‘Heart in the Right Street’ a report by Create Streets

I attended the launch of this report last week, at the invitation of its author, Nicholas Boys-Smith, I felt compelled to do so, as he claimed that I had in some small way inspired him to write it. Two years ago he made a presentation at HTA and at one point I challenged him to back up some of his claims for how certain building types were ‘better’ than others, with evidence. He felt then that his answer was unsatisfactory, and when the opportunity arose to produce this report, he used it to provide a better answer. I may not agree with everything in the report, but I wish everyone took my questions as seriously!

Attendees to the event were given a sort of ‘cheat sheet’ with ten guidelines for how to create good cities, and the report presents the evidence culled from numerous studies to back up the ten points. I paraphrase them as follows

1. Provide Greenery

2. Build more houses than apartments and build at higher density than the suburbs, but lower than necessitates high rises.

3. Build at human scale and never house children in high-rises.

4. Created connected walkable environments

5. Mix up land use with many uses

6. Block sizes should be ‘not too big’ and made up of individual buildings, not super sized buildings occupying a single block

7. Minimise internal communal space and corridors

8. Beauty matters, 

9. Create mixed facades at street level, shops, entrances, etc.

10. Make neighbourhoods dense enough to be walkable, 150-220 homes per hectare.

Most housing designers wouldn’t be too frightened by this, in fact most would support most of them, if not all of them, most of the time. But probably wouldn’t support all of them all of the time. The report is well researched and documented and could be recommended for no other reason than its bibliography which provides any interested party with a serious amount of good reading material. He references Charles Montgomeries Happy Cities book a lot, which is a good thing, as well as academic research from around the world on city living in Singapore, Vancouver, Newcastle, Copenhagen, Hong Kong and, of course, London.

About the only area where I find myself violently disagreeing with Nicholas is on the subject of ‘Beauty’. He maintains that beauty is not really in the eye of the beholder and he points to a lot of research to suggest that people do know what they like, and what they like is not liked by architects. He goes on to suggest that if more new development followed his rules and was also liked by people (because it conformed to a more general sense of beauty), then more high density life would  be allowed to happen and we would all be better off. 

I find it optimistic that changing the appearance of some modern development would make its neighbours welcome it any more than they do, motivated as they often are, by concerns over traffic, schools, and a general incoherent fear of change.

The simple reality, as I see it, is that architects don’t exist to provide what people ‘like’ any more than any artist exists to provide what people like. You might say that architecture is not ‘Art’ but you would be wrong. The purpose of Art is not to comfort and reassure, but often to challenge, sometimes startle. I do agree that housing architecture should never terrify or induce fear, that would be going much too far, but trying to create an environment like the Disney Main Street is something housing architects are not supposed to do. That is the job of set designers, a different species entirely. Our job is to create good neighbourhoods where people will want to live, but we must also always deliver good value for our clients. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

This is a good and well-researched project. It’s aims are positive, and well-meant, but sometimes overstepping the bounds of academic research into populist polemic. All housing architects who take their work seriously should read it and be as knowledgeable about the research as the author is. Housing architecture is a serious responsibility and not to be taken lightly, and this work echoes that seriousness by providing pointers to a lot of recent valuable research, as well as pointing to many areas where further research would be useful and welcome.

A point that doesn’t really come across from the work, although it is one of the ten guidelines, is that suburban density is not high enough to create successful living environments. Much much more of modern housing is built at suburban density than any other density, and in terms of numbers, the towers that he dislikes so much will only ever provide a fraction of the new housing in cities, whether they are liked or not. Suburban density causes so many other problems in the form of long commutes, high CO2 emissions, use of agricultural land, than high-rises do, but the idea of suburbia is not disliked by the general population nearly as much as they dislike high-rise living. 

If this book has any impact on policy, I would like it to prompt a review of the density of new suburbs. We are fooling ourselves by thinking that low-rise low-density suburbs are the answer to any of our housing problems.

On the one had Nicholas would have it that the people are right, to seek their idea of beauty and to decry high-rise living, but on the other hand they are wrong to hanker for the suburbs and the inevitable burden on the planet and personal isolation it brings. I think he wants to have his cake and eat it. But, don’t we all?

2 Billion Cars

2 Billion Cars, a book by Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon.

The VW Boardroom decides to cheat its emission tests

The VW Boardroom decides to cheat its emission tests

This book is a very interesting read, particularly at this moment, with the backdrop of the VW emissions scandal in the media. The book covers the recent history of both the oil industry and the car industry, in the context of regulation, efficiency and the drive to reduce emissions.

In particular, the part where the book describes how European and Japanese manufacturers made progress in the US market when they offered more fuel-efficient cars with lower exhaust emissions makes for painful reading. American manufacturers fought tooth and nail against higher efficiency and emission standards for decades, and watched with surprise when they were blindsided by foreign manufacturers who saw this demand coming. Those manufacturers must be feeling a little schadenfreude at the moment as they watch VW and other manufacturers admit that they were cheating on their emissions scores.

There are good chapters on the oil industry and how it works, on the growing demand for cars in Asian economies, and on the regulatory regime in California. The book is a really useful reference on the development of fuel-efficient cars including hybrids, the introductions of regulations worldwide and the resistance of the US-based car industry to improving fuel efficiency.  I expect that the book will appeal most to people interested in transport and sustainability problems (which ought to be most of us!)
Some of the points made in the book

1. Since growth in car usage in developed countries has flatlined, or started to decrease, all the growth in vehicles will come from developing countries, with annual growth rates in vehicles about 7-8 percent annually. Whatever India and China do will have the biggest effect on greenhouse gas emissions. The recent pictures of Beijing and Shanghai smog are testament to the growth in those cities of the number of cars but equally their failure to control emissions. (to be fair, not all of it is from cars)

2. There are large parts of the world where infrastructure costs mean that people will continue to use their cars and will not have public transport available to them in the foreseeable future.

3. The chapter on oil is particularly interesting, and how the oil ‘market’ is really not a market, but is in fact carefully managed supply by the oil producers, many of who are using oil to prop up their economies, and often they are among the few non-democracies (or failed democracies) on the planet. When you think of the success of the developed economies that based their success on ‘Guns Germs and Steel’ you wonder at the current level of success being enjoyed by places like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Venezuela and how they are going to make use of it. The signs so far is that they are going to waste the opportunity. Therefore, making the personal passenger vehicle more environmentally-friendly is key if the rest of us are to stop this haemorraging of wealth into corrupt nations that aren’t going to use it wisely.

4. The chapter on the oil industry also highlighted that we are nowhere near peak oil. The amount of unconventional sources such as fracked gas and tar sands is large enough to blow any chance of staying within the 2 Degrees target. So gas and oil usage will have to be further regulated if we have any chance of managing climate change risks to acceptable levels. (is there such a thing?)

5. The authors are very clear that the best way to promote energy independence and reduce emissions is to impose very high fuel performance standards. Government, they say, should never “bet on a technology winner”, but should instead make performance-based goals the only measure of success, both for fuel performance standards, and exhaust standards. (there are interesting parallels here between the support for nuclear energy by some governments and coal by others)

6. The chapter on California was particularly interesting, highlighting why it is in a unique position to influence national policy on sustainable transportation, and how it can therefore influence policy globally. There are parallels with the role of London in the UK, setting higher standards for buildings and cars, and trialling new technologies before other cities. Sadly, the book was published before Tesla really got going, and I hope that the authors do a revised edition soon to cover the meteoric rise of the electric car worldwide in the last five years.

7. The chapters on the history of the American car manufacturers are instructive for a number of reasons. It is an object lesson on how large corporations lose contact with their customers and focus on doing what they have always done instead of being innovative and market-facing. (The idea that markets are always alive to the demands of the market is an over-simplification of reality)I am reminded of the behaviour of UK housebuilders here as they avoid regulation by complaining that the market doesn’t demand energy efficient homes, and that that adding efficiency increases costs.

8. The way that the US manufacturers used perverse incentives to create gas-guzzling vehicles at the point where they should have been investing in R&D of more fuel efficient engines and vehicles tells you a lot about the behaviour of corporates. What well-run company would have bought Hummer? General Motors, thats who.

9. The authors felt that one of the best hopes to increase fuel efficiency when the book was written was to use plug-in hybrids, like the unexpectedly successful Prius. They rightly point out that hydrogen-powered fuel cells remain a laboratory project.

My only quibble with the book is that its already a little out of date, the authors failed to mention the potential for renewable energy and battery storage to play a major role in energy management and the use of smart grids, but since these ideas are relatively recent perhaps its forgivable. Another reason for a new edition.


Happy City – a Review 

Happy City, a book by Charles Montgomery, should be on the shelf (digital or physical) of everyone interested in the sustainable future of cities. Given that more than half the worlds population now live in them, and that the numbers continue to rise, that should represent a lot of people. For some people, myself among them, the ideas presented in the book are not new. What is new, is the evidence he provides, statistical, personal and independent, that gives new life to those ideas. 

The central theme of the book is that disconnected urban sprawl, the worst kind of supurbia, where people move further and further from major population centres, is bad for the planet, for the people whose lives are spent commuting, and for the rest of us whose taxes go to pay for all the infrastructure that such places need. None of this sounds surprising to me, and I imagine it won’t surprise you either, so why is it that across the world, including here in the UK, we continue to build most of our new homes in exactly these kinds of locations? Far from transport arteries, schools, amenities and services.

Montgomery points out that the appeal of the suburb is based on us lying to ourselves, that we owe it to our children to give them a good life, that crime is lower in the suburbs, and that schools are better. He demolishes these fictions by pointing out that in North America, the value of suburban housing is stagnating, making sprawl a poor investment. Children who grow up in sprawl are more likely to fail in school or end up with a criminal record because their parents are usually absent, working and commuting long hours to pay for the suburban dream, and because new suburbs are particularly bereft of services and activities for children and older people. Instead of the Good Life that buyers imagined, they end up in Breaking Bad. 

I particularly enjoyed the chapter describing how the car manufacturers bought up light rail systems in north America and then dismantled them, as they were a threat to their business. How they introduced the jay-walking laws to criminalise walking when there was a danger that deaths on the road would reduce car sales. When people talk about the dangers of listening only to the private sector, there is a good case study.  The car industry has been a good employer and earner of foreign exchange for a few countries for the last fifty years or so, but look at the legacy it leaves us. We bought the marketing, now we have to live with the consequences.

Happy City is not all about failure, it covers a lot of ground where improvements have been made in enabling cities to deliver a better life for their inhabitants through better public transport systems, cycling lanes, or just more local community life. From Bogota, to Paris, Mexico City to Atlanta, he has drawn on many sources and interviews for evidence of successes and failures. This is a thoroughly researched book, and an enjoyable read. I recommend it!

The Race for Resources – “Winner Takes All” – Dambisa Moyo

Dambisa Moyo’s book, “Winner Takes All” is an important book that should be read by everyone interested in sustainability. The subject of the book, the growing need for resources and the failure of our current political and economic structures to react to this need, is an important one that goes to the heart of what sustainability is. Her time horizon is measured in decades, not years, and the relevance of her subject is as much for the next generation as it is for this one. The subtitle to the book ‘China’s race for resources and what it means for us’ is a canny one, and will have garnered her many readers for whom books on global economics or commodity shortages are rarely on their reading lists. The decades-old fear of China is hard to shake off and some readers will have bought this book in the hope of having their worst fears confirmed. The Chinese are coming!

Except that they’re not, at least not in that way. They are coming to resource-rich and money-poor countries, though. China has a different political and economic structure to the rest of us, and that means that they look at resource shortages in a different way too. For China, it is important to keep the population happy in the long term, because without that their entire political and economic structure is at risk. For most democracies, the focus is on the need to keep the population happy in the short term, because that is what keeps the current party in power. China’s longer term outlook has led them to sign multi-billion deals with Africa, Asian, and South American countries that deliver infrastructure and other benefits to the host country and deliver long-term resource flows for China. These resources range from copper, oil, and coal to keep the hungry Chinese industrial machine fed, and cotton, chicken and beef to keep the increasingly demanding consumer society clothed and fed. As these resources become scarcer, China is taking steps to keep them flowing to their people.

The interesting question that she raises is this, by signing these deals over the last decade, China appears to have stolen a march on other developing and developed nations and paid over the odds for these resources. Is this really the case? It’s akin to paying too much in today’s market for houses in a neighbourhood that isn’t much in demand now, but is a good prospect in two decades time. China’s strategy might work out in economic terms, and it might not. Between 2005 and 2012 China invested $400 billion overseas. This is not small change. What is concerning is that China appears to be the only major economy doing deals on this scale. China is able to do so because we have outsourced so much of our manufacturing there over the last few decades and they have a huge trade surplus that enables these deals. China is betting that it will need these resources, and all indicators are that they are correct. Other countries, including the developed nations will need them too, but don’t appear to be as interested, or if they are they seem to be unable to organise themselves to act. The recent GOP/Democratic squabbles are a good example of this. Dambisa contrasts the US foreign policy behaviour with that of China over the last decade, one the US side its a litany of failure, aggression, naked self-interest, paternalism and division. On the Chinese side its a different story of political disinterest, commercial goodwill, win-win agreements, and a long list of happy partners. The contrast could hardly be greater.

I commend this book to you, it covers a complex topic well, and the subject matter is very relevant to anyone interested in working towards a sustainable future.


Do you know the way to Sustainia? I’ve got a lot of friends in Sustainia.

After reading “Seven Years to Save the Planet!” I was interested to read the latest offerings from our friends in Copenhagen working in the Green Growth Leaders team. These people are very interested in ‘selling’ sustainability because many of their businesses are based on products or services that will lead us to a more sustainable future, and because they are genuinely interested in a more sustainable future for us all. I have no problem with companies marketing sustainability to me, provided that their claims of greeness are accurate.

I was fascinated by their recent publication called ‘Sustainia‘, a guide to achieveing a more sustainable future. Instead of Bill McGuires doom-mongering, this much shorter offering aims to paint such a beautiful picture of a sustainable future that we are all going to want it immediately. Of the two strategies this seems to hold more promise for the majority of the population who will only believe doom-mongering when the flood/avalanche/lavaflow/duststorm/apocalypse actually hits them and not one minute before.

I liked the effort that has gone into Sustainia even though some of it is too much like marketing speak rather than real fiction. If they could only persuade Haruki Murakami to write it, it would be much better.

They sum up their ambition by quoting Antoine de Saint Exupery:

"If you want to build a ship, don't
drum up people to collect wood and
don't assign them tasks and work, but
rather teach them to long for the endless
immensity of the sea."

I take their point, but at some stage you DO have to collect wood, and assign tasks, or else nothing would ever happen! I also liked their point that if Martin Luther King had said ‘I have a nightmare!’ the likelihood is that his speech wouldn’t have had quite the same impact. This sounds trite but I think that it contains a very important core of wisdom. The environmental movement has been crying Wolf! unsuccessfully now for about forty years. It is time to try a different form of warning and persuasion. We can’t wait for the wolf to turn up to be proven right.

Seven Years to Save the Planet!

If apocalyptic literature is you bag, then you will love this. Bill McGuire, a volcanologist (I kid you not) turned climate change expert and member of the Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Centre wrote this book in 2008, to tell us how little time we had, and five years on not much has changed. Was there something wrong with the message? Well if his intention was to scare the pants off everyone and hope that this was going to galvanise them into action, then he got it wrong. His facts are right(ish) insofar as apocalyptic facts can ever be. I enjoyed reading the book because it made me feel good about being alive and still being able to get to work, when doom was just around the corner. I think that the device of summarising each chapter, which are already only a few pages long was a strange thing to do, a sort of Digested Read at the beginning of each chapter, presumably for the really lazy environmentalists who only want the headlines. I would buy this book if I were you and I would read it for the information that it contains and to help you to acquire a sense of urgency (if for some reason you don’t already have one). But don’t expect to be uplifted or galvanised by it.

One passage struck me as ironic, I quote it here in full. On the subject of EU efforts to support microgeneration he says:

It seems that the UK, however, is still in the dark ages. Inefficient centralised energy generation remains utterly dominant, with micro-generation strangled at birth by government cutbacks, to the extent that homeowners once interested in the idea have now given up in disgust. Bill McGuire Seven Years to Save the Planet.2008.

Plus ca change….

The Third Chimpanzee – Jared Diamond

I have just finished reading this, and I am depressed. Firstly because I would like to have written the book; it is written in an easily read but convincing style, leavened with the self-deprecating humour that I think is necessary in a scientist. We read this book with the understanding that Jared Diamond is a brilliant man, but we can imagine discussing interesting topics with him over a drink, if we ever got to meet him.

What is much more depressing is the fact that the subject matter, the rise to its current global domination of our species, makes it difficult to see how our future, based on an understanding of our past, can be anything other than disastrous. Prof. Diamond’s simple but brilliant plan is to demonstrate the folly of our ways to us by holding up a mirror and showing us our previous failures. He then asks the question, will we learn from our mistakes? He doesn’t answer that question, but he hopes that we will. I hope so too, but the evidence in favour is not overwhelming.

The most interesting point that he makes is that humankind has never lived in harmony with nature. There has never been a Golden Age when we lived in harmony with our surroundings, we have never learned to live within our means. In his later book Collapse, he deals with the consequences for many civilisations around the world throughout history, who collapsed because they either outgrew the resources that supplied them, or they destroyed those resources in ignorance, or they were overtaken by some climatic change that destroyed the fragile ecosystem that they depended on.

The expansion of humanity across the globe, from the earliest days has resulted in mass extinctions wherever mankind alighted, particularly when we moved to areas where the fauna had no real predators and there was no instinct to flee when a Man/Woman hove into view. The result was the extinction of most edible large species in many parts of the globe. The flightless birds of New Zealand, the large mammals of North America, the dodo, the mammoth, etc., etc.,

The fact that we are facing huge levels of species extinction still, and will continue to do so for decades to come, demonstrates that we have little clue, or instinct, for integrating with our surroundings. We have a long, long way to go , to understand how the ecosystems of our planet work, and how we can begin to live alongside those systems, without destroying them.

I commend this book to you.

A Blueprint for a Safer Planet – Nicholas Stern

I have just finished reading this, and I recommend it highly. It deals clearly and simply with the economic aspects of climat change. It reads as a ‘new readers start here’ of macroeconomics. The tone is never preachy, but it is authoritive,which is to be expected from such an author.

My only quibble is that Stern focuses rather a lot on growth, particularly for developing countries, as a ‘must have’. He can see no argument for developing nations to slow their growth in order to slow their greenhouse gas emission growth. He says that the developing world must have its shot at propserity and we in the developed world have no right to say no to them, even if we could. Whilst I agree that this is perfectly correct from a moral perspective, it rather fails as a strategy for delivering reductions worldwide in the short term. Would China and India prefer to slow their carbon intensive growth if a global climate strategy were to suggest it to them, and make it worth their while?, on the basis that their people are the ones who will suffer most from a failure to act. It seems to be something that is at least worth considering, even if it is unpalatable. If developed nations are willing to pay farmers in Brazil not to raze the rainforest, perhaps we would be willing to pay Indian farmers not to do the same in Orissa.

That aside, and the fact that the book, in paperback at least, is very poorly produced, and hardly illustrated at all, this is an essential read for all policymakers, environmentalists and anyone else who cares.

Ecological Intelligence

The book Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Coleman sets out to characterise and identify the attitude of the title. He describes ecological intelligence as a purchasing attitude that will inform us all about the benefits and problems associated with the products and services that we buy. This change in the purchasing behaviour will come about as we get a better understanding of these benefits and in some cases dangers. He focusses on food and beauty products as two area where consumer behaviour is already changing. He cites the organic movement and websites such as Goodguide as evidence of this. Examples that he doesn’t cite but are more relevant to an European audience are

  • the BRE Green Guide , a rating system for the construction industry
  • the ethical superstore, a store whose aim is to supply products which are already highly rated for being environmentally friendly, fairtrade, and/or organic,
  • topten , a site that combines information from many european countries on the highest performing products from an energy saving perspective in a number of popular categories.

It can be seen from this short list that there is already a substantial amount of effort underway to provide the information Coleman wishes to see ‘out there’ but it is less clear how this information is affecting consumer behaviour, particularly in an economic downturn. I recommed the book, it is written simply and clearly, and his tone is that of a participant rather than an observer which makes it easier to engage with.

Heat by George Monbiot

George Monbiot is the Angry Man of the environmental movement in the UK, an important role since every movement needs an Angry Man.
Heat is well worth reading, it is exhaustively researched, highly opinionated and occasionally funny. I admire anyone who can write intelligently about climate change and still be funny. There are too many environmentalists who are more mental than environmental and generally lack the necessary self awareness to be funny.
Among many issues related to achieving a 90% carbon emission reduction by 2030 Monbiot discusses the wonderfully named Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate which says that as energy efficiency increases other services move into the ‘efficiency’ space this created and use up the energy. Similar to the ‘rebound’ effect at a domestic level where we compensate ourselves for being efficient by going on a foreign holiday for a weekend. The result of these two effects is that energy efficiency measures can increase energy use.
I disagree with some of the suggestions he makes on how to achieve the required reductions. For housing he suggests that all new housing should be south facing for solar gain. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how housing design does and should work. Places that are designed in this way make poor places to live and work, and there are many examples in South East China to illustrate to us why we should not pursue this course of action. A place where we live should engender a sustainable community first and be energy efficient second. We must be careful not to sacrifice design to energy efficiency.
On the subject of energy meters Monbiot is already out of date as the UK govt has mandated their introduction since this book was published.
His conclusion that housing can only produce a 30% cut in emissions by 2030 is probably accurate and that major efforts will be required in this period to reduce the carbon emissions of the national grid.
Overall this is a thought provoking and informative book, it should be required Reading for every energy consultant, politician and local authority policy officer in the UK.
The book comes with a forty page list of references that will fill your bedside table for years.