Sustainable urbanism

from Achieving Sustainable Development through Neighbourhood Planning? pt2

Mike Jenks and Chris Smith
Fal Energy Partnership AGM, 24th April 2014 at Penryn Town Hall

I am going to talk a bit about sustainable urbanism, and will use an umbrella term – The Compact City. Over the past 20 or so years this has driven theory, policy and practice, and is now part of the mainstream. As you can see from the words on the slide, there are many other terms that have been used, and probably many more, but scratch the surface and they mean much the same thing.

It is a term that covers a whole range of approaches to achieving sustainable urbanism. The source for ideas about the Compact City originated in a rather romantic view of European city, based around medieval centres that have been held by many theorists as an ideal city model. The Compact City concept as a sustainable form, was developed in 1990 in an EU Green Paper, and is claimed to be an urban form that is humane, as well as being environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. And if the concepts have become widespread in design, planning and policy, it is the central areas of cities like Amsterdam or Barcelona that have been held up as models to follow. So why is the Compact City claimed to provide sustainable urbanism?
First it is claimed to be spatially sustainable because the town or city is contained, that is it does not spread out in low density suburban sprawl. This preserves agricultural land, and because the boundaries are constrained, it requires the efficient use of urban land (for example brownfield sites).

Second the Compact City is environmentally sound because more compact forms mean less distances to travel, and therefore there will be fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Also another claimed benefit is that the higher densities implied by compact forms mean that it is possible to introduce local power generation schemes, such as combined heat and power (CHP).
The third claim, closely associated, is that it is efficient for transport. Because of the proximity of home, work and leisure, there is less need to travel. The higher densities make the provision of good quality public transport more viable, and proximity encourages more sustainable modes of movement such as walking and cycling.

Fourth, it is socially beneficial. The compact form means there is better access to key health, social and leisure facilities, and again because of closeness, the access is more equitable, as it is not dependent on a car to get there. Proximity and higher densities are reckoned to support cultural and social diversity, and encourage more citizen involvement and participation.

Fifth, the claim is for economic viability. More people in an area help to support facilities and services, and also local businesses. The higher densities help to lower per capita infrastructure costs, increasing the economies of scale.
Finally, there is the promotion of good governance, and the way more compact forms help to foster participation and engagement, and more resilient and empowered communities.

While these claims have not necessarily been proven, they have been put into practice, and there is a general consensus about the characteristics that appear to work.

To summarise, the sustainability claims for a more compact urban form are that it is:
 Spatially sustainable
 Environmentally sound
 Efficient for transport
 Socially beneficial
 Economically viable
 Promotes good governance

And as such urban areas that are more sustainable have characteristics of:
 A mixture of uses
 High(er) densities
 Interconnected streets
 Social and economic diversity
 A variety of transport choices
 Neighbourhoods that are walkable
 Using renewables and recycling
 Low/zero energy design

So it appears possible to help make cities more sustainable – or at least less unsustainable. However, all these aspects should integrate together

The diagram illustrates this, with some examples of the things that should come together. This includes Energy conservation, sustainable transport, green growth, renewable energy, governance that is sustainability-led, and social equity, resilience and inclusion, and so on. It makes it clear that achieving a sustainable city needs integration and joined up, not silo thinking.

More to follow next week.

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