Let’s move beyond the sustainable city oxymoron

A truly sustainable built environment hinges on a multiplicity of factors, not least including the context within which a building sits. Dr Peter Rickaby argues that a focus on cities may lead us in the wrong direction. 

This article was originally published in issue 17 of Passive House Plus magazine. Want immediate access to all back issues and exclusive extra content? Click here to subscribe for as little as €10, or click here to receive the next issue free of charge

Imagine yourself looking down on a city like London from a satellite. You would see a huge agglomeration of buildings, most of them heated, some also cooled and expelling heat, many ventilated and artificially lit throughout the day. You would also see centres and sub-centres, and a tidal flow of millions of people into those centres each morning, and out to the suburbs and beyond each evening, some on foot or by bicycle, most in trains, buses or cars. Journeys of fifty miles are common. Would you be looking at something sustainable?

Over thirty years ago, I was part of a group of university researchers investigating energy use in cities and regions. It was a small group, perhaps thirty of us in universities in Europe, the US, South America and Asia. We worked with a larger international group of land-use and transport simulation modellers, both academics and consultants. The research provided many insights, but in the 1980s governments and city authorities were uninterested, so we published our results and moved on to other careers.

In the 1990s, academics from Oxford Brookes University finally caught the UK government’s attention with the idea of the ‘compact city’ – increasing urban densities to improve sustainability. The idea was that higher densities and car restrictions would encourage us to walk or cycle instead, and would improve the viability and attractiveness of public transport. The compact city idea was seized upon by architects and by house-builders, for whom higher densities (i.e. more homes on smaller plots) chimed like a cash register. Planning guidance was duly issued, housing densities were increased, streets were narrowed and minimum parking standards became maximum parking provision. The unintended consequences are that outside our suburban homes we now find ourselves clambering over cars parked on the pavements, and our back gardens are tiny, overlooked and too over-shaded for growing vegetables. Perhaps a few people have left their cars at home and gone to work by bus, but in our city centres we still have dangerous air pollution. The compact city idea (which is actually about compact suburbs) has failed.

Now the sustainability of cities has become a hot topic. With the world’s population urbanising at an alarming rate, almost every city authority has a sustainability programme. There are many books about sustainable cities. Consultants offer ‘smart’ ways of making urban systems more efficient. We promote ‘zero carbon’ buildings, passive house, green roofs, heat networks, sustainable urban drainage, flood protection, city farms, electric cars and buses, on-demand taxis and new rapid transit to bring even more people into urban centres each day or allow them to cross a city entirely on their journeys to work. But are we looking at the correct issues? The problem is that the research in the 1980s suggested that lower densities, not higher densities, improve sustainability, so a more radical approach may be required.

Historically, cities have arisen wherever people needed to come together to trade, create markets and share their culture, and they have served us well. However, all cities are parasitic on hinterlands. The hinterland of a medieval city was an area fifty or a hundred miles across, where resources were quarried, mined and forested, food was grown and waste was disposed of. Tentacles of trade reached out over greater distances. Now, the overlapping hinterlands of twenty-first century cities embrace the whole world. Thus to suggest that we can draw boundaries around high-density cities, and somehow make them sustainable within those boundaries, is absurd: cities are inherently unsustainable. We should think instead about sustainable settlement patterns on regional and national scales.

Dr Peter Rickaby is Director of Rickaby Thompson Associates Ltd and a Trustee of the National Energy Foundation (NEF). The views expressed here are his own, and not necessarily endorsed by the NEF.

The ‘seers’ of planning history such as Soria y Mata, Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, Patrick Abercrombie and Melvin Webber understood these ideas. Howard’s Federation of Garden Cities was an integration of town and country bound together by railways. Wright’s Broadacre City was a vision of a low density urbanised, agrarian continent bound together by car travel. In London in 1938, Wright predicted that cities (“monuments to greed”) are destined to wither away. Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1944, and the associated New Towns programme, were founded on the principle of reducing urban densities to alleviate squalid and unhealthy conditions there, and building instead in the suburbs and the hinterland, deliberately spreading the city in a controlled way. We need multi-centred regional and national settlement patterns that integrate agriculture with urban living to provide local food production, that embrace clean industrial production, waste disposal and recycling, that provide space for locally generated renewable energy, and space for recreation. All these features need low densities. Alongside them we can use information technology to provide world-wide economic and cultural connections, to support home working and reduce expensive, time-consuming, energy-wasting commuting. So let’s have a vision for our settlements, and stop talking about ‘sustainable cities’ – it’s an oxymoron.

Last modified on Tuesday, 25 October 2016 09:58

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