How smarter planning of our towns and cities can help meet sustainability goals, drive productivity and ensure more equitable wealth distribution.
Urbanisation has been a pivotal driver of the surge in the productive capacity of the world over the past few decades. Cheap and plentiful energy – crude oil in particular – has supported this process but it has also dramatically altered how we design our towns and cities, making them more diffuse, less dynamic and more energy inefficient. While technological breakthroughs have lowered oil usage per head, the world is using 50% more oil now than it was in 1980 and 25% more than in 2000. This is unsustainable.
We need to significantly reduce our energy consumption, and this is where we believe cities and towns can again drive progress. Smarter urban planning that allows for more walking, cycling and better public transport could massively reduce energy usage and rejuvenate our centres into the bargain. It could make us happier too.
Why cities matter
Over the past couple of hundred years, a great, persistent migration from the countryside to towns and cities has been a powerful force in improving living standards around the world. Productivity and GDP growth are strongly linked to urbanisation.
A major reason for urban centres’ higher productivity is that they are magnets for knowledge and skills. This spills over into new engineering processes, slicker technology and helpful new products. And it also helps inspire arts, theatre and other creative endeavours that in turn stimulate more creativity. It’s for this reason that, globally, knowledge-based industries tend to cluster in larger urban areas.
Cities need rethinking
Cities create two opposing forces, constantly in tension, which shape them. The first is centripetal: the agglomeration of people, ideas, jobs and fun that attracts people in the first place. The second is centrifugal: the more successful the place, the greater the cost of living, driving people away in search of cheaper, easier living. The ebbs and flows of this great conflict have been playing out all over the world for millennia.
Arguably, the invention of cars has lent on the scales somewhat. By making it quicker and easier to cover large distances, cars have made it more convenient to let towns and cities expand outwards in low-density homes served by roads.
As our urban centres sprawl ever wider, several problems arise. Choke points for road and train users proliferate, which has a considerable impact on productivity. In the UK, the average number of hours lost to traffic in 2019 was 115, according to global analytics company Inrix. What’s more, suburban families pump out roughly twice the amount of greenhouse gas that’s emitted by those living in denser centres. The sprawling creep of housing on the outer fringes of centres also eats up farmland, reducing the amount of food that can be produced locally and making us more dependent on supplies from far away.
Pushing back on suburban pull
After decades of road-focused development in the late 20th century, the problems with urban sprawl began to be acknowledged and city living has again been in the ascendancy for the past 20 years. Mixed-use developments and denser neighbourhoods closer to urban centres became the buzzwords in planning circles and neglected inner-city sites filled up with new homes and businesses.
Then COVID hit. During 2020, purchases of suburban homes offering more space and private gardens soared wherever lockdowns were implemented. Has the pandemic sent the densification trend into reverse?
There is now a serious lobby effort to resist that suburban pull. The '15–minute city' is the current catchphrase. It’s a design principle that focuses on ensuring residents can find everything they need or want within a 15–minute walk or cycle from home. This makes sense both in terms of resource efficiency and how people feel. Where these principles have been implemented, estate agent Knight Frank has measured a general increase in property values. People also seem to be happier: a sustainable development report by The Prince’s Foundation found that quality of life was greater in places where people could walk and cycle more.
Making bussing and cycling cool
Our car-heavy transport system is particularly unsustainable. In the UK, transport burns between 10 and 15 million tonnes of oil each quarter, making it the greatest single user of energy (household energy demand comes a close second). The numbers are stark: we must significantly reduce the amount of energy we consume in transportation.
All around the world governments are planning large investments in green infrastructure. In the UK, the government has announced a £3 billion expansion of bus infrastructure across England.
Widespread uptake of public transport depends on the efficiency of the system. It has to be frequent and reliable; it has to be cheaper than and as quick as other options; and it has to be easy and seamless to use. Technology has a key role to play in this, for example enabling real-time routing information for customers and transport operators, contactless payment for quick and easy usage, and more comfortable and efficient vehicles.
Another simple and quick solution is more cycleways and bike-sharing schemes. Somewhere in the region of €1 billion has been spent across Europe on these sorts of projects during the pandemic. The trick is to make cycling feel safe, enjoyable and hassle-free for most people.
Urban planning must now pitch in by creating more sustainable towns and cities that can better support public transport. That could tip the balance of convenience from cars to buses, and wider uptake could bring economies of scale that make buses cheaper.
Breathing new life into the high street
Greater e-commerce and changing consumer habits have driven a steady decline in many retail high streets for many years now. These areas require renovation and rejuvenation. More homes are needed closer to centres, boosting potential demand for all sorts of activities. In parallel, businesses need to recognise the changing dynamics that govern online and retail shopping and reassess how much property they need and how best to use it.
Bigger opportunity in smaller centres
When we think of cities, we immediately think of the mega cities. However, the biggest opportunities for changing how we live are actually in smaller cities and towns. By sparking new life in smaller centres, we could make widespread improvements in everything from people’s health to better job opportunities and general happiness.
That may be harder for local authorities and communities to fund. Yet, especially in the UK, central government’s appetite for 'levelling up' regional centres could mean towns and cities get the help they need. UK productivity has been depressed since the global financial crisis. This has been particularly acute in the regions and second-tier cities and highlights just how much good can be gained by investing in them.
A chance too good to miss
Success will depend on improving all our cities — and our towns too — to make them better places to live, do business and shop. A more complex city, with a mix of options and solutions will also be more resilient to crises and responsive to opportunities. If this can be achieved, it should moderate the crushing forces of super cities that cement inequality of wealth and opportunity. It could also go some way to defusing some of the antagonism that can exist between regions and pre-eminent cities.
We believe the post-pandemic recovery offers a unique chance to invest in improving our towns and cities and making them more sustainable. It is an opportunity too good to ignore.
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