Your city is making you sick – and in more ways than you might think

Jogging, good; San Francisco air pollution, bad. Image: Getty.

Your city is making you sick. Diesel fumes are contributing to cancer and alzheimers. Air pollution is causing 40,000 early deaths per year in the UK. And on Tuesday we learned, thanks to new data from Greenpeace, that children are at risk too, with 47,000 babies and children exposed to illegal levels of air pollution at nurseries near polluted roads.

All this has ramped up the pressure on the British government’s new air pollution strategy, to be published this month. It’s a case of third time lucky for the government, whose previous two strategies were thrown out by the High Court for failing to cut emissions soon enough. Theresa May has already indicated that the plan will include some kind of financial help for diesel drivers, possibly in the form of scrappage vouchers in cities where £20-a-day “toxin taxes” are introduced.

In responding to the airborne killers, the air pollution debate to date has focussed, quite narrowly, on getting older diesel vehicles off the road and moving to electric or gas-powered ones. But limiting ourselves to swapping the kind of cars we drive risks missing the bigger opportunity to tackle the myriad other ways cities are making us sick.

Urban ailments

Let’s start with obesity and heart disease. Most British cities encourage a sedentary lifestyle that involves driving to work, sitting at a desk, and driving home again, with many sitting for 9 hours a day. Walking is actually going down as a share of journeys, falling from 28 per cent to 24 per cent over the past 20 years. Cycling is just 2 per cent of journeys; in the Netherlands, it’s 26 per cent.

One of the main reasons cited in surveys as a barrier to walking and cycling is the physical environment. Our many sprawling, cul-de-sac-based estates make walking indirect, and therefore time consuming. Infrastructure is designed for drivers, with pedestrians accommodated on the side and cyclists at best an afterthought. Meanwhile, in the inner-city areas which actually are walkable, a profusion of fried-chicken shops stand ready to mainline fat into our arteries.

Then there’s our mental health. Badly designed streets, buildings and environments don’t just look oppressive: they have a knock-on effect on our wellbeing and ability to cope. People who live in cities have a 40 per cent increased risk of depression, a 20 per cent increased risk of anxiety and double the risk of schizophrenia. We also suffer from a lack of, or poorly designed green space: people living in less ‘green’ areas experience significantly higher levels of mental distress, while gym addicts report lower benefits to wellbeing compared to exercise in natural areas.

As for our social life, all that time spent commuting takes a toll, eating into time spent with family and friends. Things are particularly bad for people on low incomes – one in ten people commuting from outer London deliberately take a longer journey to work, usually by bus, to save money – but taking the bus or coach to work on a journey lasting more than 30 minutes has the biggest negative impact on personal well-being of all commutes.

Churchill is said to have once quipped “never let a good crisis go to waste”. Tackling sickness from air pollution is a prime opportunity to tackle these ills as well and create cities where people can keep active, feel well, and have good home and social lives, as Respublica proposed in our recent report “Air Necessities: Place-based approaches to a pollution crisis”.

Prevention is better than cure

To do so we need to rethink our approach to health, cities, and transport. For one thing, we need to join up transport investment with the creation of dense but green “transit-oriented communities” like Ebbsfleet, where access to transport can be planned-in from the beginning.

Investment in high-quality rapid transit then give existing commuters a good option to switch out of cars. This makes it politically feasible to reduce parking in city-centres, meaning more land available for more productive uses, commercial development and housing. Less parking means less journeys by car, freeing up road lanes to be given over to cycling, housing, or parks, as San Francisco plans to do.

We also need to think about the implications of the way we pay for our city transport. Are zonal tube fares which penalise those in cheaper housing areas and encourage people to cram into the inner zones to save money on travelcards really a good way of organising the city?

In terms of designing cities to be healthier, the NHS’s Healthy New Towns is already showing promise in designing health into housing, but we need to do something for existing towns too. That’s where there’s a lot to be learnt from the “suburban retrofit” movement in the US, whose plans to transform the car-centric suburbs of US metropolises include mixed-use communities in abandoned malls and apartment blocks instead of garage space.

None of this will necessarily come cheap, but there’s a solid rationale for business to get behind healthier cities. Releasing all this valuable land from parking for more efficient uses like housing, creative spaces and businesses increases its productivity – in the long term, paying for itself. And, perhaps, less sick days.

Tom Follett works on devolution policy at the think tank ResPublica.

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Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.

Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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