‘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?

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Drones for Deliveries (Part 2)

Following from my first article on drones and how they might be used for making deliveries and how they could be organised I wanted to follow up with a closer look at how they would work when they reached their destination. Google and Amazon are both testing drones for this purpose, so it is a case of when, not if they will be used for this purpose, and I wanted to look at the potential impact on buildings for designers. I am interested in this in the first instance because I see that from their widespread use could lead to the removal of a large percentage of delivery vans off the streets of cities, a reduction in delivery cost, energy saving and lower pollution. This will bring attendant benefits to the attractiveness of urban life, with lower noise from traffic and more convenience for sending and receiving deliveries.

The diagram below shows the path a drone will take to its destination by ‘hopping’ from location signals from each address. While in the ‘circle’ of the signal it picks up delivery codes matching its package, these delivery codes will be time stamped, so to find the destination it has to follow the time stamped codes to their point of origin.

Aerial

Path of Delivery Drone to Destination

Another benefit arising from my ideas about how their distribution system would work is that a recipient of a package could have it delivered to wherever they were, in the office, at home, or in the park. That is covered in more detail in the first article.
I wanted to look at what happens when the drone arrives to your home or building. If you aren’t there, what happens to the delivery? How is it stored, and protected until you arrive to collect it.
I am assuming that there will be a horizontal separation of drone traffic above an urban zone. See Fig 1. Drones would be allowed to circulate freely in this area, with helicopters restricted to fly above them. Landing zones for helicopters would be created by geofenced openings in this layer.

Layers

Fig 1. Stratification of Drone Traffic

To begin with the drone has to be guided down to its destination. Fig 2 shows a diagram of a geofenced area which a drone could follow when it leaves the circulation zone above buildings.

Geofence

Fig 2. Location Beacon cones used to ‘geofence’ drone arrival

Once the drone has followed this guidance down to its landing area and has safely landed, it can deliver the parcel. The parcel needs to be stored until it is collected, and this could be a delivery box that could sit in a garden, or on a balcony if one is available, or on your roof if it is flat and accessible. This is shown in Fig 3.

Balcony

Fig 3. Delivery Box for a single address, plan section and elevations

The delivery box has a lid which opens when a drone arrives with a delivery, and the package is dropped by the drone into the box, which then closes up awaiting the owners to collect the package, or for another delivery. The box would be equipped with a system that recognises the delivery code of the package that the drone uses to match owner and package. The same code is used to open the delivery box by the package owner.

Delivery

Fig 4. Delivery Box for multiple addresses.   I Drone arrives.   II Package is accepted.   III Package shunted to store.   IV Ready for new delivery

For people living in apartment buildings the problem is a bit more complex. If deliveries could be accepted on a balcony, the solution is similar to that for a garden or flat roof. A delivery box with a hatch and a door would work. If this can’t work and deliveries have to be made to the roof, the storage box has to be big enough to anticipate a lot of deliveries and needs an arrival box and a storage box, the sequence of how it could work is shown is Fig4.
This arrangement assumes that a concierge would come and collect the deliveries and take them to their relevant destinations. This is a weak point in the security of the system, and assumes that the concierge is trustworthy. In all cases the delivery is electronically tagged with a unique identifier, enabling the recipient to track its movement from when it leaves the shop to when it arrives at the delivery box.

Ask not what Drones can do for you, but what can you do for a Drone.

Musing over the idea that drones (and by this I mean the little ones, usually small quadcopters, not multi-million pound aerial weapons flown by remote) will have a major role to play in modern urban societies, I concluded that it would be both fun and instructive to work through just what their role might be. 

Both Google and Amazon are experimenting with drone delivery systems and I can see the appeal of this immediately. Instead of having to wait a whole day for gratification, the lengthy gap between ordering online and when our newly purchased parcel arrives, we can have our gratification almost immediately if we can organise a drone to deliver the purchase instead. We see that thing online that will make our lives either complete or a bit less incomplete, we buy the thing, and a drone delivers it to our door a mere hour later. 

Lets just take it as read that this will happen in any case, because if for no other reason, there are a lot of pizzas that need delivering every day, and this would take a lot of maniacs on scooters off our roads, and thats the thin end of the wedge. With the growth of online shopping I have heard a TFL* representative say that 30% of Londons traffic is delivery vehicles. Even if we took 50% of the vans off the road, we would reduce congestion a lot, reduce emissions a lot as most vans are diesel powered, and the streets would be quieter and safer. Apart from the hum of drones that is. Perhaps the pigeons would disappear too, perhaps there would be too much aerial traffic for them to feel comfortable, one can hope.

But there are a lot of problems to be solved and barriers to that future. 

Legality

They’re illegal, and cannot be flown near to people, which is a bit of a problem when you want them to get close to people to deliver goods to them. I think this will go away presently as the software systems running on the drones enables them to be more or less autonomous and able to avoid crashing into things or people. If cars can be considered safe as driverless objects, then drones shouldn’t present much of a challenge, being much smaller and lighter, and posing much less risk to human life. Lets assume that that challenge is surmountable.

Location

Drones don’t currently have much of a range from the signal that controls them, which means that if you are a kilometer away from their controller they aren’t much use. I think that this can be dealt with by allowing the drone to control itself and by having a distributed network of guidance, like cellular telephone masts, that provide locations to the drone as it comes close to the mast. We use these masts to locate ourselves with smartphones, so why not drones too? To get it to deliver to our houses we just need a way to broadcast a signal to it that it can recognise, perhaps like the one created by our WiFi routers?

Distance

Being battery powered the current quadcopter drone designs are limited in terms of the distance they can travel and the loads they can carry. Battery technology is getting better, so distance will grow over time. The location masts or beacons used above to tell them their location could also provide charging points, so a tired worn-out drone could stop off for a quick gulp of electrons on the way home after delivering your pizza, book, fresh coffee,..whatever. To take on heavier loads drones could cooperate. This video by ETH shows a group of drones constructing a rope bridge, and this one shows another team creating a structure using bricks. The relatively straightforward task of delivering a parcel looks rather easy in comparison.

Identity

One of the major problems with drones is privacy. People don’t like the idea of a machine equipped with a powerful camera flying over their heads on a daily basis. This seems a bit Luddish to me, after all, in our cities we are surrounded by cameras in the hands of everyone we pass as well as those on the streets and buildings. But lets address the problem anyway. Imagine a scenario where the drone is autonomous, and not under control by any external agent, as it winds its way from depot to you. It doesn’t even need to go to your house, if you are in the park having a coffee, it could deliver the pizza directly to you. What the drone needs is autonomy, and a way of getting an anonymous set of directions to you. It need never know who you are, or where you live, and even better, it need not know what it has delivered to you. This will help to avoid the problem of Amazon and Google knowing everything you ever bought so that they can try and sell you a duplicate of everything you own. (why don’t they try and sell you something you haven’t bought?)

Delivery

Lets take a scenario where you order a pizza and its awaiting delivery at the ‘restaurant’. A signal is sent out that a delivery needs to be made, and the nearest drone accepts the job in the same way that a Uber car would. The shortest distance to pick up the pizza would offer the cheapest transaction cost. The drone collects the pizza, and is given an electronic token at the same time. This was created by you when you ordered the pizza. Half the token goes to you, and half to the drone. You broadcast the token from your location and the token is passed from one point on the network to the next, every time the token is passed on it gets a bit added by every node on the network. The network propagates the token from one node to the next indiscriminately. This enables the drone to follow the trail back to you by seeking a broadcast token that is shorter than the one it has picked up from the network and which matches the other half of the token it already has. It will find its way to you without knowing who you are, or where you are. 
 

Esch bubble represents a location beacon, such as a wi-fi router., the routers broadcast the destination to the drone, and the drone follows this to you, wherever you are. The box at the top left is the warehouse sending in the message, the box on the right is you waiting for the delivery. Drones already in the network pick up the message signal, follow it to the warehouse, pick up the package and deliver it to you.

 

Security

In the same way that BitCoin has developed a security system that is distributed, and every bitcoin node knows how many bitcoins there are, and who owns them, without being controlled by a central source, drones could carry out the physical transactions managed by a similar system to the electronic transaction. In a nice parallel where BitCoins enable Payer A to use currency B to pay C, the drone can carry the package from C back to A using the network B. Read this article on blockchains and BitCoins and you will see what I mean. This method would prevent anyone knowing which drone was carrying which package, and who it was intended for. The only way someone could steal your pizza would be to follow you home and steal it from the drone as it delivered it to you. Of course there will always be people who will snare a drone for whatever it happens to be carrying, but at least they won’t be able to steal on demand. 

Physical Implications

A drone needs somewhere to land a drop off its parcel. It needs a flat surface to land, and if the person for whom the delivery is intended isn’t there, it needs an electronically linked drop box where it can leave your parcel. It could lock the box with its half of the electronic delivery token, and you can unlock it with your matching half when you get home from work. But the box needs to be big enough to accept your pizza, post, packages and needs to be somewhere that the drone can get at but where other people cannot. For apartment buildings this would ideally be the roof, where a landing platform and a set of drop boxes could be located without too much difficulty in many flat-roofed apartment buildings. 

Perhaps one day drones will be able to post letters through your letterbox, if you still get any, any that you actually want to read that is.
*Transport for London

Five Ways to live sustainably.

How do we live sustainably? The holistic nature of the problem makes definition difficult, but that doesn’t prevent us from having a go at it. We must try and define the problem, as this is usually the first step towards finding a solution. 

Problem: We are not living within our environmental means, we are exceeding our emissions budget. To put it another way, we are in environmental debt. To continue to get into environmental debt just leaves another problem for our descendants to solve. If that weren’t bad enough, this environmental debt is already causing the climate to change in unpredictable ways, affecting our oceans and the biosphere dramatically. So not only will we leave a mess behind, but it will be a dangerous and unpredictable mess!

Solution: To stop eating into our environmental capital, our rainforests, oceans, atmosphere and biosphere. 

That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it. But of course it isn’t that simple, mainly because we are either unaware of the cause of environmental debts or because our supposed happiness is predicated on a way of life that is inherently damaging, and we are unwilling to give up this way of life. Old habits die hard.

The change of habits and the introduction of cleaner systems does come at a price, change costs something, whether in time, materials or opportunity costs. But the cost of innovation is usually short-lived and then pricing tends to return to a level below where we started from. This is what pays for innovation and it doesn’t happen unless that promise of low costs is there.

Clean Energy: We need to replace our dirty grid with clean energy, which will take more than a generation as the lifespan of these systems is very long. But this has already started and there is widespread recognition that this needs to happen, so that battle is largely won. Sadly we have a government that doesn’t quite see this, but fortunately governments are temporary. Support a clean energy project near you today!

Get rid of the gas-guzzler: We need to stop using combustion for heating and transport. The Internal Combustion Engine has had its day, lets bury it with full honours and move on! Fortunately cars and domestic boilers have a relatively short lifespan and give us regular opportunities to change our habits. We will need to make a decision to take a risk by changing to a hybrid or fully electric vehicle when the opportunity offers, or to install a heat pump. We can’t rely on a push from government.

Buy Wisely: We need to stop importing goods from economies that aren’t moving in the direction of emission reductions, both to guarantee local jobs and to reduce the emissions of transporting goods half-way around the planet when we could easily make them on our doorstep. It would be nice if a carbon tax was added  to imports that highlighted their environmental costs, but we can add that cost in our mind when we think about pressing that button online. 

Waste: We need to reduce waste to a minimum, wasted materials, wasted energy, wasted heat. This is the most difficult one, as it is so closely related to behaviour. Persuading people that a walk to the shop is better for them and for the planet doesn’t sound difficult, but some people love their cars. There is an interesting shift in the use of health gadgetry to inform people about their health related behaviour that will help to achieve this. Insulating our homes will be a once in many generations cost. Consider whether you want your children to inherit an expensive home to inhabit, or a low energy home. If you only consider your own costs you won’t be motivated enough to spend the money.

Move into Town: We need to stop seeing a bucolic life in the country as the barometer of success. The country has nice views and fresh air, but it also has long travel distances to the doctors, the shops, the post office, the theatre and for every trip you have to make, the delivery van has to make one too. Move into town! Open a tea shop!

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.

 

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.

Summary

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.

END

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.

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!

Cycle Lanes

Cycle lanes create a lot of disagreement among cyclists and advocates of cycling, and among people whose job it is to enable more sustainable modes of movement in cities.

I am pretty clear in my mind that we need to separate cyclists from cars, buses and lorries because without doing so we will continue to have relatively low levels of cycling. I can foresee a future scenario where we have say 60% of traffic cycling, in which case the majority of the road is taken up with cyclists and vehicles have to move slowly behind. But we are a long way from that and in order to get there we need many more cyclists than we currently have, even thought the numbers are growing in cities worldwide.

The moment that convinced me that this was the way forward was, one morning in Rotterdam, seeing a young mother taking her children to school. She had a toddler on a seat on the crossbar and with a free hand she was pulling an older, yawning child along beside her on his little bike. They were meandering to school in the cycle lane at about 3 mph, inches from busy traffic, but they were perfectly safe, protected by a kerb from faster traffic.
Like most of Dutch cyclists they didn’t wear special clothing, the children, or parents, weren’t clad in racing Lycra because at the speeds they travel at they don’t work up much of a sweat. They are not competing with traffic and they can cycle at a comfortable pace and arrive to work or school energized but not stressed or perspiring.

Mixing cyclists and other traffic means that cyclists have to constantly speed up and down with traffic to respond to traffic lights, accelerating and decelerating. This is the most tiring option for cyclists who prefer to travel like a train, slowly and continuously.

Having a large urban cycling network would reduce cyclist deaths and road accidents, provided that there is a substantial continuous network. This requires a commitment to take road space from cars, and not from pedestrians, as most cities depend on their pedestrians to make the city function.
Mixing cyclists with buses seems to me to be a terrible idea, who wants to cycle up a hill with a huge bus bearing down on you from behind? It only needs a slip of the foot off the pedal and you find yourself lying in the bus lane under an enormous vehicle. This approach is never going to work. Every day that I travel to work on Londons buses I see this danger, its not relaxing watching!

Similarly a partial cycling network is the worst of both worlds as the junctions where cycling lanes stop are often the most dangerous points for cyclists.

Those who cycle argue that separated cycle lanes are unhelpful say that they separate two road users who often move at the same speed, cyclists and cars, and they often make cyclists slow down. This is true for the ‘committed’ and usually male urban cyclist who fears nothing and apparently has nine lives. These cyclists  also complain that cycle lanes are often designed badly and then are more dangerous to use for cyclists than normal roads. All cycle routes are at their most dangerous when they end and the hapless and unsuspecting cyclist is propelled into normal traffic. Some of this is true. But my response is that able-bodied and fearless cyclists can join traffic if it appeals to them, and leave the slower and less confident cyclist to use the cycle lanes.
We all agree that pedestrians and cars should be separated, apart from those rare circumstances where shared surfaces make cars go so slowly that it is safe to mix them with pedestrians. If we all agree that separation is best in this case, is it such a philosophical step to say that cars, cycles and pedestrians should be separated from each other?

Looking at cities where cycling is much more common, we have plenty of examples of how to make cycle lanes work in favour of cyclists, and how to make junction design work to favour cycles over cars.

Cycling along the Embankment in Lycra

Cycling along the Embankment in Lycra

Lets stop making excuses, and creating half-hearted examples of cycle lanes like the London Superhighways and instead focus our attention on fully segregated lanes like those planned from Tower Hill to Acton and approved by TFL in February. Its a small beginning, but going in the right direction.

Here is an example from Copenhagen!

Cycle Lane in Copenhagen

The Electric City

WSP Engineering group have carried out some interesting research into the potential of the Electric City. The basic principle is that we should move away from combustion within cities for heating homes, buildings, generating power, cooling or transport, and rely on electrons instead.

The potential benefits are staggering. The future city powered by electricity has a much better environment for its inhabitants with lower emissions and fewer particulates in the air, the air is cleaner because much of our air quality problems stem from combustion in boilers and engines. The city is quieter because electric motors are quieter than combustion engines. The city produces less CO2 emissions because heat pumps are more efficient than boilers and electric cars are more efficient than combustion engines.

WSP calculate that if we aimed to create an all-electric London by 2030 we could have
– reduced NOx levels by 37%
– vehicle noise levels will be reduced by 25-50%
– electricity usage in the capital would double from 40k GWh to 80k GWh per year
– CO2 emissions would drop from 88 MtCO2 to around 8 MTCO2 per year, a drop of around 90%.

SAP, the tool used to assess the compliance of UK housing for Building Regulations, uses a CO2 factor for UK Grid electricity based on a three year average prediction of the Grid emissions. What WSP’s work makes clear is that this is the wrong period to use for predictions. The long term predicted emissions for the UK Grid is for it to be lower than gas, and to reach this point before 2020. Using a ‘dirty’ Grid emissions factor now, means that we are installing gas CHP and gas boilers in the anticipation that they will drive down CO2 emissions. But during the lifetime of these systems the Electricity Grid emission will drop below gas and continue to drop until it is much lower. So installing systems now that have a twenty or thirty year life of predicted emissions is actually likely to raise emissions rather than reduce them.

A major issue for housing in all of this is that currently it is much cheaper to heat a home using gas than electricity, because electricity is three times more expensive. The problem we need to solve is how to reduce heating demand to a point where new homes can be heated by electricity for the same amount of money as other homes on the market can be heated by gas. There are well documented problems where newish homes were heated by heat pumps resulting in higher than average bills because the homes simply weren’t efficient enough. Perhaps we need to look again at dual tariff electricity supplies to new homes using off peak electricity to drive heat pumps?

With cars the picture is different because petrol is so much more expensive than gas, electric driving is a much cheaper option, so it is entirely likely that electric transport will lead the electric revolution faster than the construction industry. Cars have a shorter life than building services, so the replacement rate for cars will mean that technological changes will be introduced more quickly in any case.

Whatever the outcome this is an excellent piece of work, and highlights the benefits of taking a long term view of energy policy and market intervention.