Author Archives: UrbanXtra

Cycling and walking infrastructure that works: what are the next steps?

2222Our sister publication Local Transport Today recently published a viewpoint from Gary Cummins, a transport planner at JMP Consultants Ltd, and previously an activist for the London Cycling Campaign in east London.

We thought it was worth sharing, and if you think so too, join us at Cycling and walking infrastructure that works on November 13 in London, where we will hear what the deciosion-makers, from Highways Agency to DfT and TfL, have to tell us…

Compared to those of our North European neighbours, conditions for cyclists in the UK are far from perfect, or arguably even good. Nevertheless, cycling is rising up the political agenda and usage is increasing. There is a press advertising campaign currently running for the Fat Face clothing company. It depicts four good-looking twenty-somethings dressed in the casual chic style of that clothing brand, all riding traditional-style sit-up-and-beg bicycles in an idealised English country lane. When the ad men start using bikes as a reference marker to indicate the aspirations of their target audience, you know it’s the thing to be doing. Continue reading

Why is robust evidence a placemaking holy grail?

We hear a lot about informed decision-making in relation to place and movement. Yet this week, the press has been full of challenges to supposedly well-researched Government positions. There’s HS2: with the Institute of Directors (among others) now calling the proposal madness. There was the Virgin Rail challenge to the numbers underlying the East Coast line. Can’t we ‘do’ robust evidence, the way medical researchers do?

We’ll be addressing these issues in PLACEmaking 2013/14. Email us if you have any ideas or comments.

Urbanists have long been the poor relations in their quest to demonstrate, and communicate, the value of investment in the urban realm: As John Dales writes in our sister publication Local Transport Today: ‘Not everything that can be counted counts; and what really counts can often not be counted’. Funding for urban realm and public space improvements has long been justified as an ‘add on’ to the hard case of transport investment. As Martina Juvara of SKM says: ‘We need to create a connection between the policy aspirations (by definition broad and flexible) and the hard justification of transport investment, strictly based on demand forecasts and transport efficiency, and to ‘speak multiple languages’ until a common ground of shared objectives is identified and supported by all parties, finding transport justifications for urban design improvements, and an economic and delivery framework for place-making.’

There is, thankfully, a growing realisation that the ‘value’ of key elements such as smarter travel, links between place, movement and investment potential, and the quality of the urban realm must be taken into consideration of we are to create places that people like, and that are resilient to ongoing change. The UK Government’s recent reports on road transport, however, seem to fly in the face of taking such an holistic approach. Where will it end? Here’s sample of some RUDI content on these issues to set the scene. Let us know what you think…

Confused approach to out of town retail: Government paying lip service to its own ideas, says high street ‘guru’ Portas

Last week in the press, headlines (albeit small ones) screamed: High street guru Mary Portas has blasted Cabinet Minister Eric Pickles in her fight to rescue the nation’s High Streets…

While the decision to make Portas the official ‘Queen of the High Street’ may have been a cynical stunt (why do we need a celebrity to enlighten us to what we already know? Sadly, because she gets her voice heard…), her policy suggestions (many provided by exhaustive consultant reports) were sound. In the future, she says, high streets could see a move away from retail.

But it transpires that Mary’s celebrity voice is not enough. Lately, Portas has accused the Government of paying little more than ‘lip service’ to the ideas she has put forward. She was highly critical of Communities and Local Government Minister Eric Pickles recent support for the building of an 82,000 square foot supermarket on the seafront at Margate, one of the Portas Pilot towns chosen to be awarded a share of the Government’s high street innovation fund.

Access a selection of RUDI’s high street and town centre analysis

Portas has rightly said the Government needs to introduce clear policies and plans to save British high streets, describing them as the ‘heartbeats’ of each community, and claimed that more ‘joined-up thinking’ is needed. There certainly seems to be some confusion. Already this month, Communities secretary Eric Pickles has approved outline plans for a business park on the outskirts of Burbage in Leicestershire, after ruling that it would meet the need for office space in the area and would ‘not damage nearby town centres’.
Continue reading

Resilience and regeneration: ‘resilience’ may be a sharper placemaking policy focus than the wider concept of sustainability

Many place-focused professionals, notably economists from the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, are suggesting that ‘resilience’ may be a sharper placemaking policy focus than the wider concept of sustainability. New insight and evidence is coming from each sector of the complex network of disciplines involved in making better places, and one thing is alarmingly clear: that if we don’t get more effective at working together then progress may be limited.

We need the social scientists and planners working on changing behaviour patterns, very difficult to pin down in terms of hard evidence, to be listened to by those tasked with investing in our transit systems. We have some useful strategies and theories of placemaking could and should deliver, but good placemaking is messy. We need to go the extra mile and involve and represent all sections of the community. Involvement and buy-in and the ability to have imapct on your own environment is the key to building resilience.

The upcoming Future of CIties Forum in September 2013 is bringing together just the right kind of mix, including RUDI team members, to really get ‘down and dirty’ in pushing the collaborative agenda forward.

Read mote about the Forum on RUDI. Here’s an extract…

‘Transforming urban infrastructure into regenerative systems consequently requires an integrated approach, coordinated action and policy dialogue. It requires straddling the public, private and civil society spheres as well as a cross-sectoral approach among authorities. While urban planning used to be the exclusive realm of specialised experts, today public participation is understood as a prerequisite in transformation processes. Multi-stakeholder dialogues that ensure representation of a diversity of voices from those concerned in the development process are therefore inevitable.’

Paid in gold to lose weight in Dubai? Sure, because you can’t walk anywhere

I was listening to the radio the other day to a Dubai expat explaining how the state is paying residents in gold to lose weight. She chirpily said that we ‘drive everywhere, even to the neighbour, as there are no pavements and it’s really hard to walk….’

Why is road-centric planning creeping back up the UK agenda? Read our analysis on RUDI

I have lived in Dubai, and it is hard to walk in all but a few districts, even in the winter when heat is not an issue. The crazily looping fast freeways that slice up Dubai make a car a must-have. And although newer neighbourhoods are finally being planned with narrow shady streets and ‘walkable’ precincts, Dubai needs to realise that its growing obesity problem is planned right into its urban development policy: more malls, hotels and roads. But at least they can say that they are worth their (lost) wight in gold…

Urban food myths and moans: but we need to explore all the evidence

I’m an advocate of local food systems, and worked with CITIES to put together the Farming the City book which explores their potential, but I still believe we need to check out the arguments of the detractors, either so we can iron out problems and improve, or to tackle them on their misinformation. What is the opinion on these pieces from Spiked and SmartPlanet that, roughly speaking, take this view: ‘ ‘the available evidence convincingly demonstrates that long-distance trade and modern technologies have resulted in much greater food availability, lower prices, improved health and reduced environmental damage than if they had never materialised. Indeed, more trade and ever-improving technologies remain to this day the only proven ways to lift large numbers of people out of rural poverty and malnutrition.’

Agribusiness is greener than urban farming

When it comes to food, think global, act global

Citywash: what can the smart city offer us?

No blog is complete this month without creative comment on smart cities.
But separating the wheat from the chaff is getting complex. Two blogs this week outline the where
Paul Bevan from Eurocities argues that people have to come first, as does Rick Robinson, the Urban Technologist, who has blooged about his Smarter City myths and misconceptions. But focusing on the technology is unnerving some researchers who feel that cities are outsourcing their brains…

Local growth: we know what to do, so why don’t we do it?

As the date approaches (27 March 2013) for the National Planning Policy Framework to come into force, it transpires that councillors across the country are offering themselves for hire to property developers who are hoping to take advantage of the more relaxed post-NPPF regime.

Without a local plan, planning in the area will be determined in line with the NPPF’s much-heralded ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’.

Local government politicians are trading on their inside knowledge of the planning system to receive fees of up to £20,000 for advice on how to get developments approved, according to the press.

This is just one instance of the mighty confusion brewing amongst local planning policy, especially as the first neighbourhood plan approval being broadly welcomed: but with provisos.

Steve Graham, Director of Civic Voice says: ‘Although this plan has gone through, Civic Voice can already see some referendums being extremely controversial. Other plans where significant site allocations may be required for housing or for particular development may prove to be more controversial. The real test for neighbourhood planning will come when being challenged by inappropriate development. We will then see what legal weight the plans have in practice’.

A High Court judge has already ruled that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) takes precedence over the Localism Act and out-of-date or incomplete local development plans.

Recent research by commercial property consultant GVA has revealed that the market is unable to deliver large scale housing schemes without greater support from the public sector.

With councils struggling to correct the gaping mismatch between resources, actual housing and growth need, planned housing and growth need, localism and other planning policy, surely something has to give.

Surely, as a sector, place-makers need to at least talk about this?

Those place pioneers and leaders that do think so are coming together in Newcastle on April 17 to explore real options and solutions for impact.

Do your own exploration with our selection of free RUDI content on these themes

Better housing development, better placemaking and better community outcomes

Ugly rubbish: that’s what planning minister Nick Boles called most modern housing designs a few weeks back. But there are more important concerns too: Chris Brown from developer Igloo summed up housing issues nicely on his blog recently: ‘There is huge consensus that we need more homes and (with the exception of some, but not all, house builders) that they should be better designed. There is not yet consensus that this is more about the money than the planning system, or about where these homes need to be built. But perhaps if we can achieve a consensus that design quality is best determined by neighbourhood design panels and custom builders, and that we need to shift the basis of competition in house building to favour design quality, then we can focus on the real challenge of delivery.’

That’s exactly what we at RUDI, along with our partners, are aiming to do with our Start Small, Think Big initiative. We’re exploring new housing supply and delivery options in the context of a plot-based approach to placemaking.

Nick Boles picked up on the understanding that design quality is key to reducing the resistance many local communities feel towards new housing development, says Brown. ‘Housing isn’t just an Englishman’s castle, it is also the background against which we all live our lives and it affects our happiness and well-being.’

The planning system has proved itself excruciatingly poor at making such decisions, adds Brown. This perhaps is the biggest recommendation for delivering more, and better, housing. Create the environment where a custom build approach, with multiple home manufacturers customising homes on individual plots on each site, is the norm – as it is in most of the rest of the world.

People who design their own homes either individually or in groups, seem to achieve a vastly higher quality of design, of both homes and the spaces around them, than volume house builders, he says. Where these people are also from the local community their neighbours are also likely to be much happier with the result, and much more likely to encourage new development.

‘And this doesn’t just apply to those who can afford to buy their own homes. This approach is fundamental to organisations like Community Land Trusts (CLTs) where local people work together to deliver affordable housing for themselves and their neighbours. We should, advises Brown, seriously consider the statistics that show that small (2000 – 5000 home), neighbourhood-concentrated, housing associations outperform their larger rivals on service quality, along with the possibility that  CLTs might produce a better development, better placemaking and a better community outcome.

Infrastructure to be fast tracked: why not housing and mixed use?

The Growth and Infrastructure Bill, currently plodding going through Parliament, had a second reading this week. The planning lobbyists and press are beginning to why mixed-use projects, including major residential or retail schemes, offices, factories, warehouses, and conference and exhibition centres (measuring more than 40,000 square metres) cannot also choose the fast-track system if the so wish.

The RTPI has suggested that the fast track list should include housing, provided it is part of a mixed-use scheme. If the Government is so keen to boost housing, why are these schemes excluded from fast tracking?

For example,says the RTPI, developments including ‘substantial volumes of housing’, such as King’s Cross regeneration scheme, could be good examples of schemes that have ‘achieved substantial regeneration but only with the inclusion of a major housing element’.

With the current confusion surrounding ways to boost the delivery of new communities, isn’t this worth a look?