Sustainable development

How do we create and steward sustainable cities for the future?

Nicholas Boys Smith summarises some high level points for creating and stewarding prosperous and sustainable places into the future

I was recently invited by my good friend Carlos Moreno to talk about sustainable cities at a conference (the Redefining the Future Conference) in a rather sultry summer Athens. No slides. Only a few minutes. Not UK or London specific. And a very charming moderator (a Greek TV ‘big hitter’ apparently) who freely admitted that he knew absolutely nothing about urban design and sustainability. My fellow panellists were French, Nigerian, Dutch and Italian so there were lots of different perspectives.

So what did I say? Based on my work in the UK and beyond, I tried to boil down my points into a few key suggestions. I was trying for ten. Then it was twelve. In the end it was fifteen. Here they are.

Above all my theme was hope. It is possible to create and steward places of the future to be deeply sustainable and good places. We can tread more lightly upon the planet and prosper in doing so. In fact it is the only way we will.

My first theme was why? How do you define the problem?

  1. Define the problem correctly. We need to create sustainable places not sustainable buildings. It’s not the same. If you focus on the latter, you will miss the former, you will miss the trees for the bark. How we move about, how we live, how long buildings last is as much, or more, a function of place than of building. Places that endure and do not need to be rebuilt every 30 years are ‘deep green’. Places that are so ugly and unpleasant that they get pulled down every generation are not. We need to create and steward deep green places not green bling.
  2. Understand sustainability widely in terms of prosperity, fairness, health and happiness in alignment with environmental challenges not opposed to them. It is possible. And if you don’t, you will lose. Sustainable places have to be prosperous and happy. If not people will vote for the other guy. And if your consultant or advisor is telling you otherwise, get a new consultant. The good news is that it is possible to ‘square this circle’ so that it is possible to manage places to be both happy, sociable and deeply connected
  3. The stewardship of old places matters. In most of Europe, retrofitting existing places to be sustainable is more important than the sustainable creation of new ones. Both matter of course and the opposite will be true in some emerging economies.

My second theme was how. What is the right process to use?

  1. Ask the people. Engage wide and engage deep. And actually, listen to the answer. Ask more about place than about a movement. Ask simple but meaningful questions. ‘What is your favourite place?’ ‘What is your least favourite place?’ ‘What change would you most like to your neighbourhood?’ If you don’t meet real needs and build beautifully you will build fleetingly. Don’t do that.
  2. Love place. Care about the places people will live in. This symbolism and meaning, their layers of history as well as (but not instead of) their immediate practicalities. Place matters to our sense of purpose and prosperity, to our idea of ourselves and of our community. This is why the de-coring of our High Streets matters so so much even if it baffles some myopically clever economists & politicians. Who are we? Where are we from? Where are we going? The dystopia of urban dual carriageways and drive-to retail box land has no answer. Care about place so that you can create sustainable places over time. Seek to help the virtuous circle of place spin more smoothly.

The virtuous circle of place

  1. Language and tone matters. Don’t be contemptuous of the people who fear change but understand their fears and work with them. It’s much more enjoyable and easier than you might think. Trial change on a Sunday or a bank holiday. Don’t hate the car. But don’t love the car. Love place instead. Find win / wins.
  2. Enable change, don’t try to do everything yourself. Local government and landowners should not think of “sustainable regeneration” as something that they do and start thinking of it as something that they enable. The most profound and long-lasting improvements to a place have many authors not one author.

My final theme was what to do. What actual changes to you need to make to streets and squares? Most of these are relevant, though differently so, if you are creating new places or stewarding and retrofitting old ones.

  1. Create Gentle Density, not super density or drive to cul-de-sacs. This allows you to optimise the trade-off between personal happiness and space with sustainable living patterns and agglomerative prosperity.
  2. Create streets with clear plots and blocks and clear backs and fronts for resilient, happy and safe places in which people can move effortlessly between the public and private and readily get around their town efficiently and effectively. Across culture, climate and the centuries, the traditional street and block pattern repeats from ancient Mohenjo-daro to Victorian Manchester. This disparate but parallel evolution is a textbook example of convergent evolution of a successful solution to a practical problem. Similarly, the eye of any octopus and any mammal have fundamental similarities even though we diverged on the evolutionary tree of life aeons before any eyes started to evolve.
  3. Create real middles in a polycentric tissue in which people and purpose naturally congregate. Public buildings need civic worth, dignity and symbolism. Once upon a time this was churches. This can still be true, particularly in historic neighbourhoods. However, today it may be schools, hospitals or town halls. Whatever you do, don’t isolate these buildings on the Ring Road.
  4. Mix uses and forms. Create centripetal places that spin in not centrifugal ones that spin out. Intensify don’t disperse.
  5. Green up little and often with street trees and village greens and town squares layered throughout urban settlements. Greenery little and often has most effect on daily wellbeing for most people.
  6. Move free. Make it natural, safe and pleasant to move around by foot, by bike, by scooter, by bus, tram and train as well as by car. The higher density the neighbourhood, the truer and more important this becomes. This will boost prosperity as well as reduce personal carbon footprints. More walkable neighbourhoods are typically worth between 10 and 55 per cent more in controlled studies. In towns, cars are just not very good at moving lots of people around. The same street lane can move 21 per cent as many people by car as it can move bike.
  7. Create beautiful buildings and streets to overcome ‘the tragedy of the commons’, to encourage prosperous people to live amongst their peers not to flee them and to embed resilient reuse into the future. Streets and facades which feel ‘of here’ with biomorphic forms, embedded symmetries or near symmetries, variety in a pattern and coherent complexity will, reliably, appeal to more people than not, typically 70-90 per cent. This is one area, where it is particularly important to ask the people what they think because some architects suffer from the ‘design disconnect’ whereby they passionately, sadly sometimes even dismissively, disagree with the general public.
  8. Restitch towns scarred by road belt and by traffic modernism. Build on your roadbelt. Put roads on diets and turn them back into streets. Reweave the tissue of urban places for more prosperity, cleaner air and healthier and happier living.

Do this to new towns and to old and, all the evidence suggests, you will be creating places in which it is far, far easier for most of us to tread more lightly upon the planet and to be happier and healthier as we do so.

That must be a good thing.

Nicholas Boys Smith is the founding chair of Create Streets