Jon Reeds is a freelance journalist and author of Smart Growth, From Sprawl to Sustainability
SMART GROWTH UK: OUR 2015 BLOG
Keep up to date with the latest news
Transit-oriented-development is a little-known concept in the UK but in America the idea goes from strength to strength.
Concentrating compact development in places served by high-quality public transport rather than the UK default mode of plonking low-density sprawl down in areas where people will have to drive makes obvious sense.
We are supposed to be cutting carbon emissions, but much current UK transport policy is all about putting them up.
So we really need to take note of things like the latest initiative from across the Atlantic, a partnership between the Federal Transit Administration and Smart Growth America.
The Transit-Oriented Development Technical Assistance Initiative, to give it its full title, aims to provide state and local authorities with ideas, resources and extra capacity for building TOD.
TOD, says Smart Growth America, takes advantage of nearby transit to create desirable places to live, work and visit that feature entertainment venues, parks, retail, restaurants, an improved pedestrian environment and diverse housing choices.
Of course, those promoting development in the UK would say they do those things as a matter of routine, but quite often they don't.
All too often so-called sustainable urban extensions are just unsustainable low-density housing, entirely car-dependent, with perhaps a new primary school, small park and community centre tacked on in the case of the larger ones.
Sustainable, such developments are not.
The new US initiative offers a technical assistance programme, peer-to-peer learning network and a database of information on TOD.
We slavishly follow America on trends which are not always beneficial, like junk food. Here's one we ought to be following as an antidote to junk transport.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 08 December 2015
Smart Growth is a pretty wide-ranging environmental philosophy but not everything comes within its beneficial glow and this includes energy production.
One can, nevertheless, only agree with energy and climate change secretary Amber Rudd who said in her speech this week on UK energy policy that no responsible government should take a risk on climate change. How true.
We will need action right across the economy, she said, in transport, waste and buildings.
It was extremely heartening to hear a member of a government which is committed to spending tens of billions of pounds on high carbon transport like road building and airport expansion even mention transport in the context of climate change. But there any optimism ended.
All Ms Rudd could offer in the way of action on transport was the thought that her department is working on transformative technologies, including what she called low-carbon transport fuels.
Dont hold your breath on these making a ha'porth of difference to our transport greenhouse gas emissions. Pneumatic-tyred vehicles waste prodigious amounts of energy in compressing the air in the tyres the whole time the wheel is rotating. The alternatives to petrol as a fuel involve limited vehicle range, long recharge times, lack of infrastructure, expense and, very often, the waste of huge quantities of fossil fuel in manufacturing them.
As for alternatives to petroleum for flying, forget it.
Almost everyone bar Nobel laureate wishful thinkers now realises we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions drastically. Scientists' official line is that we need to reduce them by 80 percent, but privately most would say 100 percent, and soon, is more realistic, but also more open to attack by vested interests.
So ignoring transport, as Ms Rudd pretty much did, is not an option.
Work by MTRU's Transport Climate project a few years back showed conclusively that transport accounts for about 28 percent of all greenhouse gases produced in the UK. And while other emitters such as electricity generation are making efforts to reduce theirs, transport continues to grow.
And here is where a Smart Growth approach comes into play. We not only need to reduce our driving and flying, we need to reduce our need to drive and fly.
Planning is a key component of that. We need to live and work in ways which minimize our need to drive. Compact, permeable towns and cities well served with public transport are central to this approach.
And our transport policy needs binning and starting again. Somehow politicians are going to have to discover a little bit of backbone and start educating electors to realise that the freedom to drive is the freedom to ruin the lives of their grandchildren.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 20 November 2015
The Smoking Gun
The purpose of planning is to help achieve sustainable development.
So said Greg Clark, then the planning minister and now the secretary of state for communities and local government, in 2012.
He was launching the National Planning Policy Framework which even contained an explicit Presumption in Favour of Sustainable Development used, like so much of the rest of the Framework, to secure unsustainable development ever since.
Many people have said this. Many people have decried the Framework for its obvious contradictions, its many omissions, its naked promotion of unsustainable growth. And nowhere is this more true than its policies for building homes.
Many have also accused the Government of the time of a coldly cynical piece of mendacity, claiming to pursue sustainable development while in fact mainly trying to pursue the Treasury's bizarre obsession with building lots of low-density homes on greenfield sites.
The results have been clear in the orgy of unsustainable greenfield development the length and breadth of England. But we've lacked the decisive analysis to show not just what damage has been done, but how the devious NPPF secures it.
Until now. Yesterday the Campaign to Protect Rural England published a report which should be rammed down the throats of those, mainly with a vested interest, who oppose reform of the NPPF.
The report, Set up to Fail, Why Housing Targets Based on Flawed Numbers Threaten Our Countryside, shows just exactly how key parts of the planning for housing process, the so-called Objectively Assessed Housing Need, and the Strategic Housing Market Assessments it is based on, conspire to produce grossly inflated estimates of the housing need in any given local authority area.
Thus average housing requirements have been 30 above the Government's inflated household growth figures and 50 above average build rates. All too often profits in the house building sector come not from building houses, but from gaining planning consent.
Nowhere is this more true than the car-dependent greenfield sites Government inspectors force councils to include in their local plans. Unsustainable development at its very finest.
Read the report if you want the full horror of the process.
But the key thing is that the NPPF has been shown to be a cynical fraud, the sort of thing that gets politics and government a bad name.
Currently there is a Housing and Planning Bill before Parliament which proposes fundamental changes to England's planning system.
That's an opportunity. Ministers must now reform the NPPF as a matter of urgency.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 17 November 2015
National Infrastructure Omission
There was a movie a few years back where the hero was challenged to spend a million dollars over the course of 24 hours and found it surprisingly difficult to do.
One can only, therefore, sympathize with the new National Infrastructure Commission charged by George Osborne with frittering away a hundred billion pounds over the next five years.
Of course capital spending on useful projects can be extremely beneficial to a struggling economy. And no-one would doubt there are many worthwhile projects that would both benefit our economy and increase our resilience for the future.
But sadly, if inevitably, the Treasury which is behind this loadsa-money exercise seems to have very little idea about how to spend it sensibly.
The announcement was typically vague, promising to spend money on roads, flood defence and other vital projects. One out of two for that.
And it will focus on northern transport links, London's transport and energy, all of which do need substantial investment.
But any hope the chancellor and his goblins have any idea of how to spend the money sustainably was undermined by his admission that 15 billion of the cash will be spent on exacerbating climate change by building roads.
The things we should be spending it on, however, are pretty obvious.
Flood, sea defence and drainage are obvious ones. Sea levels are set to rise substantially at some stage and storms are becoming more intense.
Urban transport needs urgent action, and not just in the capital. That 15 billion quid would enable starts to be made on providing light rail and metro systems in those major conurbations that still lack one. Another 15 billion in that direction would enable huge expansion of existing systems.
Huge amounts could be saved by scrapping road building and airport expansion and this could usefully be spent on more rail electrification and reopening rural, and indeed urban, railways.
Then there is land reclamation which is expensive, but vital for sustainable development.
And the energy infrastructure should be geared to underpin revival of sustainable industries in depressed areas.
And all that is just for starters. There could even be money left over to send Mr Osborne on a course explaining why the environment matters.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 04 November 2015
We have gone, said the man on the telly the other night, from being a country that made things to a country that makes culture.
Leaving aside quibbles about the fact we still make things and have always created prodigious amounts of culture, it set me thinking about the country we are, and the country we should aspire to be.
The eclipse of British industry over the past 35 years in the face of globalization is impossible to ignore, of course. It is, I suspect, something we will bitterly regret in years to come and indeed many parts of the UK that don't have financial services to underpin them are bitterly regretting it already.
And one aspect of the current steel works closures no-one, not even the Government, has considered, is just how vulnerable it leaves the UK at a time of fast-growing international tension.
Steel works are as important a part of national defence as the armed forces are. But try telling that to neo-liberal zealots.
But the value of culture was brought home to me when I was, perforce thanks to the usual overcrowding, eavesdropping a conversation between two young adults on a packed London commuter train the other night.
Oh no, said one, I couldn't live in Croydon. There are no art galleries there.
Croydon, like everywhere else, is a mixture of good and bad but it's not the first place one would head for in search of high culture. The Fairfield Halls offer a wide range and it's good to see the David Lean cinema has reopened, but when I think of Croydon's qualities, I think of its excellent tram network, its mixture of small and large shops, its mix of people.
And when I think of its drawbacks, I think of the damage road building has done it, the obsession of its council with pointless expansion of retail space and its casual disregard of bits of heritage like the Surrey Street market, whose old buildings are now disfigured by vast new neighbours hopelessly out of scale.
When younger adults talk about culture, they seldom talk about heritage, but it should be one of their central concerns. The flood tide of concern in the final quarter of the 20th century has rather spent itself, and the huge gains made in that period are being eroded.
But we ignore our old and historic townscape at our peril. Old buildings are the beating heart of any town and we should fight tooth and nail to protect them.
Sometimes their protection and contemporary culture even find themselves clashing.
I was on holiday in Burgundy this summer and was astonished to see the 18th century Abbaye in Corbigny had apparently had random words painted directly on to its lovely stonework.
This, it transpired, was a publicly funded art project, despite the building being a scheduled Monument Historique. Inevitably there has been something of a row about it and people are wondering how to remove the paint.
But it nicely illustrates the clash between heritage and modern culture.
And frankly I know which contributes more to our well-being.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 20 October 2015
A Continuing Heritage
The annual Civic Voice Sandys Lecture last night was given by former English Heritage chief executive Simon Thurley.
He left his audience bemused with a string of wise proposals for improving the way we plan our towns and protect their heritage, but undermined that with a defence of the National Planning Policy Framework for England as if there was nothing wrong with it.
Few would disagree with his contention that the current system is not adequately protecting the historic setting of places.
He cited numerous examples of how current controls like listed buildings, conservation areas, local plans, countryside designations etc. are failing to protect the setting of historic towns.
A new supermarket on the edge of Malmesbury. A new by-pass for Ely. Volume house builders who build the same rabbit hutches everywhere, and still claim to be respecting local vernacular.
It was difficult to disagree with his contention that more protection is needed to adequately protect the historic setting of places. He dismissed the idea of creating a new designation, but it was hard to see how else such a subjective issue could be controlled.
But he shifted on to firmer Smart Growth ground by pointing out most historic development was built at relatively high densities and gave examples of how this could be achieved.
A pity perhaps, though, that he didn't cite the example of Victorian and Georgian terraces which were so efficient in their use of land to create houses rather than flats.
But he was right on the money with his attack on the amount of surface parking in our towns.
Using his home town of Kings Lynn as an example, he showed how all the urban sprawl planned to meet its housing targets on greenfield sites outside the town could be accommodated with medium density housing on its car parks.
Mr Thurley called for more protection for common spaces and ended with a suggestion for a Heritage Devils award to be given to whichever local authority does the most damage to our heritage. Sadly, I suspect there'd be no lack of candidates.
What surprised many of his audience, however, was his claim that the NPPF is a sound piece of work which does not require reform. That made my jaw drop, I'm afraid.
I suppose Mr Thurley was involved in its formation in the 2011-12 period when he was at English Heritage. It was certainly improved during that time and it does now indeed contain many fine words and aspirations.
But anyone who has watched it in action over the past three-and-a-half years will know that its fine words are mostly undone by the cynical and destructive provisions inserted deliberately to prevent most of the constructive stuff actually applying.
Thus it urges a high standard of design, but says local planning authorities should not attempt to apply design standards. It contains many fine words about securing sustainable development at appropriate locations, then wholly undermines it with tests on viability of development and housing markets and promoting bad locations like distribution depots near motorway junctions or new garden cities.
It's a mess and it needs urgent and thorough reform.
But that shouldn't detract from the positive things Mr Thurley said. They are certainly food for thought.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 13 October 2015
Downtown, By Tram
One of the key planning challenges facing this country is how to make communities out of the car-dependent, low-density urban sprawl we have spent almost a hundred years building with such enthusiasm.
Much of it, of course, surrounds traditional town centres and these suburbs can look to them to provide them with some kind of focus.
But plenty of it is just an ill-focused mess, with whatever facilities they have acquired in terms of shopping or cultural facilities pepper-potted around with no real identity or sense of community.
Inevitably they tend to be places where people drive everywhere.
And with the Paris conference coming up reminding us we are way off target to keep global warming down to two degrees this century, action on getting us out of cars and on to public transport, rail-based where possible, is urgent.
And it can be done.
From the Denver Post comes an interesting piece about the City of Aurora in Colorado which will be the beneficiary of a new light rail line next year.
The word city in America can be misleading. In the UK it usually refers to a substantial urban community with at least a compact centre.
But in America quite small communities call themselves cities as do places like Aurora, which has pretty much been labelled as a suburb of Denver.
The new light rail line will leave the north-south Interstate 225 corridor and form a U-shaped loop through Aurora.
It will pass through a number of town centres which are close to one another, but presently lack a collective identity.
The city planners are delighted, calling it a new downtown, the term Americans use for town or city centres. They plan new restaurants, shops and a hotel and hope for some kind of cultural venue.
There is pressure to now to make other facilities in Aurora like major employment sites, hospitals and other sites walkable from the new light rail stops. Pedestrian facilities need improving, a common problem in America, but by no means something the UK can ignore.
The new line is part of a huge, long-term expansion of Denver's light rail system and will link into other lines in the east and south-east of the city.
And Aurora twigged about 15 years ago that getting the new light rail route off the I-225 corridor and into their community was key to changing it from a suburb into a real downtown community.
That's something many places in this country need to think about urgently.
Politicians may believe big rail schemes like Crossrail or HS2 offer them more kudos.
But they really need to start putting investment into light rail and metro schemes which offer even bigger benefits.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 11 October 2015
Time To Revise The National Planning Policy Framework
From the Department for Communities and Local Government comes a Planning Update. It goes on a bit about how the Department intends to make sense of the Treasury's Fixing the Foundations plan, issued last summer, though one can't help feeling that if they really wanted councils to prepare registers of brownfield land suitable for housing, they might have offered some indication of what they're supposed to include and what they're not.
What there's absolutely no sign of from DCLG is, of course, the one really important and urgent thing it needs to do, namely a substantial root-and-branch revision of England's National Planning Policy Framework.
This destructive three-year old is in urgent need of remedial action. And look, it can be done.
The Northern Ireland Executive has just issued its new Strategic Planning Policy Statement, reminding us planning policy should never be set in stone. And although much needed action on bungaloid and other development in Northern Ireland's countryside has been kicked into the long grass with a review, it does include a target for brownfield housing, a town-centre first policy and other good objectives.
So planning policies should never be set in stone.
The NPPF was always a dysfunctional mess and gets ever further divorced from England's planning needs.
The failure to revise it is a complete disgrace.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 02 October 2015
Just Too Big
I suppose most Londoners have asked themselves at some time or another whether London is too big.
I had similar thoughts myself yesterday evening when travelling into London from the suburbs to attend an early evening meeting. The eight-mile journey took me almost an hour and three-quarters.
There was nothing particularly wrong, but south London travellers have to be punished with less trains during the rush hours so more trains can be run for the wealthier commuters who live further out.
Even the trains have been designed to accommodate low numbers of wealthy commuters rather than packed suburban sardines. The circulating areas are so inadequate at such times that fist fights are not that uncommon.
The usual slow crawl into London was followed by half an hour to travel seven stops on the Tube, making me realise it's not London's size that's the problem, it's everything else.
Ironically the discussion I was attending was on whether London is too big to succeed, one of a series of stimulating events organised by the Royal Geographical Society.
The three panellists, two politicians and an economist, strongly agreed on the obvious facts that London will soon not be able to house its fast-growing population, and that transport investment is needed.
Which are both pretty obvious really.
Their solutions were less impressive, however. London's population has now returned to where it was in 1939 and threatens to grow by about a million every ten years, assuming of course the City can sustain its boom economics, something it hasn't been frightfully good at in the past.
So all agreed more homes are needed and one member of the audience even dared to mention the D-word, but of course a small increase in densities is not something those traditionalists of a garden city bent are awfully keen to permit.
So London is likely to remain one of the world's least densely populated city areas and, where densification happens, it is likely to be in the inner areas which need it least.
But it was transport where the really woeful level of public discourse was evident. The panellists agreed there is likely to be more long-distance commuting and Lord Adonis relished the prospect of HS2 providing fast links to London from 2030, assuming that hideously ill-designed scheme ever gets built.
The possibility of moving the jobs away from London was raised but was obviously too unpleasant to contemplate. Instead, the Northern Powerhouse was condemned to become a sort of Northern Flophouse.
Things went downhill from there. The panellists bemoaned the failure to open any east London river crossings since the 19th century, obviously forgetting the second Blackwall Tunnel of the 1960s and the later Jubilee Line and DLR tunnels.
And they actually agreed new road crossings are needed, though they couldn't agree whether these should be bridges or tunnels.
If only some of these politicians now advocating wasting tens of billions on road building to tackle congestion and promote growth would bother to read the Department for Transport's own research on the subject.
Building roads, especially somewhere like London, simply releases as much suppressed demand as the new road will take. The result is an increase in congestion on the rest of the network.
And anyone who believes road building helps economic growth should visit north-east England or Scotland's central belt. Both have fine road systems and long-depressed economies. London, meanwhile, has a rubbish road system and is booming.
Indeed, London certainly isn't too big to succeed. It is, however, far too big for its boots.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 16 September 2015
Dear Nicola Sturgeon,
I was interested to see the Scottish Government is planning a root-and-branch review of the planning system.
What an opportunity.
Wisely perhaps, you refrained from saying much about the outcomes you hope for, beyond saying you want to increase delivery of high quality housing developments.
That's a laudable ambition given a rising population, of course, but you will really need to avoid the Treasury approach of simply building as many market homes as possible, wherever possible.
That way you end up building the wrong homes for the wrong people in the wrong places, and trashing the environment in the process.
The 20th century left us a legacy of car-dependent urban sprawl which continues to undermine the urgent need to get our greenhouse gas emissions down. Many people still regard low-density housing built remotely from services like town centres, healthcare, education or public transport as some kind of desirable paradigm.
But it's not. It consumes and wastes precious and scarce land. The planning battles of recent decades have increasingly been over releasing greenfield land for house building, yet the builders find it most profitable to build as few houses on a site as possible, not as many.
You have the power to change this.
The builders say if you force them to build at higher densities they will simply shove up endless blocks of flats.
They don't have to. Just look at Scotland's great cities built before 1914. The terraces our Georgian and Victorian ancestors built could be built at two or three times the density beyond which the builders say you can't build houses.
Just look out of your window next time you pass Morningside or the New Town. These houses are both desirable and very high density.
For a whole raft of reasons we need to stop squandering our precious farmland for building. Our countryside provides all of our water, much of our food, flood control, timber, outdoor leisure and all of the intangibles beautiful scenery provides us.
You can't put a price on it, but scenery is surely one of Scotland's great treasures, and not just in its mountainous areas either.
It's good to see Scotland designating national parks, but your national scenic areas need more protection.
That anyone should even think of building a new town, however well designed, in the Tinto Hills scenic area shows the penny is yet to drop in some quarters. I know it's not going ahead, but it should have been a warning.
The other big issue is the interface between transport and planning. We very urgently need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent.
Transport currently accounts for more than 25 percent of our emissions and road transport is the big emitter. Pious platitudes about decarbonizing the motor car are just that. You can reduce these carbon emissions a bit, but not much.
Only reducing traffic will do that.
And that means concentrating development within existing conurbations so most journeys are made on foot, by bike or by public transport, rail-based where possible.
I know how frustrating the saga of Edinburgh's tram construction must have been. It cost far more and took far longer than it need have done.
But at last it's done and the capital is waking up to the valuable asset it has finally secured.
Light rail provides an extraordinary opportunity to make our cities fit for the 21st century and I hope the Edinburgh experience doesnt deter you encouraging further schemes. Indeed, it was sad to see Dundee recently turn down an imaginative and valuable proposal.
Then there's the road building programme which provides a great opportunity. A great opportunity to cut public spending, that is.
The Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route is a case in point. It's far from being a by-pass. It has become a 58km necklace of car-dependent sprawl from Stonehaven almost to Ellon. Electrifying the railway to Aberdeen would do far more good.
There are many things national planning policy needs to do, far too many to cover in a blog. But I know you often aim to identify and learn from the mistakes made south of the border.
One of the biggest has been the unsustainable transport and planning policies pursued in England for more than a decade since the Treasury took over making policy.
What I'm trying to say is that heres a chance for Scotland to do things better.
Avoid the pitfalls of car-dependent urban sprawl of the 20th century. Think out of the motorway box. Don't just give in to so-called market demands for low-density sprawl on greenfield sites.
The future for growth lies in cities, not in trashing the countryside.
You need a smart growth approach.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 08 September 2015
Smart Growth UK has always been an informal coalition of organisations and individuals interested in promoting the smart growth philosophy in the UK.
But it is far from being the only coalition with an agenda around the world of planning and transportation. And some are altogether much more reticent about admitting their existence.
One of these is the shadowy coalition of interests that has been pushing the idea of building on green belts around those English, and probably Welsh and Scottish, conurbations where commercial pressure for new houses is strongest.
And indeed, some of like Newcastle, Gateshead and Durham where it's really weak.
The argument goes that some areas designated as green belt lack high quality landscape and that building on parts of these near railway stations would be relatively sustainable.
They do, of course, fail to mention that it would only be sustainable when compared to the alternatives they promote like building on high quality greenfield, but not green belt, sites outside them. This, of course, would generate even more long-distance car commuting and destroy even higher quality countryside.
So it might, sometimes, be slightly the less of two very big evils.
They omit to mention, of course, that even poor quality landscapes provide a range of ecosystem services like food and water production, flood control, outdoor leisure, biodiversity, carbon sequestration and so on.
The real alternative is actually higher density brownfield development within existing conurbations, but that might be slightly less profitable of course.
It's a strange coalition. Volume house builders are a predictable component and they, at least, have the perfectly rational and legitimate motive in that the prime duty of any company is to maximize the return on its shareholders' capital. That's how our economy works.
But that doesn't mean that good government should allow such a free-for-all in all circumstances.
This coalition has other cheer leaders too, such as flaky neo-liberal think-tanks and supportive academics who believe there is only one acceptable form of capitalism, the dysfunctional one that gave us the great crash of 2008.
But the environment stubbornly refuses to be forgotten.
A new analysis by the Royal Town Planning Institute shows that building around stations in London's green belt would add 3.9-7.5 million car journeys every week to the congested roads around the capital.
It should be required reading.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 15 August 2015
The Eyes Of The Beholders
Communities have rights to many things these days, like public safety, clean water, law and order and much else besides. But one thing that would feature on few people's lists is beauty.
Beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder and we may disagree with other's views on what is, and isn't, beautiful. But a new report from the Res Publica think-tank, backed by a range of worthy and responsible bodies says too few people have access to beauty in our modern urban environments. And the report, A Community Right to Beauty, says you're more likely to be surrounded by beautiful environments if you're wealthy.
It's a fascinating report, wholly at odds with an era of austerity which accepts our access to many rights should be dependent on our incomes. But it does beg the question of whether we can define beauty, though it has some intriguing ideas on how we might do so.
Which is more than could be said for England's hopeless National Planning Policy Framework, a piece of ugliness ever-more overdue for a wholesale rewrite. It blathers on about the importance of good design in the built environment, with some wholly worthy sentiments about it being key to good planning and contributing to place making and it makes wise stipulations about the use of design codes and responding to local character, history and identity.
Then it blows it all apart by saying planning policies and decisions should not attempt to impose architectural styles or particular tastes, or stifle innovation.
In other words prepare careful standards for urban design that respect local areas and character, then totally ignore them. How this wretched piece of rubbish ever got approved is beyond me.
But attempts to improve people's access to beauty are far from new and perhaps it's time we rediscovered our earlier efforts.
In 1876, a group of Victorian worthies who included Miranda Hill, her better known sister Octavia and William Morris founded the Kyrle Society whose object was to bring beauty home to the poor. It was named after the 17th century John Kyrle who graced Ross-on-Wye with beautiful things, including tree planting, help for the poor and an early public garden.
The Society carried out a range of philanthropic works including artistic decoration of schools, hospitals and working men's clubs and promoted music, literature and open spaces. It was instrumental in preserving and improving a number of open spaces and tracts of countryside.
But, fatally, it never took ownership of land and eventually came to be superseded by bodies like the National Trust and Open Spaces Society and it was wound up in 1917.
But if it's hard to define beauty, it's so much easier to define ugliness. It's all around us and it's growing apace, fuelled by its usual energy source, greed.
So perhaps it's time to relaunch the Kyrle Society.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 26 July 2015
Energy and climate change secretary Amber Rudd recently said that man-made climate change is one of the most serious threats this country and the world faces. How very right she is.
Perhaps she could have a quiet word with her Cabinet colleague Patrick McLoughlin, the transport secretary, as it's high time his Department started to take the issue seriously.
If national transport policy were geared to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and keeping people and goods on the move in a future that's short of oil, we need to think differently.
I've discussed this with several transport planners and I suspect we should rank our priorities something like this.
1. Sustainable, rail-based urban transport in all our cities. That's light-rail, tram-train, metro or heavy rail as appropriate. At the moment even many of our larger conurbations are shockingly deficient.
2. Much higher investment in the rail network. That would include electrification of most of the rail network, heavy investment in capacity, new stations, junctions, signalling, goods facilities, reopening of closed railway lines etc.. Coastal shipping and some inland waterway investment would also be involved.
3. Measures to restrain road traffic, both locally and on the trunk network.
4. High speed railway lines.
5. Expanding road capacity in the forlorn hope it will reduce congestion.
6. Increased airport capacity. I'm afraid I've no idea why anyone would want to do this.
Instead of which, Government policy turns this on its head with a different set of priorities.
1. Spending tens of billions of pounds expanding the road network despite strings of studies showing this massively increases traffic and makes congestion worse.
2. Airport expansion. A hot potato, but an alluring one for kerosene-heads.
3. High speed railway lines. Plainly useful, but very expensive and greenhouse gas emission benefits unclear.
4. Some inadequate investment in local transport, much of which will go on expanding the road network to further increase emissions.
5. Massive cuts in rail spending, including electrification and other vitally needed investment, apart from showcase schemes in London, forcing more traffic on to the roads.
6. Urban rail. Forget it, apparently.
I'm afraid what we need is a climate of change.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 01 July 2015
High Environmental Value
Urban environments can be challenging places, for wildlife and for much else besides.
I had a graphic illustration of this a few years ago in my own back garden. Quite why Europe's largest insect, the stag beetle, should have chosen south London as the best place for a substantial population to live is something of a mystery. Probably they were there before the people.
But there it is, Lucanus cervus likes the place and for some years I had a healthy breeding colony just outside my back door.
When I first lived here, I used to wonder why newly emerged adult stag beetles would appear in early summer crawling cautiously up the same bit of beech hedge. Then I discovered the beetle's life story. This involves the huge larvae spending around five years munching their way contentedly through rotten wood before emerging for a few brief weeks as adults.
And then it's fun time. The huge males love to show off to the ladies by flying like little whirring helicopters through the early summer twilight. The females are obviously easily impressed, for the males are rubbish flyers, colliding with trees and bushes and generally crashing about the place.
One fine evening a large male even attempted a fly-through around our dinner guests who were enjoying their quiet pre-prandial drink in our garden, at least until a giant flying insect wove its way amongst them. Some were a bit put out, so I told them it had taken me hours to set up one of Britains amazing wildlife spectacles especially for them.
Then the colony disappeared and May and June evenings no longer have stag beetles whirring their way through the darkening trees.
Some people, rightly, get quite passionate about invertebrates and mourn their losses. But the environment is complex thing. Protecting it involves weighing various contrasting demands and choosing suitable ways forward. Just concentrating on one aspect and promoting it at the expense of others can be dangerous.
The new guidelines on identifying High Environmental Value on brownfield sites recently issued by Wildlife and Countryside Link are a case in point.
The phrase High Environmental Value, you may remember, was included in England's wretched National Planning Policy Framework to further restrict any planning preference for brownfield sites. Like so much of the Framework's deliberately sloppy wording, High Environmental Value wasn't defined, but could be used by anyone who wanted to attack brownfield development.
At the time, HM Treasury was going all-out to undermine brownfield development and to promote greenfield as hard as it could. Then the last government discovered what an electoral liability such an environmentally destructive approach could be.
But the phrase had, ostensibly at least, been included in the NPPF at the behest of certain invertebrate enthusiasts who've waged a long and successful campaign to put the brakes on brownfield development. They persuaded English Nature in 2010 to add a habitat called Open Mosaic Habitat on Previously Developed Land to the national priority habitats list as places where brownfield development should often be frustrated because they may sometimes be inhabited by rare invertebrates.
As indeed a few derelict sites are, but usually only for short periods until other factors like native and non-native invasive species taking over, human misuse or other factors wipe it out.
The wildlife bodies also persuaded Natural England to fund a survey and inventory of sites they decide meet the definition of Open Mosaic Habitat. Given the extremely loose wording of this, lots of sites which have little or no wildlife value, especially in the longer term, can be sterilized from development.
Now the normally estimable and excellent umbrella body, Wildlife and Countryside Link, has been persuaded to publish guidelines for defining what High Environmental Value means, on brownfield sites only of course. And, apparently, all it means is whether someone or other judges it to be Open Mosaic Habitat, or it has protected status like an SSSI.
This has the potential to perpetuate dereliction on many thousands of brownfield sites which urgently need regeneration. Local communities would continue to suffer the blight, contamination and anti-social behaviour they generate while the benefits to wildlife would be minimal and, almost always, very short-term.
High Environmental Value is an extraordinarily complex thing and one of the highest environmental values a brownfield site possesses is its potential to be redeveloped, so eliminating the environmental challenges a derelict site poses and saving equivalent, or larger, areas of greenfield land from development. It can even secure resources to protect biodiversity.
Wildlife, of course, is one important aspect of judging the environmental quality of a site of course. But it's not the only one.
My back garden isn't a brownfield site, of course, but only because Eric Pickles, in a bout of political posturing in 2010, decided that gardens would become Greenfield Sites. But his intervention failed to save my stag beetles.
Yet it wasn't human intervention that did for them, but wildlife. One night the rotting tree stump where the larvae lived was excavated by an urban fox who scoffed the lot of them. We haven't had any stag beetles hatch out since, despite my attempts to recreate suitable habitats.
Protecting High Environmental Value is a complex business.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 24 June 2015
Demand Follows Transit
An interesting blog from America pointing out how mass transit enables people in poorer neighbourhoods, towns and even cities to reach richer urban areas where jobs are more plentiful.
The net result is an evening out of wealth and housing prices.
Smart growth policies aimed at reviving run-down urban areas have been so successful in parts of America that poorer people have been pushed out and forced to live in the ill-equipped sprawl where their wealthier counterparts once aspired to live and where they have to waste money driving everywhere.
The answer is to link poorer areas into the richer areas by high-quality, rail-based transit.
There are many parts of the UK where the alleged need for sprawl housing could be eliminated if people from surrounding towns could be linked quickly, conveniently and cheaply with the jobs in the big cities where the economy still flourishes.
Oh yes, and it would massively decrease our greenhouse gas emissions too.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 16 June 2015
Abnormal For Norfolk
It was, I suppose, inevitable that the wretched decision to approve the destructive and ruinously expensive Norwich Northern Distributor Road would have to wait until the election was over.
Despite some politicians' lingering belief we are all Mondeo Men, desperate to get behind the wheel and emit greenhouse gases, it was plainly a vote-loser.
The fight isn't over, despite ministerial approval, but when Whitehall decides to do something, however destructive, it normally ploughs on for years whatever the political, financial or environmental cost.
And some, no doubt, foresee the NDR allowing creation of a motorway box for Norwich which they fondly believe would solve the city's traffic problems. Of course, like the M25, it won't. It would simply just allow people to drive much, much further to work.
But attachment to the 1960s dream of car-dependent sprawl dies hard and still afflicts politicians in places like Aberdeen and Durham. But urban sprawl and car dependency are at the root of our coming climate crisis so this has to change.
It's the environment, stupid.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 12 June 2015
No Longer In Front Of The Curve
Almost 25 years ago, the magazine where I then worked carried a story suggesting the rapid rise in world temperature would, eventually, cause the Western Antarctic ice sheet to melt, raising world sea levels by around five meters.
This would flood many of the worlds major cities, including much of London, and the magazine's cover carried an impression of what a semi-submerged Houses of Parliament would look like.
Needless to say, it was greeted with derision, the usual fate of those who get a bit in front of the curve.
Nowadays such predictions from serious scientists are commonplace, but still few policy makers are taking them seriously. Not in their term of office.
Perhaps the thought that many of the world's central business districts could be under water by the end of this century will make the Masters of the Universe stop to think. Or perhaps they won't.
One thing that might help them on their journey is the maps produced by cartographer Jeff Linn showing how his home town of Seattle would look, along with Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland and Vancouver.
Now, China File reports, he has been persuaded to produce maps showing the same effect on the coast of China, where 43 per cent of its population presently lives.
The maps enable you to run your cursor across and see how the waters would engulf the cities.
Meanwhile, back home, our politicians are wondering which airports and motorways to expand and where to build new garden cities. But not where to relocate cities like London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.
Not yet, anyway.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 31 May 2015
Sprawl Really Is The Problem
Smart growth practitioners argue, rightly, that a significant chunk of our response to climate change must be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport.
Doing this necessitates us living in more densely built towns and cities and switching from cars to less carbon-intensive modes like public transport, walking and cycling. But the issue in the UK is obscured by a lack of research to demonstrate the links between density, location and transport choice.
American scientists have examined this issue and their conclusions have helped inform the move towards smart growth policies involving denser urban cores and transit-oriented development.
Now a new study by Boston University has further refined the conclusions and, as always where complex systems are involved, the issues are proving to be more complex still. How successful your city could be in reducing emissions will depend on how dense it was historically and, crucially, how good it has been in preventing low-density sprawl around itself.
The paper, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, looked at roadway-level traffic data and reached different conclusions from other emissions estimates.
The relationship between density and emissions is non-linear, it concludes, and the effects of smart growth policies will vary from place to place.
It says that, nationally, urban growth and densification should reduce total emissions, but road emissions are likely to continue to grow where the urban areas are growing fast.
This is because, the study says, reductions in national emissions provided by urbanization will not necessarily occur in the urban areas that are actually growing denser.
It is, of course, far easier to push for all the good things smart growth development brings like a switch from cars to public transport and higher density developments which reduce sprawl in traditional urban areas. But these benefits are fatally undermined if we allow urban sprawl to continue.
And those who argue that fitting new garden cities or whatever with green gizmos is a suitable response to climate change really need to rethink their ideas, and bury the garden city philosophy with the 20th century. Low-density sprawl undermines progress.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 29 April 2015
International Day For Biological Diversity
I wonder if I could drag you away from our politicians' cunning plans for our flaky post-2008 economy for a minute and talk about something really important.
While our political parties scrap over development after 2015, post-2015 development goals are also fascinating United Nations bodies at the moment. These will replace the Millennium Development Goals to direct international development in the 2015-2030 period.
One important thread is the Sustainable Development Goals agreed at the otherwise desperately disappointing Rio Plus20 conference in 2012.
The conference agreed a document called The Future We Want, before political leaders ensured that, while we may have wanted it, we wouldn't actually get it because they'd extracted nearly all its teeth, apart from 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
The Goals themselves show no lack of ambition. No-one would oppose ending poverty in all its forms everywhere, ending hunger, promoting food security, gender equality, water and sanitation, sustainable energy and economic growth and many other laudable ambitions. What was lacking, however, was any serious wherewithal to bring them about.
Nevertheless, on 22 May this year, by which time one hopes our politicians will have stopped arguing about who's in government and who isn't, we will be able to celebrate International Day for Biological Diversity 2015.
As this is International Year of Soil, one might perhaps have expected that medium to figure prominently, but UN agencies seldom work that closely together.
Instead, this year's theme will be Biodiversity for Sustainable Development. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity says this reflects the importance of establishing the Sustainable Development Goals as part of the UN post-2015 development goals.
You may be wondering by now what all of this has to do with smart growth.
Well, several of the 17 SDGs are extremely central to it, including Goal 11 about making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable and Goal 15 on protecting, restoring and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems. This one, incidentally, also requires us to halt and reverse land degradation.
The importance of this to biodiversity should be obvious and some effort was made by the European Commission, before its recent Damascene conversion to neo-liberal economics, to give some effect to this via its 7th Environmental Action Programme, agreed in 2013.
Among the outcomes of Rio Plus20 was a call for a land-degradation-neutral world and the 7th EAP did actually attempt to give some effect to this.
One proposal was legislation on soil and, though long-standing proposals for a directive were finally dumped recently, the EU is still officially committed to doing something to tackle Europe's huge problem of soil-sealing caused by urban sprawl.
With around 700 square kilometres of farmland being lost to urbanization across Europe every year, action is urgent. And though some still argue brownfield-first policies harm biodiversity, Smart Growth UK has produced robust arguments to refute this.
It's clear we need to tackle this both domestically and internationally.
That's why smart growth practitioners will be able to hold their heads high on 22 May.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 15 April 2015
The End Of An Eclipse
Many of us were hoping for glorious spring sunshine yesterday to enjoy the full majesty of the solar eclipse. Some were lucky, but some of us were disappointed by thick cloud.
The brownfield sector, so long in eclipse, is finally showing a few signs of springtime too. But, like any British spring, one needs to keep optimism under careful control. Noises about support for brownfield development across the political spectrum may mean a real change in the weather, or they may just be pre-election posturing.
I seem to recall, before the last election, many politicians, including those who formed the coalition government, saying they would support a third-party right of appeal in England's planning system. Five years on we're still waiting.
There is, nonetheless, real momentum behind the new push for brownfield-first. Even greenfield enthusiasts now realise that meeting housing need, as opposed to the most extreme demands of the housing market, will involve maximizing use of appropriate brownfield land.
The intellectual case is unanswerable. Last week we saw the Future Spaces Foundation report Vital Cities Not Garden Cities which really ought finally to take the wheels off the garden city bandwagon.
Hot on its heels came the latest report in the Campaign to Protect Rural England's Foresight Series. Better Brownfield says there are many things we need to do to ensure we get the high-quality and, indeed, high-quantity brownfield housing we need.
The Government's new commitment to maximizing use of brownfield land for house building is welcome of course. But the specific proposals in the January consultation paper Building More Homes on Brownfield Land fall very far short of what's needed.
Smart Growth UK has submitted a formal response setting out what's wrong and what's needed.
March winds, April showers. Springtime has its ups and downs.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 21 March 2015
Leading Us Up The Garden Path
Slowly but surely the wheels are coming off the garden cities bandwagon.
Last week a brief Commons debate showed the Government is losing interest, with little left in its programme apart from the Ebbsfleet development, which looks little like what Ebenezer Howard would have recognised as a garden city, plus an urban extension for Bicester.
Then came the Future Spaces Foundation report Vital Cities not Garden Cities which points out a few inconvenient truths. It shows how a vast number of garden cities would be needed to make any sort of dent in our housing need, doing huge amounts of environmental damage in the process and still not delivering the scale of housing needed.
The report points out UK cities are built at the lowest density in Europe. This is, of course, thanks to a century of garden city thinking which squandered our precious and scarce land on the grand scale.
The answer of course is something we're very bad at, namely densification.
This is what the report recommends and it's surely right. My only worry is that we need to be a little wary about accepting densification as the sole answer to our needs, important as it is. In America, some places adopted the smart growth philosophy so enthusiastically and simplisticly they saw densification as the complete answer and some over-dense development resulted.
We need to get densities right. If the Victorians and Edwardians could do dense development and produce wonderful communities that endure to this day, so can we.
Still, the Future Spaces Foundation report is essential reading. Only a pity it doesn't mention smart growth.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 11 March 2015
Getting Your Ducks In A Row
They call it getting your ducks in a row. Sometimes, even with an election pending, politicians forget to do it.
Our politicians profess surprise when bishops, or even us ordinary mortals, appear less than wholly convinced by their protestations of honesty. But the criticisms are hardly surprising, given the amount of time they spend trying to pull the wool over our eyes.
Take the Government's recent policy on brownfield house building, for instance. In late January, the Department for Communities and Local Government issued a consultation paper which confirmed the Government is now committed to increasing house building on brownfield sites, and to collect and publish statistics in support of it.
This, in itself, is very welcome. After years of Treasury-inspired hostility to brownfield development, it's great that its bean counters have finally realised their attempt to shift house building from brownfield to greenfield has been all too destructively successful.
Yet for some time now, ministers at both DCLG and the Treasury have been claiming England only has capacity for around 200,000 new brownfield homes. This is completely ludicrous.
Robust research last year by the University of the West of England for CPRE showed there is definitely room for almost a million and probably several hundred thousand more.
But, with an election approaching and supporters angry about destruction of the countryside we all love, it was the only pathetic excuse ministers could find for the huge drop in brownfield building.
The 200,000 figure was repeated in the DCLG consultation which suggested the Government wants to see local development orders in place for 90 per cent of these by 2020. That's just 180,000 homes, far less than would be built on brownfield sites in England over that period without this intervention.
Finally, however, the 200,000 figure has been fatally torpedoed. And the extraordinary thing was, it wasn't the Government's opponents that sank it, it was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne.
As part of his recent cosy-up to London mayor Boris Johnson, the two visited a housing development in London. Mr Johnson at least realises that building the vast number of homes London needs requires a strong brownfield policy, as there isn't anywhere else to build them.
Mr Osborne used the occasion to announce a new quango to identify suitable land, so that London can meet its target of at least 400,000 new homes, primarily through brownfield land.
So, according to ministers including Mr Osborne himself, there is room for almost 400,000 brownfield homes in Greater London, but only room for 200,000 in the whole of England. Last time I looked, Greater London was part of England, unless Boris Johnson is planning to declare it independent of course.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 24 February 2015
Bad Ideas, Good Ideas
We tend to blame Americans for the abandonment of good governance in this country, which is actually rather unfair.
True, it was some US economists who pioneered the idea of shrinking public administration to vanishing point, but these ideas are by no means universal across the Pond, and both good governance and smart growth can be found widely over there.
I was reminded of this when I read a short account of a conference this month in Maryland, where representatives of Smart Growth America's Local Leaders' Council met the local smart growth body, 1000 Friends of Maryland.
Just look at some of the topics they discussed.
1. Championing communities.
2. How a large highway and strip malls was turned into a grand boulevard with mixed uses, transit options and green space, despite attempts by road builders to undermine the idea.
3. Using transit-oriented-development to spur economic development.
4. An holistic approach to uplifting economically challenged districts by tackling six areas that were located near Metro stops.
5. Tackling an ageing population by focussing development around existing areas.
Transit-oriented-development remains a largely unexplored idea on this side of the Atlantic. One reason, of course, is that so many large conurbations lack much in the way of rail-based transit, something that needs to change urgently.
And the thought of changing some of our huge road-dependent retail mall dinosaurs into something more sustainable would be likely to cause horror.
But perhaps it really is time we started looking at some of Uncle Sam's better ideas.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 21 January 2015
A Prince Among Architects
The Prince of Wales has been upsetting architects again, which is not always a bad thing.
No trade or profession, especially my own, should regard itself as above criticism.
The object of their anger this time was a set of principles for architecture based on traditional approaches and universal principles. His thoughts were published in The Architectural Review and he set out 10 principles.
1. Developments must respect the land.
2. Architecture is a language.
3. Scale is also key.
4. Harmony, the playing together of all parts.
5. The creation of well-designed enclosures.
6. Materials also matter.
7. Signs, lights, utilities. They can be easily overused.
8. The pedestrian must be at the centre of the design process.
The Prince amplifies these points and his piece is worth a read. From a smart growth point of view, there's not actually much in them to disagree with.
One might have thought the architectural design process extended to some aspects of location, such as transit-oriented-development, street layouts permeable to cycling as well as pedestrians and active frontages in town centres.
But his call for appropriate densities, neither too high nor too low, and use of terraced housing and mansion blocks is right on the money.
Architects however, needless to say, have found much to upset them, as they usually do when the Prince opens his mouth on the subject.
Douglas Murphy, writing in The Guardian, accuses the Prince of pandering to right-wing neo-liberal economics and ignoring the technological advances which allowed architects and, more importantly, their clients, to dump monstrosities on us.
The political complaint is easily dealt with. Support for traditional forms of architecture and opposition to megalomaniac architecture cuts across the political spectrum.
And if neo-liberal economics has unleashed one form of architecture on the world, it is the central business district tower block, where legions of accountants, traders and other folk beaver away at self-enrichment. And, let us not forget, one of the biggest early fans of the Modern Movement was one Benito Mussolini. He just loved big box architecture.
As for the technological progress point, it was much used by the Modern Movement to justify the concrete hell they unleashed on our cities from the 1950s to the 1970s.
The Prince is old enough the remember the urban carnage the Movement unleashed, as am I. Traditional cities were to be swept away and replaced by tower blocks surrounded by barren areas of grass and elevated motorways.
It's hard to believe this was the plan, but traditional cities were to go almost completely, apart from a few pathetic sterilized historic buildings. And they very nearly succeeded. Most cities got a few of their nuclear bunkers in which people were supposed to live, shop, be educated and suffer. Urban motorways suppurated their way through cities here and there too.
Although many of these horrors have gone the way of the functional, social, communitarian towns they destroyed, plenty still remain. Have a drive round the centre of Gateshead, for example. You'll have plenty of time to contemplate what might have happened as you get lost on the elevated road system.
Younger architects may not realise why their fresh attempts to pass off a dysfunctional pile of boxes as architecture still excite such hostility. Well, the memories of that horrific period are one big reason.
Some professions' services are rendered in private, but the results of architecture, like planning, affect everyone, for decades. We are thus all consumers of architecture.
And that's why we have a right to say no.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 18 January 2015