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Posts from the ‘Green’ Category

Building Houses – Building Communities

Building Houses – Building Communities[1]

Housing is a complex subject. It can‘t be reduced to ‘housebuilding’. Housing development determines ‘how we live’; how our home lives relate to everything else in our work, rest and play; how new homes blend with and support adjoining bits of town; and the way that our living environments contribute to the sustainable functioning of the business and social resources that we look to when we leave the privacy of our homes. ‘Housing’ is a very rich package of social provision.

Rightly adding that developments should embrace new technologies, bring in renewable energies, sustainable drainage systems, central heat and power, insulation, bio-diversity, often omits that most vital of ‘sustainabilities’ – sustainable communities.    

The Achievements of Housebuilding

The decades before and after World War 2 teach us many lessons of housebuilding. In the days of Tory aristocrat, Harold MacMillan, housing production was achieved at a rate of 300 and 400 thousand homes per annum. Vast new estates were built, new systems and new architecture called in to play, swathes of town, city and countryside cleared, levelled and remodelled for council estates, tower blocks and new towns 

These were great achievements. New homes, embraced by tenants with genuine awe, provided warm and watertight roofs over the heads of kitchens with hot and cold running water, inside toilets, baths, two and three bedrooms, in neighbourhoods with schools and other community resources – it was all good stuff. Households with low incomes rightly welcomed these products of modernism albeit at the cost of their old communities, slum cleared for commerce and jobs, mostly for retail. In return, the early estates sought to replace the rich social provision that former inner city neighbourhoods provided – jobs, resources, shops, support systems, welfare halls, and much more. All had been lost for the best of motives – public health and overcrowding. Yet history has demonstrated that, in the long run, these achievements have not been sustainable.

The new estates had to replace a rich package. Families on low incomes were relocated to environments far from the basic daily needs that had hitherto been available virtually on their doorstep. To compensate, we built schools, small shopping centres, surgeries, community centres. Many of these are now closed.

Originally modelled on ‘garden city’ principles – here in Swansea, Townhill was laid out by Raymond Unwin, and launched with fine model homes in the Arts and Crafts style, council estates became unmanageable behemoths, often declining into decay, crime, domestic violence and drugs, despite valiant efforts of many stable and appreciative households. Single tenure, low income, socially stratified and low density – not by the total number of residents or homes spread over an estate – some of these estates can be measured in tens of thousands, but by the number of people per hectare, the number of people within reasonable walking distance of their daily resources, from a pint of milk to public transport and access to the jobs market. Developments were, and largely still are, low density and not sustainable.

High rise of the 1950s was similar. The post-Corbusian, international style that brought us tower blocks, again providing very welcome warm modern flats, heralded by their prophets as total living environments, “streets in the sky”[2], have also proved to be unsustainable, surrounded by open space, often characterised by ‘No Ball Games’ notices, lifts that didn’t work and shuttered shops, latterly run only by immigrant families that ‘charge too much’ but stay open all hours to generate sufficient turnover to survive. Everything was and is unsustainable.

The missing ingredient – people on streets!

Rarely did these estates build anything like the town that spawned them, neither the out-of-town estates nor the inner city tower blocks. They were mostly self-contained, zoned residential areas, paying little heed to their older more traditional neighbouring districts and doing virtually nothing for the city centres left behind. Despite the best of intentions, they were left to sort themselves out. Discounted ‘right to buy’ finished them off, leaving no-one with responsibility for diagnosis and remedy for their condition.

 One vital legacy of this peculiarly, if not exclusively, British phenomenon is that the concept of ‘residential density’ became historically tainted. Motives for the ‘garden city’ created the myth of a romantic suburban idyll that still dominates the private housing market. Even the developers’ late conversion to higher densities has resulted in related characteristics of exclusivity – gated developments, inward facing blocks and, still, single-use residential zoning, mitigated only by weak planning conditions (Section 106) insisting on the odd shop (sic) or play area. We look to Europe for encouragement, to the cities most of us love to visit – Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, in fact almost any European city or to wonderful Greenwich Village and other districts of Manhattan, where ‘good town’ generates enthusiasm, not the high rise commercial towers that falsely dominate our perceptions of New York.

In these cities, four, five and six storey houses and apartments, often with commercial activity in ground floors and semi-basements, demand, through their dense populations and supportive spatial structure[3], vitality, diversity, and all sorts of social resourcing. The best of new developments have learned and either reinforce established town or make a real effort to build new mixed-use districts – Heinrich Böll in Berlin, Kirchsteigfeld in Potsdam, and Freiberg, all in Germany. There are lots of examples.

Here in Swansea, our best effort by far has been the Marina. Three, four, five and six storey lifted homes and walk-ups have transformed the former Copperopolis docks and railway sidings to make Swansea’s fine bay [well, what shall we say?] at least visible, approachable; it is such an under-achieving asset. The Marina’s weakness is its single in-and-out access and a real failure to build in diverse uses. Businesses tend to have a short life. The most stable has been the eponymous Pump House, now a pub and restaurant, located by a neglected and  lost connecting swing bridge at the heart of the former docks, by fine Georgian residential remnants and the Captain Cat pedestrian bridge that is the main pedestrian and cycle link to the city from the newbuild.

Nearby, The Vetch, former home of the city football team, and prime candidate for good solid inner city housing development, is being touted for low-rise, low density terraces more influenced by the private sector suburban idyll than its neighbouring Marina, let alone good European town, or its own history.

The land asset.

To generate housing, affordable housing, and good town in these difficult times of austerity, the greatest asset we have is land, often being sold off, in weak negotiations with housing developers, to make a bob-or-two for the strapped coffers of Local Authorities. This short-sighted policy omits to reflect on the miserable financial legacy of past out-of-town private sector developments, let alone our own experience with council estates. The cost of building and maintaining schools, health centres and, increasingly, road systems, all falls on the public purse. Servicing by public transport is invariably unviable. What payback do we get for this ‘investment’?

Compare that with inner city housing, close to existing social and commercial resources, with a footfall market that encourages the local economy, local businesses and entices ‘nationals’ towards vibrant 24-hour, mixed use city streets. The social and economic payback for city is overwhelming in comparison.

For that reason, we can afford to offer cheap or even free land deals to developers willing to meet our criteria for good town. Private sector bullies that threaten local authorities not to develop because our meagre ‘Section 106’ demands for affordable housing are supposedly not commercially acceptable, can be happily shown the door. There will be plenty takers for cheap land deals. Best placed for quick results, for house-building now, until we get public sector finance re-established, are the Registered Social Landlords. There may even be some in the private sector happy to talk. We just have to get our story right.

Homes that make good town; front doors and windows onto peopled streets, directly connected into the existing street network, feeding the main streets; integrated opportunities for small businesses in good locations; facilities for children and young people – out front, part of the community. (Check out the provision of parks and playspaces in high density Manhattan!). Older folks too. Safe streets, primarily for people.

Enhance that list yourselves – it is short and undemanding. The payback may be a bit longer term, not much, but it is perpetually rewarding if we get it right. Just look at these cities you love.

In the package, our towns and urban centres need homes for older people, close to a range of social resources that offer a good degree of independence. Yes, provision should continue for young singles, starters, etc but, most of all, think families. Think of the concentration of resources that they will demand of our urban centres. Like in European cities. Or Manhattan. It is just good business. And we are ready for it now, before the short-termists sell off the last of the family silver.

End

Gordon Gibson, July 2014

 

[1] This article is a product of a contribution I made to a Welsh Labour Grassroots discussion on Housing, led by Swansea Councillor, Bob Clay, in July 2014  

[2] A term attributed to English architects Patrick and Alison Smithson in the 1960s for their tower block theories and work in London.

[3] Usually, a well inter-connected, ground level street grid.

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A Letter to the Women’s Institute – Mandatory Helmet Laws Will Not Encourage Cycling

Cyclists in the UK have some new supporters. The Women’s Institute are eager to get more people cycling, and make it safer. One problem: they’ve got the totally wrong idea about how to do it:

“The health and environmental benefits of cycling are very much in line with past and current Women’s Institute mandates and compulsory helmet wearing may encourage more people to take up cycling, whilst improving the overall safety of cyclists.”

By Joe Peach

Soon, the members of the Women’s Institute will be voting on whether or not to support a motion which encourages the Government of the United Kingdom to make wearing a helmet compulsory for cyclists, despite the fact that such laws have reduced levels of cycling in every country they have been introduced in.

Along with the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, Danny of Cyclists in the City and Mark of ibikelondon blog, This Big City is calling on the Women’s Institute to rethink this motion, and we need your support. Read our letter to the members of the WI below, and lend your name to our call for making cycling safe and comfortable for all (and for those in the blogosphere supporting our message, please feel free to reblog this letter).

Dear members of the Women’s Institute,

We are writing to you today with regards to the 2012 proposed resolution (6) which the Women’s Institute is currently considering regarding bicycle helmet compulsion.

We at the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain welcome the fact that the Women’s Institute is taking an interest in the safety of cyclists. Far too many bicycle riders, young and old, are killed and injured on the UK’s roads every year.

Many more will never even contemplate something so simple as riding a bicycle – or have tried and given up – through being too scared to mix with heavy and fast traffic on Britain’s main roads. We do not believe that the way to remedy this situation, and to increase cyclist’s safety, is through compulsory helmet laws.

As is stated in the summary of your resolution in the pros and cons, the focus of the resolution as it stands is currently very narrow and is likely to put people off cycling; something we have already seen happen in Australia and New Zealand. Both countries adopted compulsory bicycle helmet laws in the 1990s and both now see almost a third fewer cyclists on their roads. Recent research published by the Health Promotion Journal of Australia found that 1 in 5 adults would start cycling, or cycle more, if such laws weren’t in place. In 2008, the New Zealand Transport Safety Minister Harry Duynhoven publicly acknowledged that such laws are putting people off cycling. Urban cycle hire schemes in Melbourne and Brisbane have struggled to find an audience, with Aukland’s equivalent folding after failing to cover its costs. This whilst equivalent schemes in Paris, Barcelona, Montreal, Toronto, Washington DC, Mexico City and London (to name but a few) have seen huge success with hardly any accidents. London’s accident rate is a minute 0.002%. It can be argued that the consequence of a compulsory helmet law is a greater risk to public health than making cycling safer in other ways.

With fewer people engaging in everyday exercise like cycling, as in Australia and New Zealand, the risk of obesity and the many associated health problems increases. Even if cycle helmets protect against head injuries – and it is imperative that the Women’s Institute is made aware that there is no conclusive evidence or academic consensus that they do – compulsory cycle helmet laws bring with them their own negative health repercussions. Obesity cost the NHS an estimated £4.2 billion pounds in England alone in 2007, with the NHS themselves expecting a £50 billion annual cost by 2050 should current trends continue. Any motion which encourages easy, everyday exercise like cycling should be applauded, but there is not one single example of a compulsory helmet law increasing rates of cycling.

We at the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain believe in prevention rather than cure. Cycle helmets do not prevent accidents from occurring the first place and we believe it is more effective to reduce cyclist’s exposure to danger rather than try and mitigate against being exposed to it.

Whilst there are opportunities to improve training for cyclists and drivers, too often it is the design of our roads, particularly our junctions, which bring bikes into conflict with larger, heavier vehicles. Many of the high-profile deaths of cyclists, particularly in London, have been women riders who were wearing a helmet, and who were experienced – neither factors which saved them when they got hit by an HGV. We believe that safe areas for people to walk and cycle should be created, particularly in populated areas where people live and go to school or work or the shops. At present approximately 75% of all regular cyclists in the UK are men; we believe that focusing on creating attractive and safe conditions for riding a bicycle have a much larger possibility of enacting positive change within society – most especially for women and families – with all the wider benefits that increased riding will bring (less congestion, less pollution, fitter population etc).

Mandating helmet use for those who are comfortable cycling in our present road conditions, whilst not considering those who would like to cycle but are too afraid is not the way forwards for a safe, successful and equitable society.

A lot of us are able to remember that when we were children, our bikes were our passports to freedom and independence. There is no reason why this cannot be the case for current generations. There are cities and countries who already achieve safe mass cycling rates; we should look to their successful examples rather than countries, like Australia, where mandatory helmet laws have been disastrous. In the Netherlands, children are still free to go to school unaccompanied, on their bikes, on average from the age of eight. That is because their roads and towns are designed to make cycling safe for all ages, from children with stabilisers all the way up to grandparents and great grandparents. The result is civilised streets and happy children. In a 2007 UNICEF study, the Netherlands came top for safest roads and child wellbeing. The UK came 21st.

Whilst levels of cycling dropped by almost a third in Australia, obesity increased dramatically. Australia now has the fastest growing obesity rates of any developed country, with 1 in 2 people overweight. Additionally, since introducing mandatory cycle helmet laws, neither Australia nor New Zealand has seen a reduction in head injuries beyond the general trend for the population at large.

Traffic safety in the Netherlands is the best in Europe, and obesity is among the lowest of any developed country in the world. We believe that with pragmatic problem solving at the root cause, and hopefully a bit of imagination, the UK could achieve the same.

The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain is a newly formed organisation campaigning for just that. We’d be thrilled to have the WI on our side on this. Your resolution shows that you’ve the interests of cyclists and their safety at heart but we hope that you’ll be able to think wider than just helmets and training to infrastructure based on the Netherlands model that has had proven success giving freedom of movement and empowerment to all. We’d be delighted to give you more information, or come and talk to your groups in person about the wider issues at stake. Above all, we would be honoured for you to join us in a proper cycling revolution.

This letter is from the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. It comes to you with the support of the campaigning group Cyclists in the City of London and the websites This Big City and ibikelondon. The undersigned call on the Women’s Institute to reject Resolution 6 calling for compulsory helmet laws and to focus instead on creating conditions in which all members of society will feel safe and comfortable riding a bicycle:

We need your support – please click here to add your name to this letter.

This article first appeared in the blog thisbigcity

Image Courtesy of Toban Black on Flickr

The Environment: Crisis, Challenges, Policy.

Peter Jones, in his November presentation to Swansea Labour Left, focused on two themes: key environmental challenges and policy responses the Left should pursue.

The environmental crisis can only be met by interventionist government measures, achievable if accompanied by steps towards greater fairness in wealth and income distribution. The developed West must consume less or consume differently and the largely global and unregulated capitalism in an unfair society cannot do it. We need to live sustainably, within the resource capacity of the planet.

The environmental challenges include:

    • Global warming/climate change.
    • Declining biodiversity.
    • Threats to ecosystem services, including:
        • Fresh water conservation.
        • Food production and security.
        • Flood management.
        • Soil conservation.
        • Sea level rise and
        • coastal erosion.

Policy challenges include:

    • Low political priority given to principal environmental challenges.
    • Short-termism in mainstream politics and profit-driven, shareholder-led corporate capitalism.
    • The economy, education, health, welfare, pensions seen as priorities unconnected with the environment.
    • A largely uninterested and politically hostile Press.
    • A largely uninformed or misinformed population, feeding back to political priorities.

The combined challenges present positive policy opportunities for the core values of greater social fairness and equity to be expected from economically and socially active governments working with communities.

Climate Change

Globally, the most recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report (2010) calculates that CO2 emissions have risen by 30% since 2000 and by 45% from the Kyoto base year of 1990. Emissions between 1970 and 1990 also rose by 45%, so that effectively there has been no reduction over the last 40 years. However, the source countries have changed – away from the older, industrialised countries of Europe and North America, towards major increases, in particular, from China, India, Brazil and other larger developing countries.

Here in Wales, the climate change strategy adopted in 2010, provides for annual greenhouse gas emission reductions of 3% from 2011, and a target of a 40% reduction by 2020 from 1990. However, Welsh emission reductions annually from 1990 to 2008 averaged only 0.7% – so the scale of the policy challenge is considerable. Moreover, policy advice to the Welsh Climate Change Commission from research undertaken by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has suggested that annual emission reductions of up to 9% are needed.

There is general agreement that global warming must not exceed an average of 2°C above the pre-industrial level, if we are to avoid ‘dangerous’ climate change, although Tyndall calculate that this should be lower at 1.5°C. However, the 2007 IPCC report suggested that an increase of 3°C by 2050 was most likely, and recent modelling by the UK Meteorological Office has confirmed this likelihood. Bob Watson, Chief Scientific Advisor at DEFRA, has suggested that an average global temperature rise of 4/5°C is to be expected in the second half of the century.

According to the Hadley Climate Change Centre, a 3°C increase would doom to destruction the Amazon and other rainforests, with accompanying devastating consequences for much of the planet’s biodiversity. At 4/5°C increase levels, the planet will face runaway warming from the melting of Arctic permafrost – releasing methane – and the evaporation of ocean bed methane hydrates.

Such a temperature increase globally would also lead to the melting of land-surface ice-sheets in both polar regions, driving sea-level rise of up to 12 metres; and the melting of glaciers in the world’s mountain regions, leading to the loss of summer freshwater riverine freshwater flows in many densely populated areas.

Biodiversity

Globally, the variety of life in all its forms is declining at increasing rates, partly and increasingly linked to climate change but also because of the intrusion of human development, principally agriculture and urbanisation, into the natural environment, including the use of intensive chemical agricultural and horticultural methods. The UN target to halt the loss of biodiversity globally and by country by 2010 was not met. The EU has now set targets to be met by the early 2020s. Food production for expanding human populations and increasingly wealthy consumption lifestyles – including, especially livestock and dairy – is driving the loss of forested and other natural areas. Thirty per cent of land-based biodiversity is projected to be on the road to extinction by 2050. And fish stocks, of course, are being seriously depleted from the use of unsustainable fishing methods.

Other Threats

There are serious threats to global fresh water and cultivable soils. And this is without mention of depleting fossil fuels, especially recoverable oil – Peak Oil – metals and minerals. The environment is in serious crisis – which means that our species and its cultures are in crisis.

The response of the Left

If democracies are to rise to these challenges, which potentially carry a real risk to the survival of industrial civilisations, they must grasp the linkages between acting on the environment, especially climate change, and more immediate concerns for the economy and society.

At present, we have a crisis of capitalism in the developed West – and desperate measures to shore it up. Where are the corresponding measures for the environment? Left politics should seize this opportunity to move away from the neo-liberal capitalist economic model, and re-embrace its own past, whether you want to label it socialist or social-democratic – actually a little of both. And to do so, not because of some romantic attachment to a partly imaginary socialist past, but because socialism is needed to deal with the environmental crisis – as well as the financial and economic crises that we face.

One such approach has very recently been put forward by Compass, the centre-left policy think-tank. Its ‘Plan B’, in response to the Con-Dem government’s Plan A of austerity measures and public sector spending cuts, recognises the environmental challenge, especially of climate change and resource depletion linked to over-consumption, as central to the recovery strategy.

Plan B states simply that ‘the only viable economy of the future is a green economy’, and that ‘environmental issues need to be brought out of their peripheral role within government [UK]…and into the heart of decision-making in the Treasury and 10 Downing Street…’.

The Plan B approach, first and foremost, halts the cuts programme. Instead, it sets in place measures to grow the economy, on new footings. More progressive taxation and a switch from treating symptoms to addressing the causes of economic and societal decline construct what the report calls the ‘social investment state’.

Among the environmentally relevant measures proposed are:

    • Major expansion of renewable energy and energy efficiency measures, including home insulation.
    • Investment in public transport.
    • Investment in training for green jobs.
    • Controls on irresponsible advertising.
    • Use of the tax system to penalise inefficiency in the use of resources and damage to the environment.
    • The political system to refocus on the long-term, noting abolition by the Con-Dem government of the Sustainable Development Commission.
    • Companies to be required to report on the environmental and social impacts of what they do.
    • A programme of government investment in ecosystems, with both incentives and direct payments.

My criticism of Plan B is that it needs to go further. Bring core ‘service industries’ back into public ownership: energy generation and distribution, both electricity and gas, the water utilities, rail and bus transport. Public ownership of these industries is necessary to ensure that we can have a government-directed planned programme of measures to move towards a low-carbon economy. In addition, the British Investment Bank proposed by Compass could invest heavily in small-scale wind and solar micro-generation companies and the like, to create the capacity for the massive energy conversion programme that is needed if we are to move decisively and quickly away from over-dependence on fossil fuels. And, of course, a hydrogen economy for transport, but set in the context of more walking and cycling for shorter distances, and a drive to link public health to reducing unhealthy and wasteful dependence on the car.

Conclusion

Much of ‘green politics’ is portrayed as being romantic and impracticable, but I and Compass contend that such measures are the very least required if we are to have a chance of containing the worst excesses of climate change and environmental degradation.

The Left needs to break with ‘business as usual’ and the worst features of capitalism. Ed Miliband showed an inkling of understanding this in his Leader’s speech to the Labour Party Conference last month. Labour can deliver a programme for combating climate change and other environmental excesses within the framework of democracy. And Plaid’s Leanne Wood’s ‘Greenprint for the Valleys’ makes a serious attempt to bring a green strategy into mainstream regeneration.

Should we fail, the not-too-distant future may herald technocrats and scientists making the decisions ‘on our behalf’, as they are now doing with the European economy. The economic crisis calls forth radical actions, albeit the wrong ones; the environment merits equal vigour.

Peter Jones is Conservation Officer: Ecosystems with a leading UK wildlife conservation body and a member of the Welsh Government’s Climate Change Commission. The views expressed here are his own.

November 2011

Foodbanks – a modern day soup kitchen?

by Plaid Cymru AM Leanne Wood

From an Assembly Short Debate: 9th November 2011

Images of people queuing at soup kitchens in the 1930s were long consigned to history.

Fast forward 80 years and they are back in their modern equivalent.  Foodbanks feed the hungry, people who are unable to cope on limited incomes with rising food and energy prices.

Foodbanks have grown fast.  Last year there were 10 foodbanks in Wales. There are now 16.  Their expansion reflects growing demand.

The Welsh Government hopes to eradicate child poverty by 2020.  How can this happen while so many people can’t afford to buy food?    We know the situation is to get worse.  A report published this week by Sheffield Hallam University says that we can expect to see 45,000 people ejected from the welfare system in Wales as a result of changes to the benefits system.  This will hit people harder in the places where job prospects are severely limited.

The stories that the foodbank staff hear daily can be harrowing.  I’ve heard of a mother only having enough money to feed their children so she would eat paper towels to stave off the pains of an empty stomach. One man walked 10 miles from Blaina to Ebbw Vale to collect his food parcel because he didn’t have enough money for the bus.

The foodbank network in Wales has to date been unable to attract any substantial funding from Government but was successful with an application to the Big Lottery Fund for £160,000 over three years. This will allow 24 more foodbanks to be opened.

Fuel poverty is also far too prevalent in Wales and more and more people have to choose between heating and eating.  It is estimated 26% of households in Wales were in fuel poverty.  People in Wales pay around 10% more for electricity.  That combined with the poor quality of housing stock, the amount of homes that are off-network and the higher proportion of elderly and disabled people in our population means that fuel poverty is a great problem.

I’ve yet to hear from the Government how they intend to prevent growing numbers of people falling into fuel or food poverty as the economy worsens.

Food and fuel are basic necessities which no-one should be without.  Government intervention should ensure this basic minimum.

Foodbanks are here to stay for at least the time being so consideration should be given to what could help to make them self-sufficient.  Could the Welsh Government support the transition from a charity to a social enterprise for example?  Are there ways they could be supported financially?

Poverty can be felt more acutely in the more isolated parts of Wales because of its distance from urban areas where there tends to be more services. If the Government could agree to match fund transport equipment, for example, it would go a long way to ensuring that those struggling to afford food in our rural areas have some sort of safety net.

More and more people are growing their own food.  Is there a way for surplus produce to be offered for sale at low prices as advocated in the Greenprint for the Valleys document produced earlier this year?  One feature of the 1930s depression we should not forget is that home-grown food took the edge off the crisis for many families.  It was not uncommon for miners to come off a shift at the coal face and go straight to their allotment and work the land so their families would not go hungry.

There are too many people today in Wales going hungry.  The problem will not go away.  The Welsh Government must do all it can to tackle the causes of hunger and poverty.

end

The BBC Wales Report and video of the short debate are linked here

Town Centre Regeneration in Wales

The National Assembly, via its Enterprise and Business Committee, is currently conducting an inquiry into the regeneration of town and city centres in Wales. Submissions and proceedings can be found at  http://bit.ly/oX9m2A Below, is the submission from Gordon Gibson, one of our regular contributors.

Introduction

Wales has many examples of town centres with qualities that others should aspire to. Examples of successful regeneration and, not least, town centre regeneration are less abundant.

By ‘successful’, we mean improvements that can be seen to have made a sustained impact on the social and economic environment over a period of years, perhaps decades. For us, such ‘success’ is at the very heart of the definition of ‘sustainable city’.

Model town centres in Wales

The best models are those town centre locations that survive due to their fundamental qualities. The identification and study of our examples of these qualities is key to future policy and approaches. Positive socio-economic environments are precious and often hard to recognise. From Wales, and neither comprehensive or in any particular order, we recommend: –

Llandudno main street (Mostyn), a difficult, isolated town that has retained a certain vitality and character, against the odds;

The Hayes in Cardiff, the street, shows real signs for optimism (1) despite having been conceived on the back of a second massive mall whose inscrutable character, typical of malls the world over, is that it is a more modern version of what went before (It is early days yet to be properly objective about The Hayes);

Machynlleth, Abergavenny and Llandeilo retain a healthy mix of local and national businesses and heritage although the latter is much hampered by a narrow main street and heavy traffic [No, not a by-pass!];

Porthmadog, one of Wales most inspiring and vibrant main streets, extraordinarily long for such a small town (and under threat of disaster from another by-pass proposal); or, much smaller,

Penrhyndeudraeth along the road, just about surviving.

What is it about these places?

For simplicity and brevity;

1. People – families – live there, in the centres, in relatively high numbers, or within reasonable (5 minute) walking distance.

2. The centres of activity are located on main routes and the street system (grid) feeds the footfall.

3 A third quality, ‘mixed use’, unlike its planning theory predecessor, ‘zoning’, which was (and remains) a fundamental part of the problem (zoning = segregation), is a product of the first two. When the market is there (that is people, footfall, residents, employees and visitors seeking their daily needs), retail, commerce, culture and much more will follow. The task is to help create the conditions in which small local businesses, shops, artisans and others can establish themselves in environments where it is possible to make a living, to thrive, rather than leave it to, or depend (exclusively) on big nationals that take all the surplus away. [At the other extreme, planning has often expected small local businesses to make their way in low density suburbs of low income council estates.]

City planning has got locked into retail led regeneration. Without ‘magnets’ or ‘anchors’ like John Lewis, Debenhams or, worse, Tesco or Sainsbury, developers cannot assemble the capital required to drive forward the often expensive grand plans that have convinced planners and local politicians to bring in all the special funding they can lay their hands on – to subsidize the development. Developers tend to play one town’s subsidy against another’s.

One of the most prominent and apparently unlikely characteristics of New York is the preponderance of small shops and businesses all over town. The best bits of town, such as Greenwich Village (as good as it gets), comprise, in the main, of small retail and business units, quirky special interest stores and businesses, nurseries, cobblers, bakeries, nail and hair salons, clothes shops, eateries, hardware stores (a great litmus test of Welsh towns, large and small) and so much more. Vitality breaks down where more recent new-build (e.g. for New York University or major corporate interests) has often been monolithic, whole-block developments that satisfy none of the criteria that made Jane Jacobs’ Village such a desirable place to invest in. (1)

The very essence of ‘good town’, or ‘sustainable city’ as we may now call it, as propounded by Jane Jacobs in her famous book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (2), published fifty years ago this year, is all but lost in many new developments. In her study of cities, Jacobs saw residential density and social and economic diversity as vital ingredients of successful urban form. Residents are good for business.

There are, of course, other factors but these three, in urban-design-speak, residential density, connectivity and mixed-use, are vital and set terms that have been pushed aside by two cultures that have dominated regeneration – retail/ commercial pressure and the highways lobby. Both of these latter are closely related to ‘zoning’.

And so to the all too many examples of, at best, inconclusive outcomes of ‘regeneration’, or to downright failure and heartbreak for some Welsh communities, let alone for those responsible for the allocation of budgets and funding.

The Failings of Retail-led Regeneration.

Wales has much first-hand evidence available to reveal that retail led regeneration is too narrow a theory for strategic regeneration of our towns and cities (and rural communities). It has failed us miserably in Llanelli, Swansea, Bridgend, Newport, Bangor and Wrecsam (of the ones we readily bring to mind) and currently threatens Carmarthen.  Only in Cardiff have we seen any reason for optimism and there, were it not for the Design Commission and the financial pressures on the development market, we may have seen just another mall. The private sector has picked up the baton and run with volume housing both sides of The Hayes, and there are encouraging signs of inner city housing new-build elsewhere in the city centre.

The sorry tale is not always the same but, for example, in our home city of Swansea, for 60 years, since the disaster of the war blitz (and slum-clearance),  scheme after city centre scheme has been commissioned then fallen by the wayside, either in theory (Castle Quays) or in practice (the post-war renewal, St Davids, Castle Gardens, Princess Way, Oxford Street, Wind Street, and more), and at great public expense. Even now, the most recent big idea (bizarrely, to shift the centre of gravity of city centre retail and commerce to new untested areas – in fact, to the location of a failed previous grand plan), is already unravelling despite further Assembly and European funding. (3)

National and ‘up-market’ retail-led regeneration may even contribute to the youth alienation that resulted in this summer’s riots. “It … only takes five minutes to walk from the sparkling Liverpool One shopping complex to the first block of boarded-up flats. [Liverpool’s] shopping centre provides low-paying jobs in an environment that encourages high spending, and does nothing to stimulate the local economies of nearby areas.”  (4)

Why are young people so alienated from their social and physical environments, from their own towns and cities? They aren’t just increasingly segregated from jobs and education. They find their homes in run down estates with even less chance of regeneration investment now, if they ever had any. Estate transformation has always been a daunting fiscal commitment. At the other end of their urban experience they see the regeneration of their town and city centres creating vast malls and shopping centres dominated by corporate and global retailers largely out of the reach of their meagre incomes.

Retail and the ‘uses’ imbalance – other consequences.

Estate regeneration and Enterprise Zones may be seen as separate problems; the reality is that the richness of urban form does not lend itself to simple solutions or, to put it another way, simple solutions have knock-on consequences often well beyond their boundaries.

Arguably, the new dynamic force in city regeneration in Swansea is the Housing Associations and a limited number of private sector developers bringing apartments and housing to the heart of the city against a retail-led planning framework that essentially opposed housing and especially family housing, in favour of singles and starter homes. The real give-away was the closure of the city centre school.; investment in it would have been one of the most positive indicators possible for city centre regeneration.

Similarly, the retail legacy of zoning encourages secondary desires and aspirations amongst city centre traders – measures seeking investment to solve perceived problems:

– cosmetic improvements to streetscapes – Swansea is currently undertaking its ‘n’th street upgrade in Lower Oxford Street with no evidence whatsoever that it will improve the commercial base. Indeed there is no evidence to demonstrate that previous environmental improvements have made any significant difference to commercial environments, quite the contrary. The only example that we can bring to mind of successful ‘cosmetic’ improvements is Mill Lane in Cardiff and that was and is related to other spatial factors (movement routes and footfall) and a much wider commitment.

– demands for more parking provision in the false belief that bringing more motor vehicles will make a difference to trade. Again, there is much evidence from Groningen to Times Square in New York that the opposite brings in the business, namely reductions in traffic, improved pedestrian environments and public transport.

– calls for reduction in business rates, which only serve to subsidise commercial activity in an environment where viability is currently dubious. On the other hand, there is certainly a case for reductions or (say) a year of zero rates for new businesses or for the elimination of charges that are made for street activities, such as tables and chairs, that bring additional vitality and variety to public spaces.

Regeneration – people versus motor vehicles

Prior to the new influence of city centre housebuilders, the dominant force in city planning has been local authority Highways and Transportation Departments.

Elaborate road schemes, many of which have been in the bottom drawer of highways departments since the 1970s and the Buchanan thinking that still pervades that profession, have been a major influence on our town and city centre strategies to the point that they are first on the table when new proposals are being discussed and are least flexible when the hard talking begins. Parking, traffic flows and volumes often now dressed up with pedestrian safety, park and ride, tree lined roads, ‘European Boulevards’ and the like [readers may detect the Swansea influence here again], are the immutables for new proposals.

Swansea’s city centre has, amongst other things, been seriously damaged by this thinking. Its recent expensive Kingsway road scheme, with its gyratory one-ways and multi-ways, is patently grossly inefficient, widely disliked by local people and the business community and, much worse, is thoroughly inconsiderate of pedestrians and cyclists. Similar outcomes are guaranteed for the Tawe Bridges and Boulevard schemes currently underway (also Assembly funded).

This problem is not exclusive to Swansea and its engineers. Other Counties and the Assembly itself have much to answer for: perhaps solutions are valid at the level of the motor vehicle, but they frequently undermine sustainable urban communities, let alone some of our fragile rural and urban settlements in Wales. For example:

The Late 90s new valley road in Rhondda Fach put the  final nail in the coffin of fragile economies that were Pontygwaith, Wattstown, Ynyshir, and Porth; and that incredible bridge that helped to destroy the historic valleys gathering place that was Porth; and, just down the road,

Has the road system in Pontypridd done anything other than undermine the social and economic vitality of that hitherto fine community?

The heartbreaking and almost instant impact of the A487 by-pass on the socio-economic life of Groeslon, Penygroes and Llanllyfni in Gwynedd.

The by-pass threat to Porthmadog main street, so dependent on through traffic and accessibility;

The disruption of main streets through Llanelli (combined with the destruction of the town centre); Llanelli appears to have lost its will to live(!);

Or look back to the gorge that was allowed cut the centre of Caernarfon from the bulk of its population, and the subsequent collapse of vitality in the centre – a good example as it shows perhaps a quarter of a century of impact.

Much older, see how the ‘out-of-town’ station and the ‘New Road’ has impacted on how Llandovery has functioned for the last century and more.

Other examples combine retail-led regeneration with Highways schemes: Ebbw Vale, still seeking to find a balance between pedestrianisation and transport, having failed more than once. Merthyr; to think these were once world centres of urban vitality.

Seeking the positives, learning from the negatives

There are many examples here in Wales of both good and bad bits of town, old and new, providing ample evidence of success and failure, vitality and decline, positive and negative qualities.  Or, compare our Welsh small towns and villages to small rural communities in Brittany, where sensitive improvements have resulted in the retention of small businesses, pharmacies, cafes, grocers, and banks, with shared surfaces in village centres, places to stop for a coffee, pick up some shopping, wander –  a with a remarkable lack of large road signs,

Urban design, planning and architecture require much more detail to design ‘good town’ but, fortunately, we are not starting from scratch. Wales is full of great places, with rich histories and physical legacies. Clearly, every effort has to be made to support large national retailers and other commerce to conduct business in our town and city centres but if we take our examples from some of our most vibrant main streets in Wales (measured by the economic activity v population; number of local businesses v population; amount of local employment etc), let alone from the best of them in Greenwich Village, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, or many sub-districts of London, the number one criterion for regeneration is to go back to the original driver of vitality: residential density.

People living in, working in and loving their city centres will soon create, by demand, the conditions for ‘mixed use town’. That is not just shops. It is cultural life, education, small manufacturing, artisans, artists, professions, health and exercise, provisions for young people to be a legitimate part of city life, quiet spaces, loud spaces, public recreation spaces, civic activity. This is not the stuff of theoretical design and we do not need new ‘big ideas’ or road schemes. Concentrate on quality and on bringing people of all shapes and sizes, household sizes, back into the daily 24-hour life of our cities. Support new local start ups, not least the immigrant communities that will make the world majority urbanised in the very near future. (5)

Local people drive the developing economies of cities. It may be different people now from a hundred and two hundred years ago, but it is the same process that brought innovation, entrepreneurship, risk-taking, development: vitality and dynamism, from the countryside and abroad to our towns and cities for as long as we can remember.

Essentially, all they need is some recognition of the existing strengths of our town and city centres, and some encouragement.

Notes and References

1 The Hayes is discussed in more detail in Gibson, Gordon (2009) City Centre Regeneration: Homes People, Shops and Malls http://bit.ly/s627Mm

2.  For further discussion on this theme, see Gibson, Gordon (2011) Jane Jacobs’ Village is Alive and Well http://bit.ly/ubcsgX

3 Jacobs, Jane (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House

4. Gibson and Reynolds (2011) Swansea City Centre Regeneration – a discussion paper http://bit.ly/uje98G

5 Hanley, Linsey (2011) Invisible forcefields surround our estates. The Guardian, 11 August 2011 http://bit.ly/siTGn4

6. Saunders, Doug. (2010) Arrival City William Heinemann, Random House, London

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