How tackling climate change could tackle inequality

Floods in Fort-de-France, Martinique, after it was hit by Hurricane Maria. Image: Getty.

Inequality is one of the great challenges of this age, and one that will only be exacerbated by climate change. Most pronounced is the problem in cities, where skyscrapers may tower over slums and street vendors hustle outside air-conditioned supermarkets.

But new research has revealed that taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within cities could be one of the great levellers, with the largest social and economic benefits enjoyed by the poor

Energy use alone is responsible for nearly three quarters of global greenhouse emissions, and most energy is consumed by the rich: to drive their cars, heat their buildings and manufacture goods such as refrigerators, air conditioners and televisions – all of which then demand more energy throughout their lifetime. Globally, the wealthiest ten per cent of people may be responsible for more than 50 per cent of emissions.

Though high-income households bear more responsibility for climate change, its most severe impacts will be felt by the poor, who are more likely to live in areas exposed to environmental hazards, such as floodplains or steep slopes, and whose homes may also lack basic infrastructure that might reduce the impacts of extreme weather, such as drains to safely carry away storm-water. Then, in the aftermath of natural disasters, it is the poorest in society who struggle to access the financial resources they need to rebuild their homes and lives, turning a storm into a catastrophe.

But vulnerability to climate change is not just a function of low incomes. Women, for instance, are less likely than men to know how to swim or to be reachable through conventional emergency warning systems, which puts them at greater risk in the event of a flood or storm.

Climate change can therefore compound existing inequalities, further widening the chasm between rich and poor, powerful and powerless.

Having reviewed over 700 studies on transport, buildings and waste management, the research team fom the Coalition for Urban Transitions found that choosing low-carbon options would not only improve public health, create jobs, enhance productivity and cut energy bills, but that many of the gains would be mostly enjoyed by low-income urban residents. Those most vulnerable to climate change are therefore also those who would benefit most from climate action.


Consider outdoor air pollution, which causes around 4.2 million deaths every year, and asthma, bronchitis and other chronic diseases for millions more. This burden of ill-health is overwhelmingly borne by low-income urban dwellers, who more frequently live in polluted areas along highways or near power plants, and are more likely to work outdoors as street vendors, labourers or waste collectors.

Producing electricity from renewables instead of coal, making vehicles more energy efficient, and shifting to lower-carbon fuels for heating and cooking can cut both pollutants and carbon emissions. Since the poor suffer the most from toxic air, they also enjoy the greatest health improvements.

Or consider road safety. More than 1.25 million people die every year from traffic accidents. 90 per cent of whom live in developing countries and nearly half are pedestrians, cyclists or motorcyclists. Many of these people cannot afford a car or even public buses, but face a terrible risk on every trip. Women may face additional constraints, as cultural norms and additional physical risks often deter them from cycling or walking freely around the city.

Segregated walkways and bike lanes are essential to keeping pedestrians and cyclists safe, and the provision of street lighting and street furniture such as benches can further enhance people’s safety by turning the pavements into a place where people want to be. It’s those who are unable to afford any other means of travel that benefit the most, and at the same time, these measures can reduce greenhouse gases by establishing non-motorised transport as a safe, enjoyable way to commute.

The costs of air pollution and road accidents are immense, and overwhelmingly borne by the poor. People are dying because they cannot breathe easily or move safely within cities. This new paper shows that there are opportunities to tackle these everyday inequalities, and simultaneously reduce the risk of dangerous global warming.

Ambitious climate action can therefore lay the foundations for healthier, safer and more equal cities for decades to come.

Sarah Colenbrander is Head of Global Programmes at the Coalition for Urban Transitions and Senior Researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development. Andrew Sudmant is a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, and one of the authors of The Economic and Social Benefits of Low-carbon Cities – A Systematic Review of the Evidence.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.