Beyond patchwork planning: Why smart cities are co-operative cities

Pollution: one of the costs of not being smart. Image: Getty.

Londoners wishing to lead an active lifestyle in Western Europe’s biggest city are all too aware of the day-to-day obstacles that make regular exercise a non-starter.   

Chronic air pollution has made it more and more difficult to exercise in the great outdoors without taking in lungfuls of vehicle fumes. Public Health England revealed in August that more than four-in-ten middle-aged adults do less than 10 minutes of moderate exercise per month. With World Health Organisation (WHO) air pollution limits regularly breached in the Capital, it’s easy to see why many are reluctant to don their running kit for a post-work blast around the block.

London has traditionally had a troubled relationship with the environment, but there are signs that recent air pollution policies are starting to have a positive impact. City Hall is investing millions to tackle London’s poor air quality, but the environmental challenges we face can fox even the Capital’s best thinkers.

The capital’s evolution from a modest Anglo-Saxon settlement to today’s thriving metropolis has been far from smooth. Be it housing or transport, London has rarely taken a step back and fashioned a long-term coherent future for itself.

As London established itself as a global industrial hub in the early 19th century, the Thames quickly became polluted with thousands of gallons of industrial effluent. The problem came to a head during the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858 when the pungent aroma of the Thames became so bad that Parliament toyed with the idea of moving the business of government as far afield as Oxford or St Albans. The long summer recess that has so many MPs plotting to this day was enacted because the smell during August was too much to bear for Parliamentarians that could escape to their country seats.

When factories were springing up either side of the Thames in the 1800s, makeshift slums were haphazardly constructed in a bid to house the growing workforce. Predictably, these slums failed to provide a sustainable post-war housing solution and so planning departments scrabbled around to sign-off huge inner-city tower blocks. These quickly became undesirable places to live and so workers moved to commuter towns on the edge of the city. In need of a way of getting to work, they soon acquired cars which chuck out tonnes of pollutant particulates into the atmosphere.

As it was a muddle of patchwork planning and projects that got us to this point, it’s clear that coming together in a more collaborative and coordinated way to resolve the pollution problem is the way forward. Cities working together on innovative and proven solutions will help us all in the long run, accelerating ideas that work and learning from those ideas that don’t.

Headquartered at City Hall in London, Sharing Cities is a pan-European programme working with municipalities across the continent in a bid to help ordinary people feel the benefits of new smart technologies. We are looking to tomorrow in a holistic way to help European cities like London, Lisbon and Milan realise a greener, healthier, wealthier future for generations to come.


Currently being tested across Greenwich, Lisbon and Milan, electric bikes (eBikes) are a tantalising prospect for Londoners fed up of wasting hours in traffic jams and tired of feeling the effects of incessant exposure to traffic fumes. Fuelled by both pedal power and electricity, eBikes are a great way of encouraging Londoners who may have given up conventional cycling years ago to get back in the saddle.

We are also testing smart lampposts that can perform a host of functions, from providing data on traffic levels, to sending information to drivers telling them where spaces are available, to improving lighting which reduces street crime. By providing a safer environment for exercise, smart lampposts will help alleviate the fears of joggers reluctant to take to the streets.

Sharing Cities is also currently installing charging points in a bid to build the infrastructure required to support electric vehicle use in cities which will cut air pollution. It’s clear that better air quality will make outdoor exercise a more appealing proposition.

Smart technologies will help to reduce air pollution, congestion and crime across London. By taking a holistic approach to urban planning, we can make the dream of an active and healthy lifestyle a more realistic prospect for millions of Londoners.

Nathan Pierce is programme director of Sharing Cities. To learn more visit sharingcities.eu

 
 
 
 

A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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