“London needs community land trusts – and 2018 could be our year”

St Clements, Mile End: 23 of the 252 homes on the site are ownd by London CLT. Image: Linden Homes.

The co-director of the London Community Land Trust on how organisations like his own can help solve the housing crisis.

Londoners now agree that London need more affordable homes. There is also a political consensus, with the mayor and most local authorities making affordable housing a priority.

However, there is less consensus about what the word ‘affordable’ means, or about how to build the homes.

Let’s start with ‘affordable’. You might assume it would be linked to how much money people can afford, but you’d be wrong. Under the Localism Act 2012, affordable means anything up to 80 per cent of the local market rate. Homes sold under ‘shared ownership’ schemes, for example, can require buyers that earn £90,000 a year. Definitely not affordable for most Londoners.

Then there’s how the homes are built. Most private and public sector housebuilders fail to recognise how important social connections can be for people’s wellbeing, and the expertise people have about their neighbourhood. By not taking peoples’ relationships and expertise seriously, the mainstream approach is in danger of building homes but damaging communities. Cries of ‘social cleansing’ rise across the capital precisely in response to this approach, which risks creating a generation of people who remember this decade as the time their neighbourhood was taken from them.

So, what are Community Land Trusts (CLTs), and how can they help solve the problem? In general, CLTs exist to hold assets for the benefit of the local community, in a way that is governed democratically. Each trust is different. London CLT provides homes for people like Ruman, Humayra and Yunis.

Before moving into St. Clement’s, London CLT’s first site, they all lived in one room in Ruman’s parents’ flat. They didn’t have enough money to move out, but weren’t a priority for the council. Their choice was between cramped, difficult conditions or leaving their friends, family and community for good. The CLT provided a third option. Now they live in a 2 bedroom flat of their own, and can stay in the area they call home.

To ensure London CLT’s homes are affordable to people like Ruman and Humayra, each London CLT home is priced linked to local wages. Then, when residents move on, their lease requires them to sell the home at a price still linked to local wages. That means the homes are genuinely affordable to Londoners, and will stay that way.

The process of building London CLT’s homes is led by people who already live in an area. Each site is identified through local community organising campaigns, run in partnership with community organising charity Citizens UK. People from the area come together and are offered training in how to organise and get homes built.

The local authority is approached for its backing, often in assemblies of hundreds of people to show the support for the project. A site is then identified. Most of the sites London CLT work on are those that, without significant local support, would struggle to get through planning. CLT projects often unlock sites for housing that the private or public sector can’t.

Then, once land is secured, the same group of people make all the key decisions – how to raise the money, which architect to work with, and deciding the policy for who should get to live in the homes.

Community Land Trusts are gaining in popularity. From RUSS in Lewisham, to stART in Haringey, communities are organising to build the homes they need. Government at all levels is beginning to get on board: ministers announced the remaining £163m of the £300m Community Housing Fund in July 2018. The mayor of London has set a target to identify sites for at least 1,000 community-led homes by 2021, and set up the Community-Led Housing Hub to help support the sector. The potential for the sector to grow is substantial. In Berlin, 15 per cent of housing starts are delivered by community-led housing organisations. In England, it’s just 0.3 per cent.

CLT campaigners outside City Hall. Image: London CLT.

For London CLT, we moved our first residents into St. Clement’s in Mile End in June 2017. We now have agreements on six sites and enough land for around 160 homes, housing around 500 people in the next three or four years. Two of these sites are through TfL’s small sites programme, both announced by the mayor earlier this year.

For those in the sector, it feels like we are on the cusp of something big. Will we look back on 2018 as the year community-led housing really took off? Or a time when a few exciting projects were built, but not much more? You can probably tell which one we’re pushing for.

(A brief disclaimer: this article focuses on London. This is not because London is more important than anywhere else, it’s just that London is all I know about. There is also a growing community land trust movement in the rest of the country. To find out more check out the National CLT Network, and organisations like Leeds Community Homes, Granby 4 Streets and Bristol Community Land Trust.)

Calum Green is co-director of London Community Land Trust. Follow them @LondonCLT.


To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.

Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.