Notes on “The Future of Cities” | Brussels Blog

Notes on “The Future of Cities”

posted by on 6th Dec 2015

The Future of Cities  – in progress

I started writing this after Sir Mark Walport’s keynote address at “The Future of Cities” session in the York Festival Of Ideas but put it aside because the task was so big. This is a more realistic note, pointing out some issues that are sometimes missed.

The Future of Cities is one of the Foresight projects by Government Office for Science. Foresight projects examine either an important public policy issue where science might be part of the solution, or a scientific topic where potential applications and technologies are yet to be realised.

I believe the Foresight project on the Future of Cities is one of the most important.

The future of cities is a super wicked problem

One of the Future of Cities documents, “Coping with change: urban resilience, sustainability, adaptability and path dependence” by Thompson and Beck starts with a reference to wicked problems:

With wicked problems (climate change is currently the prime example), and in marked contrast to tame problems (the hole in the ozone layer, for instance, to which climate change is often, and erroneously, compared).

The future of cities is definitely a wicked problem – it not only incorporates the wicked problem of climate change but others too

1. The global economy
2. Feeding the future population
3. Terrorism and armed conflict.
4. Pollution

These issues and consequently the future of cities qualify as a super wicked problem as described by Kelly Levin, Benjamin Cashore, Graeme Auld and Steven Bernstein. They say such problems have the additional characteristics:

1. Time is running out.
2. No central authority.
3. Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it.
4. Policies irrationally discount the future.

No wonder I put aside my initial attempt.

The role of choice and prototyping

This note will not attempt to, “solve the problem” but I hope it makes points that are sometimes overlooked. First a comment on “choice”.  But to exercise choice, there must be choices to choose from.

Solutions for future cities cannot be imposed on the whole world – because there is “no central authority”. There are global issues, particularly climate change, but sharing the burdens and taking any rewards depends on politics, local and international. Outcomes are hard to predict.

That said, it would be helpful to have design templates for future cities – or regions or aspects of cities – that recognise the constraints (e.g. climate change or terrorism) so that these templates are available to nations and lifestyle groups as they negotiate the future. It is very hard to predict what types of city or settlement pattern will perform best but examples giving a range of templates will help.

For a problem so difficult and ill-defined a prototyping approach works well, starting with desk based work and later actual real world prototypes. These prototypes may highlight physical aspects like building methods or housing layout or a financial mechanisms like a congestion charges or local carbon fees or even legal covenants which modify behaviour.

Nations – and consumers in free societies – will need choices to give much needed degrees of freedom. (Note: For climate change this is much the thinking in the new carbon calculator recently released by the Department of Energy and Climate Change.)

There are different sets of things to choose from which are elements of lifestyles (e.g. consumer goods, modes of transport, careers, leisure activities). Most of these are associated to a greater or lesser extent with examples of real world settlements. The residents of Venice will not have a high level of car ownership. The residents of Los Angeles will.

In asking the question “Would you prefer to live in Venice or Los Angeles?” there is an underlying consideration, which is “Would you prefer living in a car free city without a car or in a car-max city with one?”

One of the choices for city development might be a car-free one.  This may have more relevance if restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions limit private transport. Except in anachronistic examples like Venice, such a choice is almost impossible to make but, if people are wont to choose cities without cars, why should they not be able to? (See The parable of the smoking carriages.)

This is a simple case: car or no car. The global constraints mentioned above will require many prototypes (desk based and real) so that complexity of their interactions can be investigated.

The underlying assumption here is one based on consumer demand – where the consumers may be governments, indivivuals or some intermendiate organisation looking through a catalog of templates to help their choices.

The rest of this piece is simply “notes for the construction of settlement prototypes”. (I hope that doesn’t sound too similar to Christopher Alexander’s over ambitious Notes for the synthesis of form.)

Notes for the construction of settlement prototypes

The falling value of labour

The economic context for the future of cities cannot be ignored. The world’s economy is entering a time when the share that labour takes of economic output will fall more rapidly than it has hitherto. The machine learning revolution and the internationalised “gig” economy is certain. It may also be the case that consumption will be constrained to mitigate climate change. All these will cause the value of labour to decrease – and the value of capital assets to increase. Crudely: “Robot owners will gain, labour will lose”. This will cause an increase in inequality unless legislation is introduced to counter this. (See Jobs and climate change.)

In a market economy (even if the inequality issue is addressed) any legislation is unlikely to stop the fall the value of labour i.e. the value that the market puts on labour. The value of labour must certainly fall – and possibly fall rapidly. (This really does change everything!) If unemployment is to be avoided, wages must be reduced.

In the context of the future of cities (and other settlement patterns), this will mean local services become more economic and the importance of reducing the cost of housing increases.

Expanding cities creates embodied carbon

The inportance of embodied carbon in construction has only recently been appreciated. 

Also The transition to low carbon, “modern” lifestyles may break existing carbon budgets

Current construction methods using bricks, concrete and steel to build cities for a “modern standard of living” create carbon emissions which become the “embodied carbon” in buildings. These can be a large proportion of personal carbon budgets, leaving very little budget left for everyday living.

This would be of less consequence if cities expanded slowly in the coming decades: New city dwellers might be exceeding their carbon budget but they might count on others to stay below. However, in World Urbanisation Prospects, the United Nations says

“The continuing urbanization and overall growth of the world’s population is projected to add 2.5 billion people to the urban population by 2050”.

That could be a problem!

Wooden buildings can store carbon

The well known ICE database gives wood a positive carbon footprint. Others claim that wooden houses store carbon – if the wood is from sustainable forests, which don’t decrease the forest cover of the Earth. The ICE approach  arguess that any use of wood causes some destruction of world woodland by knock-on effects. However, ICE methodology does not use the same argument for recycled steel. The use of recycled steel does cause the production of virgin steel – since recycled steel has a limited supply, if one project uses recycledsteel another will use virgin steel.
House builders Baufritz have claimed about their wooden homes:

Carbon positive homes: Every Baufritz home locks away at least 50 tonnes more CO2 than is emitted into the atmosphere during its manufacture and construction.

Baufritz don’t seem to make that claim now. However, Wood for Good say

New build homes in the UK could be effective carbon ‘banks’, capturing and storing nearly 4 million tonnes of CO2 every year if housing targets were met through timber-frame construction, new research from the timber industry’s sustainability campaign has revealed.

This should be an area of research – both theoretically and practically. For example, would it be possible to create homes using local short rotation willow coppice as an alternative to (or supplement to) carbon storing Hempcrete construction.

Like other plant products, the hemp crop absorbs carbon dioxide gas as it grows, retaining the carbon and releasing the oxygen. 165 kg of carbon can be theoretically absorbed and locked up by 1 m3 of hempcrete wall during manufacture.

Green Pioneer Settlements

Green Pioneer Settlements in The Green Settlement Handbook:

To have settlements that get close to environmental sustainability they must be designed for pioneers who welcome a sustainable life-style. This cannot be a hair shirt existence or a complete separation from modern society if such settlements are to be successful….

it will … have legal covenants and financial incentives, be built on a greenfield site with cycle routes to nearby urban centres, have food grown for local consumption, have public transport with good waiting areas

To give flexibility, initial schemes are best created under a landlord/tenant model because the legal covenants and financial incentives will need to be developed and tuned.

Planning for neighbourliness and a “good community”

I have been interested in planning since the 1960s, worked in a School of Architecture for a decade and gave the most important evidence in the rejection of the York Inner Ring Road in 1973. Despite a keen interest in planning for neighbourliness and what must add up to years of searching for literature found very little research or comment on this topic that has value. Two exceptions:

1. Leon Festinger’s book “Social Pressures in Informal Groups” (1950). Wikipedia says

“Festinger showed that the formation of ties was predicted by the physical proximity between where students lived… not just by similar tastes or beliefs as conventional wisdom assumed.”

2. Oscar Newman “Defensible space” (1972). Wikipedia’s comments

“higher crime rate existed in high-rise apartment buildings than in lower housing projects…

This was because residents felt no control or personal responsibility for an area occupied by so many people.”

Perhaps I have missed the academic/professional silo that explores these issues but I am planning a further investigation. There does seem to be a lack of knowledge in this area and it raises important questions. People do choose to live in places they consider friendly. A comment in How the Joseph Rowntree Foundation could do more for the poor says

I lived in a “affordable” house with my husband and two children. Both of us parents were on minimum wage. The housing was at The Croft, Heworth Green, not a JRHHT development but it was meant to be affordable according to the conditions of the planning permission. We simply couldn’t afford the rents and the council tax (band E).

Of about 100 houses or flats only about 10 were social housing or part owned. Many of the other neighbours were wealthy. The people in social housing were friendly an we go on together. We did not get to know the wealthy ones and they seemed to look down on us.

We swapped with someone in Tang Hall. Where I live now it is affordable, social and a typical community. It is a neighbourhood where people are on lower incomes or they are students.


Local food production (and other “settlement parameters”)

Integrating food production with settlements promotes food security, local employment and carbon emissions. Making planning work differently suggests that one of the parameters that measure the success of settlements should be the percentage of food produced locally and the grant of planning permission should have a contract based on these targets with defined penalty clauses. i.e. If the settlement has an insufficient proportion of local food production a penalty should be paid by the developer.

Other parameters, which may attract financial penalties or bonuses, include the carbon footprint of residents and protection of local ecosystems.

“Our crowded island” myths

“London is fairly crowded but the UK is much less dense” – True

The London Region is quite dense at 51.1 people per hectare but the South East region has 4.5 people per hectare. The South West has 2.2 people per hectare. The London Region may not have much spare land but the rest have.

“Loss of land for recreation” – Myth

Surrey has more land allocated to golf courses than for homes.

“Loss of agricultural land” – Myth

We get our wine from California and Australia, our wheat from Canada. Local food distribution and production can increase the amount of food produced using market gardening techniques and have lower carbon footprints than current agricultural practices. This will mean higher levels of local employment, if more labour is used.

“Loss of biodiversity due to housing” – Myth

Green belts are often “green deserts” as modern agriculture is high in chemical and other inputs. At British Association last year Dr Keith Porter of English Nature said low-density developments with gardens and public open spaces would provide more favorable habitats for species than the giant pesticide-treated cereal fields that dominate much of the countryside now.

“By placing housing in these areas with innovative designs you can build in the corridors and the linkage the wildlife need to come back in,” he said. “You would be certain to increase biodiversity.”

Indeed, a square kilometer of central London has significantly more bird species than a square kilometer of farmed land in Surrey. And, of course, many brownfield sites have significant amounts of wildlife.

(Greening the Greenbelt, 2002 – to be updated)

“UK’s swollen population” – Myth

We still have plenty of room: UK’s population density is 2.55 per hectare. Less than Netherlands, Israel, India, Belgium, Japan, Vietnam & Etc

Cost of housing

The cost of building a house is or flat is a modest proportion of it’s cost to the buyer. The cost of land often exceeds the cost of construction. This cost is kept high by the scarcity of planning permission. (See How the ‘Halifax tax’ adds £50k to the price of every new York house and Why is housing so expensive?)

It may also be possible to cut the cost of construction by using prefabrication. If we are to avoid the embodied carbon associated with brick and mortar construction, wooden housing becomes a good alternative. (e.g. Norwegian lodges or mobile park homes from Norfolk). Some can be provided very cheaply. According to the The Daily Mail described a family in the USA who downsized:

“Their house cost them less than $20,000 to make their home and they only pay $145 rent for the lot on which their shack and workshop stands.”
It was a small wooden home but that was a home for £12,500 for a family. The response by readers of the Mail was overwhelmingly positive.

However, the planning system in the UK is geared to prevent such solutions. Partly due to the pressure of vested interests and partly because of prejudice.

The Prejudice against prefabs has been particularly unfortunate, probably damaging the prospects for deploying inexpensive wooden housing. Despite problems with the post-war prefabs (possibly caused by the rush to provide them so quickly) many of the residents fought to retain the houses they loved. Prefabs are for people says

Our anecdotal evidence is that most people were happy living in prefabs – prefab estates were and are happy places. As the piece in that Yorkshire Evening Post on the Robin Hood prefab estate between Leeds and Wakefield reported

A resident, Ms Robshaw, 62, said: “We have a lovely community where everyone gets on well. “Why should they be torn down?”

Planning for terrorism

An excerpt from (2003):

Briefly, should a sensible response to terrorism mean replanning:

Towns and villages ?
Transport infrastructure ?
Distribution networks ?
The economy ?

Is anyone planning the replanning?

PlanningForTerrorism takes a long view

The idea for www.planningforterrorism occurred before Sheik Yamani said that in comparison to future terrorists, Osama bin Laden would seem like an angel. We do not assume that future terrorism will arise in any obvious way from the current world conflict. But we ask if the advances of science and technology will give small terrorist groups more scope and potency over the coming decades. If this is so what changes should be made in the way we live?

PlanningForTerrorism and town planning

Informal enquiries indicate zero interest amoungst the planning profession for changing the way we plan our towns, cities and villages in the light of the threat from terrorism. They should be asking: Should we replan our villages or cities – or develop a new form of settlement.

Warm houses or warm people?

From Interior micro-climates in Fuel poverty and inglenooks

Current thinking on fuel poverty, which mostly concerns heating, is to aim at keeping hundreds of cubic metres of dwelling warm to ensure that people, who occupy about one cubic meter are kept warm. It is time we looked at the interior micro-climates to stop this waste. A consequence of the Government’s conventional “fuel poverty” approach can lead to odd anomalies: Residents of quite affluent areas can find it difficult to keep their whole house at a standard temperature because their houses are large (See for example, Our fuel-poor Queen?)

To be continued …

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