In praise of big cities

Before next week’s spiked seminar on housing, a speaker carries out a controlled demolition of a new report that says cities make us sick.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics

Next Wednesday’s spiked seminar ‘Building for the Future: Housing Need and Sustainability’, which I am speaking at, comes at a useful moment. To be held at the London headquarters of the Royal Institute of British Architects, it comes in the wake of the publication of the twenty-sixth report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP). Titled The Urban Environment, the report came out on 6 March (1).

Weighing in at more than 200 pages, it is a remarkable document. It is the first official suggestion, in Britain, that cities, and especially new housebuilding in the South East of England, represent health problems. This medicalisation of cities and housing marks a new low in today’s suspicion of mankind’s works, and indeed of mankind.

After an opening paragraph eulogising cities as synonymous with civilisation, the tone swiftly changes. We learn in the third paragraph that cities can provide people with ‘a wide range of services with low personal transport requirements’. Ah, so cities are good because they obviate the human need to move around. We also learn that cities ‘have the potential to release land for nature’: cities – especially ‘compact’ cities – are apparently good because they allow us to preserve the 98 per cent of the world’s land surface that is un-urbanised (p2). In other words, to the extent that cities should be cheered, it is only because they get people ‘off the land’ and leave it for trees and plants and wildlife.

Next, and importantly, an obscure 1973 paper by one Professor Horst Rittel is cited to suggest that UK urban environmental management presents ‘a classic case’ of a ‘wicked problem’. Defects in urban health – and of course ‘wellbeing’ – cannot be solved definitively, we are told, ‘but rather must be managed for better or worse’. Indeed, ‘urban environmental issues owe much of their wickedness to the nature of towns and cities as complex systems’ (p5).

Complex they certainly are. In an early diagram (p7), containing no fewer than 33 arrows of causality, increased car ownership and use – familiar villains – are held responsible for flash flooding, property damage, loss of shade, and dodgy impacts on rivers, flora and fauna. But the Royal Commission’s main concern is that cities ‘still appear to be missing from the sustainability agenda’ (p10).

Perhaps the Commission’s chairman, Professor Sir John Lawton, should get out a bit more. When a biologist at the University of York, it’s true, his investigation of the insect fauna of bracken on Skipwith Common, near Selby, stood ‘as a model of sustained and intensive ecological research’ (2). But if this complete non-specialist in urban matters had bothered to read the website of Ruth Kelly’s Department of Communities and Local Government, he would find that the words ‘cities’ and ‘housing’ are rarely written nowadays in Whitehall without the adjective ‘sustainable’ in front of each.

Indeed, the RCEP itself indulges in the same kind of monotony. Early on, it identified four ‘priority themes’, these being ‘sustainable urban transport; sustainable urban management (Local Agenda 21, EMAS, indicators); sustainable urban construction (resource and energy efficiency, demolition waste, design issues); and sustainable urban design (land use-regeneration, brownfield sites, urban sprawl, land use densities)’ (3).

I will leave it to the reader to find out more about Local Agenda 21 (a derivative of Agenda 21, the UN’s Rio Declaration on Environment and Development) and EMAS (the EU’s Eco-Management and Audit Scheme). But this much is clear: for the Commission, the UK’s progress towards sustainability is hindered by ‘the current drive to create new urban areas’, and in particular by proposals to build 3.3million new homes in England by 2016 (p15). Rough translation: the move towards being more green is hampered by plans to build more homes in order to house all those pesky people. This gives a telling insight into the priorities of the environmentally-minded.

Again, perhaps Commission members should listen less to Greenpeace, Ken Livingstone’s deputy Nicky Gavron, the deep green environmentalist Herbert Girardet or London School of Economics professor Anne Power, who – with the architect Richard Rogers – believes that all new housing in Britain must be built to London densities. Perhaps, instead, they should take more seriously the affordability of UK housing, and the demographic trends that make it so essential that the UK builds more homes. The Commission, however, has not ‘sought to unpick the rationale behind’ such issues, ‘beyond noting that the predict-and-provide approach has been found wanting in other areas of policy’ (p27).

Commission worries

So. Predict a need for more housing, but do not provide for it. Why? Because new housing ‘is difficult to reconcile with the idea of respecting environmental limits’ (p27). Forget about young people – let them live with their parents and grandparents. Rather, we should worry about air quality, despite the fact that, in the case of particulates, there was until 2000 a steady reduction in concentrations in UK cities (succeeded by circumstances in which ‘concentrations have at best plateaued’) (p37). We should worry not so much about the 27,500 additional deaths in the UK caused by cold in 2005, but rather about hotter summers, the ‘urban heat island effect’ and the 2,000 people who supposedly died of heat-related causes in 2003 (p41).

Our old friend, sick building syndrome, gets an outing, too. We are told that SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and avian flu ‘may pose a particular threat to city dwellers’, and that there is strong evidence that, ‘in some circumstances’, the urban environment ‘can lead to impaired mental health’ (p44, mentioned 47 times), as well as that well-known scourge, obesity (p46). Indeed, in a lurid diagram on ‘the pathways that can link residential environments to cardiovascular risk’, it is seriously proposed that cities lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, inflammation, heart rate variability and more besides (p49). All this despite the fact that the report concedes that ‘the nature of the relationship between health and place is poorly understood. It is difficult to establish whether and how the urban environment causes unfavourable health outcomes.’ (p33)

Is there no malady for which cities are not culpable? And if cities are to blame for so much, why is life expectancy rising in the way that it is? The influx of millions and millions of people into cities over the past century and more has gone hand-in-hand with improvements in quality and longevity of life.

However, the Royal Commission does not bother to ask itself difficult questions about the benefits of city life. It is so fearful of the possibility of 3.3million homes being built that it has not stopped to ask whether possibility will lead to actuality, and whether the ‘proposals’ for new homes will result in new homes. Take the Thames Gateway housing development in East London. According to Stan Hornagold, senior partner at management consultants Hornagold & Hills, it will ‘require building a city the size of Leeds in the most populated part of the country’. But after surveying about 400 firms, local authorities and government officials connected with the Gateway, Hornagold found that almost nothing has actually been done over the past 12 months.

About the ‘additional Leeds’ factor, Hornagold stated: ‘We don’t get any sense that is being planned for in some government departments.’ (4)

The energy question

Few houses are being built. But those that the Royal Commission imagines are being built will apparently wreck our lives. The Commission completely underplays, too, the fact that, under Ruth Kelly’s December 2006 Code for Sustainable Homes: A Step-Change in Sustainable Home Building Practice (two mentions of ‘sustainable’ just in the title!), new houses will be subject to stringent rules on carbon emissions in a way that old houses will not. (5)

There is more. The likely meaning of the DCLG’s enormously complex Code is that each new home should be in ‘balance’, partly through supplying zero carbon (ZC) energy to the National Grid à la David Cameron/B&Q rooftop windmill, partly from drawing Grid energy that is itself ZC. Moreover, some environmentalist zealots will say that ZC is not enough; that we need to generate more Grid-exportable ZC energy from the home than is consumed by it. Some will also argue that ZC energy generated on top of 100 kWh/m2 a year should be used to pay off embodied energy in construction, periodic upgrade, and eventual demolition, within the life of structures that could, perhaps, have lifetimes of just 60 years (6). Indeed, the DCLG is already thinking that it may want to provide some way of accounting for embodied energy. ‘A probable future development regarding the environmental impact of materials’, it says, ‘is to reward resource efficiency, as well as the use of resources that are more sustainable, by developing “Ecopoints per m2” as a measure for this item’ (7).

All the discussion on housing today is not about how many, or how large, but about the need for ‘zero carbon’ homes. Not content with that, however, the Royal Commission wants the Code extended to all new buildings, not just residential ones (p100).

Altogether, it seems, houses are the bad guys. Indeed, if the political economy of UK land and the UK planning system – in its sixtieth year in 2007 – has acted to prevent new build in the past, it seems that official strictures around energy, and the Royal Commission’s strictures on health, will join the land as barriers to housebuilding in the future. What is the solution, then? To leave people homeless? To force us all to live in overcrowded accommodation?

The Commission’s insouciance is breathtaking. Might multiple generations of a family living together in a cramped setting just lead to mental health problems? Isn’t it a problem, as the report notes, that ‘at current rates of turnover an average dwelling in the UK would have a lifetime of around 1,000 years’ (p85)? And why refer to Bill Dunster’s tawdry BedZED zero-energy development in Surrey, and the speculative refurbishments of hip property developers Urban Splash in Manchester and Birmingham? (pp99, 101) These examples of greenness are endlessly repeated in the construction trade. If they’re so successful, why are there not more of them?

Like the DCLG, the Commission is exercised by the energy embodied in homes, not just that involved in operating them. But once again it ties itself in knots, trying to prevent new construction. After 60 years, it observes, ‘the total cumulative energy of the new-build home is significantly less than the total energy consumed in running the existing home. Therefore, the embodied energy in dwellings is no reason not to demolish…’ (p104)

That sounds rational. But the report goes on to say, in the same sentence: ‘… but there may be other reasons why demolition is not appropriate, including social, community or heritage reasons.’ (p104)

So even if new homes are more energy efficient than old ones, we probably shouldn’t have any.

It is impossible to read the next 100 pages of this report without laughing or crying. It provides a striking snapshot of officialdom’s reluctance to prioritise people’s housing needs, and our comfort, and to build the homes that young people, families, immigrants and everybody else requires. Next Wednesday’s debate should allow us to interrogate these issues further, and hopefully to put forward an alternative.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation, De Montfort University. He is speaking at the spiked seminar ‘Building for the Future: Housing Need and Sustainability’, which takes place from 6.30pm to 8.30pm on Wednesday 14 March 2007 at the Royal Institute of British Architects in central London. For more information and to book your ticket, click here.

(1) The Urban Environment, RCEP

(2) ‘University of York honours nine’, press release, 6 July 2005

(3) The Urban Environment, RCEP

(4) Quoted in Bob Sherwood, ‘Thames Gateway gets poor progress report’, Financial Times, 6 March 2007

(5) Communities and Local Government, Code for Sustainable Homes: A step-change in sustainable home building practice

(6) BRE, Loss Prevention Standard: Standard for Innovative Systems, Elements and Components for Residential Buildings, April 2006.

(7) DCLG, Code for Sustainable Homes, op cit, p10

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Topics Politics


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