Beyond patchwork planning: Why smart cities are co-operative cities

Pollution: one of the costs of not being smart. Image: Getty.

Londoners wishing to lead an active lifestyle in Western Europe’s biggest city are all too aware of the day-to-day obstacles that make regular exercise a non-starter.   

Chronic air pollution has made it more and more difficult to exercise in the great outdoors without taking in lungfuls of vehicle fumes. Public Health England revealed in August that more than four-in-ten middle-aged adults do less than 10 minutes of moderate exercise per month. With World Health Organisation (WHO) air pollution limits regularly breached in the Capital, it’s easy to see why many are reluctant to don their running kit for a post-work blast around the block.

London has traditionally had a troubled relationship with the environment, but there are signs that recent air pollution policies are starting to have a positive impact. City Hall is investing millions to tackle London’s poor air quality, but the environmental challenges we face can fox even the Capital’s best thinkers.

The capital’s evolution from a modest Anglo-Saxon settlement to today’s thriving metropolis has been far from smooth. Be it housing or transport, London has rarely taken a step back and fashioned a long-term coherent future for itself.

As London established itself as a global industrial hub in the early 19th century, the Thames quickly became polluted with thousands of gallons of industrial effluent. The problem came to a head during the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858 when the pungent aroma of the Thames became so bad that Parliament toyed with the idea of moving the business of government as far afield as Oxford or St Albans. The long summer recess that has so many MPs plotting to this day was enacted because the smell during August was too much to bear for Parliamentarians that could escape to their country seats.

When factories were springing up either side of the Thames in the 1800s, makeshift slums were haphazardly constructed in a bid to house the growing workforce. Predictably, these slums failed to provide a sustainable post-war housing solution and so planning departments scrabbled around to sign-off huge inner-city tower blocks. These quickly became undesirable places to live and so workers moved to commuter towns on the edge of the city. In need of a way of getting to work, they soon acquired cars which chuck out tonnes of pollutant particulates into the atmosphere.

As it was a muddle of patchwork planning and projects that got us to this point, it’s clear that coming together in a more collaborative and coordinated way to resolve the pollution problem is the way forward. Cities working together on innovative and proven solutions will help us all in the long run, accelerating ideas that work and learning from those ideas that don’t.

Headquartered at City Hall in London, Sharing Cities is a pan-European programme working with municipalities across the continent in a bid to help ordinary people feel the benefits of new smart technologies. We are looking to tomorrow in a holistic way to help European cities like London, Lisbon and Milan realise a greener, healthier, wealthier future for generations to come.


Currently being tested across Greenwich, Lisbon and Milan, electric bikes (eBikes) are a tantalising prospect for Londoners fed up of wasting hours in traffic jams and tired of feeling the effects of incessant exposure to traffic fumes. Fuelled by both pedal power and electricity, eBikes are a great way of encouraging Londoners who may have given up conventional cycling years ago to get back in the saddle.

We are also testing smart lampposts that can perform a host of functions, from providing data on traffic levels, to sending information to drivers telling them where spaces are available, to improving lighting which reduces street crime. By providing a safer environment for exercise, smart lampposts will help alleviate the fears of joggers reluctant to take to the streets.

Sharing Cities is also currently installing charging points in a bid to build the infrastructure required to support electric vehicle use in cities which will cut air pollution. It’s clear that better air quality will make outdoor exercise a more appealing proposition.

Smart technologies will help to reduce air pollution, congestion and crime across London. By taking a holistic approach to urban planning, we can make the dream of an active and healthy lifestyle a more realistic prospect for millions of Londoners.

Nathan Pierce is programme director of Sharing Cities. To learn more visit sharingcities.eu

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.