Can better planning fix the problems that led to Brexit?

The Kings Square Estate. Image: Pollard Thomas Edwards.

With so much government energy and resources devoted to hammering out the UK’s future with the EU, and with the call of a second referendum ringing louder by the day, one has to ask: what is being done to address those issues that has led to Brexit in the first place? 

There has been plenty of analysis about why people voted to leave the European Union. Whatever the reason, the Brexit vote confirmed how far we are from being one nation. It signifies deep-seated social and economic difficulties experienced by people up and down the country.

Could this political outcome in fact be the result of our collective failure to invest in the proper planning of places that benefit people and create prosperity in the long term? At the Royal Town Planning Institute, we’d argue that it is: lack of housing, public services, jobs, social cohesion, and a sense in these communities that they and their voices don’t matter, are the real problems facing Britain today.

Place-making might sound woolly, but the result of our long-running failure to consciously design and invest in communities in ways that build on their potential and promote people's health, happiness, and well being is far from abstract. Town planning was created to mitigate poverty, inequality, disease and the resultant disillusionment of communities. Whatever deal we are to strike with the EU is not going to solve these problems without investment in place-making.

If Theresa May’s government is serious about building one nation, starting with the divisions so clearly brought to the surface by the Brexit vote, then this means a country that is planned properly.

It means, firstly, stronger strategic planning so that cities and regions benefit from more coordinated investment. It also means, secondly, stronger planning at the local level.

The finalists of this year’s Awards for Planning Excellence – announced on Monday – is a celebration of what good local planning can do. The projects are being created and implemented by Britain's planners, to deliver better places with obvious improvements to our health, well-being, economic security and housing.


Building more houses

How does a 2,500 home (40 per cent of them affordable) mixed-use development near Cambridge with improved access to the countryside, two new schools and health facilities and a new park around an adjacent creek to improve biodiversity sound? Impossible? Well, it’s half completed and helping address the housing shortage in the area.

Similarly – albeit on a much smaller scale – four new homes have been built following the transformation of a semi-derelict kennel and cattery in the green belt near Chertsey, Runnymede. The environmentally friendly homes have carbon emissions 10 per cent lower than regular homes, and, through clever design, have reduced the building footprint on the site – situated in the green belt – by 40 per cent.

Or what about the scheme by one local authority in London which has seen 28 new homes built across four scattered brownfield sites?

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Job insecurity is a problem across Britain – not just in the areas that voted predominately to leave. The redevelopment of the declining Bracknell Town Centre – being led by planners – is a £240m project delivering new shopping, dining and leisure facilities and 3,500 new jobs.

Meanwhile, a plan to develop a major new economic hub around Birmingham airport and international train station identifies infrastructure needs and design principles to support up to 77,500 jobs and 4000 new homes.

Improving health and wellbeing

Where you live plays a major role in health and well-being. Earlier this year, Public Health England released data showing life expectancy had gone backwards in some parts of the country.

But across the UK there are examples of attempts to tackle this. A farm classroom in South Somerset teaches school children about healthy eating, while ‘Healthy Places, Healthy Children’ in Belfast is a teaching resource introducing children to help them share their ideas on how to make neighbourhoods more healthy and child friendly. These are ideas that could be rolled out elsewhere.

Regenerating declining towns and cities

Estate regeneration is often associated with local opposition and the loss of affordable homes. However, if done properly can be welcomed by the residents.

The King’s Square estate in Islington, London, being regenerated by a partnership between the local authority, residents, designers and planners. They are working pro-actively together to develop brownfield land into 140 new affordable homes adjacent to the estate. It includes an upgrade to the public spaces and new community facilities including a refurbished nursery and primary school.

At the town level, the planners in Stromness have led an inter-departmental council task force to transform the declining town centre through the redevelopment of key buildings, sites and facilities. Importantly, the community helped shape the project from start to finish resulting in a renewed sense of civic pride.

Similarly in Porthcawl, West Wales, the transformation of a former 1800s tram terminal, known as ‘The Jennings’, into a mixed-use scheme, including cafes and live/work spaces, has acted as a catalyst for the regeneration of the wider area.

There is cause to be optimistic about our future post Brexit – and planners are leading the way.

Joshua Rule is public affairs officer at the Royal Town Planning Institute.

 
 
 
 

Self-driving cars may be safe – but they could still prevent walkable, liveable communities

A self-driving car, driving itself. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I was cycling in a bike lane when a car hit me from behind. Luckily, I suffered only a couple bruised ribs and some road rash. But ever since, I have felt my pulse rise when I hear a car coming up behind my bike.

As self-driving cars roll out, they’re already being billed as making me – and millions of American cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle passengers – safer.

As a driver and a cyclist, I initially welcomed the idea of self-driving cars that could detect nearby people and be programmed not to hit them, making the streets safer for everyone. Autonomous vehicles also seemed to provide attractive ways to use roads more efficiently and reduce the need for parking in our communities. People are certainly talking about how self-driving cars could help build more sustainable, livable, walkable and bikable communities.

But as an urban planner and transportation scholar who, like most people in my field, has paid close attention to the discussion around driverless cars, I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities. In fact, I think they’re mutually exclusive: we can have a world of safe, efficient, driverless cars, or we can have a world where people can walk, bike and take transit in high-quality, human-scaled communities.

Changing humans’ behavior

These days, with human-driven cars all over the place, I choose my riding routes and behavior carefully: I much prefer to ride on low-speed traffic, low-traffic roads, buffered bike lanes or off-street bike paths whenever possible, even if it means going substantially out of my way. That’s because I’m scared of what a human driver – through error, ignorance, inattention or even malice – might do to me on tougher roads.

But in a hypothetical future in which all cars are autonomous, maybe I’ll make different choices? So long as I’m confident self-driving cars will at least try to avoid killing me on my bike, I’ll take the most direct route to my destination, on roads that I consider much too dangerous to ride on today. I won’t need to worry about drivers because the technology will protect me.

Driverless cars will level the playing field: I’ll finally be able to ride where I am comfortable in a lane, rather than in the gutter – and pedal at a comfortable speed for myself rather than racing to keep up with, or get out of the way of, other riders or vehicles. I can even see riding with my kids on roads, instead of driving somewhere safe to ride like a park. (Of course, this is all still assuming driverless cars will eventually figure out how to avoid killing cyclists.)

To bikers and people interested in vibrant communities, this sounds great. I’m sure I won’t be the only cyclist who makes these choices. But that actually becomes a problem.

The tragedy of the commons

In the midsize midwestern college town I call home, estimates suggest about 4,000 people commute by bike. That might not sound like many, but consider the traffic backups that would result if even just a few hundred cyclists went out at rush hour and rode at leisurely speeds on the half-dozen arterial roads in my city.

Technology optimists might suggest that driverless cars will be able to pass cyclists more safely and efficiently. They might also be directed to use other roads that are less clogged, though that carries its own risks.

But what happens if it’s a lovely spring afternoon and all those 4,000 bike commuters are riding, in addition to a few thousand kids and teenagers running, riding or skating down my local roads? Some might even try to disrupt the flow of traffic by walking back and forth in the road or even just standing and texting, confident the cars will not hit them. It’s easy to see how good driverless cars will enable people to enjoy those previously terrifying streets, but it also demonstrates that safety for people and efficiency for cars can’t happen at the same time.


People versus cars

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where driverless cars can’t get anywhere efficiently – except late at night or early in the morning. That’s the sort of problem policy scholars enjoy working on, trying to engineer ways for people and technology to get along better.


One proposed solution would put cars and bicycles on different areas of the streets, or transform certain streets into “autonomous only” thoroughfares. But I question the logic of undertaking massive road-building projects when many cities today struggle to afford basic maintenance of their existing streets.

An alternative could be to simply make new rules governing how people should behave around autonomous vehicles. Similar rules exist already: Bikes aren’t allowed on most freeways, and jaywalking is illegal across most of the U.S.

Regulating people instead of cars would be cheaper than designing and building new streets. It would also help work around some of the technical problems of teaching driverless cars to avoid every possible danger – or even just learning to recognize bicycles in the first place.

However, telling people what they can and can’t do in the streets raises a key problem. In vibrant communities, roads are public property, which everyone can use for transportation, of course – but also for commerce, civil discourse and even civil disobedience. Most of the U.S., however, appears to have implicitly decided that streets are primarily for moving cars quickly from one place to another.

There might be an argument for driverless cars in rural areas, or for intercity travel, but in cities, if driverless cars merely replace human-driven vehicles, then communities won’t change much, or they may become even more car-dependent. If people choose to prioritise road safety over all other factors, that will shift how people use roads, sidewalks and other public ways. But then autonomous vehicles will never be particularly efficient or convenient.

The Conversation

Daniel Piatkowski, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.