From social inequalities to climate change, Tom Roberts explains that great placemaking can be a force for good.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted great disparities in health and wellbeing outcomes across the country. Better urban planning must play a role in helping the UK recover from the pandemic, as well as help to address the great challenges of public health, social inequality and climate change.
From local authority planners to architects, consultants, designers, developers and engineers, everyone has a role in making our towns and cities cleaner, healthier, accessible and more inclusive.
There are four areas that we all must focus on:
1) Public health at the heart of urban policy
Creating healthy urban environments must be central to our adaptation and recovery strategies. This means a renewed focus on tackling the major risk factors for chronic disease and premature death, such as obesity, air pollution and inactivity.
A recent study in the British Medical Journal found there was a staggering 45% reduction in deaths from cancer and cardiovascular disease among those who cycled to work each day. Perceptions of safety remain the biggest barrier to regular cycling. High-quality cycle infrastructure can change this mindset and deliver huge potential health benefits, especially in the UK, which has one of the highest obesity rates in Europe. The UK government’s recent ‘Gear Change’ cycling and walking plan is very encouraging. It includes clear guidance on quality standards and underpins the creation of a new government body in England to promote active transport modes, called Active Travel England (ATE).
More active travel means less traffic on our streets, making them safer and more pleasant environments, improving air quality and extending life expectancy, and supporting physical and mental wellbeing. With an ageing population, we must also ensure urban spaces are age-friendly, so the elderly can keep healthy, participate in cultural and social activities, and maintain a good quality of life.
2) Places must be flexible and better support urban life
Many local authorities have been repurposing road space to support shops, restaurants and bars, with the need for social distancing requiring parking bays and road space to be occupied by tables and chairs or parklets. These spaces make more productive use of street space for people and commerce. This was part of our vision for Bold Street in Liverpool, which was turned in to reality during summer 2020.
Repurposing street space in this way has demonstrated that transforming the public realm does not have to incur a high capital cost – the look, feel and function of streets can literally be changed overnight relatively cheaply. If towns and cities rediscover the joy of people-focused streets, people will spend more time and money in their local economy. This will be particularly important as high streets across the country continue to feel the financial impact of the pandemic.
3) Levelling-up requires placemaking for the long term
The government has shown an initial commitment to ‘levelling-up’ the UK economy – rebalancing the disparity in GDP, particularly between north and south.
Initial capital stimulus steps, such as the Future High Street and the Towns funds, have been well received, with some exciting proposals under consideration. However, many places have experienced significant cuts to their revenue budgets over recent years, making it harder to maintain long-term investment. Often, this results in decisions that can have an adverse effect on urban design, such as cutting green infrastructure from schemes to avoid on-going maintenance costs or choosing cheaper materials over higher quality finishes. This has knock-on implications for climate resilience, quality of place and value creation – particularly when considered cumulatively. Improving walkability in streets and neighbourhoods has economic as well as health benefits. Retail and hospitality outlets benefit from greater footfall and longer dwell times, while the focus on better health outcomes makes a place more attractive, raising the value of commercial, retail and residential properties.
4) Climate change remains our biggest challenge
Climate change underpins and interacts with all the topics above. We must be clear about how urban planning can be embraced to reduce carbon emissions and ensure places are climate resilient.
Significantly reducing private car use is a key step to achieving this. This means committing to sustainable forms of development, changing the broken model of low-density housing delivery and investing heavily in public transport. It also requires investment in green and resilient infrastructure. Making urban planning central to our climate action strategy is key to meeting the UK’s net-zero commitments and to the country’s economic recovery.
Across the UK, we’ve been helping local authorities to reimagine streets and the public realm, introducing dedicated cycle infrastructure, green corridors and pocket parks, for example. Great urban design can, and should, tackle the challenges of public health, social inequality and climate change. The answers are largely common and well understood – but we must act now to create a smarter, more sustainable future for everyone.