No, there isn’t enough brownfield land to solve England’s housing crisis

Chelsea Barracks, London, in 2011: an example of a brownfield site appropriate for housing. Image: Getty.

Few things in life are certain. That the taxman will want his share. That, one day, you will die. And that, within three minutes of any discussion of how to solve Britain’s housing crisis beginning, someone who thinks they are clever will use the word “brownfield” as if it amounts to an answer and not simply a declaration that they haven’t done the reading. Which is what it actually is.

Brownfield, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, does not literally mean brown fields. In British planning circles, it generally means land that has been developed in the past, in some way or another. Often it’s used more colloquially as if it carries a more specific mean, that of “former industrial land” – depressing looking places of the sort which nobody would mourn if they were redeveloped as housing.

The idea of redeveloping brownfield as opposed to virgin, ‘greenfield’ land is an attractive one. It means keeping our towns and cities compact; regenerating abandoned sites; and protecting the great British countryside, all rolled into one. Why wouldn’t you favour a brownfield first housing policy?

Well, actually, there are several reasons why one wouldn’t. Some brownfield land is in places people don’t actually want to live, so is effectively of no use whatsoever. Some is, confusingly, too green to be worth concreting: there are brownfield sites in North Kent that are currently nature reserves. And some brownfield land was so contaminated by industrial uses that government can either spend a fortune to clean it up or risk weeks of headlines about the sudden appearance of kids that glow in the dark like the Midwich cuckoos.

Strong arguments all. But there’s a bigger, simpler retort to the brownfield first argument: we’ve tried it, and it hasn’t worked. And a significant reason for that is that there isn’t enough of the bloody stuff.

A couple of weeks back, the National Housing Federation, the umbrella group for housing associations, published an interactive map of all England’s brownfield land. It’s fun, if you’re into that sort of thing. Here’s central London:

 

And here’s Liverpool, with details of one site pulled up:

As fun as the map is, though – which it definitely is – the more important point is the figures that accompany it. The NHF found more than 17,000 brownfield sites in England, totalling around 27,700 hectares. At average densities – which, extrapolating, the researchers assume to be around 35 homes per hectare – that would be enough land for around 961,683 homes.

Which, as the NHF’s executive director Simon Nunn notes, is a bit of a problem:

“England is short of four million homes. If we’re to meet this demand by 2031 we need to build 340,000 homes every year…

“Even if this map can help housing associations build more quickly on brownfield sits, there is only enough brownfield land in the country to build a million new homes. This is of course significant, but it is not enough to end the housing crisis altogether.”

The NHF’s conclusion is that actually meeting housing targets will mean looking beyond brownfield, and expanding the land on which we build:

“We also need to look at building homes on disused public land, as well as sites that have not been built on before. This will have to include some parts of the Green Belt where appropriate”

I am shocked. This is me looking shocked. This is my shocked face.

There’s stuff in this report that one could argue with. For one thing, I’m not sure it’s comprehensive. There is not a single site in the London borough of Havering, which seems unlikely to me, so I suspect there’s stuff it’s missed:

One could also argue that, at a time of crisis, we should build at higher than average densities – on which basis perhaps there is room for more than a million homes here. And, actually, there is another option, which the NHF ignores: to, in effect, create more brownfield, by knocking stuff down and rebuilding at higher densities than before.


But there are obvious responses to all of these questions. People don’t want to live at higher than average densities. If the NHF has missed some brownfield sites, it seems unlikely it’s missed the enough to undermine its basic point. And if you think building on greenfield is unpopular, wait until you try telling people that the solution to the housing crisis is to demolish their low-rise homes.

So the basic point remains. We should build on brownfield over greenfield, where possible. But it’s not actually a solution to the housing crisis. And the idea we can fix this mess without taking some hard choice is nothing but a comforting lie, put about by people who haven’t done their research.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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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.