certain demographics – car use is declining, elsewhere it has, unsurprisingly, increased.

In a recent study, we modelled what would happen to average travelling times in a city if people were given only one other option – using the car or using another mode of transport – and if they acted only in their own interest (getting to their destination as fast as possible).

We wanted to see what would happen if everyone acted selfishly. How would that compare, we wondered, with a theoretical case in which people chose their mode to minimise travel times for society as a whole and not only for themselves.

City spaces

Using mathematical modelling, we found that if all travellers behave selfishly, and if we have a system that not only makes it relatively inexpensive to use a car, but also allows congestion to affect non-car users (cyclists, public transport users, pedestrians etc), collectively we all end up taking longer to get where we need to go – whether we’re driving a car or not.

City streets are often designed to make travelling by car faster and more efficient. And despite there being, for instance, an increasing amount of cycling infrastructure worldwide and higher satisfaction among people who commute by bike, it is still very common to see narrow, disconnected cycling lanes which result in congestion induced by private cars affecting cycling travel times too.

Mixed-use lanes – those that are used by both private cars and public buses, as opposed to dedicated bus lanes – have the same effect: car congestion affects bus users too. Without proper infrastructure, there are therefore no incentives to use public transport or active transport options, such as cycling and walking.

And even when there is a cycling path network or dedicated bus lanes, if these cross over or otherwise intermittently share space with the general road system, this also slows everybody down. It makes the system as a whole less efficient.

Similarly, free parking for private vehicles also results in longer travelling times for everyone – including non-car users – because they negate the benefits, for individuals, of not using a car if others still do.

We found that selfish behaviour with such inadequate infrastructure results naturally in more cars, more congestion, and longer travel times. If using a car remains the easier and quicker option (on an individual level), people will keep using cars and cities will remain congested. By trying individually to win, we all lose.

Competing priorities

One alternative is to design more collaborative transport networks in which we all accept some personal delay to achieve a distribution that is better for society. We could, for example, include not only personal cost in some of the apps we use, but societal costs also. What if Google Maps told you not only where congestion is in real-time and what would be the quickest transport mode to choose for you as an individual, but which transport mode would offer the best results for your neighbourhood, your family, your colleagues, or your city?

Research has shown how difficult it is, however, to shift commuter behaviour. It also highlights the public opposition there has been to alternative measures such as limiting maximum speeds in order to lower traffic injuries, despite such measures saving lives.

Given this, it could prove difficult to convince some car users to sacrifice personal efficiency for the greater good. But we could start by at least making these trade-offs explicit.

A giant spaghetti junction in Los Angeles.
Our cities are designed with car travel in mind. Denys Nevozhai | Unsplash, FAL

Motorised private transport has a wide variety of impacts that threaten a city’s sustainability, not least the wellbeing and health of its citizens. It contributes to air pollution and climate change through vehicle emissions and results in traffic injuries and nurtures sedentary lifestyles.

To encourage people to use more sustainable alternatives to car transport, cities need strong policies that steer people away from using their cars. So far, these have included low-traffic neighbourhoods and congestion charges that try to make car drivers pay for the congestion they are causing.

Elsewhere, systems have been implemented that attract people to transport modes, such as safe lanes for cycling, that typically have better environmental and social outcomes. These systems emphasise individualistic attitudes but target societal costs to those most responsible for them.

Ideally, we should create policies that help us act in the interest of our community. In the meantime, policies that push people away from their private cars could bring us closer to what would be optimal for the collective even if we are all acting in our own interests.

Rafael Prieto Curiel, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, UCL and Juan Pablo Orjuela, Senior Research Associate and Executive Education Programme Director, University of Oxford

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

Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange Blog on urban transportation

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

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

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

Opportunities for cities

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

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

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

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

The inequality of green space

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from Milan’s green placemaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding thoughts

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

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

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


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

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

Image: Lundberg Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: StreetMoves / Daniel Byström

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

RMC42

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.