Sustainable cities

The UN estimates that by 2050 up to 70% of us will be living in cities. How can we make them more sustainable?
07 June 2016

Interview with 

Professor Rachel Cooper, University of Lancaster


By 2050, the UN reckons that the majority - 70% of us - will be living in cities. What can we do to make a so-called sustainable city? Chris Smith found out abuot the possibilites and the pitfalls from Rachel Cooper...

Rachel - Well, it's a bit of an unattainable utopia. I think we can move towards a sustainable city, but actually what we need are places that are liveable, and that conserve the planet's resources, and are adapting to climate change. So, sustainable yes - towards sustainable - there's no such thing as a sustainable city in the end.

Chris - What's the reason for you saying that? Why can't we have a city which is thoroughly good for the environment?

Rachel - We can have one that's thoroughly good for the environment but the measurement targets change constantly, depending on which scientists are working on it and what's happening to the climate, what's happening to our resources. So, it's about working towards those targets, achieving them them, and then going beyond it.

Chris - And what is it going to take, what are the hurdles or the big challenges in the way then? What do we need to do?

Rachel - I think we need to do all the things that you've heard. So, we need to adopt the emerging technologies as quickly as possible and introduce them. We heard about solar panels, new materials, new types of homes. So we can adopt the technology and ensure that planners, and designers, and architects understand them and know how to use them.

We need designers that can be creative with those technologies, adapt them but also design places that are not just full of technology, but support our wellbeing. So to design cities that are walkable, that have green spaces, that have places for children to play in. There are lots of dimensions of living in a city. It's not just about density, it's about vitality and intensity. How do we cope with living in those intense, dense places? We have to think about that and design them to support people's health and wellbeing.

Chris - I'm glad you brought that up because very often people will tend to obsess on how many people we need to pack into a space and they don't, I think, always consider the soft fascination that engaging with nature brings, and the wellbeing effect, and the relaxation effect, which you're not going to get in a city.

Rachel - Well you're not, unless you design it appropriately. I mean we know that our wellbeing is affected by the physical environment, the ambient environment, how much light, if we get noise from our neighbours it increases our propensity for depression. We need to understand that we need these tranquil places in towns and cities that allow us to walk, to cycle, and to get that sort of quiet time that we need to support our own health and wellbeing.

Chris - What about other things that can save energy, because the one thing that strikes me, I drive round town and night and everywhere is lit up like a christmas tree?

Rachel - Ah, so this is where the term 'smart cities' come in. We now know that smart cities are all about putting sensors in places, monitoring our use of energy, and so I think the technology, eventually, will come in there. We will be able to turn light off if people aren't in the space. We'll be able to understand how people are moving around to support their movements and to reduce the number of cars so we have the public transport in the right place. So smart city agendas where we're using technology to monitor systems will help us reduce the use of those systems when they're not needed.

Chris - You bring up the issue of traffic. Now that's great, if you're building a new city from scratch then you can plan it so it's fit for purpose. Horrible phrase but for the 21st century with the sorts of vehicles we need to move in mind, the scale of those vehicles, the density of those vehicles. Most cities that are worth living in though, they were built hundreds of years ago, certainly in Britain, and they're not  not retrofittable like that.

Rachel - Well, we're attempting to do that, and if you talk to people in London you will see as many cycle ways being implemented and that may help, as well as regulation and policies about where you can use cars. How you can support other ways of transport. We've really got to rethink cities. We've got to look at cities that have no car policies like we're doing some work on no car Birmingham, trying to imagine what you'd have to do to create a city without cars in it's centre.

Chris - But why are you declaring war on cars - what's wrong with cars?

Rachel - We're not declaring war on cars.

Chris - It sounds like it.

Rachel - No, no, no!. We're just trying to imagine what future cities might be like in terms of reducing the number of car, or other types of transport to enable people to be as mobile as they want to be, in ways that they want to be. So we have to use our imaginations, particularly with these cities that, as you say, have been here for hundreds of years and have roads and transport connections which have been there for a long time. We have to be really creative about how we think about those places.

Chris - And lastly, Rachel - why is there this prediction, just in 20 seconds - why is there this prediction that everyone's going to head for the city?

Rachel - I think it's employment. If you look at the way students have been moving from where they do their undergraduate degrees in the north of England, they all go south at the moment, they all go to London. So we also have to think about policy, legislation to support people living in cities, and the reason they go there is because that's where their employment is.


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