Category: Opinions | July 30, 2021
Cities should work for everyone. Everyone living in a city should have access to essential urban services within a 15 minutes walk or bicycle ride from their home. A good place to live, work and spend time where the essentials of daily life are within a gentle 15-minute walk or cycle ride rather than a drive away: that’s the fundamental principle of the 15-minute city concept.
Living through lockdowns has made many Londoners more aware of the lack of access to green spaces, distance to essential amenities such as shops, and the need for better pedestrian and cycling options. When we also add that more people are now working from home and making use of local shops and services, our local cities have even greater potential to become the heroes of sustainable living.
It wasn’t until the turn of the 21st century that developers began to invest in creating brand-new urban villages in central London locations like King’s Cross and Paddington, both previously neglected neighbourhoods blighted by proximity to major transport interchanges. But we do not need such major regeneration to make our local cities sustainable. Small interventions, such as more greenery or improved walkability, can have a profound impact on a city’s resilience.
This duty now falls onto the urban planners. It is access, not mobility, that should guide urban planning decisions. Planners must create more green spaces and play spaces in our residential areas. Even rewilding projects and creating parklets and maximising the opportunity for play (e.g. playful bus stops or reusing existing infrastructure after hours) can provide some respite from grey concrete and tarmac.This not only improves people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing but it also helps to make cities more resilient by providing natural flood defences, creating cleaner air and reusing current infrastructure. Planners must also make sure that public transport is not simply replaced with cars, but instead improve the city’s walkability and cycle lanes. If we build in higher levels of walking and cycling, London communities can take a vital step towards delivering the zero carbon goals that many boroughs have signed up to as part of declaring a Climate Emergency. Introducing trees to provide shade and amenities such as more benches and public toilets can also make a huge difference. All this not only helps reduce air pollution, but a more walkable neighbourhood also creates a sense of community, building ties between neighbours.
The pandemic has shown the interdependencies of hyper-local living, place-based solutions, and social and economic resilience. Polycentric cities could help regenerate high streets and repurpose monocultural zones that currently have a singular function, normally based around office hours. They would need to provide multifunctional shared spaces that complement flexible lifestyles and providing digital connectivity that stimulates local productivity. This, coupled with road reallocations, better street space and greater provision for active travel, would support a more inclusive, community-focused economy.
There is also the idea of “digital twins” which are online cities that mirror our physical places and can be used to simulate different scenarios, such as extreme weather, and fully understand the impact of different planning decisions on peoples’ lives. By using digital twins, we can make sure that developments are sustainable, giving us the ability to see the impact of interventions like rewilding, pedestrianisation and creating multi-use spaces from existing infrastructure.
The policy landscape is changing as decision makers and advocates become more aware of all of the above and start to use more frequently digital technology to their advantage. I believe that cities are resilient and flexible and London’s urban planners must use 2021 to make sure our city is fit for many futures.