Cities are important: hubs for business, places of culture, places to shop, work and relax. The countryside is great to escape to, but the city is the place where most people choose to live. How can we make cities not just more sustainable but better places to live? The two are intrinsically linked, cities people love and are sustainable will be a success.
One of the most important factors to emphasise is that of choice. Central planners have had visions of what a city should look like and have built places which were a dream on paper but a nightmare in reality. Great cities have to be great for the people who live in them. When I went to University in Glasgow someone I met from Northern Ireland had studied Woodend in Coventry in Geography, as an example of poor planning. Redesigning the city of the future has to be a democratic process.
After the war Coventry was rebuilt and it was rebuilt for the car, as Motofest Coventry celebrates Coventry was Car City. However, cities are by definition places where large numbers of people live, and the application of the greenbelt around such Cities leads to successful cities becoming more dense as more people move in. Population density requires mass transit, otherwise everyone sits in traffic jams, crawling along and creating pollution. In the best cities it is possible to cycle, walk safely, travel by multiple forms of public transport and driving is the last resort. Cars are not an efficient use of space or other resources.
The question is how do you get a city like Coventry where most people travel by car to a place of express public transport arrives faster than the car and people choose to use it?
The answer is not easily. Cities are still designed around cars with out of town shopping centres, and business parks dotted around the city. The ideal city would have local shopping and business hubs in every part of the City joined together by express public transport. Cities like New York have blocks and you can walk to your nearest subway and then by changing just once you can get to someone else 3 stops along and 2 stops up. Divide your City into a grid and then ensure that throughout the grid there is fast public transport. That might be what you would do if you were building a city from scratch but how do you retrofit an existing city that needs re-engineering?
You need a plan, a plan that is thought about and considered. If we were living in a hundred years time what sort of city would we want to live in – knowing what we know now? How would we locate all the facilities and amenities that make up a city, the places to work, live, shop, and socialise?
If you are building around the car then you need space for cars, space for cars to park and driving. If your primary mode of transport is no longer the car then you need a different approach. The future city should aim that private transport is a service you buy when you need it, rather than a vehicle you own. The best form of buildings for mass transport is different, with cars the more dense the more you sit in a traffic jams, with public transport lots of high rise buildings in the same place can justify fast and frequent public transport and reduce the carbon footprint.
Rather than having shops in shopping centres, businesses in business parks and homes in residential areas, to maximise public transport, and ideally to stop people requiring any transport at all, the aim is to combine shops and businesses with a certain amount of housing. Residential areas, still with some shops and facilities should be linked by fast public transport. The aim is that the majority will live a short walk from the public transport grid and walk to their nearest stop or even to their workplace, while others may need to do the last mile by bike, on foot or if necessary car before connecting with public transport. This would not only reduce carbon emissions but reduce travel times and remove the requirement for people to own their own car. This will reduce costs for people and could potentially lead to people needing to work less. Walking more will also have health benefits.
The costs of the infrastructure for express public transport is extremely expensive, even over 20 years the investment may not be justified, but over 100 years it becomes a different story. Also putting in public transport infrastructure may mean that some buildings need to be removed to reshape the city. Doing that quickly is very painful, if the plans can be written years ahead the city can buy the houses in the way and rent them out at a reduced rate until the time when the infrastructure needs to be built.
The first thing to do is to plan for the long-term, but then see how quickly those plans can be realised.
Poorl housing is also an issue. Cities need to be designed for life. Much old housing is poorly insulated, and either requires significant investment to upgrade, or if poor quality can be replaced, but some older property is always going to be a problem. Giving public money for private properties is sometimes necessary but not ideal. The aim in the future should be that the a national housing scheme buys housing, upgrades it and then rents it back at affordable rents.
Planning so that people have shops nearby rather than large shops far away also means that people can shop more frequently, buying what they need and reduce waste.
Having larger offices with canteens means food can be produced on site, served on crockery than can be washed rather than in disposable containers and cut waste dramatically. Having shops located by workplaces again gives people the option of buying fresh as required and reducing waste.
Heating is a major form of pollution and a major cost, increasing insulation and building modern homes can transform cities. Good publicly rented housing could enable people to be more flexible about where they live. Many older people live in houses that are too big and unsuitable for their needs. High quality older people’s housing close to shops properly insulated, with cheap hotel accommodation onsite for relatives and visitors to use would be transformational. Also having older people located together means that the carers can focus on providing care rather than travelling from home to home. This works both for the carers and the cared for. This could also maximise the independence of older people and with facilities throughout the city enable people to stay within the same area.
Redesigning a greener Coventry is not possible without significant change. However, small changes like redesigning roads so that pedestrians have priority over cars and changing the way that streets are designed to make them safer for pedestrians and cyclists encourage people to walk and cycle rather than get in their cars.
This is a conversation we all need to have. People may fundamentally disagree on some points, some people may have far better ideas, however it is a conversation that needs to happen. We need to put people at the heart of our cities, and work together to co-create greener greater cities.
If elected I would campaign for sustainable cities and campaign for people to have that conversation.