London doesn't only need houses – we should protect its industrial land, too

Like this, but less pollution-y: Ford's Thames-side car plant in Dagenham, east London. Image: Lars Ploughmann/Wikimedia Commons.

The cost of housing is undoubtedly London’s most severe crisis – but putting the construction of new homes above all else risks making other crises worse. Cities are complicated places that need a range of jobs, as well as mundane goods and services to keep them ticking over. So we should be more wary of the rate at which the industrial sites providing these jobs, goods and services are being turned into flats.

This broader perspective was lost on outraged tweeters when I published my report raising alarm about the loss of industrial land in London. They accused me of standing in the way of new homes being built.

But why not build on parks and gardens? They take up more than half of London’s space, after all. The obvious answer is that they provide vital functions to Londoners and the many other species that inhabit the city. You can’t have homes without space for recreation, plants to cool the air in the summer, permeable spaces to stop rainfall causing floods, and so on.

I wrote my report because I think industrial sites can also provide some vital functions to London. I’m not opposed to all development on them, but I’m worried the mayor has been allowing too much to disappear based on faulty assumptions. Here are five reasons I think you should worry too.

1. They shelter a lot of viable businesses

In 1998 you’d find 14 per cent of industrial sites in London sitting empty, and the impression remains that these are wasted space supporting dying industries. This chart, which inspired my report, shows the mayor’s predictions for the extinction of many industries in London:

 

Source: GLA.

Predictions like these underpin the policy of supplying less and less land, handing it over to housing. But that policy can also cause the loss of these jobs.

In 2010, vacancy rates on London’s industrial land had dropped by half to 7 per cent – lower than most high streets. In Hackney Wick, a site I visited for my report, the vacancy rate is just 4 per cent. The remaining land is used by a range of viable businesses like a mid-scale brewery, a kitchen furniture manufacturer, catering firms, a scaffold yard and more.

But Hackney Wick has been designated for conversion to flats and a few artists’ workshops. So the land owners and developers have bought up the land, are giving shorter and less secure leases, and will eventually boot them out. Some businesses will move, some will fold.

2. We’re losing skilled manual jobs

It’s easy to think that London’s job market is booming, so why care if these businesses go?

The problem is that London, like the rest of the UK, has been experiencing something called “hollowing out of the middle”. This is where the middle-ranking jobs disappear, while new jobs are created at the bottom or the top of the scale – baristas and barristers, but not brewers, if you will. The problem is illustrated on this chart from a recent government report on the problem.

Source: BIS.

If the mayor’s predictions for industrial jobs come true, opportunities for skilled or semi-skilled manual work will disappear almost completely. The extra jobs in constructing homes on ex-industrial sites will fall a very, very long way short of making up the difference.

This crisis has been slowly unfolding for decades, and is one reason for the decline in social mobility and the rise in income inequality.

3. We need jobs to be spread across London

Unlike the media, banks and government, industrial jobs are spread all over London. We have the really large industrial areas in places like Park Royal in the north west and Belvedere in the south east.

At the other end of the scale, you can find small industrial sites peppered all over the city; my flat is on the edge of one in the north of Peckham. Here’s a selection of the bigger ones taken from OpenStreetMap:

This means that people can find work near to their home, which reduces the need to travel.

If everybody ends up working in central London, that would add to the strain on our transport infrastructure. It’s much cheaper to spread the jobs out, and unless we spend huge sums of money on tunnels there are physical constraints on the capacity of our road and rail network anyway.

4. We need some industries in London

Some people seem to think that all industry should move out of London. But the capital depends on many of them to function.

Economists outside the dismal mainstream have coined the label “foundational economy” for “the sector of the economy that provides goods and services taken for granted by all members of the population”. That’s the companies who service the City’s lifts, process and distribute their food, recycle their waste, and so on.

Here’s a sample out of the window of a business I visited in Charlton, including a paper recycling plant:

Location is often critical for these businesses. The lift repairers need to be close to the central London towers, while fresh food producers and distributors need to be close to their markets.

Industrial sites shelter these mundane but essential goods and services that keep everything ticking over. Planning policy locking in the industrial use keeps the value of the land down, keeping the businesses viable. How would we build homes without scaffold and builders yards?

Ironically, the ongoing conversion of these to homes has meant longer journeys for suppliers, which has been driving up the cost of building those homes.

5. It’s good for the environment to be in London

The extra costs for builders point to my final reason to keep some industry in London.

Forcing businesses to outer London and beyond will mean more traffic, and so more pollution and congestion on our roads. Many industrial sites around London have rail heads onto the rail network and wharves onto the Thames and its tributaries, keeping huge quantities of materials on trains and boats instead of putting them onto our roads.

Air pollution and climate change are two other crises facing London. It doesn’t make sense to tackle the housing crisis and, in the process, make it harder to reduce pollution harmful to our health and a stable climate.

So let’s build more homes, but as part of a coherent strategy for the city as a whole – a city that can function with good job opportunities and falling pollution.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb is a member of the Green party and of the London Assembly.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.