New Hertfordshire MP pledges to defend green belt, to protect children from the scourge of low housing costs

The green and pleasant Hertsmere. Image: Google Maps.

Just a quick post, to send our many London-based readers into the weekend with a spring in their step and a passionate hatred of everything in their hearts.

Yesterday, Oliver Dowden, David Cameron’s former deputy chief of staff and the recently elected Conservative MP for Hertsmere, gave his maiden speech to the House of Commons. His constituency, which lies just outside the London boundary, includes the suburban towns Bushey, Potters Bar and Borehamwood. It also, as the new MP used his speech to boast, contains both the set of Eastenders and a Hare Krishna community where the animals are soothed with music ("the Ritz of the Cow world").

But Dowden also said something that, if I'm absolutely honest, upsets me a bit.  According to the BBC, he noted that his constituency contains "the last unspoilt rolling hills of England before the Home Counties give way to London", adding:

"I'm absolutely determined to preserve [our towns and villages] from soulless urban sprawl so that my children and grandchildren may enjoy them as I have done."

Anyone who knows me well, or indeed at all, may know where I'm going with this.

According to RightMove, the average sales price for property in Hertsmere over the last year was £590,613. The average full-time weekly salary in the borough in April 2014 was £537, giving an average annual salary of just under £28,000. In other words, this is an area in which the average property price is just over 21 times the average income.

That's a slightly unfair comparison, because many of the locals commute. So if we assume they're all earning the average inner London salary of around £34,473 instead, it's a mere 17 times incomes.

The multiple of your income a bank will lend you as a mortgage is 4.5.

Hertsmere, as much as anywhere else in England, needs more homes. Dowden, who visited a construction site on the election trail, probably knows this. The site in question was, admittedly, on brownfield land. But such land, it’s generally estimated, could provide perhaps a third of the homes we need in London and the surrounding counties. If we’re to deal with the housing crisis, we have to look beyond that.

And yet, Dowden says no. He feels so strongly that the green belt is untouchable that it was literally the first policy issue he addressed in a speech to the House of Commons.

Which is just great.

It may seem unfair to pick on Oliver Dowden like this. Many, if not most, MPs in outer London and just outside it would probably agree with him. Many of their constituents certainly do.

But this, recall, is a man with very influential friends. Unlike most of us – unlike most MPs, even – he might genuinely be in a position to influence national housing policy. And this is how he’s chosen to use that power.

Dowden wants his children and grandchildren to enjoy his constituency as he has done. Presumably, he would include everyone else's children and grandchildren in that, too.

So the question at the front of my mind is: how? None of them will be able to afford to bloody well live there.


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.