Thursday, 17 April 2014

How we can make London more sustainable

Carol Somper - Technical Director

In January, Temple moved home from an unassuming riverside location on the south bank of the Thames to the north bank, slap bang on the river, close to Tower Bridge. We now enjoy breath-taking views up and downstream, taking in the GLA and the Shard up river, with Butlers Wharf across the way and the lofty towers of Canary Wharf in the distant east. On the other side of Devon House we have views over St Katherine’s Dock, a quiet haven during working hours with an intimate mix of flats, shops and eateries focused around the little harbour, complete with shabby working vessels, slim elegant yachts and blowsy floating ‘gin palaces’. We’re very happy with our new home, but surrounded by all this amazing ‘London’, brimming with busy city types and eager tourists cheek by jowl, it makes you think about how London got to where it is now, and more importantly, where it’s going. What will London be like in 10, 20, 30 years’ time? What will it be like to work and live in London when we reach 2050, the mega milestone for carbon emissions reduction? How will the transport problems have been resolved so that Oxford Street is no longer the worlds’ biggest static bus queue, London’s green spaces and places are even better and key city workers can actually afford to live in the capital?  

London, as one of the world’s top performing cities, is an iconic global centre with an incredibly rich heritage, it has one of the most unique skylines in the world centred on the Thames’ river frontage. London is thriving as a cultural capital providing world class entertainment, leisure and commerce. There are lots of issues, as with any city, but some of these are growing at an increasingly rapid rate and they need fixing urgently if our wonderful city is to really flourish in the future. The recent annual report from UK ‘think tank’ Centre for Cities UK states that since 2010, 79% of private sector jobs growth has occurred in London, whilst Britain’s next nine largest cities accounted for only 10% of all new private sector jobs created. The Centre suggests that “the debate around London’s role in the UK economy has polarised” with one side of the argument being that London needs to grow to drive the whole economy, whilst on the other, that its gravitational pull is more like a black hole, sucking the life out of the UK. Neither of these views are true and the issues are far more complex.

London’s contribution to the UK economy is critical and as one of the most successful cities in the world it needs to keep its role as a driver of national prosperity. The challenge is to guide and enable the right kind of growth so that by reinvesting in London’s infrastructure – grey, green and blue - its commerce, civic realm and housing, the revenues generated can help to benefit the rest of the country. As a C40 City with an ambition to be one of the greenest in the world, how should London’s continuing evolution be shaped for the biggest benefits all round? What are the urgent challenges that need immediate and more radical solutions?

Traffic and transport: On a still, cold winter’s morning there is a visible brown-tinged smog hanging over central London’s streets. This deadly complex mix of toxins is largely the result of congestion and exhaust fumes, giving London the highest levels of NO2 of any capital city in Europe. The concentrations are now so bad that London’s mayor has been served notice by the European Commission and the GLA is facing an fine of £300m/annum. The recent Saharan dust incident only served to highlight that air quality in London is so bad that any further extreme weather events will make a bad situation much worse. New research using 2011 census data, recently conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, reveals that London is the country's cycling capital when it comes to commuting, whilst Southern regions saw the greatest decline in car travel to work. In Greater London, the proportion of commuters relying on private motor transport had fallen by 8.8%. Just under a third of commuters in the capital (32.2%) drove or rode motorcycles to work in 2011 while more than half of them used public transport - a rise of 7.3%. Those not motoring or using public transport in London were walking or getting on their bikes. Pedal power is becoming increasingly popular in London with cycling accounting for 4.3% of work journeys in the capital. London’s public transport usage continues to grow so for commuters and tourists alike, intelligent mobility enabling seamless multi-modal intra-city travel is essential. Enhanced logistics planning could easily cut daily deliveries of goods and materials into the centre by at least 50%. For example, UCL’s construction programme will be looking to do just that, reducing impacts at peak commuting times when it’s of most value.

Green infrastructure in the heart of the city: London’s parks and garden squares are a wonderful resource but they need to be framed by a thriving network of green connecting corridors. Green roofs and walls really do improve air quality on the street, by creating better micro-climates they help to reduce the ‘heat island effect’, help cut carbon emissions, can benefit wildlife, help to reduce flood-risk and make places much more aesthetically pleasing and user-friendly. Future scenarios of London always illustrate it as being incredibly green; why can’t we have these scenarios here and now, we have the know-how. Even the proposed ‘mega towers’, as vertical communities, can benefit from ‘sky gardens’ with landscaped terraces and roofs. London can even continue doing its bit to conserve the UK’s declining bee populations as, according to a recent University of Reading study, losing bee populations could cost the economy up to £1.8bn. A growing number of the capital’s leading eateries are selling foods made with honey from London’s roof-top bee gardens as well as its parks and open-spaces.

Housing: Over the last decade house prices in London increased by an average £213,000. This growth alone would be enough to buy two average priced homes in Hull. The Evening Standard recently ran a number of articles about the rise of the foreign property speculators and increasingly affluent ‘empty’ neighbourhoods caused by middle-eastern and eastern absent owners. The newspaper is also highlighting the growing debate over the 20 plus new ‘super towers’ proposed for development along the city’s riverside townscape. Will these changes be positive or will the rising property market benefit the few, often non-UK speculators and make home ownership impossible for the masses? The current trend remains one of people in their early thirties moving out of London to raise families in the suburbs and beyond, where homes are cheaper and things are greener. A new BRE report FB65: The cost of poor housing in London found that 15% of households in the city can be classified as ‘poor housing’ and that improving energy efficiency and reducing the worst hazards in these properties could save the NHS around £56m per year. Currently an unacceptable number of households are likely to experience fuel poverty and overcrowding as a result of increasingly high housing costs in London. The report suggests that the projected £56m annual savings for the NHS could rise to over £140m if other costs relating to living in poor housing, such as lack of educational attainment, lost work days and additional energy and insurance costs are taken into account. Unsurprisingly, housing conditions were found to vary considerably both between and within boroughs, and there are parts of the city where conditions are significantly worse than the national and London average.

To counter these trends the Mayor’s new Housing Strategy will include Housing Zones and measures aimed at bringing forward new housing at the rate of 42,000 new homes per year (described by Boris as an ‘epic challenge’).The strategy aims to encourage much more affordable housing development aimed at specific age groups, such as low income households, ‘graduate’ housing and housing for older people. New garden suburbs like that in development at Barking Riverside are proposed. Others are planned at Beam Park, Dagenham and at Thamesmead but details are yet to be released. But over 80% of housing is existing stock and the challenge is also to actively explore how retro-fitting sustainable energy, water and green-space can be achieved. City living makes de-centralised energy networks and heat-based energy systems so much more affordable. The Mayor’s ground-breaking Decentralised Energy for London programme is a big step in the right direction but investment needs to be much more joined-up across the boroughs so that key workers and businesses can really benefit from low to zero carbon homes with tiny, very affordable energy bills.

Water: it’s an urban myth that London’s water has been through 7 other people before it gets to you. London has highly efficient water supply and waste water systems but these are under considerable demands and smarter development and refurbishment will help to create a more sustainable future network. In addition to making rain-water harvesting and grey-water recycling the norm, more strategic borough-wide strategies to manage river and fluvial flood risk is urgently needed. London’s tidal barrier prevents whole swathes of the city, including the Houses of Parliament, the O2 arena, Tower Bridge, Southwark, the Isle of Dogs, Whitechapel and West Ham from being submerged. According to the Environment Agency the barrier has been raised 141 times since 1982, with the need becoming more frequent, e.g. it was closed more than 100 times since 2000 and 13 times in January 2014 alone. It can be better supported by a much more effective London-wide approach to green infrastructure and Sustainable Urban Drainage (SUD) measures such as those recently retro-fitted in the Victoria area. Even more impressive is Rotterdam’s approach to future climate resilience from flooding and making itself climate-proof - able to withstand whatever the weather throws at it - by 2025. What can London learn from the Dutch?

Waste and materials: London needs to reclaim the circular economy it had several decades ago, when waste management was more effective and a greater proportion of materials were locally re-used and recycled to a much greater extent than they are today. Bigger, better, stronger partnerships across borough councils and the commercial sector are needed so that new collection systems match the efficiency of new development. London’s entrepreneurs need much more encouragement to develop technologies and quality products that optimise materials from waste streams. London could perhaps be a world leader in the circular economy, similar to Singapore, but this calls for concerted and wide-ranging collaborative to challenge the status quo. London needs more resilient supply chains towards enabling materials retention and exemplary ‘local product’ stewardship.

Lastly, other cities in the UK need to benefit from London’s experiences and experiments, in achieving cleaner, greener and healthier places to work and live. The vision and ambitions for what could be are becoming clearer and increasingly more tangible. 

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