How can cities make the most of the space unlocked by driverless cars?

Vroom, vroom. Image: Getty.

This summer, Oslo’s city council will give its plans to free the city centre from cars a strong push, and scrap hundreds of parking spaces. This step by local politicians is part of a wider agenda turning the Norwegian capital into the greenest and most sustainable city in Europe. Other major European cities, including Dublin, Milan, Madrid, and Paris, have announced their intention to follow the example and go car free, at least in some downtown areas.

Though converting today’s congested cities into havens for pedestrians and cyclists may currently seem ambitious, the emergence of driverless cars means it is far from a distant dream: what seemed like a vision of tomorrow’s world is now literally only a few years down the road. What driverless cars mean for urban environments is yet to be seen; but it is clear that they will offer the greatest advantages to cities with high population density.

Urban centres are the cores of economic productivity, but simultaneously the areas most hampered by road congestion, available land and environmental constraints. Autonomous vehicles have the potential to be a remedy to all three of these limitations; but they’ll require decisive and consistent policy action to do so.

That won’t necessarily mean putting legal restrictions into place: in a driverless city, changing patterns of car ownership will mean that parking spaces will simply become obsolete over time. In short, this means that carparks can be transformed and used in an economically more productive way.


This will have the greatest value in dense urban cities where space has a much higher value than in rural areas. For the 80 per cent of EU citizens living in an urban world the change will be transformative.

So it’s certain that the emergence of autonomous driving will entail a very serious review of the way we use space, road and otherwise. The process of that review offers great opportunities, not only to accommodate the needs of this new technology, but to utilise the very process, and the space liberated, to make a wider impact on improving the urban experience for all.

In this process citizens must be consulted actively so they have a stake in the way such spaces are transformed. They are the ones with the most in-depth and intimate knowledge of the particularities of private and public transport within their own communities. They are also most aware of the economic and social needs of the areas they live in. In the UK, this could mean giving citizens a greater say in drafting planning obligations under section 106 legal agreements, where investors are meant to contribute towards infrastructure or services needed for the proposed developments.

Whether freed-up space is used to extend existing houses and estates, allow new businesses to prosper, or develop leisure zones and cycle lanes will largely depend on local need. For instance, developing more green space can boost the overall well-being of citizens as a number of academic studies suggest.

Because urban planning has the greatest potential to impact their day-to-day lives, citizens are best placed to offer solutions or innovative ways to both integrate autonomous vehicles into their communities and how to alter urban space in light of the opportunities that autonomous vehicles usher in. In the long run, strategies of actively engaging citizens can help to promote social cohesion, share the benefits of new technologies more widely and reinvigorate representative democracy against the backdrop of increasing inequalities and the populist era.

Florian Ranft researches structural changes in economies at Policy Network and tweets as @FloRanft.

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Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.