When we last wrote about it in 2019, Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) appeared to be on the threshold of transforming the way we get around. An innovative MaaS project had already taken off in Finland, and pilot projects in Sweden and the UK were trialling the advantages of bundling together different transport modes into a single service.
But more recently, some of the high hopes behind MaaS appear to have faded, with some questioning whether the concept needs a reboot.
The benefits of MaaS
The big idea behind MaaS is that anyone can use their mobile device to plan, manage and pay for a journey, selecting from a menu of transport options – such as buses, trains, ride-hailing and bike sharing services.
For passengers, MaaS promises greater freedom of choice. In addition, MaaS has the potential to help support government policy objectives, such as promoting active lifestyles, reducing traffic congestion and improving the air quality of our cities. For transport providers, MaaS could generate new business and cost savings. Research published in 2020 found that transport-related energy consumption can be reduced by up to 25% by allowing travellers unbiased choice of mode of transport for each trip.
Putting the brakes on MaaS
In spite of its appealing possibilities, the momentum driving MaaS seems to have stalled. Reluctance by drivers to give up their cars, the contractual and technical complexity of combining multiple transport modes into one service, and the challenge of getting private companies and public services to work together have all hindered the development of MaaS.
In Finland, once the shining example of MaaS in practice, the operation of the platform has been overshadowed by a conflict over ticketing apps between the country’s leading MaaS provider and Helsinki’s local transport authority. Elsewhere, private sector-led MaaS initiatives have run into financial difficulties.
Debunking the myths about MaaS
Despite these setbacks, MaaS still has its champions. Last month, in a webinar hosted by Intelligent Transport, Sohejl Wanjani and Ulrich Lange from German technology firm Siemens responded to some of the arguments that are often put forward against public transport authorities developing MaaS solutions.
A new platform requires a new app While it’s possible to build a new app solely for MaaS functions, existing apps can be expanded, meaning users don’t have to have multiple accounts and payment methods.
Building a new MaaS project is too big for us Two options are open to providers: start with one service provider, offering a fully integrated service (planning, booking and paying for trips within the MaaS app) and later add additional service providers; alternatively, start with several service providers, and offer only planning and booking, but not payment.
Most users rely on Google Maps. We can’t do better than that The key to a successful MaaS system is data, and transport authorities are rich in data about usage of their services. MaaS systems can use real time data that Google does not have, and can integrate ticketing and booking for all modes of transport. In addition, transport authorities can generate income from their own datasets, adapted to local circumstances. Once passengers are assured of the integrity and quality of the data, they are more likely to use the service.
A good example of this is Denmark’s Rejseplanen. This nationwide mobility platform was launched in 2007, and has since achieved more than 5 million downloads. In Denmark, this app is used more frequently than Google Maps, and its extensive data set continues to drive its popularity. Today, Rejseplanen includes information not only for rail, bus and metro services, but also cycle hire and even domestic air services.
Upgrading to a MaaS platform is not financially viable As cities introduce measures to reduce traffic congestion, it should now be clear that the need to tackle climate change is driving a shift away from private vehicle use to shared modes of transport that are healthier for people and for the planet. MaaS can contribute to climate-friendly travel, while helping transport providers achieve their strategic goals – generating additional revenue streams, increasing passenger usage and creating new mobility services.
Last year, Renfe, the national railway company of Spain, signed a contract with Siemens to develop a nationwide MaaS platform that will allow users to plan, book and pay for trips in a single application. The system will integrate different modes of shared and public transport, such as train, bicycle, metro, bus, car sharing, and scooter services. Renfe clearly sees MaaS as a viable concern; it expects the new service to generate a 4% increase in train travel, 650,000 new customers, and €156m in additional revenue.
MaaS on the move
MaaS is by no means a lost cause. Last month, a research study estimated that the worldwide market for MaaS would grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 36.8% over the next five years.
Meanwhile, Berlin’s Jelbi service is currently the world’s largest MaaS solution, bringing together public transport, bike sharing, e-scooter, taxis and ridesharing services, as well as offering 12 “Jelbi Stations” where users can rent, return and recharge a range of different vehicles.
Last year, Pittsburgh’s mayor unveiled its own MaaS programme. Move PGH is a partnership between the city’s public transport authority and an assortment of carpooling, car rental, e-scooter and bike sharing enterprises.
MaaS is still in its infancy, and it’s too early to be sure of its future direction. While its proponents present a seductive vision of car-free cities, cleaner air, clearer streets and almost unlimited choices for passengers, the reality may be very different.
A 2020 study questioned the assumptions surrounding MaaS, and argued that, while MaaS has strong potential for increased mobility, there are also “…unanticipated societal implications that could arise from a wholesale adoption of MaaS in relation to key issues such as wellbeing, emissions and social inclusion.”
With MaaS at a crossroads, it will be worth revisiting this issue to assess its progress.
Further reading: more on travel and transport from The Knowledge Exchange blog
Idox’s transport solutions support traffic management and the delivery of real-time passenger information across all modes of transport. Through the use of new digital technology, we help traffic managers and local transport authorities to harness data and inform the design of smart transport systems that ease congestion on existing networks. Further information here
Answer: the vehicles on our streets, primarily the not-so-humble passenger car.
Despite the (slow) migration to electric-powered cars, consumer trends are making driving even more wasteful and unequal. A recent analysis found the emissions saved from electric cars have been more than cancelled out by the increase in gas-guzzling Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs). Around the world, SUVs alone emit more carbon pollution than Canada or Germany, and are causing a bigger increase in climate pollution than heavy industry.
While cars are sometimes necessary for people’s mobility and social inclusion needs – not least those with disabilities – car-centric cities particularly disadvantage the already-marginalised. In the UK, women, young and older people, those from minority communities and disabled people are concentrated in the lowest-income households, of which 40% do not have a car. In contrast, nearly 90% of the highest-income households own at least one car.
So the driving habits of a minority impose high costs on society, and this is especially true in cities. Copenhagen, for example, has calculated that whereas each kilometre cycled benefits society to the tune of €0.64 (53 pence), each kilometre driven incurs a net loss of -€0.71 (-59p), when impacts on individual wellbeing (physical and mental health, accidents, traffic) and the environment (climate, air and noise pollution) are accounted for. So each kilometre travelled where a car is replaced by a bicycle generates €1.35 (£1.12) of social benefits – of which only a few cents would be saved by switching from a fossil-fuelled to an electric-powered car, according to this analysis.
Reducing car use in cities
Half a century ago, the Danish capital was dominated by cars. But following grassroots campaigns to change policies and streets, including replacing car parking with safe, separated bike lanes, Copenhagen has increased its biking share of all trips from 10% in 1970 to 35% today. In 2016, for the first time, more bicycles than cars made journeys around the city over the course of that year.
But while many other car-limiting initiatives have been attempted around the world, city officials, planners and citizens still do not have a clear, evidence-based way to reduce car use in cities. Our latest research, carried out with Paula Kuss at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies and published in Case Studies on Transport Policy, seeks to address this by quantifying the effectiveness of different initiatives to reduce urban car use.
Our study ranks the 12 most effective measures that European cities have introduced in recent decades, based on real-world data on innovations ranging from the “carrot” of bike and walk-to-work schemes to the “stick” of removing free parking. The ranking reflects cities’ successes not only in terms of measurable reductions in car use, but in achieving improved quality of life and sustainable mobility for their residents.
In all, we have screened nearly 800 peer-reviewed reports and case studies from throughout Europe, published since 2010, seeking those that quantified where and how cities had successfully reduced car use. The most effective measures, according to our review, are introducing a congestion charge, which reduces urban car levels by anywhere from 12% to 33%, and creating car-free streets and separated bike lanes, which has been found to lower car use in city centres by up to 20%. Our full ranking of the top 12 car-reducing measures is summarised in this table: https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/NDMp4/12/
The inequality of car use
Cars are inherently inefficient and inequitable in their use of land and resources. On average, they spend 96% of their time parked, taking up valuable urban space that could be put to more beneficial uses such as housing and public parks. In Berlin, car users on average take up 3.5 times more public space than non-car users, primarily through on-street parking.
And it is overwhelmingly richer people who drive the most: in Europe, the top 1% by income drive nearly four times more than the median driver, accounting for some 21% of their personal climate footprint. For these highest emitters, climate pollution from driving is second only to flying (which, on average, generates twice as many emissions).
Prioritising cars as a means of transport also favours suburban sprawl. City suburbs typically possess larger homes that generate higher levels of consumption and energy use. North American suburban households consistently have higher carbon footprints than urban ones: one study in Toronto found suburban footprints were twice as high.
Electric vehicles are necessary, but they’re not a panacea. Since cars tend to be on the road for a long time, the migration to electric vehicles is very slow. Some studies anticipate relatively small emissions reductions over the coming decade as a result of electric vehicle uptake. And even if there’s nothing damaging released from an electric car’s exhaust pipe, the wear of car brakes and tyres still creates toxic dust and microplastic pollution. However a car is powered, can it ever be an efficient use of resources and space to spend up to 95% of that energy moving the weight of the vehicle itself, rather than its passengers and goods?
COVID-19: a missed opportunity?
Our study assesses urban mobility innovations and experiments introduced before the pandemic was declared. In response to COVID-19, travel habits (to begin with, at least) changed dramatically. But following large reductions in driving during the spring of 2020, road use and the associated levels of climate pollution have since rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels. Indeed, in Sweden, while public transport use declined by around 42% during the first year of the pandemic, car travel declined by only 7% in the same period, leading to an overall increase in the proportion of car use.
While entrenched habits such as car commuting are hard to shift, times of disruption can offer an effective moment to change mobility behaviour – in part because people forced to try a new habit may discover it has unexpected advantages. For such behaviour to stick, however, also requires changes in the physical infrastructure of cities. Unfortunately, while European cities that added pop-up bike lanes during the pandemic increased cycling rates by a stunning 11-48%, we are now seeing a return to car-centric cities, with extra car lanes and parking spaces once again displacing cycle lanes and space for pedestrians.
Overall, the opportunities to align pandemic recovery measures with climate targets have largely been squandered. Less than 20% of government spending on pandemic measures globally were likely to also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The extent to which workers resume driving to their offices is another key issue determining future car use in cities. Thoughtful travel policies to reduce unnecessary travel, and opportunities for faraway participants to fully participate in meetings and conferences digitally, could slash emissions by up to 94% – and save time to boot. Those who work remotely three or more days per week travel less overall than their peers. But long car commutes can quickly wipe out such emissions savings, so living close to work is still the best option.
No silver bullet solution
The research is clear: to improve health outcomes, meet climate targets and create more liveable cities, reducing car use should be an urgent priority. Yet many governments in the US and Europe continue to heavily subsidise driving through a combination of incentives such as subsidies for fossil fuel production, tax allowances for commuting by car, and incentives for company cars that promote driving over other means of transport. Essentially, such measures pay polluters while imposing the social costs on wider society.
City leaders have a wider range of policy instruments at their disposal than some might realise – from economic instruments such as charges and subsidies, to behavioural ones like providing feedback comparing individuals’ travel decisions with their peers’. Our study found that more than 75% of the urban innovations that have successfully reduced car use were led by a local city government – and in particular, those that have proved most effective, such as congestion charges, parking and traffic controls, and limited traffic zones.
But an important insight from our study is that narrow policies don’t seem to be as effective – there is no “silver bullet” solution. The most successful cities typically combine a few different policy instruments, including both carrots that encourage more sustainable travel choices, and sticks that charge for, or restrict, driving and parking.
So here are the 12 best ways to reduce city car use:
1. Congestion charges
The most effective measure identified by our research entails drivers paying to enter the city centre, with the revenues generated going towards alternative means of sustainable transport. London, an early pioneer of this strategy, has reduced city centre traffic by a whopping 33% since the charge’s introduction by the city’s first elected mayor, Ken Livingstone, in February 2003. The fixed-charge fee (with exemptions for certain groups and vehicles) has been raised over time, from an initial £5 per day up to £15 since June 2020. Importantly, 80% of the revenues raised are used for public transport investments.
Other European cities have followed suit, adopting similar schemes after referenda in Milan, Stockholm and Gothenburg – with the Swedish cities varying their pricing by day and time. But despite congestion charges clearly leading to a significant and sustained reduction of car use and traffic volume, they cannot by themselves entirely eliminate the problem of congestion, which persists while the incentives and infrastructure favouring car use remain.
2. Parking and traffic controls
In a number of European cities, regulations to remove parking spaces and alter traffic routes – in many cases, replacing the space formerly dedicated to cars with car-free streets, bike lanes and walkways – has proved highly successful. For example, Oslo’s replacement of parking spaces with walkable car-free streets and bike lanes was found to have reduced car usage in the centre of the Norwegian capital by up to 19%.
3. Limited traffic zones
Rome, traditionally one of Europe’s most congested cities, has shifted the balance towards greater use of public transport by restricting car entry to its centre at certain times of day to residents only, plus those who pay an annual fee. This policy has reduced car traffic in the Italian capital by 20% during the restricted hours, and 10% even during unrestricted hours when all cars can visit the centre. The violation fines are used to finance Rome’s public transport system.
4. Mobility services for commuters
The most effective carrot-only measure identified by our review is a campaign to provide mobility services for commuters in the Dutch city of Utrecht. Local government and private companies collaborated to provide free public transport passes to employees, combined with a private shuttle bus to connect transit stops with workplaces. This programme, promoted through a marketing and communication plan, was found to have achieved a 37% reduction in the share of commuters travelling into the city centre by car.
5. Workplace parking charges
Another effective means of reducing the number of car commuters is to introduce workplace parking charges. For example, a large medical centre in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam achieved a 20-25% reduction in employee car commutes through a scheme that charged employees to park outside their offices, while also offering them the chance to “cash out” their parking spaces and use public transport instead. This scheme was found to be around three times more effective than a more extensive programme in the UK city of Nottingham, which applied a workplace parking charge to all major city employers possessing more than ten parking spaces. The revenue raised went towards supporting the Midlands city’s public transport network, including expansion of a tram line.
6. Workplace travel planning
Programmes providing company-wide travel strategies and advice to encourage employees to end their car commutes have been widely used in cities across Europe. A major study, published in 2010, assessing 20 cities across the UK found an average of 18% of commuters switched from car to another mode after a full range of measures were combined – including company shuttle buses, discounts for public transport and improved bike infrastructure – as well as reduced parking provision. In a different programme, Norwich achieved near-identical rates by adopting a comprehensive plan but without the discounts for public transport. These carrot-and-stick efforts appear to have been more effective than Brighton & Hove’s carrot-only approach of providing plans and infrastructure such as workplace bicycle storage, which saw a 3% shift away from car use.
7. University travel planning
Similarly, university travel programmes often combine the carrot of promotion of public transport and active travel with the stick of parking management on campus. The most successful example highlighted in our review was achieved by the University of Bristol, which reduced car use among its staff by 27% while providing them with improved bike infrastructure and public transport discounts. A more ambitious programme in the Spanish city of San Sebastián targeted both staff and students at Universidad del País Vasco. Although it achieved a more modest reduction rate of 7.2%, the absolute reduction in car use was still substantial from the entire population of university commuters.
8. Mobility services for universities
The Sicilian city of Catania used a carrot-only approach for its students. By offering them a free public transport pass and providing shuttle connections to campus, the city was found to have achieved a 24% decrease in the share of students commuting by car.
9. Car sharing
Perhaps surprisingly, car sharing turns out to be a somewhat divisive measure for reducing car use in cities, according to our analysis. Such schemes, where members can easily rent a nearby vehicle for a few hours, have showed promising results in Bremen, Germany and Genoa, Italy, with each shared car replacing between 12 and 15 private vehicles, on average. Their approach included increasing the number of shared cars and stations, and integrating them with residential areas, public transport and bike infrastructure.
Both schemes also provided car sharing for employees and ran awareness-raising campaigns. But other studies point to a risk that car sharing may, in fact, induce previously car-free residents to increase their car use. We therefore recommend more research into how to design car sharing programmes that truly reduce overall car use.
10. School travel planning
Two English cities, Brighton & Hove and Norwich, have used (and assessed) the carrot-only measure of school travel planning: providing trip advice, planning and even events for students and parents to encourage them to walk, bike or carpool to school, along with providing improved bike infrastructure in their cities. Norwich found it was able to reduce the share of car use for school trips by 10.9%, using this approach, while Brighton’s analysis found the impact was about half that much.
11. Personalised travel plans
Many cities have experimented with personal travel analysis and plans for individual residents, including Marseille in France, Munich in Germany, Maastricht in the Netherlands and San Sebastián in Spain. These programmes – providing journey advice and planning for city residents to walk, bike or use (sometimes discounted) public transport – are found to have achieved modest-sounding reductions of 6-12%. However, since they encompass all residents of a city, as opposed to smaller populations of, say, commuters to school or the workplace, these approaches can still play a valuable role in reducing car use overall. (San Sebastián introduced both university and personalised travel planning in parallel, which is likely to have reduced car use further than either in isolation.)
12. Apps for sustainable mobility
Mobile phone technology has a growing role in strategies to reduce car use. The Italian city of Bologna, for example, developed an app for people and teams of employees from participating companies to track their mobility. Participants competed to gain points for walking, biking and using public transport, with local businesses offering these app users rewards for achieving points goals.
There is great interest in such gamification of sustainable mobility – and at first glance, the data from the Bologna app looks striking. An impressive 73% of users reported using their car “less”. But unlike other studies which measure the number or distance of car trips, it is not possible to calculate the reduction of distance travelled or emissions from this data, so the overall effectiveness is unclear. For example, skipping one short car trip and skipping a year of long driving commutes both count as driving “less”.
While mobility data from apps can offer valuable tools for improved transport planning and services, good design is needed to ensure that “smart” solutions actually decrease emissions and promote sustainable transport, because the current evidence is mixed. For instance, a 2021 study found that after a ride-hailing service such as Uber or Lyft enters an urban market, vehicle ownership increases – particularly in already car-dependent cities – and public transport use declines in high-income areas.
Cities need to re-imagine themselves
Reducing car dependency is not just a nice idea. It is essential for the survival of people and places around the world, which the recent IPCC report on climate impacts makes clear hinges on how close to 1.5°C the world can limit global warming. Avoiding irreversible harm and meeting their Paris Agreement obligations requires industrialised nations such as the UK and Sweden to reduce their emissions by 10-12% per year – about 1% every month.
Yet until the pandemic struck, transport emissions in Europe were steadily increasing. Indeed, current policies are predicted to deliver transport emissions in 2040 that are almost unchanged from 50 years earlier.
To meet the planet’s health and climate goals, city governments need to make the necessary transitions for sustainable mobility by, first, avoiding the need for mobility (see Paris’s 15-minute city); second, shifting remaining mobility needs from cars to active and public transport wherever possible; and finally, improving the cars that remain to be zero-emission.
This transition must be fast and fair: city leaders and civil society need to engage citizens to build political legitimacy and momentum for these changes. Without widespread public buy-in to reduce cars, the EU’s commitment to deliver 100 climate-neutral cities in Europe by 2030 looks a remote prospect.
Radically reducing cars will make cities better places to live – and it can be done. A 2020 study demonstrated that we can provide decent living standards for the planet’s projected 10 billion people using 60% less energy than today. But to do so, wealthy countries need to build three times as much public transport infrastructure as they currently possess, and each person should limit their annual travel to between 5,000 kilometres (in dense cities) and 15,000 kilometres (in more remote areas).
The positive impact from reducing cars in cities will be felt by all who live and work in them, in the form of more convivial spaces. As a journalist visiting the newly car-free Belgian city of Ghent put it in 2020:
The air tastes better … People turn their streets into sitting rooms and extra gardens.
Cities need to re-imagine themselves by remaking what is possible to match what is necessary. At the heart of this, guided by better evidence of what works, they must do more to break free from cars.
The Netherlands and Denmark have become synonymous with high numbers of cyclists and extensive cycling infrastructures. In Denmark, 9 out of 10 people own a bike, while the Netherlands has an estimated 16.5 million bikes in a country of 17.3 million people. Both countries have developed impressive cycle networks and have integrated cycling infrastructure into wider transport planning.
But the prevalence of cycling in these countries didn’t happen overnight – or by accident. Campaigning, urban planning, political support and investment all had roles to play in making the Netherlands and Denmark such great role models for bike-friendly societies.
A historical perspective
In the first decades of the twentieth century, as in other parts of Europe, cyclists in Denmark and the Netherlands were in competition for road space with horses, trams and growing numbers of cars. In Denmark during the 1920s and ‘30s there was a long-running debate on how to accommodate cyclists on Danish roads. Initially, a painted line to separate cyclists from other traffic was suggested. But a high number of accidents pushed Danish planners towards a separate cycling infrastructure, which has grown into the widespread network Denmark has today.
In the Netherlands, taxation funded a national network of cycle tracks across the country. But after the Second World War, the rise of motor vehicles confined cyclists to the margins, with some cycle paths removed to widen roads for cars. The city of Rotterdam, destroyed during the war, was rebuilt with a plan that put the automobile at its centre, with people commuting by car from the new suburbs.
This decline in cycling also happened in other European countries. In the UK, the 15% of all trips taken by bike in 1950 had plummeted to just 1.3% of trips in 1975. But in the 1970s, popular protests took place in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands against motorway expansion, triggered by steep oil price rises and a growing environmental movement. This backlash persuaded urban planners that more consideration needed to be given to cyclists, pedestrians and public transport. Since then, national and local governments have prioritised policies to make cycling safer, more convenient and more attractive. As one study has noted:
“Instead of catering to ever more motor vehicles by expanding roadways and parking facilities, Dutch, German, and Danish cities have focused on serving people, making their cities people-friendly rather than car-friendly, and thus more liveable and more sustainable than American, British, and Australian cities.”
Cycling today in Denmark and the Netherlands
In the Netherlands today there are 35,000km of cycle paths, while Denmark has 12,000km. In both countries, traffic calming measures have restricted or banned cars on residential streets and have imposed speed limits. There are extensive bike parking facilities – the Dutch city of Utrecht, for example, is building a further 30,000 bike parking spots as part of a ten-year infrastructure plan.
Integration with public transport networks complements the efforts to encourage more people to get on their bikes – in the Netherlands, 50% of all public transport trips begin with a bicycle ride. From an early age, Dutch, German and Danish citizens are taught how to be safe cyclists and to make motorists aware of other road users.
Prioritising cycling ensures that cyclists can get around quickly and safely. In Copenhagen, electronic systems coordinate traffic lights to recognise bikes instead of cars, which means cyclists travelling at a speed of 20km/h find that they hit green lights all the way into the city in the morning, and back again at the evening rush hour.
Could it happen here?
With decades of cycle-centric planning and investment, Denmark and the Netherlands are miles ahead of the UK. But one of the few positives emerging from the coronavirus pandemic in this country has been a resurgence of interest in cycling. During the 2020 lockdowns, some UK cities created pop-up bike lanes, and bike sales soared by 63%. A wave of new cyclists took to the streets, with many feeling safer in the saddle than on crowded public transport.
But with traffic now returning to pre-lockdown levels, cycling campaign groups are worried that the momentum may be lost. As Keir Gallagher of Cycling UK told the BBC:
“If measures aren’t taken now, then unfortunately a lot of those people who have discovered cycling are going to be lost and people are going to return to their cars if they don’t feel safe.”
As Denmark and the Netherlands have demonstrated, infrastructure is a vital factor in persuading more people to take up cycling. One UK city that’s been working hard to improve its cycling infrastructure is Cardiff. In 2017, Cardiff Council launched a 10-year cycling strategy, which aims to make walking or cycling the first choice for short trips within the city. Working with transport planners and civil engineers, the council has identified five primary route corridors for cycleways, connecting major destinations, existing communities and strategic development sites across the city. In the coming years, over 30km of segregated cycle routes will radically improve Cardiff’s cycling infrastructure. Clearly, Cardiff’s efforts are paying off: last year, the city came top in a poll to be named Britain’s best cycling city.
The road ahead
The rewards of cycling for individuals and for wider society are numerous. Cycling causes almost no noise or air pollution and consumes far fewer resources than automobiles. It’s also good for physical and mental health and is much more affordable than other modes of transport.
The economic impacts of cycling are also considerable. A 2015 study by the University of Birmingham highlighted a number of benefits: cyclists visit local shops more regularly than drivers; property values of homes in cycle-friendly areas are higher; cycling to work leads to lower staff turnover and fewer sick days; and facilities allowing children to cycle to school save on the public cost of school travel.
With governments now aiming to build back better, fairer and greener, perhaps there’s never been a better time to learn lessons from our neighbours on how to be a cycle-friendly society.
Further reading: more on sustainable transport from The Knowledge Exchange
Last month, the French city of Grenoble was crowned European Green Capital for 2022. Since 2010, this award has been presented by the European Commission to cities judged to be at the forefront of sustainable urban living.
Being named Europe’s Green Capital is good PR for any winning city, and the €350,000 prize is an additional incentive to win. But the award also places demands on the winners to build on the environmental improvements that helped put them in first place.
The key message of the award is that Europeans have a right to live in healthy urban areas. Cities should therefore strive to improve the quality of life of their citizens and reduce their impact on the global environment.
Cities bidding for the award are judged on a range of environmental criteria, including climate change, local transport, public green areas, air quality, noise, waste, water consumption, wastewater, sustainable land use, biodiversity and environmental management.
The award enables cities to inspire each other and to share examples of good practice. So far, 13 cities have been named European Green Capitals:
2010: Stockholm (Sweden)
2011: Hamburg (Germany)
2012: Vitoria-Gasteiz (Spain)
2013: Nantes (France)
2014: Copenhagen (Denmark)
2015: Bristol (United Kingdom)
2016: Ljubljana (Slovenia)
2017: Essen (Germany)
2018: Nijmegen (Netherlands)
2019: Oslo (Norway)
2020: Lisbon (Portugal)
2021: Lahti (Finland)
2022: Grenoble (France)
Each city has adopted different approaches during its year as a green capital.
One very clear example of Stockholm’s commitment to sustainable development during its year as European Green Capital was the opening of a new tramway. The line opened in August 2010 and quickly achieved substantial environmental and economic impacts.
One of the campaigns during Hamburg’s year as green capital in 2011 aimed to make it easier for citizens to switch from cars to bikes and public transport. The Hamburg Transport Association distributed 2,735 free tickets to friends and acquaintances of season ticket holders, and many visitors made use of the free advisory and ‘get involved’ activities of Germany’s national bicycle club. During the year, Hamburg’s StadtRÄDER bike rental system was also promoted, resulting in an 8% increase in the number of users.
Even before it was named as a European Green Capital, Grenoble, had already made efforts to address noise pollution, promote cycling and reduce speed limits. It has also taken a proactive approach to maximising its limited green space by encouraging citizen-led planting initiatives. Grenoble reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from 2005 to 2016 and is working towards a 50% reduction by 2030.
Britain’s green capital
The only UK city to be awarded the European Green Capital prize is Bristol, which held the title in 2015. The city hosted a number of art projects to raise awareness about sustainable development. Bristol also began a trial of ‘bio-buses’ powered by biomethane gas, using human waste from more than 30,000 households, an initiative that was developed further in 2020.
The selection of Bristol opened up a serious debate about the true value of the award, with some regarding it as a distraction from Bristol’s serious environmental issues, such as traffic congestion, while others were critical of public funding for some European Green Capital projects as wasteful.
However, an important legacy from the year was the publication of the “Bristol Method”, a knowledge-transfer programme aimed at helping people in other cities understand and apply the lessons that Bristol learned in becoming a more sustainable city.
The Bristol Method is made up of a series of modules, each of which uses Bristol’s experience to present a ‘how to’ guide on a particular topic. Topics include:
how to use partnerships to drive change;
how to use grants to support grassroots change;
how to prepare a winning bid for the European Green Capital;
how to grow the green economy in a city;
how to get more people riding bikes and walking;
how to protect and enhance green spaces in a city.
Green shoots for a post-Covid recovery
Although the world is currently preoccupied by the coronavirus pandemic, that other serious planetary threat – climate change – has not gone away. So it’s significant that many governments see this moment as an opportunity to build radical green policies into their packages for economic recovery.
Some of the practical ideas developed over the past decade by Europe’s Green Capitals are important in their own right, but may also be seen as key elements in rebuilding economies that have been devastated by restrictions to suppress the coronavirus.
The German city of Essen, for example, (European Green Capital in 2017) has developed one of Europe’s largest infrastructure projects, restoring 80 kilometres of waterways and creating a network of green spaces. The project was not only an important climate adaptation milestone, but has also created new jobs and business opportunities. Essen has shown that it’s possible for a city which previously relied on heavy industry to transform itself into a vibrant and sustainable space for humans, animals and plants.
Another project, in the Dutch city of Nijmegen, (Green Capital in 2018) is a social enterprise that collects, restores and re-sells second-hand goods. The venture prevents waste, as well as employing people who can put their repair and retail experience to good use. Similar projects across the Netherlands have collected 20,000 tonnes of goods a year, with 80% being re-used. They also provide jobs for disadvantaged and disabled people who have found it especially difficult to enter the labour market.
Europe’s Green Capitals have already become role models for green economies throughout Europe and beyond. Now they can demonstrate the economic as well as the environmental benefits of building back greener.
Further reading: more on greener cities from The Knowledge Exchange blog
The government’s vision for new garden communities, as set out in their 2018 Garden communities prospectus, is for “vibrant, mixed-use, communities where people can live, work, and play for generations to come – communities which view themselves as the conservation areas of the future. Each will be holistically planned, self sustaining, and characterful.”
But rather than the self-contained communities where there is minimal need to travel, the Transport for New Homes report warns England’s new garden communities are at risk of becoming car-dependent commuter estates – exactly what they are supposed to supersede.
Vision vs reality
Sustainable living, with walking, cycling and public transport playing a key role, is central to the vision of garden communities. Indeed, the documentation for each of the communities highlighted “very encouraging” intentions according to the report. Despite these visions, however, almost every garden community examined focused on major road improvements to accommodate the expected huge rise in car use:
around half of garden communities studied were associated with new or bigger motorway junctions
90% of garden community plans appeared to be associated with road capacity increases
a popular model for garden towns was new estates on a new ring road. This was chosen rather than extending the town along joined up streets for easy walking or cycling into the town centre
a number of garden community locations appear to be actually selected to finance a new bypass or other new ‘strategic’ link
The researchers estimated that the 20 communities examined would create up to 200,000 households dependent on car use.
Far from the government’s vision of self-contained communities, “the vast majority of garden communities appeared to be put forward on the basis of fast travel out.”
Clearly, these results are at odds with the intended vision. According to the report, there were two main problems with the plans: building in the wrong location and around the wrong kind of transport.
With the recent recalibration of how people live and work, the need for great places to live is even stronger than ever. The current pandemic has placed a new emphasis on walking and cycling, with the benefits of living more locally coming to the fore. It has certainly accelerated more sustainable and equitable trends – to which garden communities, in the intended sense, are ideally suited.
But while new cycle lanes have been popping up in urban centres along with wider pavements in a quick response to the situation, the planned garden villages were found to be largely unsuitable for walking and cycling as a result of their remote location, layout and lack of safe routes in and out; despite active travel being an aim for almost every case.
Every vision also recognised public transport but were found to fail in delivery. Only one garden community was in walking distance of a station.
A lack of committed funding for place-making, sustainable transport and active travel, it is suggested, “may well meanany transformational potential is lost”. Could this be a real missed opportunity to move away from the old way of place-making and embrace a new sustainable norm?
The report warns that there are several consequences to continuing with the current proposals:
layout for cars not pedestrians
lack of green environment
expensive for those on low incomes
local shops and businesses don’t open
higher carbon emissions
inactive lifestyles; more stress
you have to be able to drive
parking city, not garden city, with parking taking the place of garden and public space
Clearly these are undesirable outcomes. It is therefore suggested that continuing along the current path risks putting the garden community visions in jeopardy. But, the report argues, there is another way.
It is argued that there is a need for integration of sustainable transport and land use planning so they are no longer treated separately, inhibiting the coordination of new homes along public transport corridors. A change in transport funding is also called for.
The report makes several recommendations to achieve the garden community vision:
Complete overhaul of planning so that sustainable transport and new homes come together.
Build in the right places for sustainable transport.
Make the funding of sustainable transport a priority.
Transfer funds for roads to funds for sustainable transport – be modern!
Change the way we assess the benefits of transport infrastructure.
Streets and pavements; cycle networks – design new places with layouts for pedestrians and cyclists, and public transport routes, stops and stations.
Quality low rise flats, mix of houses. More green, less tarmac, less space lost to parking.
Perhaps the government’s proposals for reform of the planning system will help the true garden community vision come to life. Indeed, some of the proposals have been welcomed, particularly in relation to simplifying the system to enable more homes to be built. Others, however, have been criticised with concerns raised over measures to speed up new housebuilding not resulting in well-designed, sustainable places. With the consultation due to close next week, it remains to be seen whether the reforms will ultimately do enough for the garden village ideal to be realised.
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We’ve written before about the health, environmental and economic benefits of walking, and the importance of making our cities and towns more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists. This was the theme of two recent webinars presented by Living Streets, an organisation that has been campaigning for better walking and cycling environments for almost a century.
The first webinar was presented by Stuart Hay, Penny Morriss and Robert Weetman from Living Streets, who explained that inclusive streets are defined spaces where all members of the community can walk or cycle.
But inclusive streets are about more than accessibility. Many streets and public spaces that might be accessible are not necessarily navigable. They can present social and physical barriers that mean the streets are not delivering equal access for everyone.
In this context, Penny Morriss highlighted the work which she’s been doing with older people in a project called Walking Connects. A rising proportion of the UK population is over 65, and while many older people remain active, a lack of facilities – seating, shelter, hand rails, public toilets, pedestrian crossings and well-maintained streets – can hinder to their ability to access services and meet other people.
In one Airdrie community studied by the Walking Connects team, residents found the lack of pedestrian access at the end of their housing complex a significant barrier to accessing the shops, community centre and church.
Robert Weetman of Living Streets noted that this community’s experience was by no means uncommon, and is not confined to older generations.
“We’re not talking about a small number of people not being able to get along a particular street; what we’re talking about actually moves into a large number of people not even being able to get to the end of their own local streets, or even outside of their gate.”
The reasons for this largely rest on the longstanding assumption that everyone in towns and cities wants to get around by car. Today, the need to tackle climate change and the recent improvements to air quality due to the pandemic restrictions, is driving a reappraisal of our car-centric cities. At the same time, local authorities, who are mostly responsible for the design and maintenance of streets, are under greater financial pressure than ever.
Challenging the authorities
The webinar stressed that citizens are not powerless when it comes to challenging councils to improve their streets. Penny highlighted another Walking Connects project in Edinburgh, where a number of tenants in a retirement development had experienced falls because of poor paving. The problem had been reported to the council many times, but residents were repeatedly told that the faults were not bad enough to warrant resurfacing. However, after working with Living Streets to document the number of falls, they persuaded the council to resurface the pavements.
Penny explained that this pro-active approach was vital, but that marginalised groups in the community often felt that their voice didn’t count:
“One of the first things that we need to do is to make sure that they understand it’s okay to ask for an issue that they encounter on a day-to-day basis to be resolved.”
A common message throughout the webinar was the need to bring local people, councillors and road technicians together. As Robert Weetman observed, once that happens communities can drop their low expectations and start to dream big:
“I think that our biggest and in some ways our most difficult priority is to create and communicate a vision of how different our streets could be, and why that would be so much better for everybody.”
People with disabilities: overcoming the barriers
The second webinar included contributions from Keith Robertson, an advisor to the Scottish Government through the Mobility and Access Committee Scotland, and Catriona Burness from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), who spoke about the particular barriers faced by people with disabilities when navigating urban streets.
These include temporary road signs, advertising boards, bins and seating. For wheelchair users, blind or partially-sighted pedestrians, this ‘street furniture’ can make a simple journey more like an obstacle course, and can also have serious consequences. Barriers can cause accidents, and if people are deterred from getting out and about, they may experience mental ill health.
Both Keith and Catriona stressed the importance of local authorities engaging with disabled people and disability organisations, not as a tick-box exercise, but to really take their needs into consideration. The results of such consultations can be dramatic.
In Perth, for example, a pedestrianisation project did away with grilles where trees were planted, removing a hazard for wheelchair users and people using canes. At the same time, all of the signs, seats, bins and other items of street furniture were aligned, giving pedestrians unimpeded access along the street. Restaurants, cafes and shops placing advertising boards outside their establishments have to follow these regulations, or face a fine from the local authority.
People with sight loss: the challenges of social distancing
Catriona highlighted the numbers of people in Scotland who are blind or partially-sighted, amounting to over 200,000 people. This figure is likely to rise further over the next decade due to an ageing population and greater prevalence of diseases such as diabetes.
Pedestrians who are blind or partially sighted have found the context of coronavirus especially challenging. Social distancing, which is such a crucial part of preventing the spread of the virus, is very hard for people with sight loss to deal with.
One particular challenge has been the increasing use of ‘floating bus stops’. Councils have been responding to the need for greater social distancing on pavements by creating more pop-up cycle lanes, which in turn has led to bus stops being repositioned from the kerbside to ‘floating’ in-between bike lanes and the road.
For blind and partially-sighted pedestrians, such arrangements make boarding a bus more inaccessible and potentially hazardous. As Keith pointed out, accidents are usually a signal to local authorities that a design isn’t right, but if people with sight loss don’t feel safe going out, there will be no accidents to report, and the situation will be unchanged.
If there was an underlying message emerging from the two webinars, it was that when it comes to accessible streets, design matters to ensure fair access for all. Badly designed streets can be frustrating, and dangerous, leaving some groups of people feeling excluded. On the other hand, well designed streets can help all of us feel good about getting around, and can especially help people with disabilities feel more independent. The key is to enable engagement between the people who design our streets and those who use them.
There was so much more useful content in both of these sessions, including a discussion on how to raise issues on street accessibility with the authorities who have the powers to make changes.
Living Streets have provided recordings of both webinars, along with transcripts of the proceedings.
Science tells us that improvements to our air quality bring real health benefits – fewer heart attacks, strokes and premature births, less cancer, dementia and asthma, and lower incidences of premature deaths.
Better health because of cleaner air has been a strong driving force behind efforts by local and national government to keep highly polluting vehicles away from city centres, where air quality can be especially poor.
Earlier this year, we blogged about initiatives to improve the air quality of cities by banning the most polluting vehicles that emit dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide and poisonous particulate matter.
Driving out diesel
There have also been important policy announcements to underline how seriously national and local authorities are taking the issue of air pollution. In July 2017, the UK government announced plans to phase out the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2040, with all fuel-powered vehicles to be banned from the roads entirely by 2050. Shortly afterwards, the Scottish Government unveiled plans to ban new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032 – eight years ahead of the proposed deadline set out by the London government. These moves replicate measures introduced by France and cities such as Amsterdam, and Hamburg.
As diesel and petrol cars are phased out, alternatives, such as battery electric, plug-in hybrid electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles are moving in. These have a lower environmental impact and could also help the UK to meet its target of net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.
At present, electric-powered vehicles make up a small part of the UK car market – just 0.9% of new cars are electric. But sales of electric cars have been rising – in June 2019 there was a 61.7% increase in battery electric vehicles registered in the UK, and in July electric car sales continued to accelerate (meanwhile, diesel registrations fell for the 28th consecutive month). This trend is set to continue as car manufacturers in the UK and overseas invest more in electric vehicle production.
Diesel and petrol cars could be phased out much more quickly if more drivers could be persuaded to go electric. But many are still reluctant to make the switch due to concerns about the distances that electric cars can travel between charges (the electric Volkswagen Golf, for example, needs recharging every 120 miles) and the availability of a robust charging infrastructure. But for most drivers, the leap in costs of switching to electric has proved the major stumbling block.
In the UK, the government has cut subsidies and grants for some hybrid and electric vehicles, leading to a slump in hybrid sales. By contrast, Norway’s government is leaving no doubt that they want drivers to turn away from diesel and petrol cars. The Norwegian government has backed up its ambitious goal to stop selling new gas and diesel passenger cars and vans by 2025 (15 years ahead of the UK government’s target) with incentives to go electric. These include tax breaks for electric cars, access for electric vehicles to fast-track bus lanes, plus discounts on parking and charging. Drivers are getting the message: in April 2019, almost 59% of all cars sold in Norway were electric.
Other countries are also joining the electric vehicle bandwagon, including France, the Netherlands, Germany and the world leader in electric mobility, China.
Meanwhile, in 2018, the House of Commons Business Select Committee said the UK government’s plans to ban diesel and petrol emitting vehicles were “vague and unambitious”. The committee was also critical of the subsidy cuts and the lack of charging points.
Putting the brakes on: the downside of electric vehicles
Electric vehicles have the potential to bring significant benefits to the UK economy, and many believe that Britain could become a world leader in electric car production. But this would require large-scale lithium-ion battery cell plants facilities. There are currently no plans for these in the UK, while China and Germany are setting the pace on battery production.
Although electric vehicles have been heralded as an environmental good news story, manufacturing their batteries requires raw materials such as cobalt, the mining of which has considerable environmental and human costs. At the same time, the electricity used to charge the vehicles is largely generated from fossil fuels. And, just like petrol and diesel vehicles, electric cars produce large amounts of pollution from brake and tyre dust.
Green for go?
Despite the drawbacks, electric vehicles are on the move. Manufacturers are launching new ranges to meet increasing demand and to comply with EU rules on carbon dioxide emissions limits. The International Energy Agency predicts there will be 125 million electric vehicles in use worldwide by 2030.
In Britain, the charging infrastructure is already growing, and set to improve, further. The UK government is also proposing that all new-build homes should be fitted with charging points for electric vehicles. The Scottish Government has announced plans to make the A9 Scotland’s first fully electric-enabled road, and the city of Dundee is already making progress on zero-carbon transport. Meanwhile, in London Mayor Sadiq Khan has pledged that all London’s taxis and minicabs will be electric by 2033.
But, as a July 2019 report from the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS) warns, electric vehicles will not address the problems of congestion, urban sprawl and inactive lifestyles. The authors recommend that governments should be doing more to discourage people from driving, and shifting the focus of travel to more sustainable modes, such as walking and cycling.
Electric cars may help clear the air and bring subsequent health benefits. But they won’t drive away all of the challenges facing our motor-centric cities.
If you’d like to read more on this subject, take a look at our previous blog posts…
Image: Paul Wong, Chief Data Officer, PanelHype, Victoria, Australia
Last year, we reported on the rapid rise of bike-share schemes around the world. Since then, bike-sharing has continued to grow in its existing strongholds, while new schemes have been launched in places as varied as Lisbon and Detroit. But the nature of bike-sharing has also undergone dramatic changes, with some welcoming the new developments, and others branding them a public nuisance.
The most significant change has been the rise of dockless bike-sharing schemes. Over the past four years, two companies – Ofo and Mobike – have transformed bike-sharing in China, enabling people to rent a bike simply and quickly with the aid of a smartphone app. There are no pick-up or drop-off bike stations; cyclists simply find a bike using a GPS locator, pay and go. When they’ve reached their destination, cyclists can leave the bikes wherever they please.
Ofo, Mobike and a growing number of rivals have revolutionised transportation in China. Half the population of Beijing – 11 million people – have registered for the schemes; across the country, more than 100 million bike-share apps have been downloaded. The success of app-driven bike-sharing schemes in China means they are now cropping up elsewhere in Asia, as well as in Australia, Europe and North America.
The pros and cons of dockless bike-sharing
Bike-sharing is an affordable and environmentally-friendly way of getting around, especially in congested city centres. And, as The Washington Post has observed, dockless bike-sharing schemes ‘solve what planners call the “first-mile-last-mile problem,” helping people get from their homes to a bus stop, for example, or from a subway station to their final destination.’
But the new schemes have also generated problems. In Shanghai, where there are now over forty bike-sharing companies, bikes have been abandoned in large numbers outside subway stations and office buildings, clogging up pavements and creating what locals have called “a new generation of trash”.
For cyclists looking for a truly door-to-door service, the new schemes offer convenience and flexibility. However, instances of theft and vandalism have highlighted the negative impacts of dockless schemes.
Within a month of Mobike launching its bike-share scheme in Manchester, images of damaged bikes started to appear on social media, and at least two bikes were dumped in a canal. Similar incidents have been reported elsewhere in the UK, as well as in Australia, the United States and Spain.
Getting bike-sharing right
Cities have been on a steep learning curve in coming to terms with dockless bikes, and there have been some very different responses.
Shanghai, Beijing and Amsterdam have taken a hard line by banning new dockless bike-share services. In London, Wandsworth Council impounded more than a hundred bikes, claiming that they were causing obstructions and blocking parking spaces, although cyclists using the scheme argued the move was excessive.
Other cities have introduced new regulations on dockless bike-sharing. In September, Transport for London published a dockless bike-share code of practice outlining requirements for operators.
In Australia, three Melbourne local authorities have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with dockless bike share operator oBike. The terms of the MOU require oBike to ensure their bikes do not obstruct access and to relocate any dangerously parked bikes.
The dockless bike-share companies themselves have been learning the lessons of early teething problems.
The Platform for European Bicycle Sharing and Systems, which brings together bike mobility companies across Europe, has prepared a policy framework which aims to guide cities through the process of implementing a new bike sharing system.
Other companies have turned to technology. Urbosolutions and oBike are among those bike-share services now providing local authorities with a “geo-fencing” option. This enables councils to designate zones where bikes may not be parked. Bike-share users entering a geo-fenced area are unable to lock their bikes until they move outside the zone. Cyclists who fail to comply will incur penalties.
The changing face of bike-sharing
The explosive growth of dockless bike-share services has undoubtedly benefitted city dwellers looking for flexible, affordable, sustainable and healthy transportation options. But as bike wars heat up among operators, and between bike share companies and local authorities, cities need to develop new regulatory frameworks for the smooth management of bike-share schemes. At the same time, the operators need to rethink how their businesses work.
Bowling Basin via Wikimedia Creative Commons, Copyright Steven Sweeney (2007)
Pre-2014, the Bowling harbour basin at the western entrance to the Forth and Clyde Canal had seen better days. The decline of what was a hub of activity in its industrial heyday had left it largely unused, neglected, and in need of some TLC. The Bowling basin harbour development, headed by Scottish Canals and West Dunbartonshire Council, has been breathing new life into the area through a regeneration programme which includes the development of housing, retail units, a cycle path and most recently plans for a “high line” park inspired by the New York model.
To date, more than £3.2 million has been invested in the project, which has included the transformation of disused railway arches into commercial business space and landscaping improvements to the lower basin area.
Designing with – not just for – the community
In 2014 a charrette was held (which its self was praised as excellent practice in local level co-production and co-design) in which residents and other stakeholders were invited not only to consult on plans for the regeneration, but to put forward their own ideas for what could potentially be done with the site and develop a shared master-plan for the area.
Partnership and co-production, as well as wide engagement across stakeholder groups were seen as central to the charrette process, and the transparency and regular engagement with local residents has ensured that the development not only meets the economic development needs set out by the council and Scottish Canals, but that it also fulfils the aspirations of local people.
Bowling bridge retail units. Image: Rebecca Jackson
A destination in its own right
One of the primary aims of the Bowling development was not just to rejuvenate the area, but to make Bowling a leisure and tourist destination in its own right. Retail units have been created within the refurbished arches of the railway bridge. Re-landscaped areas, to be developed into nature preservation sites, have been delivered, along with infrastructure which connects the harbour to the surrounding villages, the rest of the canal network, and the cycle network towards the Trossachs and Glasgow.
Most recently, an activity hub has been opened which includes opportunities for cycling, water sports and event space for clubs to meet, as well as “The Dug Café”, a dog friendly coffee shop. It is hoped the offering of retail, outdoor activities and connectivity to the rest of the canal network, as well as Glasgow will encourage more people to visit Bowling. It is also hoped the project will act as a new focus point for members of the community, linking to schools and employment opportunities for local people and businesses.
New York High Line, via Wikimedia Creative Commons
Scotland’s High Line
The New York High Line is a 1.45-mile-long linear park which runs through Manhattan on the former New York Central Railroad. In October 2017, proposals were submitted for planning approval for Bowling’s very own high line, using the iconic 120-year-old swing bridge. The railway fell into disrepair in the 1960s, but with funding support from Sustrans and Historic Environment Scotland, Scottish Canals has undertaken repairs to the structure’s metalwork and repainted the entire span. The plans include new viewpoints which will offer visitors the chance to enjoy the vistas over the canal and River Clyde. The new route will form a direct link between the Forth & Clyde Canal and the National Cycle Network route heading towards Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park.
The Kelpies. Image: Rebecca Jackson
Looking to the future…
Scottish Canals are keen to stress the potentially vial role they can play in revitalising Scotland’s waterside environments. With a large landholding and significant scope for supporting regeneration projects, they are becoming an increasingly major player. They view the areas along Scotland’s canal network as opportunities not only to use innovative techniques such as custom build projects to improve the physical environment around waterways and canals, but also to support and create positive places and opportunities for local communities.
Scottish Canals are also involved in developments at Dundas Hill in Glasgow, as well as a number of projects across the canal network in Scotland.
The greatest change happening to the face of our planet is the rapid growth of urban areas. Every ten years, an area the size of Britain is colonised by urban development, and by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in urban areas. This urban growth is already having a profound impact: while cities occupy 2% of the world’s surface, they consume 75% of the Earth’s natural resources and produce 75% of global CO2 emissions.
Last month’s Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN) forum in Edinburgh explored how green infrastructure projects can help cities and towns repair the damage of urbanisation, while making urban areas more healthy and prosperous places for the people who live there.
The importance of green infrastructure
Green infrastructure includes elements such as parks and gardens, woodland and wetlands, canals and cycle paths. It’s a natural life support system that can play a key role in helping urban areas adapt to and mitigate climate change.
Three projects showcased at the CSGN forum admirably demonstrated how green infrastructure can benefit the environment, the economy, large cities and local communities.
Milan: building forests in the sky
Francesca Cesa Bianci, senior architect at Stefano Boeri Architects in Milan described a ground-breaking project in her city, called Bosco Verticale – the Vertical Forest.
She explained that, while urban growth cannot be stopped, it is possible to build cities more in harmony with nature. The Vertical Forest project is a response to this challenge.
Almost 800 trees and 5000 shrubs have been planted on the balconies of two residential towers built on a brownfield site in central Milan. The result is visually striking, but even more outstanding is the greenery’s environmental impact. The two towers absorb 30 tons of CO2 per year and produce 19 tons of oxygen a day. Noise and heat are also reduced and the buildings now provide habitat for more than 20 species of birds.
The Bosco Verticale idea is now spreading beyond Italy, with similar projects in Albania, Switzerland and China. Some municipalities in China are also exploring the idea of entire cities composed of vertical forests – which could bring significant benefits to urban areas where air pollution is a hidden killer.
Belfast: telling a different story
East Belfast is an area of multiple deprivation, with some of the worst levels of physical and mental health in Europe, low educational attainment and a deprived physical environment. The 2014 edition of the Rough Guide to Ireland warned readers that it was “inadvisable” to visit the area.
That scenario is now changing, thanks largely to a green infrastructure project. Wendy Langham, Programme Manager for the EastSide Partnership, outlined to the CSGN forum how the Connswater Community Greenway (CCG) is changing lives and changing the way people think about the area.
Connswater Community Greenway Image: EastSide Partnership, Belfast
Funded by the Big Lottery Fund, Belfast City Council and the Northern Ireland Executive, two major phases of development have created a 9km linear park with 16km of walking and cycling routes, 30 new or improved bridges crossing over three rivers, and works to deliver elements of Belfast’s Flood Alleviation scheme and improve water quality.
An ongoing assessment of the project has estimated the potential economic return of the CCG to be up to 14 times the investment. The flood alleviation investment of £11.7m has saved an estimated £54.7m.
The study also highlighted the wider benefits of the project:
“We have shown that environmental interventions, such as the Connswater Community Greenway, could be a cost-effective way to increase physical activity levels, prevent major chronic diseases and decrease healthcare expenditure. In addition, the Greenway may have benefits beyond health such as reductions in traffic and carbon emissions, crime and improvements in safety.”
The project has been keen to tell a different story about East Belfast from the negative narrative so long associated with the area. Celebrating local heroes, the project has developed a public square named in honour of author C.S. Lewis, while a Van Morrison music trail has attracted locals and tourists to the area.
Wendy explained that the project is far from finished, and has ambitious plans for the future. She concluded with a quotation from Michelangelo that captures the spirit of the project:
“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”
Copenhagen: connecting people with nature
For many years, the Danish capital has been the envy of cyclists the world over. But now, the city’s well-developed network of on-road cycling routes is being supplemented by a new set of ‘green cycle routes’. Winding through parks, open spaces, woodlands and other habitats, the new paths will give cyclists and pedestrians safe and enjoyable access to nature.
Niels Jensen, traffic planner with the City of Copenhagen, explained that the first of these green cycle routes opened in 2012, and a further 23 routes are planned, covering an area of over 100km. One of the routes connects central Copenhagen with the suburban town of Albertslund, 22 km outside the city, while another follows the course of an abandoned railway line.
Albertslund Green Cycleway. Image: Soren Rud/LifeExhibitions. Further information – Copenhagen Green
Niels acknowledged that the investment in the project is significant – €20.7 million, But Copenhagen believes the benefits are worth the money,with more non-cyclists – including children – taking to bikes, using safe, direct and unpolluted connections. Since 2012, the first two routes have experienced a growth in the number of bicycle users of 61% and 34% respectively. The project expects to see a 25% increase in cycling traffic by 2025, advancing Copenhagen’s ambition to be the best cycling city in the world.
In her keynote speech to the CSGN forum, Scottish Government minister Roseanna Cunningham described the transformation achieved by green infrastructure as “magical”. She highlighted the examples of a project that will transform a landfill site in Glasgow into a community woodland, and another programme to improve mental health by bringing people into contact with woodlands and forests.
These projects, and those showcased during the CSGN forum demonstrate that our urbanising world need not be a concrete jungle, and that the benefits of green infrastructure go far beyond its face value.
Orangefield Park, Belfast Image: EastSide Partnership, Belfast
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