Building your Sustainable Library

You wait a while for a good book and then two come along at once. 

I attended the UK launch of two different books relevant to you this week, the first was ‘Sustainable Cities – Assessing the Performance and Practice of Urban Envrionments’ edited by Pierre Laconte and Chris Glossop and published by I.B.Tauris ISBN 978-1-78453-232-1.

This is a portmanteau publication, containing a number of chapters written by other authors, some of which will have been published elsewhere in some form, but not all together as in this case, and not carefully considered for their relevant to this important topic. 

The question of sustainable cities, what defines them, what standards allies to them, how do we choose indicators to assess the, and when we build them how do we know we have succeeded, are all questions tackled by authors in this publication. Given that we have now passed the point at which 50% of the worlds population lives in cities, there is hardly a bigger question for sustainability specialists to work on. If we can crack this, we can avoid runaway climate change.

Authors include Dr. Kerry Mashford, the late Sir Peter Hall, Chris Glossop and Dr Ian Douglas.

I also attended a lecture given by architect Stefano Boeri on his recent project in Milan, Bosco Verticale. The event was hosted by the Engineering Club at the Congress Centre. (A few architects turned up)

Bosco Verticale translates to Vertical Forest, and his two buildings in Milan, evenly constructed for Hines, and then sold on to Qatari Diar, demonstrate what he means by this. Each apartment has a tree on the balcony, several metres tall, together wth a quantity of shrubs and smaller plants. The publication ‘un Bosco Verticale, a vertical Forest- instructions booklet for the prototype forest city’ published by Corraini,  ISBN 9-788875-705411 was available on the night and furnishes a lot of background information to the project including the following numbers. 

The project provides two hectares of forest and 8900 Sqm of balcony area.

This includes 711 trees, 5,000 shrubs, 15,000 perennials, absorbing 19,825kg of CO2 per annum.

There are approximately 1600 birds and insects (although how they could know this is not explained!) This includes a box of ladybirds imported from Germany to eat aphids and other pests. (I don’t know why they needed Germany ladybirds)

The design uses 94 species of plants, giving it a very high level of biodiversity.

The trees are planted in steel-lined planters to prevent the roots cracking the structure, and they are loosely tied back to the structure in case they could be blown off iin hurricane level winds. The steel-linings will also constrain the growth of the trees so that they cannot get too big for the space available or too heavy for the structure. They are a bit like enormous  bonsai trees. They are maintained partially from the balconies, but the outer sides are pruned by gardeners that abseil down the outside of the buildings twice a year. While this might sound outlandish, consider that many glass buildings are routinely maintained by abseilers. 

The result is extraordinary, a pair of buildings that look like no others, and a second project is underway in France. Stefano was quite straightforward in admitting that it took some time and a lot of effort to convince his clients that this could work. There are elements of what was built that he will change the second time, and he has plans to continue to develop  the idea on a larger scale.

He was asked many times by the audience about squirrels, which he was not in favour of, but which he expected to arrive anyway, and also about fruit trees, as none of the species used are fruiting trees. He cited concerns about the dangers of falling fruit as the reasons why they weren’t used. This sounds to me like a problem that could be solved, and would add a further beneficial dimension to what is already a beautiful and convincing idea. 

This is an inspiring idea and one that merits your attention.


Jane Jacobs on Street Life

In her book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs paints a rosy picture of urban street life. Particularly urban street life and the urban children she observes in it. She writes about the children playing in Hudson Street where she lives in Greenwich Village and draws firm conclusions from her experience.

She observes that shopkeepers are part of the lifeblood of the street, they partially supervise the children playing, tell them off for being troublesome, help them out when they need it, give directions to strangers and hold keys for residents who are away for the weekend. She notes that they don’t become close friends with many people, but have a relationship based on nods and smiles and the occasional sentence in passing. A relationship based on mutual self-interest. The shopkeeper is saying, ‘I’ll keep an eye on things and you can trust me because I need to retain your trust” 

She observes that the children benefit from the mixture of parenting from their real parents and the guidance and commentary they get from neighbours, shopkeepers and passers by. This tells the children that the world in general cares about them and takes a small but important interest in their well-being. They in turn learn that its important that they too take an interest in the world and the well-being of their playmates and the world around them. Soon, they too begin to offer help to strangers, giving directions or advice.

At no point does she mention the impact of traffic on active play, there probably wasn’t so much of it that it had a major impact on Hudson street, although photographs taken at the time show plenty of cars parked on the streets of New York in the 1950’s. She does state that to be effictive ‘play’ streets, the ‘sidewalks’ should be ‘thirty to thirty-five feet wide’ to accommodate any kind of play that could be required, but acknowledges that the requirements of traffic mean that there are few streets of that width even then.


Greenwich Village,New York, 1950’s Getty Images

She strongly criticizes the idea that ‘managed’ or supervised play space in parks is any substitute for ‘unmanaged’ street play. Her main problem with ‘managed play’ is that children beyond a very young age don’t want to be actively supervised by their parents and lose interest in such play very quickly. Play spaces in parks are also unsafe because they are usually too far from street life to be supervised by the passers by. She also critizes the lack of male intervention in such places, where children are usually supervised by their mothers only, in contrast to the street where they are supervised and protected by, and able to interact with, a host of different people, men and women, young and old, locals and passers by.

The image she paints is idyllic in some senses, a loose community of neighbours who look out for each other, particularly for each others children, while still going about their business in a normal way. Its the perfect mixture of privacy where no-one is prying into your personal affairs (associated with village life) and still enough human interest to know that if you didn’t show up to buy a pint of milk your neighbours would check up on you to see if you were OK.
The street itself had the interesting feature of steps up to the front doors of houses or apartment buildings. These steps gave places for residents to survey the street for a long distance from an elevated position in relative security. They gave children a small place to sit and play out of the way of passers by, but most importantly gave residents a place to watch, interact with or supervise the world as it went by.

Fast forward to London 2015.

Shopkeepers are rarely, if ever, at the front of their shops. Their windows are full of goods and it is often impossible to see the street from inside shops, particularly greengrocers and supermarkets. Even if the street were visible, the shopkeepers rarely own their shops as so many of them are chain stores and the staff are rotated on a regular basis. As automated tills come in the number of staff is dwindling, and the ability of shopkeepers to participate in street life diminishes. As retail moves more to the Internet, fewer and fewer shops are needed to sell goods on the high street, as they are being undercut by online businesses. 

The bright spark in this is food retailing, which appears to be getting stronger, and the increase of street life that comes with it is enormous, even if a lot of it includes the use of tables on already too-narrow pavements. Waiting staff come out to the street to bring food and deliver orders, deliveries come and go and the ballet of the street expands instead of contracting. It will be interesting to see how this develops over the next decade. 

No-one plays on the streets for any length of time, and hasn’t done so for a generation. Children’s play takes place either in their back gardens, or in schools, or, for a short while, in the street while they go to, or come from, school. This is also supervised play insofar as there is almost always a parent or two there to ensure that they get to school on time. This concerns the minority of children who actually walk to school, most of them are driven by parents fearful of their children being hit by a car while walking to school. 

Public parks are often empty, they are very busy on sunny weekends, but often deserted in weektimes, particularly the play areas, children are often brought there to play on their way home, and then ferried home for dinner, by car.

Children are not usually let out to play before or after tea/dinner. They sit at home playing video games instead, possibly playing with their friends in nearby homes, but only connected via cyberspace. If they do meet their friends to play it is usually organised by parents and the children are delivered and collected, by car.

Cars parked in the street take up about 50% of the land left for the street. Pavements are wide enough to allow two buggies to pass each other and no more. Parents don’t let their children play in front of their houses because they are afraid that they might be abducted, or damage a neighbours car, and in any case there isn’t room for them to play in. 

The only extensive street play I have observed is streets being taken over by parents in high-vis jackets to close it off to through traffic, with the support of the local council. Children are encouraged to play in the street, but supervised by their anxious parents. I can image how Jacobs would laugh at this. I am sure these street closures are helping people to get to know each other and to enable their children to be more active, but it is hardly a solution to the problem, more of a symptom. The presence of hundreds of cars means that the kinds of games children would like to play cannot be played, there simply isn’t the space. 

Disability legislation means that it is now almost impossible to design houses with ‘stoops’ or steps in front that provide places to view or supervise the street. Residents of new neighbourhoods will be on the same level as those passing by, and rooms on the street frontage are that much darker and noisier as a result. Ideally the ground floors of urban buildings would always be gven over to commercial uses, but it is unlikely that there will ever be enough commercial uses to go around.


We don’t appear to have learned very much from the mistakes or from the successes of the past as described by Jacobs, modern places are still mainly designed with traffic in mind, not with people in mind. Traffic engineering rules, bin lorry sizes and utilities have a  much stronger voice when it comes to the design of places than any consideration of what type of society a place is likely to foster. Children are given play areas which are intended for them to play in, but what child wants to play in an organised way? Some of these places, usually corraled by railings, are even intended for ‘doorstep’ play. Play, by definition, is not organised. 

Finally, Jacobs firm belief was that public street life allows people to interact with each other equally, because everyone has the right to be there. The street is the ultimate social leveller.

‘If there is no public street life, and there are only opportunities for formal interaction, this tends to suit a self-selecting confident middle-class.’

The Triumph of the City – Edward Glaeser – A Review

Edward Glaeser has penned this work on the benefits of the city from the perspective of the economist.  A useful and unusual perspective, the first major work on cities  from an economics perspective since Jane Jacobs penned ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ and ‘Cities and the Wealth of Nations’. 

The book is wide in scope and exhaustively annotated, and suitable for use as a textbook as well as being an interesting read. Every town planner and every city councillor should be forced to read it and not allowed to make a single plan or decision without  reading it.

Glaeser is not such a good writer as Jacobs, but he does create some pithy one-liners that could go on a city planners or mayors annual calendar.

The essential ingredient for the success of the modern city is the accessibility of talent. The basic premise of the book revolves around this statement.

Cities and Talent

Glaeser writes extensively on the subject of cities abilities to attract talent, including presenting many case studies of city growth and city failure around the globe over the last two centuries.

When presented with a series of trade-offs including the cost of housing, the ability to earn high wages and the potential to be close to good schools, families will make a decision to go to the city or suburb that gives them the best likelihood of success. Cities that cannot provide all three are likely to be limiting their ability to attract the greatest amount of talent.

He points out the particular problem of enabling and maintaining good schools in inner cities and although this is heavily US-centric there are relevant comparisons to be made in the UK, particularly in London where there are fewer good schools in inner city areas and many families move to the suburbs in search of good schools.

Glaeser points to many examples of cities that have used good education systems, particularly universities, such as London, Paris, Boston to keep their best and brightest people and to attract outsiders: ‘to thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively’ and ‘Because the essential characteristic of humanity is to learn from each other, cities make us more human’

He points out, rather romantically for an economist, that the advent of the connected society through cyberspace has in no way lessened the neccessity of face-to-face connections with talent. ‘connecting in cyberspace will never be the same as sharing a meal, a smile or a kiss’

The Sustainable City

He makes the point that were China and India to live the way the US does, and follow a path of abandoning the inner city for the ‘exurbs’, would raise the planets CO2 emissions by 139%. He suggests that there is some evidence that the Chinese ‘get’ density in their deign of places. Whether there is evidence that the Chinese ‘get’ quality of life in the same way, I am less sure. But his central point is well made, we can only offer convincing advice to developing countries if we are seen to be busy repairing the damage we have done ourselves already. The US has some way to go on this point.  ‘The only way the West can earn any moral authority on global warming is to first get its own house in order.’

Being an economist, and having dealt with the improvements that many cities have made to their transport systems through congestion charging, he points out that ‘Unless we charge people for the carbon they emit, they won’t emit less’.

He suggests that the exurbs are a temporary phenomenon and limited to some places, rather than having a general future. But he doesn’t have the evidence to back this up. ‘I suspect, that in the long run, the twentieth century fling with suburban living will look, just like the brief age of the industrial city, more like an aberration than a trend.’

Misguided Conservation

He makes a strong point about misguided conservation in places like California. (it could easily be London) where he points out that Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) only assess the impact of develoment being built, and not the impact of it being built elsewhere instead; which is unfortunate because elsewhere in the US is a place like Houston where there is less development control than in California and where more houses are being built, and which are therefore cheaper and more attractive to workers and familes. But the result is a higher overall carbon footprint because Houston is uninhabitable without air-conditioning. And everyone drives everywhere. Conservation in California keeps California the way the rich Californians like it, but means that alternative places which are less suitable for sustainable living are used instead. In the UK, substitute Surrey for California and the result is largely the same.

He maintains that people who fight dense development in order to protect local low density life or green spaces  are simply moving the problem elsewhere, an elsewhere that is further from services and transport infrastructure that will mean more develoment on green field sites and more car travel.

‘The interests of people who oppose change are certainly comprehensible, but their interests usually don’t match the public interest.’

Policy should aim to encourage development in those parts of the country where it makes most sense, near to infrastructure and jobs, and not on creating areas of land like Green Belts that have little or no real environmental benefit but which results in more sprawl further away from economic centres and longer commutes for workers who cannot afford urban prices. ‘Urban living is sustainable sustainability,rural ecotowns are not.’ 

It seems to me that the difference between the UK and the US is that the results of long commutes is less obviously harmful in carbon terms as our cars are more efficient and public transport networks are good, but if you look at Charles Montgomery’s book on Happy Cities, you will see that the costs of long commutes include broken marriages and unhappy children because of the absence of one or both parents for most of the day. Environmental reasons are not the only reasons to be concerned by the need for long commutes.

On Urban Poverty

He takes a seemingly rather cold hearted look at urban poverty and points out that ‘Cities will always have poor people, and this is a sign of success, not failure, as cities should attract poor people who want to improve their lot’. Certianly the history of London and New York bears this out as places where waves of immigrants have come, found places to live near to the ports, worked in these cities, gradually become part of society and then moved from the enclaves where they started out together for mutual suport and eventually merged with society as a whole. There is a building in the East End of London that has been a mosque, a synagogue, and a church at different times as different cultures arrived and left.

‘Cities especially benefit from an influx of talent, because immigrants help urban areas play their crucial role of connecting countries.’

He deals well with the economic benifits of collecting talent in the same location, both for cultural movements and technical innovation. The problem is when cities create areas of poor people who will always be poor, as has happened in many areas of the UK where social housing has been built in large clusters. Sometimes this has resulted in creating communities where unemployment and benefit dependency has become a way of life and difficult to disrupt. He pours scorn on efforts in many US cities where attempts at regeneration have focussed on building infrastructure and housing in failing places where neither were needed, and suggests that a better use of money would have been to give it to the disadvanteged and allowed them to move to wherever they would prefer to live. A chilling piece of evidence that he provides is that poorer children displaced from New Orleans have demonstrated improvements in school results in the communities they have moved to. Sometimes, he suggests, new buildings are not what is needed.

On Management

‘The more centralised a nations government, the larger its capital city, because people are attracted to power as ants are to picnics’

‘Much of the world suffers under awful governments, and that provides an edge for those cities that are administered well’ He doesn’t examine the different types of civic government that have worked well, but its interesting that the examples he cites tend to be places where a strong individual took control, often for a sustained period. The same can be said of the failures.

‘..among cities, failure seem similar, while success seem unique’

Glaeser identifies a common problem of political and cultural attitudes to city life, which has often found its way into city management in the past, and still does today. Political animals who must attract votes from the wider community don’t always understand the particular needs of the cities under their control, or even how to ensure that they are managed properly. The conflict between what is good for the country, and what is good for the city is dealt with through a number of case studies. His comments about the negative impacts of taxation could have been written about the UK.

‘Cities can compete on a level playing field, but over the past sixty years America’s policies have slanted the field steeply against them. In the areas of housing, social services, education, transportation, the environment and even income taxes, American policies have worked against urban areas. Cities have managed to survive despite these advantages because they have so much to offer.’

When it comes to managing a city budget, he is unequivocal:

‘As much as I appreciate urban culture, aesthetic interventions can never substitute for the urban basics.‘ These are Safety, Education & Transport.

His case study on Singapore is very interesting as it demonstrates how a city-state can function without a rural hinterland. ‘Singapore’s success illustrates the irrelevance of acreage’. Again, he makes the point, as Jane Jacobs did, that cities are really the economic engines of a modern society, and as they need resources it doesn’t appear to affect their success or failure where those resoures come from. Provided the city can attract and keep talent, and maintain a good economic strength, it can afford to buy the resources that it needs. He fails to point out that the resources also come with a carbon footprint and outsourcing production of resources, such as food, from long distances, has the same effect on CO2 emissions as curtailing developent within its boundaries.


If you are interested in urban design, sustainability, town and city planning, then this book should be on a shelf close to your desk, alongside the works of Jane Jacobs and Henry Montgomery.

Building on the Green Belt

Paul Cheshire of the London School of Economics came to HTA last month and presented his thoughts on Building on the Green Belt. It was at once appalling and fascinating. I think it is worthwhile to explore ideas that are superficially appalling to analyse why they affect us in this way and whether our sensitivity to them is real or something we have learned without really absorbing the rationale behind it. The history of civilisation is full of bad ideas that were once held to be good ideas but which we now find appalling. By we, I largely mean Western civilisation. By bad ideas I mean racism, fascism, UKIP, factory farming…those sorts of ideas. What seems obvious to one generation can often appal the next one. Think about 70’s fashion!

Building on the Green Belt(BoGB) has come to attract the same strong reactions as some of those ideas above, whether one is for or against, there is no real middle ground. The cause against BoGB is is largely emotional and visceral, its ‘green’ land, the reasoning goes, so it must be nice, its surely full of woodland and trees, it harbours the last vestige of medieval connectivity with the ‘land’ that feeds us. We will all choke to death on the fumes of cars and buildings if we allow this to continue, etc., etc.,We are carpeting over England’s green and pleasant land and we mustn’t allow it to continue, or even think about allowing it to continue. Is any of this true?

The problem with all of this is that there is enough truth in it to make it believable to the average voter, and therefore completely toxic to our current crop of rather spineless politicians. Were BoGB to happen it will inevitably destroy some areas of land that have some ecological value, and will inevitably carpet over some of the ‘green and pleasant’ land. But the argument is more complex than this. By not BoGB we are curtailing the supply of land for housing in a way that was not envisaged when the legislation was enacted. We are in a period of chronic under-supply of homes and young people have little chance of getting an affordable home to live in unless we act to increase supply. London in particular is being constrained to the point where housing ownership is becoming impossible for young people on a normal wage.

To change the housing market we need to be building many more homes that we are currently building, this appears to be generally accepted. Some of these can be delivered in dense new apartment developments close to jobs in city centres. But high density development is slow to bring through the planning system and often controversial. On its own it won’t be enough.

I dislike the idea of BoGB as much, and possibly more than most, I prefer to design dense environments for people to live in, as I believe that high density living brings with it high-quality services. If I had my way we would all live in terraces or apartments and the suburban semi would be banned. Fortunately there are a lot of people who disagree with me and who want to live in the suburbs in a semi and they should have what they want. Shouldn’t they? Is owning an environmentally damaging house with four cars and garden in the suburbs an ‘inalienable human right’ or should it be classified as something that previous generations longed for and could afford, but which we cannot? Do we recognise that the costs of allowing everyone to own their own patch of grass two hours commute from where they work is neither good for them nor good for society as a whole?

To look at the figures dispassionately, 13% of land in the UK is Green Belt land. have produced a nice map illustrating the many designations of land used in England to prevent development. Their research demonstrates that we have built on approximately 10% of our land, leaving the remaining 90%, much of which is unavailable for development. The illustration of Green Belts around the main population centres demonstrates that they are doing their job of curtailing the growth of those centres, and putting pressure on nearby smaller towns to grow instead.

Unfortunately this land use planning strategy is not matched by an economic strategy that is helping to create jobs in those smaller towns. The result is a working population in the cities that must commute long distances to work and puts increasing pressure on the transport system. See here for statistics showing that a decade ago about one third of London’s working population commuted into London. One of the results of this has been the construction of more roads through the Green Belt, which has further degraded it, on top of the highly industrialised agriculture practised in most of the Green Belt which has denuded it of trees and wildlife. It may be green in colour, but much of it is grey in environmental terms, ecologically poor, with sparse areas of ecology poisoned by pesticides and curtailed by the machinery of the supermarket supply chain. Is it really worth protecting? Are we being realistic by calling it the Green Belt? Are we using the right yardstick to measure it against? Should we call it an Environmental Zone or Green Zone instead.

The decades-old principle of home ownership will soon be at an end unless these conflicting strategies are resolved. Land use designations including the Green Belt have become an inconvenient sacred cow that is preventing our cities from expanding. Growth is being pushed out to smaller dormitory towns, and pushing up the price of land outside the Green Belts to levels where starter homes require subsidy to be affordable. The policies discussed in the recent round of conferences include subsidies for first time buyers is a direct result of a set of planning policies that limit the opportunities for development.

I suspect that the Green Belt could be made smaller, more environmentally beneficial, and much more meaningful in real terms by being ‘masterplanned’ and ‘activated’ more thoroughly. The reality is that most Green Belt land currently performs little useful function other than to curtail development. Given that our wildlife population continues to plummet, we cannot argue that Green Belts have fulfilled a function of protecting wildlife. To live up to its designation Green Belts need to be transformed into places where nature can thrive and also be enjoyed by the urban population they are intended to support. A series of Environmental Zones surrounding our cities which contain leisure activities as well as a proportion of responsible farming, new woodlands, wind turbines, biodiverse places rich in ecology and protected by future generations and bounded by dense high quality homes seems to me to engender the best of both worlds. The costs of these changes would be borne by the sale of a proportion of the land for new housing.

Since many of these areas are already well-served by public transport little new infrastructure would be needed. The existing infrastructure is currently under-used as these outlying areas have not been able to expand since the transport network was installed decades ago. By creating jobs in these locations we would also reduce the need for expansion in the transport network and balance the current concentration of jobs in the centres of our cities with a new set of suburban desirable locations for people to live and work. The Green Belt was a good idea and it has left us a legacy of potential that we can use, but on its own it is not enough to guarantee a positive future for our major cities.

Cities 2.0 TEDx London

I was lucky enough to attend TEDx London last week on the subject of Future cities. 13 speakers from a wide variety of professions and interests talked about what is wrong with our cities today and how we could make them better tomorrow.

Michael Batty from CASA talked about connected networks and demonstrated that there are about ten large-scale well-connected areas in the UK that can reasonably be called cities. He discussed population growth and posited that we are likely to stabilise population around the 10 billion mark as developed economies halt population growth and stabilise or reduce. We are going to hit the point of being 75% urban around 2050, which will add a further 2.5 billion people to urban environments, almost as much as we currently have.

Katherine Harborne, a Conservative Councillor for Richmond, talked about how cycling can contribute to the future of healthy happy cities by allowing citizens to commute quickly, safely and cheaply. I don’t think there was any dissent there, she was preaching to the converted. She pointed out that the more cyclists there are the lower the death statistics are on average. This is a nicety that only a scientist would think was positive. To the rest of us a death is a death is a death.

Tom Wright from the Regional Plan Association in NYC had a lot of interesting experience in the US to talk about. The US is moving back towards an urban model and away from the suburban one. The rate of car use peaked in 2005 and is continuing to drop annually. NYC has just brought in a cycle hire scheme and it has already surpassed the number of daily trips taken in London. (But we don’t care about that because we are not competitive, Yank) He discussed the way that cities lever taxation to build infrastructure, something that we don’t seem to have a grip on in this country. It is commonplace in the US to use local taxation to pay for infrastructure such as roads, bridges, tunnels etc., by using the cheap finance that a city can buy. He discussed the uplift in local values that can come from improved infrastructure and wheter that increase in value should be used in part to pay for infrastructure, a type of local Value Added Tax, or Stamp duty land Tax.

Jonathan Keeling from Pavegen showed us his company’s clever paving system that generates electricity. The memorable fact from him was that if 100m of Oxford Street was paved with his technology, the power generated in a day would keep the Oxford Street lights on for a week. Now if he had said that shoppers would also be less tired, happier and less stressed as a result, then he would have had our attention.

Michael Pawlyn, formerly of Grimshaw’s and a major influence on the Eden Project talked about biomimicry, and how learning from nature can help us to make the best uses of scarce resources. I love his presentation technique where he films himself drawing diagrams and talks over it. He showed a beautiful office building which encapsulated many of his ideas on how to design well-lit, enjoyable spaces. I’d like to see him take his ideas direct to manufacturers and get them to design some new products based on them, rather than trying to encapsulate all of them into a single building.

Vanessa Harden talked with passion and humour on the subject of engaging with communities through guerilla gardening. Her apparently casual performance belied a serious purpose to help people to engage with their communities through nature using faux spy technology.Her gardening tools for busy professionals are particularly good.

Mischa Dohler won the prize for entertainment, if there had been such a prize. His conflation of sexual mores and data gathering was very polished and wouldn’t have been out of place in a comedy club. His debunking of the myths around ‘Big Data’ possibly made more sense to him than to most of the audience who haven’t been exposed to those myths yet. I daresay that is what happens when you are close to the leading edge, no-one gets your jokes. His most memorable section was showing how difficult it is to ask Londoners about their city and how they engage with it. No-one would stop to answer the question!

Suzanne Holt Ballard talked about a near future city where we are going to be able to control systems and link to them through brain-to-brain (B2B) interfaces. She wondered what a city would be if we could connect to it without actually being there. We nodded and applauded as though we had understood anything she had said.

Roma Agrawal, spoke convincingly about the need to encourage young people to become engineers. Like scientists there is a lack of role models for a younger generation to make them want to join the engineering and design professions.

Leo Hollis spoke convincingly about the nature of cities as places for people to come together and interact. He cited a study into urban manners or ‘civiity’ which compared a rural village to a suburb to part of LB Newham which found that people were more civil in Newham than in the other places, mainly because they had opportunities to do so. Little England and the suburbs are places for people to get away from each other, cities are places for us to get together.

Alexander Grunsteidl spoke convincingly about how cities evolves as places for defense initially and then for retail. He wondered what would happen to cities if we moved more of our purchasing to online shops and if this resulted in the closure of large sections of our high streets how would we react? He wondered if we all became traders again as we were in the early stages of cities, and traded and shared with each other more through technology, and bought less from distant shops, whether the city would reform itself around this?

Finally we had Roger Hartley from the Bureau of Silly Ideas. This crew bring a range of engaging interventions to streets, markets, festivals, building sites and other opportunities at the drop of a silly hat. I particularly like Roger’s plea to stop surrounding sites with enormous hoardings that turn a place into a sort of black hole while the hoardings are there. Be more creative with sites, they are often there for along time.

The Future of Construction

Construction RobotThose in the industry who know me well will be familiar with my frustration at the pace of change in the construction of housing in the UK. I would call it glacial, but the current speed of ice melt rather undermines that adjective, so I’ll just call it slow. But the pace of change of everything that goes IN to our housing continues to accelerate. Our appliances would be unfamiliar to our grandparents, who neither had mobile phones nor realised how essential to our happiness they would become. But our houses would not be unfamiliar, although they would probably seem small to a generation brought up in Victorian and Edwardian houses.

Our TV’s are now flat and our toasters are now curved, instead of the other way around. Our radios fit into our pockets and ‘talk’ to speakers in the neighbouring room, while we talk to friends on the other side of the world more often than we talk to our neighbours. Our appliances are made by robots, as are our cars, and all of them come in a bewildering array of choices, specifications and colours. Our houses meanwhile, still come in brick, or brick, or there is always brick. It usually comes in either a muddy red, or a muddy brown, or even, excitingly, a mixture of the two.

Meanwhile there are interesting things afoot  in the manufacturing of housing. WikiHouse is a project by 00:/ architects (no, that’s not a typo) that offers a kit of parts to anyone who can get their hands on a Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) cutting machine and a stack of 18mm ply. The idea is that anyone in any country around the world ought to be able to put up their own home in a few days by using this simple construction system that requires no fixings other than pieces of plywood joined together in an elegant 3 dimensional house shaped puzzle. Imagine that geeks took over IKEA for a day, and that’s close enough.

Other work being done in Switzerland and Singapore is working around the idea of using robots to participate in construction. Not to do the boring bits, but to do things that humans cannot do easily, or at all, like build curved structures with no mistakes, walls that curve in three dimensions. Have a look at this video of small flying drones building a complex brick structure. Bricklayers would find this difficult, but for robotic agents, its just as easy as building in a straight line. This use of open-source construction templates and robotics thinking is very fresh and new, but hints at a future that is much more exciting in terms of widely accessible manufacturing that the present. As Alistair Parvin says in his TED talk about WikiHouse, the past was about the control of manufacturing and supply, the future is about the democratisation of it.

This has huge potential for the future of design as a discipline as well as for the future of housing. Design may well become the art of making things possible, and not the art of making or the art of the possible. Our role in the future may not be making lots of small decisions about details, but instead making a small number of big decisions and letting the people who are going to inhabit or use the design make the rest of them. Instead of taking control of decisions, our role may become working out how best to give control over to those who will actually use the things that we design. Instead of making things for people, we may be giving them the tools and guidance to make them themselves.

There is a nice circularity to this. a few hundred years ago we all made things for ourselves, we built our own houses, made our own clothes, grew our own food, and traded where we had a surplus. After a period where we have been giving over the manufacture and design of everything to others, and being less and less satisfied with the results, perhaps in the future we will be more involved in making what we own and use and consequently may need less of them, and make better use of them.

Sustainia 100 launch

I attended the launch of the Sustainia 100 today. This is the publication of 100 projects from around the world that meet the Sustainia criteria. This criteria says that projects must contribute to a sustainable bottom line as well as being readily available and scalable. Several excellent speakers underlined the core message of the Sustainia project, which is to demonstrate that the sustainable future we all desire is achieveable and within our grasp and companies that make sustainable solutions available to global markets are already reaping the rewards for doing so.
Erik Rasmussen: CEO Monday Morning and founder of Sustainia described how it grew out of the failure of Copenhagen #COP15 and was conceived as a solution to the poor communication between politicians, environmentalists and scientists that led to the failure. Without a compelling vision for the future that we can all understand and share, how can we hope to reach agreement on the path to that future?
Dr. Ioannis Ioannou presented research on companies that adopted sustainable business models in 1992 and compared their profitability with a basket of other companies who didn’t and found that today  sustainability centred companies are worth substantially more than their less sustainable traditionally run competition. Companies in the future will need to manage their social and environmental impact in the same way that they manage their financial impact.
Dr. Kim Tan was particularly compelling in his argument that in order to help developing countries we need to help them to move from an informal economy (where less than half pay taxes) to a formal one(where most people do). Give developing countries jobs, not aid, he said. He demonstrated a number of start-up businesses that are operating in Africa and thriving, not on aid, but on sound business models based on tourism, recycling and energy.
Previous winners such as Azuri, Terracycle and GravityLight demonstrated why they were winners in the previous years list. Each one has its own unique story, and this is the engaging element of Sustainaia, that it is a collection of stories about how sustainability works in different places around the globe for different people, and that each story has its place in the book about how to be more sustainable. Download it today and be inspired.

UNEP Global Environment Outlook 5 Published today June 6th

The UNEP Global Environment Outlook 5 Published today (June 6th). It represents an effort by the United Nations Environment Programme to summarise global efforts towards sustainable development and report back in a way that we can all understand. How are we doing? Are we heading in the right direction? Are our efforts working? Are we doing the things that we have already agreed to do, never mind agreeing to do more.

The news is not particularly good. In fact is is pretty bad. The one-line scorecard from the teacher would read: Not Good Enough! Must Try harder!

The report is published in a number of formats and languages, as well as summarised for policymakers, so there is no excuse for not finding the time to read it. It sets out a series of global Key Performance Indicators and scores against them. Page 3 of this publication has the scorecard. Out of 34 major issues, only three are assessed as having made significant progress. Another eleven have made some progress. The remaining twenty have made no progress, or become worse (five), or there isn’t sufficient data to assess progress or decline.

One major issue that the report highlights is while over 500 pieces of legislation have been enacted since the UNEP was formed in 1972, many of them have not led to concrete action. Those that had measurable goals have often resulted in progress, such as legislation on ozone depletion and access to drinking water, but those that were aspirational, such as initiatives on climate change, have not.

You cannot manage what you don’t measure.

It is sobering to think that even in a situation where we have already reached sufficient agreement to enact international treaties or legislation, these are not strong enough to have the effect that they were expected to have. We need to learn from this report and ensure that policymakers understand the simple fact that without setting targets there can be no progress. High ideals are not enough.

Plant Carrots, not Biomass

The task of researching the use of a piece of agricultural land for biomass planting brought me down a strange alleyway. I wanted to assess the benefits of growing biomass for CO2 savings and for profit, but I wanted to compare this to the pros and cons of growing food on the same land.

Miscanthus (elephant grass)offers the best bang for buck for biomass, it has a short growing season and can be harvested in a short time. But in order to make the biomass useable it must be compressed into briquettes or pellets. so there is a considerable capital investment in plant and equipment. But a hectare can produce about 6.6 tonnes of useable biomass, which in turn can provide useable heat for four to five new-build properties. That’s a saving of about 5 tonnes of CO2/hectare.

Other biomass uses such as Short Rotation Coppicing can produce good yields on similar land, but there is a wait of three years for the crop to mature, then one third of the crop can be harvested per year from then on with little further investment. The fuel can be chipped or pelleted.

In both cases the best use of the fuel is to use it nearby so that there is minimal CO2 emissions for transport.


If the land is arable what is the best crop to grow from a C emissions standpoint. We import a lot of food into the UK, so displacing food that we import offers the best solution. We should aim to minimise our food imports by maximising our arable land use in the UK. There are lots of options for displacing food imports, but not all of them are straightforward. Some imports, such as bananas will not be ever easily grown here, until climate change really takes hold. But some are very straightforward, and I wonder why we have allowed ourselves to get into a situation where we import potatoes and carrots into the UK. By air. Every tonne of potatoes imported by air produces around 2 tonnes of CO2. A hectare of arable land can produce 45 tonnes of spuds a year, so that is a displacement of 90 tonnes of CO2 per hectare, rather better than the savings from biomass of 5 tonnes from the same land.

Carrots are even worse because we tend to import them from South Africa. Why we feel the need to do this amazes me, how can the economics of this work? However they work we need to find a policy mechanism to stop it from working and to reward UK and Irish producers for producing them instead. Air freighting in carrots costs a whopping 5.5 tonnes of CO2 per tonne,, but a hectare can grow 52 tonnes of carrots. So a single hectare can displace 286 tonnes of CO2 by growing carrots. This is 35 times better than growing biomass. Each carrot could be housed in its own individually heated bell jar and provided with piped recordings of Prince Charles and still come out better.

But does this make economic sense? Is biomass more or less valuable than carrots? Well thankfully yes, so 6.6 tonnes of biomass will yield approximately £1400 per hectare, but carrots retail at £470/tonne so will yield £24,440 per hectare.

The conclusion is straightforward, land should be used for growing food, both from an economic and a CO2 perspective, growing biomass only makes sense on land that cannot possibly be used for any other purpose.

The carbon footprints of foodstuffs are taken from here

Cities that Feed Themselves

I was struck by the images of Mexico City in the recent BBC series by Andrew Marr on Megacities. In the episode on The Sustainable City he points out that Mexico City originally fed a large part of its population by using a series of artificial floating islands. Many of these remain and are still home to a farming community that grows and sells its produce to visitors who come mainly by boat. There is a recent blog here by a visitor to the islands.

He points out that modern Mexico is choked by its traffic partly due to the need to import its food by road. Mexico is relatively unusual among the worlds megacities by being far inland and not on a major river.  It presents an interesting case study on the growth of cities and how they manage their food supply. It se me on a path to investigate how we are managing our supply of food here in the UK.

The Soil Association carried out a report on the subject of Food Security in the UK in 2008 and concluded that we only produce 60% (by value)of the food we consume. Since we import the cheaper foods it is possible that in terms of calorific value we actually produce less than half our food in the UK. It is interesting that such studies are either motivated by the idea of food security, or are dressed up to appear to be. Why do we think that security of supply is the pressing concern here. Is is because climate change isn’t pressing enough?

Defras position appears to be that supply of food should be managed by the open market and it is not in the UK’s interests to try to be self-sufficient. Since 60% of our imports come from within the EU, it makes sense to continue to import. Bizzarely, the EU imports 60% of its animal feedstock from other countries outside the EU, so the argument that our food supply actually comes from the EU doesn’t hold water.

The Soil Associations report called ‘An Inconvenient Truth about Food’ raises these issues, and many more, and points out that it is entirely possible to grow all our food using organic methods in the UK and feed ourselves, albeit on a lower meat diet than many of us are used to.

As oil prices rise and phosphates supplies reduce, it is entirely possible that within this century this will become a necessity and not an aspiration, as transport costs will reduce our ability to import and as fertiliser costs make fertiliser based agriculture unviable.

What is striking in the report is how unmanaged our food supply appears to be. There are doubts about the quality of our soil and its long term ability to grow food, there are questions about how much of our land could be inundated in the event of sea level rises, and there are doubts about the wisdom of continuing to import produce from countries that have to use large quantities of their precious water to grow crops for us that we can easily grow ourselves.

The lack of government management of our food supply strategy is amazing. This issue is as important as it gets.