Sustainable Communities: Is London Sustainable?

The Sustainable Communities plan, aimed by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister at expanding the capacity of the South-east, promises to be a source of work for architects and many others for the next two decades.

But if we are grappling with what a sustainable building might be, how much more perplexing is a sustainable community? Many criticisms have been levelled at our institutions and universities for failing to produce enough skilled urbanists to steer development wisely. Urban design is not just about big-scale architecture but involves social, economic, political and infrastructure thinking.

And sustainability is not just an energy and environment matter; it involves economic success and social equity just as deeply. Multi-skill teams are needed, but the leadership needs design vision to ensure that the result is memorable places. Economic success follows from the attraction of talent, says Richard Florida in his marvellous book, The Rise of the Creative Class. Talented people increasingly choose where to live on the grounds of the quality of the urban fabric.

It is a massively significant political decision to go for growth in the South. Former governments believed in pushing development into the provinces and taxing London to pay for it. Today it is clear that you can only attract development, not direct it and that our European rivals will welcome anyone blocked from building in the capital. Greater London, the goose that lays the UK’s golden eggs, is choking on a lack of transport and housing, and bleeding taxes. The city operates unsustainable levels of consumption, emissions are too high and its society is plagued by severe inequities. So can planned growth avoid making it worse?

There is some ground for hope. Skeins of new communities can be threaded through the growth areas and their parent towns, based on walking-distance circles around good transport lines. The “pedestrian-pocket” is five to ten minutes walking radius from a tram or train stop. The 50-200ha pocket can contain workplaces, schools and local shops near its centre, with housing densities dropping from the core to the parkland edge.

Car use in these pocket communities could be much lower, with equitable access to opportunity. Residents could move along the transit lines to neighbouring centres and to regional rail. Coupled with buildings designed for low to zero emissions, comfort in a changing climate and long, flexible life we could expand London while reducing its ecological footprint. It requires an end to policies of building transport only after demand is proved: new transit systems, linked to regional lines, must come first.

As to the skills required to create urban development in both quantity and quality, we do need a better educational supply as well as using the Urban Task Force’s guidance. I was encouraged to visit the graduation show of the LSE’s Cities Programme recently.

The enthusiasm and intelligence of the graduating class of 2003 was impressive. Programme directors Ricky Burdett and Tony Travers often speak for London as advisers to the Mayor. They are also supplementing the meagre supply of urbanists to deliver the goods.

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