Sadiq Khan has scored some “quick wins” – but tackling the capital’s housing crisis remains his biggest challenge

Last May, Sadiq Khan was elected mayor of London after a decisive victory over his closest rival Zac Goldsmith. That election feels like a long time ago now given the political upheavals that have taken place since – with the vote for Brexit, the formation of a new government under Theresa May, and Donald Trump’s election as US president all signalling huge changes at local, national and international levels.

In the context of that upheaval, how has mayor Khan fared in his first few months? Revisiting the Centre for Cities’ 10 lessons for the new Mayor report, which we published to mark Khan’s election in May, offers some pointers on how to assess his performance thus far. The report set out advice for the new mayor on how he could tackle the big policy challenges he faces, while engaging with wider political developments, based on interviews with leading staff from the previous mayoral administrations. More than six months down the line, three examples in particular have epitomised Khan’s style and intent in the position.

Firstly, his capacity for responding to external events by demonstrating that “London is open”. Just seven weeks in to his first term in office the EU referendum completely shifted the political narrative and priorities of  Khan’s early tenure, moving attention from public transport fare freezes towards getting a fair Brexit deal for Londoners.

Since then, Khan has rarely been seen without a #Londonisopen slogan in-tow, and he has used his informal powers as a figurehead for the city to set the tone and vision for the capital on trips to Paris, Chicago and Canada. In doing so he has distanced his administration from national government, drawing on his considerable mandate to promote London both to Londoners and the world as “entrepreneurial, international, creative, and tolerant”.

Secondly, delivering on his manifesto by introducing the “Hopper” fare. Aside from reacting to external headwinds, the role of the Mayor is primarily one of delivery. With this in mind it was important for Khan – as with all new mayors – to be seen as hitting the ground running.

With his team having held meetings with Transport for London in advance of taking office, one such “quick win” was the introduction of the Hopper Fare, which allows Londoners to make a free second bus journey within an hour of paying £1.50 for their first fare. This was a visible, accessible policy that was quickly implemented, signalling that the mayor was eager and able to get things done within the city. Although it is unlikely to be a defining policy, the advantage of this type of “quick win” is to offer something tangible to voters, while Khan finalises his longer term strategies and plans.

Thirdly, setting a long term vision and expanding the portfolio of the role. The new mayor has been ambitious in setting out his strategic goals for his mayoralty from the start of his time in office. Just as Ken Livingstone reached beyond his formal powers to introduce the Congestion Charge and the Olympics, Khan has been vocal in calling for further powers over the suburban rail network and has reconvened a commission calling for fiscal devolution. In doing so, he has capitalised on public sentiment, acting on both the antipathy towards Network Rail and the concerns of Londoners coming to terms with Brexit.

So after the first few months, how should Khan’s performance be evaluated? Overall, it has been an encouraging start for the mayor, who has set out a clear vision and – in many aspects – policies to achieve it, as well as hiring an impressive top team to help him realise his intent.

Ultimately, however, the mayor will be judged on how far he has achieved his goals and addressed the city’s needs. More than anything, that will mean tackling London’s housing crisis, which remains not only the top priority for the city, but a major concern for his mayoralty.

Over the next few weeks, Khan is set to publish strategic guidance that will inform the updated London Plan (the mayor’s strategy for spatial development in the Greater London area), but as yet his policies to address the capital’s housing needs remain unconvincing.

To tackle this issue and realise his vision for the city, Khan must make best use of the machinery of London governance – working both with the boroughs and within City Hall – to take the tough choices needed for the capital to continue to thrive despite the uncertainty that lies ahead.

Edward Clarke is an analyst at the Centre for Cities. This article originally appeared on the think tank's blog.

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To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.