In defence of ‘brownfield-first’ housing policies

Mmmm houses. Image: Getty.

The co-ordinator of the Smart Growth UK coalition on the case for prioritising brownfield sites.

Glib talk about “the housing crisis” disguises the fact the UK is facing several crises in housing – only one of which, young adults’ difficulties in buying their own homes, appears to be something the government really cares about. In such a vacuum it’s all too easy to let self-serving building industry rhetoric about threats from things like brownfield-first policies take root.

The other bits of this crisis – social housing, the growing challenge of housing the elderly (where the real population growth is) and absentee landlordism – aren’t part of this narrative. But it’s a tale the house building industry, which can afford to pay people eight-figure bonuses, uses to attack sustainable planning. Brownfield-first and countryside protection policies have to be drowned in a pond of well-funded PR crocodile tears.

Potential buyers’ frustration about being stuck in a rapacious private rented sector is understandable. In fact, it was a one-off decision by lenders, only 40 years ago, to start giving mortgages on pre-1914 houses that cranked up the 1980s boom in ownership – yet it’s still treated like a permanent paradigm. Since then, lenders have pumped more and more money into the sector, just pushing up prices.

It’s all too easy to be seduced by calls to abolish things like brownfield-first policies in the mania to build. But these policies were actually abolished in England six years ago and, since then, things have only got worse.

There are very good reasons for brownfield-first planning policies, even if they might take a sliver off the edge of volume builders’ enormous profits.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way. Brownfield-first doesn’t mean brownfield-only: it just means local authorities allocating land for house building must allocate their suitable brownfield land before greenfield.

Brownfield sites are indeed often a bit more expensive to develop than greenfield; but many sites aren’t contaminated at all, and “eye-wateringly expensive” sites are rare among those that are. Over the past 30 years, the remediation industry has developed cost-effective techniques for dealing with contamination; there are tax-breaks and Housing Infrastructure Fund money to help deal with it, too.

Other than that, yes, brownfield site reclamation is often marginally more costly, but nothing that should reduce the delivery of affordable housing.

Builders were handed this convenient brickbat to chuck at planning authorities six years ago, when the Treasury was mistakenly convinced that brownfield-first policies were reducing the amount of greenfield land being developed, ordered its abolition, and inserted ‘viability’ provisions in national planning policy. Since then builders have profiteered merrily as they wriggle out of their affordable housing responsibilities.


There’s a raft of good reasons to support brownfield-first policies. The sight of derelict sites in any town is a huge disincentive to investors. Regeneration of depressed areas depends on brownfield development; greenfield just sucks more life out of towns.

Derelict sites also encourage antisocial behaviour and the spread of invasive plants like Japanese knotweed. And there is scientific evidence which demonstrates they have a negative effect on local peoples’ health.

Brownfield sites are usually much better located than greenfield as they tend to be in towns, close to shops, education, healthcare and public transport. Greenfield ones tend to be outside towns, encouraging people to use their cars, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, congestion and accidents.

Urban sites also save public money as they can use much of the existing infrastructure, while out-of-town demands new provision. And in London, there is no real alternative to brownfield anyway.

It’s easy to be convinced that shortages of all kinds of housing, not just market, in London and the prosperous parts of southern England are all there is to this problem. But housing problems here are a symptom of an overheated regional economy which has sucked life out of the rest of the UK.

Much of the country is desperate for the jobs over-concentrated in the capital. Often those regions also have plenty of housing, and plenty of brownfield land where more is needed.

Actually, people outside the South East have aspirations too – as do those in London who can’t afford market homes and don’t benefit by one single brick from greenfield development pepper-potted over the rest of the region.

The drivers for the anti-brownfield-first campaign are purely commercial. There are very good social, housing, environmental and economic reasons for a brownfield-first policy, and they pose no threat to anyone. Except, perhaps, the volume house builders’ PR people.

Jon Reeds is the co-ordinator of the Smart Growth UK coalition.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.